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Sunday, 7 February 2021

Embarking on a culinary journey

 

Fine dining establishments are often criticised for serving small plates and large bills. Paying thousands of shillings for a meal can be difficult to swallow when you leave a restaurant hungry, and stop off somewhere else for a snack on the way home.

But when done right, it’s easy to appreciate quality over quantity, and to recognise the reasons for the high prices – from the creative skills of the chefs, to the variety and costs of the ingredients.

And somewhere that I think is doing it right is Embark, a new restaurant along Ngong Road. It’s likely that you haven’t heard of it. I only found out about it a week ago, and it’s just a few hundred metres from where I live.

The restaurant’s owner and head chef, Dennis Ang’ani, will tell you that this inconspicuousness is intentional. Embark has no website, just Facebook and Instagram pages with modest followings. Its dining space is modest, too, serving only eight customers inside and four outside.

Dennis is happy for news of his restaurant to spread by word-of-mouth, in part to maintain an element of surprise for new customers.

My wife, Gabie and I certainly didn’t know what to expect when we booked a table for lunch last Tuesday. The restaurant isn’t signposted off Ngong Road – it’s at the end of a short dirt track beside the Velmac Furniture store, near Karen Roundabout.

Culinary journey

A simple black gate opens to a shaded gravel path, leading through a large garden to a basic cabin. On the lawn out front was a single table for two, surrounded by comfortable outdoor sofas, hay bales and oil torches. 

Our table was on the terrace of the cabin, beside a small, open-air kitchen. The décor was intriguing. Amongst dangling hemp rope Edison bulbs and wall-mounted woven baskets were stylised pictures of Lionel Messi, Pep Guardiola, Michael Jackson and Leonard Bernstein.

I had lots of questions for Dennis, who was our host for the afternoon. 

“Lenny’s picture is up there”, he said, “because orchestral music is a huge inspiration for us. If musical notes were flavours, what would they taste like?”

He went on to say that he was a huge fan of Messi and Pep, and that he lived in Barcelona for a while.

I also asked him about the inspiration behind the name Embark.

He said that he wanted their customers to embark on a culinary journey.

“It’s about creation. We don’t just want to reinterpret classic dishes.’”

Five-course lunch

And he should be proud of his creations. The five-course lunch that he served us was exceptional, with very clever flavour pairings.

We started off with a smoky-sweet amuse-bouche of cured watermelon, topped with an avocado and pomegranate molasses puree, wild rucola, smoked eggplant tossed with leek and coconut cream, and finished with sprinkled basil seeds and cabbage micro-greens.

That was followed by a chilled banana and rum “soup”, served in a cow horn (maybe not the wisest choice of utensil for vegetarians), and a red pepper and mango salsa garden salad, with a delicious Baileys and macadamia nut oil vinaigrette. There are far more ingredients for each dish, but I don’t have enough space here to list them all. 

The last two main dishes were skewers of seared tofu blocks in an Ethiopian shiro sauce, and portobello mushrooms seasoned with smoked paprika, coriander powder, salt, black pepper and ghee.

And the dessert was a real palate puzzler: Amarula-braised eggplant topped with an Amarula and cinnamon reduction sauce, served with an aerated homemade broccoli ice cream. 

Yes, the plates were small, and the bill was large, but it’s worth it for a special occasion.

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