When Less Is More
Serving up simplicity at Nairobi’s Juniper Kitchen.
Eateries in Nairobi’s Westlands area come a dime a dozen, usually housed in clubs with loud music and sticky floors, serving kebabs and chips to late-night revelers. But only a few minutes up the road lies Juniper Kitchen, a newly opened spot that takes patrons a world away from the typical offerings of the neon light–lined Electric Avenue.
The Juniper Kitchen isn’t quite a restaurant. This increasingly popular joint lives in a big stone-and-wood-clad home set in a shady garden. Arriving through a wrought-iron gate, guests feel almost as though they’re simply going to a friend’s party — and that’s the whole idea.
The concept for Juniper all began when Rhi Pulford, a young Australian, started hosting monthly pop-up “Backyard Brunches” in her garden, during which customers enjoyed several courses of fresh, Mexican-style fare. Very few guests ever left before evening, preferring to lounge on the large cushions and flower-print blankets on the lawn, sipping sangria or a gin basil fizz — one of Rhi’s many trademark cocktails.
The brunches, which started in June last year, served as a great lead-up to the January 2015 opening of the Juniper Kitchen, whose devoted following has been generated solely through word of mouth — a sign that it fills a gap in the capital’s culinary and social scene.
“I knew there was a gap in the market here in Nairobi,” says Rhi, who eventually abandoned the world of corporate consulting to pursue her passion for healthy food, “but I didn’t realize how much others were craving something a little different too.”
For though Nairobi’s increasingly rich and cosmopolitan culinary scene does not lack for variety, the Juniper Kitchen stands apart by seamlessly merging wholesome dishes with creative cocktails in a tranquil, community-oriented environment.
On any given day, expats and Kenyans alike pack the sizeable space: Trendy 20-somethings sit beside burly oil and gas workers, and NGO staffers mingle with artists and musicians. As one patron recently put it, “At Juniper, you see the ‘it’ crowd and the outsiders melted into one.”
The interiors look as though they have been lifted straight from a hipster bar in New York’s Brooklyn or London’s Hackney, with old botanical prints and vintage gin advertisements — a nod to Rhi’s favorite tipple — decorating the walls. Reclaimed doors serve as tables, and wooden pallets acting as separators create cozy seating booths.
Sitting outside on a Jameson whiskey crate and sipping my impeccably mixed martini, I find it difficult to imagine the car-choked Nairobian roads only a few meters away. The yard, cocooned by high walls, is filled with people seated on hay bales and wooden crates topped by colorful cushions; its laidback atmosphere invites punters to spend long, lazy afternoons listening to soulful acoustic music or spoken word poetry.
“I really wanted a place where people could enjoy fresh, simple food — and a good cocktail — in a nice communal setting,” says Rhi, summing Juniper up in a nutshell.
The one-page menu — updated weekly — comes on a clipboard; salads are served in jam jars; and soups arrive in mismatched bowls. But despite the simplicity in presentation, dishes hit their mark with their innovative use of locally sourced ingredients. For Juniper’s Asian slaw, for example, a refreshing, colorful medley of shaved carrots, red cabbage, zucchini, brown rice and tofu is tossed together and topped by a creamy, slightly tangy peanut sauce. Burgers are made from coarsely chopped chuck beef and accompanied by a salty hit of olive and feta salad. Satisfyingly thick potato chips, with their perfectly crunchy skin left on, are so tantalizing that I eventually have to push the bowl out of reach.
The idea behind the menu, which offers dairy-free, gluten-free and vegan options, is to accommodate everyone’s eating habits in a healthy way. And thanks to Chef James Koileken’s recent additions of grilled pork chops and steak filets, meat-loving Kenyans won’t go hungry either. “It’s all a bit of an experiment,” says Rhi, “trying out new dishes and drinks to see if people like them.”
“The city could use more open, outdoor, relaxed places to sit and have a drink like this one,” says Patrick, an American expat in his late 20s. Sipping his Gin Dawa — a take on the traditional Kenyan “medicine” cocktail — he adds, “This is the kind of place where people want to stay all day.”
If Juniper’s current popularity is anything to go by, Rhi and her staff — all clad in vintage dresses and aprons made from reclaimed kitenge — will have their work cut out in months to come. With plans for a food and fashion market, as well as evenings showcasing local short films, it seems that Juniper’s journey is far from over. From humble backyard brunch to hip restaurant, social space and more, the continuing adventure promises to be a good — and tasty — one.