This is one of those Asian eateries where you feel comfortable lounging for a while and drooling more than a little over the lush scenery. Nestled in close to the United Nations compound, in Nairobi’s upscale Gigiri neighbourhood, Emerald Garden Thai fills in a gap along United Nations Avenue left behind by a former Chinese restaurant, its hand-carved Chinese calligraphy signage still hanging high.
Opened only four months ago, Emerald Garden Thai has transformed the once traditional Chinese garden into a stunning Thai escape. Connected by winding paths like unrolling a scroll of a landscape painting, the green foliage impresses and instills a sense of peace. The serene sounds of water and rustling leaves inspires whilst the tall Chinese pagoda tower anchors the garden in the back. Large vibrant silk pillows provide bursts of colour throughout with traditional Chinese architecture to match. The main dining area, glass and wood pavilions, is partially opened to the elements and leads to a large terrace. Breezy and chic, Emerald Garden definitely inspires with its décor and even food.
Emerald Garden offers more in the way of food than many Thai restaurants in Nairobi. The menu, pieces of paper held together with a simple bamboo dowel, lists familiar Thai offerings, though it is more compelling than just the standard pad thai and fish cakes.
Paul, our ever-so friendly waiter, with a light-hearted giggle, warns that “our medium” is probably their hot. Noted. To begin with, there was the Som tum jay (Kshs 700), a shredded papaya salad, made from the unripe flesh of the fruit, where all the ingredients are traditionally combined simply with a mortar and pestle. Garlic, lime, fish sauce, chili and sugar are all pounded together with the thin papaya strips ensuring the refreshing flavours penetrate throughout. The platter of assorted hot appetizers arrived soon after: grilled marinated beef and chicken satay with a homemade peanut-curry sauce, crispy vegetable spring rolls, and deep-fried fish and shrimp cakes. Followed by some of Thailand’s most well-known soups: Tom yum goong (Kshs 600), Tom kha Than ya pued jay (Kshs 400), and Tom kha goong (Kshs 600).
Like nyama choma is to Kenya, Tom yum goong is to Thailand. The savoury, hot and spicy broth of prawns, mushrooms, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and chili is one of the most popularized Thai dishes in the world. Topped with a sprinkling of fresh chopped coriander, the steaming bowls of soups finished with coconut milk were great examples of the distinctive aroma and sensational flavor contrast found in Thai cuisine.
The Green Shrimp Curry (Kshs 1,350) was delicious. The grilled chicken wings, Peek gai yang (Kshs 950), marinated with garlic and lemongrass was a surprising favourite. Just the smell of it made me happy, and it tasted the way it smelled: sultry, comforting, juicy and decadent. The sautéed chicken with cashew nuts and dried chili, Gai phad med ma muang (Kshs 850), and the mixed vegetables with three flavoured sauce, Phad phak ruan mit sam rod (Kshs 650); complemented perfectly the famous stir-fried rice noodles with shrimp, tofu, bean sprouts and egg in fresh tamarind sauce, Phad thai goong (Kshs 950).
At first, mango sticky rice with coconut milk, Khao niao ma muang (Kshs 500), for dessert, may sound weird, I know, but it’s actually quite delicious and a traditional Thai treat. The coconut milk flavours the sticky rice with an organic sweetness and topped with fresh mango, is a lovely conclusion to any meal. Finally, there was the Kha go (Kshs 500), sago pudding with taro and sweetcorn topped with a dusting of fresh coconut.
I’m told that the two house chefs have recently relocated straight from Thailand to Nairobi, bringing along their authentic take of their cuisine. Judging from this meal, it must be true. If you live or work in the area, and have some time to kill, Emerald Garden is a lovely spot to relax and get lost. With the attentive service and exotic menu, visiting this Asian eatery feels like taking a mini-vacation, one that I would highly recommend.