I have been on a roll unearthing little-known dining spots in Nairobi’s capital and this past week, I enjoyed the enchantment of a gourmet restaurant that sits right under our noses.
Mandhari Restaurant, described as a Tuscan-inspired space serving gourmet global cuisine, is Nairobi Serena Hotel’s take on the fine dining scene. Given the foot traffic evident at the hotel’s conferencing wing, largely thanks to its central location, it is a wonder why few ever wander into this oasis.
My first impression of Mandhari is that it is the masterpiece of the Serena Nairobi renovation conducted recently and guided by the late art collector and co-founder of African Heritage, the continent's first pan-African gallery, Alan Donovan.
The select pieces from the reception seem to lead you on to this slim well-lit stairway adorned by even more exquisite and rare African tribal art. Should you make it to the top, a warm smile ushers you to your table or onto the outdoor cigar deck.
Like the name suggests (Mandhari is Swahili for ambience), this space is marked by chandeliers, crisp white linen, hushed tones and piano harmony.
With all these stops, I bet the unprepared might consider it stiff. The dining area is divided in three parts by ivory-coloured pillars lined with mahogany edges that tone the hints of opulence of the French Belle Époque with Pan –African flair.
On one wall is a detailed ivory emboss of the African landscape complete with the iconic acacia tree and forms of giraffe. Above the grand piano is an even grander brass hanging. All these touches compliment the thick carpeting and mahogany furniture bearing the hotel chain’s mark.
Dining at Mandhari, at least for me, felt like a performance with both diner and staff playing their part in the success of the production directed by the chef. Each time the service elevator at the back hummed to a halt and the cart rolled out of its doors, taste buds cued in anticipation at each surprise veiled under silver domes.
The show opened with the presentation of the elaborate, not to mention, titanic menus that seemed to paint sumptuousness ahead. Hot towels paved way for the surprise tuna fish amuse bouche with beetroot flan and cauliflower puree.
Mandhari has a set menu, planned a day before based on factors such as the seasonality of ingredients, that my date opted for while I settled for mongrel. Her first doing was the marinated lobster medallions complimented with rosette rolled smoked salmon laced with mustard vinaigrette. To say this particular starter was spectacular is an understatement.
I, on the other hand, was torn between the bucket-list sautéed escargots and duck breast. The bucket list won coming in hot in sizzling butter and brioche crumble. When it was all tried and tasted, however, I am confident to pronounce that my palate is fowl.
To bring me back into play, I broke stride with a divine blend of button and porcini mushroom soup drizzled with truffle oil.
Seared fillet of sea bream, a fish widely considered to be the tastiest of all fish, nestled on vegetable risotto and lemon capers sauce attempted to put up a fight against my gently smoked rack of Molo lamb served with gratin potatoes and thyme gravy and lost.
The lamb is so much the highlight that it was presented at the table for review before it went back to the kitchen for its eventual dressing. I am told that I was in luck as a certain well-heeled patron would have bargained for what was the last portion of the night.
Deserving special mention is the resident sommelier Andrew Lumiti whom I learnt has been with the Serena brand for seven years and is responsible for the wine list.
Not only is he eager to share his knowledge but his house wine recommendation, a Trapiche Oak Merlot from Argentina, paired with our food opts splendidly. He has a few choice wines on the list even as he swears by the Springfield Life from Oak, a Sauvignon Blanc created by our southern brothers.
Next up was the battle of the sweets and it was a draw with each diner scoring the mascarpone tiramisu and flourless chocolate mousse as decent.
As the night wound to a close, the performance ended with chamomile herbal tea and coffee served in elegant cutlery with a welcome touch of mignardises that included the most adorable pink macaroons.
On what seemed like a state dinner, with our every whims diligently catered to and even stray bread crumbs encountering the elegant table crumber, it’s a thumbs up for Mandhari.
Worth mentioning is that while I have encountered steeper bills among some of her peers, some items on the menu are as rich as the experience.
I have a cheat for those on a budget- avoid wandering into the al carte section and stick to the chef’s creation of the day.
That said Mandhari is an elegant pick for special occasions.