The air in Nairobi is heavy with the unmistakable scent of a culinary revolution.
Fanned in part by the rapid mushrooming of trendy commercial spaces and growing consumer demand, food service providers in the city are catching up to meet the expectations of a more diverse and aware market. New players on the scene are edgier and more innovative than we have ever seen.
One such entrant that is sure to send shock waves through the industry is the Mercado Mexican Kitchen and Bar, situated in the new Kenrail Towers in Parklands.
It opened its doors just last month, and my friend and I chose it as the rendezvous for our ritual Monday dinner.
When I arrived first (yes I am able to keep time on the rare occasion), I was stunned to find the expansive dining room and sizeable terrace packed nearly to the rafters.
So loud was the cacophony of human conversation and clanking tableware that it took me a full minute – while the wonderful hostess found me a table – to adjust.
THE ONLY AVAILABLE TABLE
Sitting at the only available table on the terrace, I took in the sights and sounds and was richly rewarded. In the tradition of Mexican home design, Mercado features vibrant colours and patterns set against an earth tone palette echoing the terracotta landscapes of the desert and blue-yellow hues of sunny Mexican beaches.
The furniture is a mishmash of wooden swing seats, jarring PVC leather bar stools, colour splash cotton-upholstered wingback chairs and muted wooden tables.
Assorted light fixtures dot the restaurant, giving it the feel of a swanky lighting design exhibition whose pièce de résistance is the massive, brass, trumpet-inspired chandelier in the glass-walled private dining room.
When after a half hour of waiting my date arrived, he found I was halfway through my gargantuan glass of clericot – a red wine and lime juice punch with fruit, not unlike sangria.
I say glass here when really it was plastic, which I found appalling but let slide. We oohed and aahed at the impressive menu before agreeing to share some tapas.
Service at Mercado is warm and swift, so it wasn’t long before we were dipping nachos in a sublime guacamole served in a traditional molcajete (a small dish carved out of basalt and presented with an array of condiments including chillies and lime).
The shrimp mazateño (battered shrimp) and pork pibil (pulled pork) tacos on a base of soft corn tortillas as well as the sautéed ajillo (garlic) mushroom tostada (crispy toasted corn tortillas) were served on elegant black stone food slabs, enhancing the vivid, colourful side plates which were laid on the table.
While its toppings of cheese and sour cream were rich and delicious, the mushroom filling lacked flavour which, for what’s meant to be a garlic dish, is an incomprehensible outcome. Someone in the kitchen must have really been frugal with the ingredients.
The shrimp and pork, however, were absolutely delicious although we could have done with a little more shrimp filling.
The drinks offered at Mercado are extremely well priced for what you get and the food is good value for money.
This, coupled with the décor, is evidence that standards of quality here are very important to the two young Kenyan-Indian brothers who own it.
I was happy to meet one of them who welcomed me at the entrance, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, before handing me over to the maître d’.
This dedication to the business makes the joint a formidable force in this new wave of culinary excellence I sense coming our way.