Don’t be afraid of a fine dining experience, urges Susan Wong, who thoroughly appreciated the impeccable service, exquisite meal and fuss-free atmosphere while dining at Sikia restaurant earlier this month
The first exceptional fine dining experience I had was on the second date with my freckly interest at the time. He had booked a table at one of Toronto’s leading restaurants for the last thirty-five years where their signature Coconut Cream Pie is hands-down, the best dessert in the city. I reveled in the fine dining experience whereas my date struggled to be himself and seemed like he was suffocating from our surroundings. Needless to say, that was our last meeting.
The thought of fine dining usually conjures up ideas of tablecloths so thick that they could double-up as curtains, chandeliered dining rooms, a battalion of waiters waiting to serve your every need, formal Frenchstyle service with multiple plates and several glasses, dishes served under shiny silver domes, and how expensive the entire evening will cost. Some people might even go as far as saying that the fine dining experience is quite square.
Well, dining at Sikia is far from being square. Also, you’ll be paying for more than just a thick tablecloth or a hyper-designed restaurant. At Sikia, located in Nairobi’s Crowne Plaza Hotel, the experience is actually fine dining without all the preconceived fuss. My companions and I recently enjoyed a decadent evening at Sikia that was anchored with some of the best service I’ve experienced in Kenya in a while. Unobtrusive, respectful and warm, the lovely interaction with our waiters was definitely one of the highlights. Mind you, there were only three other tables that evening, so we definitely enjoyed some more attention since there was a lot to go around.
Aside from skilled service, the other highlights of the evening were the superb ingredients and great cooking. The menu reads well and isn’t overwhelmed with a lengthy number of pages neither is it too formal. It features classy comfort food, including some old-fashioned dishes that seem to define its own era, but like the space, has been given a lick of modern polish.
To begin, a clear Tom Yum Goong soup with prawns flavoured with fragrant lemongrass and coriander arrived well-balanced with hot and sour notes. The broth had been skimmed so many times that it was more of a consommé, left with only aromatic flavours than what you’d usually expect from this Thai favourite. Unfortunately, the prawns that were beautifully placed in the center of the bowl were slightly overcooked and slightly heading towards the rubbery side.
Next, a beautifully presented Crab and Mango Salad arrived with fresh mango and pulled crab dressed with a pineapple and mint vinaigrette. This salad definitely needed a kick of chilli and some extra citrus to cut through the sweetness of the pairing to make it interesting. The texture of the combination was soft and wet, which didn’t help, and needed some crunch for texture.
A warm salad of sautéed Calamari Rings in sesame oil with leeks, onions, ginger and a hint of red chili was plated very well, and all of us thoroughly enjoyed the umami of the dish. The winning starter for us was the Warm Lentil and Scallop Salad. Featuring grilled scallops with beautiful markings and still moist sitting on fennel sprigs served with lentils that weren’t mushy, then dressed in garlic olive oil and Dijon mustard, and tossed with red pepper, onion and parsley– we gladly would have ordered another portion. To follow, the breast of the Flambé Duck had skin that looked like lacquered mahogany. Slow-roasted, the duck was a bit overcooked for my preference because I prefer pink. Flambéed in the orange- flavoured Cointreau and served on a sweet cherry sauce, it was so close to being perfect.
The Sikia Beef Wellington, a signature, sounds old-fashioned but is a difficult dish to execute. Putting a Kenyan spin on to this classic, a succulent piece of beef fillet is wrapped in Terere greens and a finely chopped mixture of mushrooms, shallots and herbs, and then wrapped with puff pastry that is golden and flakes to the touch of the fork. The moisture is cleverly contained, and each layer is distinct in flavour and texture.
A thick-cut Seared Salmon with Vanilla-flavoured Arrowroot Mash with Horseradish Foam and Apple Tapenade was glorious. The generous portion of salmon was well-seasoned and its skin seared until crispy and caramelised. The arrowroot mash, a beautiful shade of lavender, was surprisingly delicious thanks to its subtle sweetness.
For dessert, a white chocolate mousse with almond flavour, dubbed Chocolate Wrinkle, was a worthy favourite while the Pear and Ginger Bread was a surprising close second. The interior of Sikia is polished, has a bit of glamour, but also features understated elegance. There are gorgeous walls with textured motifs, colourful and vibrant artwork that add personality to the space, a wall of wine that captivates your attention from the moment you walk in, and comfortable chairs that hug you. It’s a restaurant, not a church or temple of fine dining, which means you can be yourself. Don’t let the term “fine dining” define your food experience for you. Just be prepared to order an exquisite meal in equally exquisite surroundings.
Photos by Peter Ndungú