Nairobi’s first Spanish restaurant is affordable (notably the drinks menu – a tot of Johnny Walker starts at Ksh 250), friendly, and has a menu that looks promising; but the food shows signs of its inexperienced young life.
Located off of the first junction on the new bypass from Waiyaki Way towards Village Market, La Mesa Española lies on a luscious green property with towering palm trees that dips into the valley. Converted kerosene lamps hang from the ceiling, and the earthy décor is warm and welcoming. A vast house, plentiful secure parking and lots of outdoor space; La Mesa Española is a peaceful place for friends, colleagues and family.
Opened for only a little more than two months, La Mesa Española is clearly working through some growing pains. The service staff is still learning their way around the menu (and probably their employers). Our waiter was accommodating and took our orders confidently. However, when prodded by his superior, things fell apart and took a turn for the worst, which resulted in shaky marginal service at most.
To start with, the team delved into a complimentary Gazpacho with a drizzle of olive oil – refreshing , tangy, fragrant of rosemary, and the slight heat of chilli perfectly complemented the chilled puréed soup. Served with a trio of sauces – tartar, soya and paprika – a bowl of crispy Chopitos (Small fried squid) for Ksh 600 was next. The small pieces of squid were lightly battered and fried until golden and tender. If you’re someone who has an affinity for Italian Antipasto or cured meats, then you’ll really enjoy the Surtido de ibericos (Assortment of Spanish Sauages Ksh 1,400).
There was the slow-cooked Lentejas con chorizo (Lentils with chorizo Ksh 600), a favourite you’ll find in most kitchens of Spanish grandmothers. This simmered stew was rich, smoky, robust and full of texture from intact lentils – comfort in a bowl! The Spanish Style Chicken (Ksh 750), Pollo en pepitoria, was aromatic but overcooked and dry. There was the Grilled T-bone (Ksh 900), Chuleton a la brasa, served with a hot skillet for you to grill the meat some more, if you so wished, was bland (perhaps from the quality of meat). The Escalope of Veal (Ksh 875) was fried until dry. From the sea, I wanted to try the Pescado al horro (Spanish Style Fish), but sadly I learned it was unavailable. I turned to Rock Cod a la romana (Fried fish), it was also unavailable. I asked for Necoras cocidas (Crabs), you guessed it, not available. Dejected, I settled on Gamgas a la placha (Grilled Prawns), Sh 700, a safe and popular offering at Nairobi restaurants that serve seafood. Accompanied with a side of iceberg salad, dampened by the vinaigrette, the scattered prawns with a sprinkling of rock salt looked less than appetizing. Mostly grey and brown, with a hint of pink, the slight fishy smell certainly raised a red flag. I usually enjoy some prawn-brain sucking, where one would take pleasure in the potent fresh flavours of the crustacean, but I eagerly passed this opportunity. Snapping off the head of the prawn revealed an unbearable, gritty and ugly truth – they had not been de-veined, leaving entire intestinal tracts black and full.
The group sampled only three tapas from a list of twenty-seven: sirloin with grilled cheese, small paella, and garlic artichokes. Tapas are usually tiny starter-sized dishes, in this case ranging from Ksh 250 to 350. The paella was served in a miniature pan – cute and intriguing – but the flavours were one-dimensional and lacked seasoning. The minuscule pieces of the artichoke topped with salt and garlic was tiny and the sirloin with grilled cheese was tough and cold.
In short, La Mesa Española is a Spanish restaurant that needs to mature. All the essentials – terrific Gazpacho and lentils – are present and correct. But the rough edges of the rest of the menu still need to be smoothed away. La Mesa Española leaves you musing on what merely “adequate” would offer. Sounds like it may be lost, but when La Mesa Española has been found, I will eagerly return in hopes of dining in the joys of Spanish cuisine.
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