A couple of days ago, I found myself attempting the role of groovy older cousin to my 16-year-old relative and arranging a lunch date with him.
Reluctantly, I allowed him the privilege of choosing our meeting place and when he responded (through an Instagram message) and said ‘The Big Elephant Café’, my eyes rolled so far back I was afraid they wouldn’t return to their place. I was half expecting a university cafeteria type kitchen so imagine my surprise when he directed me to the swanky new Valley View Office Park off Limuru Road.
The unassuming restaurant entryway adjacent to a glass-walled gym is rather strangely situated, but on crossing the threshold past a display case full of sumptuous pastries and into its belly, I was sold on the place. Another addition to the industrial design collective on Nairobi’s food scene, The Big Elephant has a happening and urban quality.
Distressed brick walls meet polished concrete floors which are gazed on by exposed overhead pipes and ducts.
The large indoor dining room has a sufficient supply of natural light flooding in through the floor-to-ceiling windows, and there are also vintage pendant lights reminiscent of factory floor spaces.
There are subtle visual hints implying – despite not being marketed as such – that the establishment has an Indian connection.
This is channelled through the consistent imagery of elephants and dinky model tuk-tuks (including a life-size one which adds a quirky touch).
My favourite instalment is a painted mural on one wall depicting Nairobi streets, and a map to the restaurant’s address with the face of a person superimposed on it.
We were sat at a table on the covered terrace beyond the dining room which serves as a bar and hookah lounge.
The views of City Park from here transport you to a place outside the mad rush of Parklands below, creating a calm atmosphere broken only by the piped music.
Breaking the tradition of white shirt-black pants that has become accepted as the standard uniform for waiters everywhere, floor staff at The Big Elephant wear denim dungarees over orange shirts – a jarring combo and a source of great amusement for me. Innovative, but totally awkward.
Printed in playful cursive on recycled paper, the menu items range from pasta to Levantine offerings, Indian dishes and artisan burgers. There are vegetarian options in every food category. In keeping with my cool older cousin masquerade, I decided to have a pizza while my younger relation chose a more sophisticated dish, leaving me feeling a damn fool.
His saucy tandoori chicken with saffron rice came with a swollen sheet of pastry, not unlike a chef’s hat which must have been the inspiration for its name, ‘turban chicken’.
My chicken tikka pizza with buttery makhani sauce and a crispy base was an absolute delight in both flavour and portion.
Despite the novel presentation of my cousin’s food, his rice was soggy and so after he picked at all his chicken and ate the covering bread, he abandoned his rice for my food which he thoroughly enjoyed.
The crowning jewel of my lunch was a massive glass of gin, ice, cucumber and celery blended into a frothy, healthy cocktail. Sublime!