If ever there was a restaurant I would return to dine at, if anything for its innovative dining experience, then that would be MeSo, located on the second floor of Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall.
The last time I dined in this shopping precinct was before a grey cloud tried blocking its shine. Happy to report Westgate remains one of the trendiest malls.
I also admit to feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of waiters in comparison to the space I encountered when I arrived for my booking some minutes to 5 pm for what would be a dinner date.
Alexander, the waiter assigned to my table, however, quickly eased me into the space with his attentiveness as I ordered a ‘Hakutsuru’ branded sake.
For those not familiar with Japan’s national beverage, sake is an alcoholic creation made from fermented rice that has been polished to remove the bran. Light in colour, sake is non-carbonated, has a sweet flavour, and contains about 14 to 16 percent alcohol.
Its rice heart also earns it the common reference of Japanese ‘rice wine’. While it is rice-based, its taste instantly reminded me of yet another first, my first tipple to be precise, ‘Mbangara’, which is a corn-based brew by the Taita community where I was raised.
Old age has relegated me to warm beverages and sake served hot in an ‘ochoko’ (a small, cylindrical porcelain cup) and poured from ceramic flasks called ‘tokkuri’ was a pick-me-up. The flask is heated in hot water and the small cups ensure that the sake does not get cold.
This is secondary; however, the main reason why traditional sake cups are so small is to allow for continual ritual pouring of the oft-shared drink. It is assumed that the more times a guest drains their portion, the more times a host has the privilege to show honour and reverence by refilling the ‘ochoko.’
As I whet my appetite, my attention shifted to the wide-open space with an open kitchen for a centrepiece. Apart from the kitchen with dark tiled walls, the rest of the space with white walls and minimalist décor turned out so well, especially the olive green brasserie-styled seats.
MeSo restaurant is a Modern Asian Izakaya, one of Japan’s quintessential experiences inspired by the journey of a hungry mind in a contemporary, luxury dining setting.
The Japanese word Izakaya (i-zaka-ya) is made up of three kanji with the meaning, in order, “stay-drink-place.”
An Izakaya is thus a casual place for after-work drinking similar to a British or Irish pub, a Spanish tapas bar, or an American saloon or tavern. But that is the one-dimensional description.
According to Tokyo Cheapo, a popular guide to Japanese culture, the Izakaya are different from bars in that diners are always seated (usually at a table or on tatami) and there is less opportunity for interaction with other customers.
While drinking is a big part of it, there is also a constant stream of (shared) dishes. At Izakaya, gourmets are often challenged to try something they have never tasted before. The menu can be so diverse that it can be a chance to try some dishes one has not tried before.
Nairobi’s MeSo, which is part of the Food Library chain of restaurants that include Bambino and Inti promised an elevated Izakaya experience as a little bird had mentioned to me that it is modelled against Nobu, which is probably the most celebrated Izakaya in the world.
Named after its founder Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, a master of fusion cuisine blending traditional Japanese dishes with Peruvian ingredients, Nobu is popular amongst celebrities for its high standards.
To start us off was the shared tuna/salmon sashimi for the lady and a ‘kimchi’ and cheese ‘korokke’ for me. This course, we agreed, was utterly sumptuous giving credence to the notion that some of the best dishes are the simplest — pristine pieces of fish dressed in brilliant citrus juices, seasoned with a concentration of dehydrated miso or a minuscule dab of chile paste or a single, tender leaf of cilantro.
For the mains, we were less adventurous coincidentally ordering from the Robata grill. I opted for the tea-smoked barbecued lamb chops with spicy Korean miso. This was well complemented by smooth 12-year-old ‘Yamazaki’ single malt. My teetotaller date warmed to the wood-fired baby back pork ribs dripping in honey soy-ginger sauce washed down by a blueberry and lime mocktail.
While the drinks were a hit, the overall verdict was fair and we reckoned that the starters had laid too high a standard. Well, that seemed true until we encountered the warm chocolate fondant dessert with matcha ice cream parfait matched with a Moscato that was divine to a fault.
By this time we had moved seats to the bar section with a swallow fixture hanging from the ceiling tucked in a corner next to the outdoor patio as if to keep the space family-friendly.
The waiters who seemed a bit tad much earlier had thawed into the space as more diners flocked in. Service from Alexander remained top-notch with great recommendations and follow-up compliments.
As my date squirmed at the fancy pop-up toothpick holders and I picked out the black and pink baby seats almost as tall as my stool, bartender Jackson Kimani ran me through his selection array of imported Japanese alcoholic beverages including three single malts and five blended whiskies.
With the white light bouncing off the walls dimmed I pictured myself holding a full day of meetings here. MeSo promised a rich sensory indulgence of fresh home-grown high-end ingredient dishes served to the soundtracks capturing the energy of Ginza (Tokyo city’s most glamorous shopping district) in a fine-dining setup and it delivered.
The only downside is that patrons have to share mall toilets which shaved off a few points from the experience.