Trailblazing Ezo: Michelin-star chef stirs food scene with 24-hour restaurant

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Meals prepared at Ezo restaurant in Westlands, Nairobi on February 8, 2024. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

It is almost impossible to find a restaurant open past 11pm let alone find a fine dining restaurant run by a Michelin-star chef.

But Ezo is daring. It has stepped into uncharted territory by being the first 24-hour fine dining restaurant in Nairobi with a curated Neo Japanese menu created by Russian-born chef Evgeny Vikentev.

Over 8,000 kilometres away from home, he made his debut in Kenya’s restaurant industry with a few tricks up his sleeve.

“I studied in my hometown in St Petersburg. It is a very beautiful European-style Russian city with Italian architecture. When I finished culinary school, I started working in an Italian restaurant, training under an Italian chef where we focused on seafood and fish.

Duck breast, pumpkin and rose sauce, sesame served at Ezo restaurant in Westlands, Nairobi on February 8, 2024. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

The head chef was not always there. He would come once every season to change the menu, explain everything and teach new techniques then go back to Moscow,” he says.

At the age of only 24, Evgeny started working as an executive chef. For the last four years, he worked at the Beluga, a modern cuisine restaurant at the centre of Moscow, Russia where guests can taste 15 kinds of caviar.

“I carried salmon roe (red caviar) from my hometown in my suitcase to Nairobi because I could not find it here,” he laughs.

For the first course of a tasting at 7pm, a few hours before they opened for dinner later on the night of February 8, 2024, Chef Evgeny prepares Gunkun, also known as red caviar sushi.

“Three years ago, I got one Michelin star. At that time, I was the youngest chef with one. Unfortunately, due to the political situation, Michelin stopped working in Russia. One of my long-time friends and co-owner of Ezo, Victoria invited me to Kenya to create a menu for the restaurant. I came over with my fellow chef, Ivan,” he says.

Red caviar sushi served at Ezo restaurant in Westlands, Nairobi on February 8, 2024. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

The dynamic duo came up with an eccentric menu with exotic meats such as duck, octopus and squid.

Even though the Michelin-star chef will return to Moscow, Ivan Agafonov will remain as head chef to ensure their culinary vision takes shape.

“It is impossible to just open a restaurant somewhere and then leave. You have to delegate your business to someone who knows how you want things done, and your taste,  Ivan and I have worked for five years together from St Petersburg to Moscow and now in Nairobi,” he says.

Apart from packing some caviar from home in Russia, most of the ingredients Chef Evgeny uses in his kitchen are imported but he praises the quality of fruits and vegetables that he gets locally.

“Kenyan pineapples are the best I have ever tasted. They are sweet like honey. The level of sweetness is outstanding. I really like the mangoes which are in some of the dishes such as the salmon made with prawn oil and passion fruit dashi. The mango is eaten with the salmon as they are. I did not want to bake them or fry them because they are so tasty in their natural state,” he says.

Ezo restaurant executive chef Evgeny Vikentev (right) with chef Ivan Agafonov at the restaurant on February 8, 2024. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

Why did he choose the Neo-Japanese cuisine?

Chef  Evgeny says he has always been fascinated by how unusual it can be. He respects the culture and how the Japanese use only the best ingredients but he gets to manipulate the recipe and ingredients to create something modern, unique and unexpected.

He says Neo-Japanese cuisine is all about untypical flavour combinations and the type of thinking needed to make it work.

Across the restaurant is Moyo Casino which influenced the decision to keep the restaurant open for 24 hours, according to General Manager Emil Yarmokhin.

“The name ‘Ezo’ historically referred to the Japanese Island Hokkaido, which changed its name from Ezo in 1989. In the local language, Ezo was home to the majestic wilderness and the connection between humanity and nature. Ezo reflects a commitment to honouring traditions, embracing nature and crafting a dining experience as rich as the history that inspired it,” Emil explains.

Japanese style beef tartar, rice cake served at Ezo restaurant in Westlands, Nairobi on February 8, 2024. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NM

What one should expect is a unique dining experience that will challenge your taste buds, especially if you enjoy experimenting with different flavours and cooking techniques.

The space only fits 69 people and 7 at the fully stocked bar, making it a more intimate spot for those looking to find a suitable place to have a quiet dinner. 

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