FOOD: French food in the heart of Nairobi

Saturday August 17 2019

Fish Florentine-La Belle Epoque.

Fish Florentine-La Belle Epoque. PHOTO | KARI MUTU | NMG 

KARI MUTU
By KARI MUTU
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It was a delight to discover La Belle Epoque Restaurant, located at the French Cultural Centre in Nairobi.

La Belle Époque refers to the beautiful era of French cultural renaissance. Proprietor and chef Christian Caldara has come full circle. He arrived in Kenya in 1974 at the age of 19.

He ran the Le Jardin de Paris restaurant in the same location as La Belle Epoque from 1977 to 1992. Later he worked at other Nairobi restaurants before opening La Belle Epoque at the beginning of last year.

The restaurant has a cosy, tranquil setting with chequered tablecloths, and trees and potted plants.

At the centre is a Morris column with advertising posters pasted on it, an iconic element of Parisian street culture. A bread basket with slices of a baguette, and butter, was brought to our table and whetted our appetites.

The menu selection is modest, and we were encouraged to choose from the extensive daily specials written on the portable blackboard.

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Born in Paris, Christian has no formal kitchen training but has a natural talent and years of experience.

Bespectacled and sporting a toothbrush moustache, he delights in talking about the origins of French dishes that were influenced by provincial tastes and local ingredients.

The soup choices included broccoli, tomato, mushroom and, naturally, a clear French onion soup made with caramelised onions and cheese-topped croutons.

I started with a Salad Nicoise of tuna steak, green vegetables, olives and salty anchovies that recall the coastal city of Nice where the dish originates.

The main course selection was extensive with several Burgundy dishes, a region famous for its red wines.

There was rognon (kidneys) cooked in a red wine and mustard sauce, and a coq au vin stew of braised chicken pieces, sweet onions and mushrooms in red wine.

The boeuf bourguinon, made from beef shank, was cooked in the traditional way — overnight in a pot over low embers.

Christian proudly showed off the heavy cast iron stewing pot with short legs that he uses.

“This pot is about 100 years old and belonged to my great grandmother,” he said.

No wonder his boeuf bourguinon was cooked to tender perfection in a dark wine sauce.

Christian’s father used to work as a chef, and did all the cooking at home. “My mother was not allowed to cook.”

As a youth, he spent a lot of time with his grandparents who made and sold pastries.

As a main course, I ordered the baked fish fillet made Florentine style, on a bed of spinach with a creamy cheese sauce turned golden brown. I was surprised to learn that it originated in medieval Italy.

French cuisine is indebted to the more superior Italian cooking. It happened when Italy’s Catherine de Medici married French King Henry II in the 16th century, and she brought along Italian cooks to prepare her favourite meals.

Another famous fish dish on the menu is poisson meunière, a fillet sprinkled in flour and black pepper, pan fried and served with a lemon butter sauce.

In France, prawns are often cooked in with garlic and butter. But La Belle Epoque serves them Kenyan style as king prawns pili pili and as a prawns and avocado starter dish.

If you prefer vegetarian, you can try the crepe or a mushroom-filled quiche Lorraine, from the north-west region bordering Germany.

While waiting for the dessert, I took in the pleasant ambience and admired a large glass chandelier.

It’s one of several antiques purchased by Christian over the years, adding to the yesteryear feeling of the place. Soft background music floated out of a vintage radio and record player.

Glancing through their old guest book I found messages from famous personalities such as Wangari Maathai, Michelle Obama and renowned TV journalist Zain Verjee.

The tart of the day was a mango flan. Cherries are the typical flan fruit but are hard to get locally, so La Belle Epoque uses mangoes instead.

It was a delicious dish, not overly sweet and slightly warm, served with a raspberry coulis.

Christian laments that tastes have changed because of “American food influences and a reduced appreciation for refined French cuisine.”

So hamburgers and chicken wings also feature on the menu. Nevertheless he is persevering in keeping French cooking alive.