North of Ethiopia, there sits a small country which my knowledge of was limited to the tumultuous streaks of her political past and the beauty of her people. But with Nairobi being the cosmopolitan hub that it is today, my ignorance was inevitably canned. Asmara is a little known restaurant along General Mathenge Lane in the Westlands suburb of Nairobi, which serves authentic Eritrean dishes alongside a continental menu, and is named for the nation’s capital.
On my first visit, the expansive parking area was chock a block with cars; a sight which I found quite encouraging, while it brought my driver great distress. The jolly maître’d welcomed my friend and I at the entrance to the restaurant then guided us to the garden terrace, where we had reserved a table. Here, the soft lighting set a romantic mood but we agreed it was uncomfortably low for dining and requested candles, which were promptly delivered. Looking at the menu, it became clear that Eritrean cuisine is not all that different from that of her Ethiopian counterparts, which wasn’t entirely surprising seeing as they had existed as one until the 20th century. Knowing this, I insisted that we make a comparison between the two and ordered a platter of meaty tsebhi (stew) and vegetables served on taita (sourdough flatbread commonly referred to as injera) with accompanying baskets of the latter rolled up like towels. Our waiter was about as knowledgeable as a rock about the menu options and had to keep beckoning to colleagues for help when asked about the preparation of a dish; something that irks me no end.
I decided to explore the grounds while our order was prepared and discovered that the restaurant had more spread than I had imagined, including a back terrace, children’s playground and large indoor area. The contemporary furnishings were far too cluttered for my liking and featured tacky veneer and faux leather, which both make my eyes water. I recognised several high profile individuals from Kenya’s political and entertainment scenes and wondered what about the establishment drew them to it. A few side tables were strewn with literature on the State of Eritrea and with quick perusing, my knowledge of the strange land grew significantly.
Back at the table, our wonderfully laid out platter was presented with pretty ceramic finger bowls and the different stews served on it with an exaggerated flourish of the greatest charm. The pickled vegetables and cream spinach were delightful and the meats met my expectations and then some. My one disappointment was the lamb shekla tibs cooked in a clay pot with onion and herbs. It tasted like heaven but may have sat over the heat for many minutes too long and was tougher than leather to chew. General consensus at my table was that the food, while delicious, was overpriced in comparison to acceptable alternatives at the many Ethiopian restaurants across town and nothing really endeared us to this particular place. Do not think either my friend or myself will be returning to Asmara in a hurry.