The Heron Portico: Contemporary Arabian Nights With Oriental Verve | Lifestyle | KenyaBuzz

The Heron Portico: Contemporary Arabian Nights With Oriental Verve

04 Mar 2015 | By Tim Mworia | @timworia

The Heron Portico Nairobi Review

Walking into The Heron Portico is an experience. Not an otherworldly one as I’d imagine the La Maison Arabe in Marrakech or famous Burj Al Arab to have. No. This one is a quiet, intimate, comforting experience. Like home after a long journey. As I’d imagine the family run Riad Kniza in old Médina to be.

It’s no wonder The Heron Portico markets itself as Nairobi’s finest business hotel and with completely good reason why that target class of patronage keep streaming into it since it opened its doors in 1975 as Heron Court Hotel.

The 4-star facility has since rebranded into something out of a One Thousand and One Nights story. It now has a prevailing Arabic décor, furniture and carpets punctuated by an imposing wall of magnificent arches with floral architecture, geometric shapes and patterns at the furthest end from the lobby entrance.

And as I learn during my lunch at the hotel’s Mdalasini Restaurant - which is the purpose of my visit - the homely coolness that engulfs you once you walk into the hotel can only be bested by the genuinely warm service within it. Even with a visibly busy buzz around the restaurant, the waiter finds time to smile, say “hi” and introduce me to the chef.

But first she insists I indulge in the day’s entrée - a heavenly looking, yet devilishly delicious mashup buffet of Continental dishes featuring herbed nan bread, Irish lamb stew, grilled line-fish pieces served on creamed spinach and topped with a creamy wholegrain mustard sauce, hakka noodle with chicken strips and vegetables, rosemarin potatoes and steamed basmati rice.

My chef for the day is Jack Mnjama, a baby-faced master of Japanese cooking. He will be treating me to a Maki Platter complete with a demonstration! And if you’re like me and have watched videos of the samurai Benihana chefs on YouTube, then you know my levels of excitement as soon as Chef Jack mentions the demo.

I manage to get a quick tour of the hotel as the chef sets up the presentation at the poolside Sushi Bar of the picturesque Sirocco Aqua Bar. The first thing I notice about The Heron is its aversion to the superfluous. The Heron features only what any business traveller would want from a hotel of its kind:

Five conference rooms all bearing authentic Swahili names (Marahaba, Makutano, Ililki, Asmin, Karafuu) and most importantly capacity for anything from a board meeting to a corporate event; a business centre featuring a gift shop; Bashasha Restaurant, a lovely Arabian-style outdoor coffee shop flanked by the sweet scents of baking pastry at the overlooking pâtisserie; a cozy Casbah Lounge Bar, the best spot to unwind after a busy day; and further inside the hotel, a fully equipped gym, sauna and steam room. All these nifty gems of course complement the 108 guest rooms and suites that the hotel houses.

The Heron Portico Nairobi Review

Yet in all its savvy and sophistication, the most impressive thing about The Heron is that it still retains a candid and uninhibited aura that is fit for a casual lunch or evening drinks with pals. Two local entertainment shows have even been filmed on location at the hotel - KTN’s E-Curve and KBC talk show Expressions.

The Heron Portico Nairobi Review

The Heron Portico Nairobi Review

Back at the palm tree-ed and breezy Sirocco Aqua, my unlikely-Disney-hero-faced chef gets the culinary show started. Freshly adorned in a distinctively red Sushi Chef Coat, Chef Jack kicks off the demonstration by cutting up the pre-prepared sushi rolls into equal bits with seasoned precision. His first slice-up is the surprisingly enjoyable California Roll. The sticky rice stuffed with Avocado and nori (dried seaweed) and sprinkled with sesame seeds might be a veggie option but one taste of it is easy to make me understand why it’s quite popular even with non-vegetarians.

Chef goes on to serve and neatly plate the assorted platter with Shake (Salmon) Urawake whose organic taste I don’t particularly enjoy, Avocado Uramaki which many unadventurous eaters will find comforting due to the familiar ingredients and finally Futomaki Morimase - this one is a mouthful! Futomaki literally means "fat roll" and it will feel in your mouth as though the sushi rice, avocado, cucumber, carrot and crab/eel all wrapped around a sheet of nori are fighting for a piece of your taste receptors.

Chef Jack embellishes the platter with Pickled Ginger, sliced eggplant and cucumber, fresh parsley, a personal touch of flower carrots and of course what is Japanese food without the nasal-stinging Wasabi and a bowl of dipping vinegar? With my platter ready to savor and appetite through the roof, all that was left was a quick lesson of "Chopsticks for Dummies" from my overly-generous chef (and yes, every chopstick amateur gets one of those here). So the demonstration was not Benihana Ninja-chefs as I had figured, nonetheless, the final result was keeping up with the overall feel of The Heron Portico, a soul-warming platter of homely food.

The Heron Portico Nairobi Review

The Heron Portico Nairobi Review

American author Joan Didion said that great hotels have always been social ideas, flawless mirrors to the particular societies they service. Nothing less would ring true for The Heron Portico and its encompassing of Nairobi’s diversity. An Arabic interior with Swahili-themed naming schemes, Japanese cuisine with a wider choice of Thai and Continental dishes heartily prepared by Kenyan chefs and a discerning clientele of local and international business travellers.

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