‘Our idea was to make everything different’, says Sarju, owner of La Villa, the new Italian restaurant and wine bar along Kitisuru Road. ‘The food, the drinks, the décor, the service – to take it up a level, it had to be different.’
We’re chatting over coffee on the restaurant’s upper deck, looking out into the canopy of a mature mango tree. It’s the beginning of lunch service on a quiet Tuesday afternoon, as a few families filter in and are shown to their tables on the lower terrace below us. We’re soon joined by Walter, Sarju’s Italian business partner and co-owner of La Villa.
In a city with plenty of well-established and still popular Italian joints, I’m keen to find out how this one stands out.
‘Once we found this location and started the renovation, our budget doubled and our concept completely changed’, Sarju explains. ‘We realised that there were no fine dining Italian restaurants in Nairobi.’ Fine dining is a term that’s often loosely thrown about in restaurant marketing, but it’s mostly associated with expensive, multiple-course meals.
For Sarju, it’s a much broader concept: ‘Fine dining is about service – how the tables are set, how waiters interact with customers, how the wine is served – and also about the décor and the presentation of food.’
Sarju is a property developer and Walter is a tiling and interior expert, and they’ve used this combined experience to transform an old Kitisuru home into a modern and sophisticated restaurant. The tables in the main dining area inside are all formally set with white tablecloths, and are surrounded by deep-brown leather chairs. Bottles of wine are stacked from floor to ceiling, and on the back wall is a colourful mural of a canal through Milan’s Navigli district – a nod to Walter’s Milanese roots.
The upper terrace where we are sitting stretches out from a smart central wine bar, and there are three other levels of outdoor seating areas either side of us. As they planned the design of the restaurant, the owners wanted to ensure that there were spaces for all kinds of customers – from the intimate nooks in the lounge for couples, to the climbing frame in the garden and more social lower terrace for families.
To keep these spaces full, they brought over an experienced Italian chef called Gianni to create an authentic and varied fine dining menu. Before coming to Kenya, Gianni spent nine years in Hong Kong, and he opened up eight other restaurants. After crafting a menu for La Villa, it was trialled and tweaked for three weeks before the restaurant officially opened to the public at the end of July. And the final result is superb.
There are traditional Italian dishes from the starters through to the desserts, and there is also a creative vegan menu. When my wife, Gabie, and I passed by for dinner last Sunday, we were especially impressed by the pasta and risotto menu. Gabie’s fettuccine in black truffle sauce was neatly presented and creamy, and my ‘spaghetti cacio e pepe’ will soon be served in a parmesan wheel – once Walter brings over a suitable copper stove from Italy.
There are also wood-fired pizzas on the menu, and a good range of meat, poultry and seafood options, including a rib eye fillet with creamy pepper and brandy sauce, and grilled octopus with chickpeas in a rosemary hummus sauce. The prices for the starters, pastas, risottos and pizzas are mostly between Kshs 1,000 and 2,000, while the majority of the main meat options are above Kshs 2,000.
As we come to the end of our meeting, Sarju talks about plans for the future: wine pairing events (all the wines at La Villa are Italian, by the way), and three and six-course meals.
With the quality of their food, La Villa does stand out, but in a very competitive industry they will need to keep the standards high to stand the test of time.
For more information and to book a table (they won’t accept walk-ins on busy days), head to www.lavilla.co.ke, or call 0706 880 688.