NAIROBI, Kenya — A slice of impala, medium rare. Freshly squeezed passion-fruit juice. Glorious Indian curries. Secluded restaurants accessible only by boat. And the ultimate luxury: bread, custom sliced at your table with all the flourishes of a sushi chef.
Expect the unexpected in Kenya. Indigenous African food is hard to find. But English breakfasts, Indian curries and Italian ice creams are everywhere. These imports are not strictly for tourists. Kenyans themselves--Africans, stay-on British and large Arab and Indian populations--seem to prefer them.
Most safari-bound travelers are in for a steady diet of lodge food in the remote game parks where the menus have remained unchanged for decades.
Breakfasts include fruit juice, eggs, thick bacon, English sausage and cold toast.
Lunches are almost unseemly in their grandness: soup, several crisp and refreshing salads, platters of cold meats, bowls of potatoes and, only then, an entree of baked chicken, fish or chops and vegetables.
Dinners are a no-choice table d'hote , but where else in the world is a dining room cleared, mid-entree, with the shout of "Rhino!" as everyone rushes to a view window in the bar to see rhinoceros at the flood-lit watering hole?
But off safari, the food is even more delightful:
Amboseli Grill at the Nairobi Hilton (Nairobi). Ah! The thrill of watching your bread cut to specifications ("Two slices of rye, on the diagonal, please"). No stale bread here: The waiter wheels his cart, piled high with fresh and chewy loaves, over to your table and deftly slices up some bread for you and you alone. The Hilton's dining room gives table-side service a new meaning.
The menu includes pan-fried fillet of beef in a mustard cream sauce, saddle of lamb, jumbo prawns in curry cream and impala steak. The atmosphere is a bit too cushy, and the menu too overridingly Continental, for this to be a really exciting restaurant, but I suppose some compromises must be made in the name of fresh bread.
Carnivore (Nairobi). Waiters wear straw hats and the chefs bring their barbecued meats to the tables, brace the double skewers on your sizzling-hot black iron plate and slice off as much as you wish. In the course of a meal, you'll be offered chicken, ribs, lamb, pork, beef (called cow here), sausage and some only-in-Africa items like impala and giraffe. A two-tiered Lazy Susan fills the center of each table and is piled with side dishes: garlic and ginger sauce, bearnaise sauce, "Mexican" beans, corn relish and an exceptional raita, yogurt with chunks of cucumber, tomatoes, carrots, onion and peas. Baked potatoes come with every meal and there's Italian ice cream for dessert. Located far out on the airport road, this casual, rambling country restaurant is a hefty cab ride from most hotels but worth it.
The Delamere Grill at the Norfolk Hotel (Nairobi). Curry gluttons of the world, this is the place of your dreams. Forget the hotel's upscale American guests in full Banana Republic regalia and head for the incredible buffet table. Chafing dishes are filled with a dozen curries--lamb, beef, fish, chicken, vegetarian--plus piles of samosas and a complete assortment of condiments, many of which we never see on local Indian menus: freshly grated coconut, diced pineapple, chunks of tomatoes and onion.
Governors Camp (Masai Mara). A bit of Brie in the bush. At every meal: crisp linens, expertly placed silverware, serve from the left, clear from the right. There are full English breakfasts every morning, served alfresco on the banks of the Mara River, where diners look up from their pink scrambled eggs to see an elephant climbing the bank or baboons in the trees. The elaborate meals at this riverside camp are several notches above the offerings at other safari stops.
The lunchtime buffets are the best meals of the day. Liveried waiters bring soup to the tables after which diners help themselves to a dazzling buffet of salads and cold meats. That would be enough of a meal for most people, but the hot course is still to come. Desserts include gooseberry pie.
Dinners, served in a huge tent, lit by gaslight and candles and spruced up with red linen tablecloths, started with a glass of sherry and moved on to soup, chicken dijonnaise, ham with Cumberland sauce or roast beef with bearnaise sauce. For two days of our stay, the camp lost all electricity and the water pump was broken. The kitchen managed to turn out these elaborate meals for 70 people with the dwindling supply of ice cubes being the only noticeable inconvenience to guests.
Tamarind (Mombasa). Any restaurant that can seat diners beneath bougainvillea while they gaze at old Mombasa across the harbor could probably make it on that alone. But the Tamarind, a waterside Moorish fantasy, has made its considerable reputation with its excellent seafood menu and friendly service. Cool and relaxing at lunchtime, the restaurant takes on a magical air on a balmy evening, which is pretty much year-round.