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Susan Wong Takes On A Cult Classic

written by Eugene Mburu 19th December 2014

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It’s really good! The sort of good that makes you gasp after your first morsel and nibble on your bottom lip before an imaginary light bulb goes off and you realize foodgasms do exist. Classic, unpretentious and dizzyingly good, Talisman is a shrine to the best of hearty food in Nairobi. There may be prettier dining rooms than Talisman’s, but not many. In terms of glitz and glamour, Talisman falls somewhere between a yoga studio and a summer cottage in the mountains – ideal for a relaxing and inspiring meal on the weekend. If the great outdoors is not your thing though, dining inside is also a lovely cozy experience that oozes ambiance. To not mirror such natural prettiness on the plate would be foolish. Clearly the team behind Talisman knows this, for every dish is a serious looker. The plating of the dishes are simple and uncluttered. Enough with the over-complicated names and painting of pictures on plates. Flavour is what matters. Chef Marcus Mitchell understands that. Mitchell, the winner of Heineken Award for Chef of the Year at Taste Awards 2013, cooks with a lot of heart and that passion translates onto every plate. And before you think that this is an advertorial or that my intention was solely to make sure Talisman was full with patrons every night, this review is more than overkill. Mitchell has terrific control over seasoning, spices, texture and contrast, weaving them together until you ask, why hasn’t anyone done this before in Nairobi?

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The Twice-cooked Pork Belly served with a honey soy glaze is one of my favourites. Oh, this compressed, intensely flavourful portion of well-rendered pork belly; I wanted to tuck the pork into a steamed bun, and then chew and wipe the dish with it and chew and wipe some more. Golden deep-fried globes of Smoked Bacon Infused Cheese Croquettas with Mango Chutney followed. The steaming hot gooey filling of cheese and béchamel sauce, elevated by homemade smoked bacon, is probably the epitome of a hearty starter. There were also the Porcini Tartlets on mini beds of Kachumbari, another favourite of mine. Picture this: Flaky tart shells filled to the brim with sautéed mushrooms and then smothered with a creamy, thick and velvety sauce; finally topped with parmesan and gratinated to form a bubbling crust. Take extra care when cutting into the tartlet, it calls for a slow and discerning method, as the sauce will easily ooze all over your plate. That sauce belongs to you. This is no high-end award-winning chef pretending to go all democratic; Talisman’s eclectic menu is the real deal. With dishes inspired by the Far East and some, closer to home – don’t be surprised to find “Triple T” Tuna Tataki Turadito or even a Zanzibari Coconut Seafood Soup.

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There’s also a hearty burger and even a char-grilled fillet steak. Let’s not forget the Golden Battered Tilapia either, which is an amped-up version of the fish ‘n chips classic thanks to a gazpacho shot, tarragon coleslaw and homemade tartare sauce. Mitchell doesn’t try to sex-up his seasonal inspiration; he just reinterprets his ingredients with a more layered and modern approach and lets the flavours of the dish quietly win you over. The service is always prompt and attentive. There are no annoying wordplays on the menu or anything else that might irritate the discerning diner. However, I would suggest that you call and make a reservation, because guests do get turned away as the restaurant is full. I feel their pain. I’ve eaten entire meals that delivered less flavour than a lone appetizer at Talisman. Every ingredient is appreciated, and because of this, every dish produced will be much more than what one would expect. And, perhaps that’s the secret to cooking passionately – you add soul to your food. The foodie God would be proud.

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