Sunday, 9 July 2017

Sugarcane Restaurant: Nairobi's Real Caribbean Cuisine

Whilst living in Nairobi I rarely come across Caribbean Food. That sizzling smell of jerk chicken, sweet plantains and colourful clatter from the kitchen that you would often see in big cities like London or New York where the Island Community population grows in numbers and with it fantastic food, culture and colours. Thankfully on my last trip to do some much needed shopping at Garden City Mall in Thika, we walked passed Sugarcane in the Foodcourt area of GCM. Tired from shopping and in need of sweet sustenance we took up a whitewashed wooden table in between the potted plants and got quickly stuck into one of Nairobi’s only Caribbean eateries…

For drinks we decided to go big and order three different ones as we really miss the types of canned and fresh sodas and juices you find at the little eateries in Brixton or the Bronxs. We went for the Tamarind Drink, which was sweet and spicy but smooth with a consistency a little bit like tea and light shimmery brown in colour. Absolutely delicious. We also tried the Guava Drink again sweet and light and a lovely fresh red-pink colour but a little mellow in the cordial  flavour – like a natural Ribena which is great if you don’t want a huge sugar kick. 

My personal favourite though was the Ginger Beer (which goes well with hot spiced meat! on the left) strong, ginger, tangy, like a very strong Dawa and goes straight for nasal notes so also great if you are feeling under the weather (or hungover!). As our spirits picked up we ordered a large cocktail which tasted like a gentle infusion of all drinks rolled into one called a Rum Island Punch (on the right). This drink smells orange and citrusy and really packs a punch on the alcohol side with undertones of ginger.

The Menu
Now we were hungry and the menu’s, clipped on to boards and popping with colour were both atheistically pleasing as well as showcasing an exciting array of dishes including a mix of burgers, small things or ‘tings’ and salads.

Main Meals

We ordered the Jerk Chicken and the Jerk Beef Burger. Although the service for these was  a little on the slow side, we put this down to the chill island vibes Sugarcane was trying to recreate and as the restaurant is in the middle of the Foodcourt it was a great spot to people watch, gossip and watch over the playpark (if you are trying to keep an eye on your kids at the same time as enjoying a cocktail or two!). 

Once the food arrived we were not disappointed. The jerk chicken was perfectly seasoned and extra hot with all the great jerk spices you’d expect to see. The meat was soft and tender and worked really well with the soft sweet potatoes and the rice and peas. The Rice was crispy and dry which was great as it absorbed the heat of marinade and the firmness of the peas added an extra element to the dish overall. 

The Beef burger (FYI it was 2-4-1 when we ate!) was a bit on the small size and the buns I think could be sourced from another establishment as they didn’t taste super fresh. However again the meat itself did not disappointed, finding it hot and tender. The fries serviced on the side were great and again helped ease off the heat of the spices as well as the tasty side salad as well.

Overall – Hot Deliciousness
Overall we really enjoyed our experience at Sugarcane and would definitely return with a bigger group so that we could really sample the menu in full as it’s a great place to clink cocktails, share plates of sizzling meats and while the day away after a hard day of shopping. The is a little island paradise in Nairobi – check it out this week!

To get to know Sugarcane, I caught up with Subrina Crossman, Manager at Sugarcane to get to know the story behind the soul food hub.

What was the idea and inspiration behind sugarcane?
Sugarcane is the brainchild of Kathleen (Kathy) Creavalle, a Kenyan resident of Guyanese descent. She is extremely passionate about cooking and found a gap in the Kenyan market with Caribbean food.

Where you get your ingredients from?
We source all our ingredients locally – supporting the local farmers and suppliers. We import from London all of our spices but all our other ingredients are local including the chicken, rice and vegetables. We employ over 11 members of staff and all our chefs are from Kenya. Training sessions on Caribbean cooking were held at Kathy’s house and we even had a Jamaican chef come in and do the training – so all the food you taste today has the original authentic flavour. 

Your current client base and how it's been received by Kenyans?
Our client base is currently those who know of Caribbean food and experimental foodies. The Caribbean offering has not yet caught up to the mark we would like it to, so it’s perhaps a waiting game. Our location at Garden City also probably deters residents on the other side of town from trekking there. Overall, the reception has been great! Good comments from people, in terms of nationalities Kenyans, Tanzanian and particularly Nigerians love the heat.

How large is the current Caribbean population in Nairobi? How have they got involved?

The Caribbean population is not large, but big enough to host Republic Days and festivals at the restaurant. We occasionally host community dinners and private gatherings. Sugarcane opened in June 2016, and although there isn’t a big Caribbean community the majority of community here are from Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaican –we have over 19 islands in the Caribbean so their maybe others out there we haven’t met yet!

You can find Sugarcane at Garden City Mall, Thika Super Highway, Nairobi (GCM Food Court, Level 1).  

Friday, 14 April 2017

Nairobi's first real French bakery: Le Grenier a Pain

Le Grenier a Pain soft opened around 6 months ago and we were the first to bag a table at their Sunday Brunch. We’d heard small things about this newly founded French café, and followed the gossip of a basement bakery on Riverside producing the flakiest croissants, the crustiest baguettes and the sweetest tarts. Hungrily, on the back of these rave reviews our party of 12 hungrily poured over the menu surrounded by funky Ikea style furniture, exposed ceilings and iron wrought lightening trying to wrestle between Quiche Lorraine or Croque Monsieur. The results were delicious, buttery and rich.

Fast Forward to 6 months and I decided to visit Le Grenier a Pain again for a proper sit down brunch. In the time between my visit today and today the establishment has taken full shape. As you enter the middle section has been carved into a rounded pod with display pods soon to show off the delicious delights from the bakery below. Currently these are housed in the long curved glass cabinet at the back of the café next to the upstairs kitchen, producing the main meals, soups and salads other diners were hungrily devouring. Walking up to the counter, todays offerings include the infamous fresh croissants, pain aux raisin and tarts of varying colours and ingredients including lemon, chocolate and raspberry.

Spotting these made me ravenous and a friendly waitress observantly seated me on the stylish curved sofa that looked out on the rest of the light airy Riverside café. Quickly, I ordered a cappuccino perfectly illustrated with latte art and served piping hot and extra strong, a sign of high quality coffee and an expert barista who knew his way around the machine. Turning to the menu, options on offer were wide and varied – it was a hard struggle between the Salad Nicosie, the Vegetarian plate or the Ratatouille on toast. However, it has to be the Croque Madame, a French favourite which I hoped has been well exported to Kenya.

This of course, did not disappoint. The Madame is a French sandwich served on three fresh baked pieces of bread, evenly layered with cheese, turkey and topped with a beautifully fried egg with a rich yellow yolk. The side salad, dressed in soft olive oil and fresh cherry tomatoes partnered well with the richness of the cheese. The ingredients tasted fresh and rich which for the price was impressive at only 1000 for one of the best ‘sandwiches’ you can find in Nairobi today. Unashamedly I ordered two tarts to help was down the calories, choosing the Lemon ‘Citron’ Tart and the Chocolate Tart.

The Lemon was sweet but held the citrus taste well and expertly set around the crumbly case of pastry that is a feat of sheer wonder with Nairobi’s altitude. The citron was complimented well with the flaked pistachio on top and the sweet raspberry placed in the middle giving it a colourful fruity flourish. The Chocolate was equally delicious and much richer and darker than on first appearance, which I presumed would be hard and set but actually reveal a two tone style cake. The top was dark and soft, a deep cocoa – whilst the middle was light and airy with a mousse style consistence and expertly crafted once again around the buttery pastry. This must be consumed with another cappuccino.

As I devoured my two tarts and lay in a dreamy Parisian food coma I noticed the other customers drinking, eating and enjoying the buttery goodness of the cafes delights evenidenty showing the popularity of Le Grenier a Pain on the Thursday lunchtime. The sunlight trickled through the large glass windows, as the friendly staff delivered steaming hot cups of coffee, freshly baked scones and hands down the finest Croque Madame and Monsieur this side of the Masaai Mara.
                     You can find Le Grenier a Pain on 9 Riverside Drive, Nairobi.


To find out more about this wonderful French delight, I sat down with Yan Welffens, General Manager of Le Greiner a Pain to find out more…

Where did the idea for a French Bakery come from?
It has been a long and fun journey bringing French food to the city. I ended up in Kenya 2011, taking a break from working in It and Engineering in Europe. I started backpacking and came to Nairobi on a stopover to hike Kilimanjaro, where friends insisted I stay and find an opportunity here in hospitality. My first hotel job was with Tribe hotel in June 2011, and the idea of a quality bakery came during this time. I began to wonder why there was no good bread, no good croissants, why is there nothing here? There are ingredients and a strong middle class, so lets try and make it happen.

Why Le Grenier a Pain?
Originally we thought about doing it our selves but I hadn’t studied baking although I love to cook at home. I knew the business requirements but didn’t have the skills. Therefore, I travelled to India, to see if a successful bakery in India – why? How did they do it? I spent a week in Mumbai and Delhi and worked with the owners of ‘Salon de The’, a chain of high end bakeries that were proving very successfully and this gave me the confidence to know that if it worked in India then it could come to Kenya.

However logistics and costs are high in Kenya, so we approached several European franchises to see if they’d want to partner but they said no. However, before coming to Kenya, I had lived 6 months in Paris during working in IT and remembered that there was bakery on the same street, Le Grenier a Pain that served excellent baked goods and breads. I contacted the website to see if they could bring the franchise to Kenya and within 24 hours got a response and a plan to set up in Nairobi!

What makes Grenier a Pain unqiue?
The transfer of knowledge to our staff. We didn’t bring an expat chef, it’s expensive and we didn’t want to follow the hotel model as many of them were negative, people were in denial that you couldn’t get quality French made food in Kenya due to ingredients and lack of knowledge.

Therefore we employed local chefs and showed them how to learn to love the local ingredients and trained the team on recipes. Le Grenier a Pain  was also very supportive and we sent out two head bakers Wallace and Agnes to France for 6 weeks in October 2015, with the bakery’s founder Michael Gallover so they could learn the French style and bing their skills back to Kenya.

Why did you choose this location?
We decided it had to be Westlands and I actually walked from Safaricom to Lavington Green and went into every single building looking for potential space. We then contacted Knight Frank and were ad shown 3 different locations and 9 Riverside Drive was the first one we saw. In December 2015 we started fitting out the restaurant, and opened as the basement bakery, with the reputation preceeding itself through word of mouth and gossip.

How did you recruit your staff?
Of course in every country and every job it has been hit and miss. My biggest tip to other restaurant owners is to trust your feelings and make mistakes. Agnes and Wallace were core members, they had come from Tribe, and trained in France. Our head Barista had a background from Dormans and showed confidence and skills in his work. All our other floor staff and sous chefs came for a trial for a week and I paid attention to details on: ‘are they working fast, attentive, are they smiling?’. We started off with just 8 members of staff, now we have 30 and I feel proud to employ so many hard working and dedicated people.  

What’s been your favourite part of opening Le Grenier a Pain?
Proving naysayers wrong that we couldn’t open a Real French Bakery – because believe it or not, all the ingredients are local!
The only challenge was the baguettes and speciality bread, as the flour has to come from France as recommended by Le Grenier a Pain, as its actually an award winning Bread and has now been patented.

Who are your customers?
A mix of customers. One day I was sitting in the restaurant and observed the customers in our café. We had a mixed race young couple with a baby, Two young Kenyans, 3 Muzungus in a business discussion, Two Kenyas in a business discussions and an Indian family. This makes me happy, as This café really shows the people of Nairobi –the diversity of the city here.

Where are your Ingredients from?
All our ingredients are from Kenya apart from some obvious items like Lemon, Oranges Chocolate and Almonds. All our milk, butter and flour (expect for the speciality breads) – all local. Our delicious coffee is from a local Roaster, Spring Valley Coffee.

What’s your favourite thing on the menu?
For savoury it has to be the Croque Monsieur (see my shared review!) and for after, the sweet is definitely the Apple Tart with Vanilla...

And finally, future plans for expansion?
We would like to open another one in Gigiri and then eventually take this franchise to every large city in Africa. We are going to have a look at Addis Ababa and obviously I would love to take it to my home country of Cote d’Ivore as well.

You can find Le Grenier a Pain on 9 Riverside Drive, Nairobi.