Sunday, 6 July 2014

Here it comes, up in smoke and gone

Clearly I've been putting this off. Probably under the misguided notion that I would end up coming back. Foreign roads beckon. Time for one last parable.***

The immigration official riffles quickly through my passport, barely registering the dozens of stamps. He looks up suspiciously, checks his computer screen, smiles, and lifts his stamp.

"Where is your destination?"

"Colombo. Sri Lanka"

He pauses, flicks through my passport, stopping to examine each little oval entry stamp

"You are a Rwandan?"

"Er... No".

He consults his screen and looks again through the stamps.

Pearl Lounge, Kigali International Airport.

Is it worth the $25?

It's exactly how you'd expect it to be: selection of tea and coffee, Inyange water (what else?). Small versions of the cheese sandwiches you can get from the bakery at the Umubano. Electric sockets in the floor promise the opportunity to charge your various electronica, but fail to deliver on that promise. There is a vague smell of jet-fuel and burnt rubber. Or is that just me?


He finds a space and applies his stamp with a thud.

"You have been visiting in Rwanda many times. Why don't you come to live here?"

Later I count my exit stamps. I've visited 36 times.

"I think this will be the last time"

Thanks to:

The Don
The Surfer
The Dude
The Young Ambassador
Everyone at the Chez Lando Hotel
The Cheap Wine Lady
The Philosopher
The Coach
Le Sappeur

The Director

Thanks for having me.

True places never are.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Lie down on the couch / what does that mean?

It's been a while.

So long in fact that I have left Rwanda.

Probably for good.


Any sensible blogger would have closed the shop by now. Said a final sad goodbye. I might need a little time to work it out though.

"I like your blog, but I don't understand it sometimes"

Some of the commentariat (damn, I thought I'd invented that word, but Google proves me wrong.) would agree. It's OK though - the enigma is deliberate: contained within each of my posts is a series of hidden messages for specific people around the world. One day, the correct written combination of words will trigger a global uprising of jaded zombie restaurant goers who will take action against the evils of vegetarianism. Seriously, we're a right-click-paste away from Armageddon.

L'il Vegas

Awful name isn't it? What is that apostrophe even for? Surely if L'il is a shortened version of 'little' then it should be Li'l.(1)

Anyway, it has gambling machines, so is like a smaller (little) version of Vegas; where I've heard they also have gambling machines.(2)

We're here for a burger, described on this very good website (3) as "the best burger in Kigali" The gang from Living in Kigali seem to eat a lot of burgers, so I guess they know what they're talking about (4). Now, I'm not one of those hipster bumwipes who thinks a burger is only good if it is made from 21 day aged Aberdeen Angus beef and served with an overpriced mojito mixed with owl tears in an old Vimto bottle (5); it's just that it isn't hard to make a decent burger - it's hardly cordon bleu. If I can make a decent burger at home (6), then surely somebody who is paid to work in the kitchen of a restaurant might be able to manage it.

The Young Ambassador orders something called the "monster massive cockandballs burger"(7), which looks like the hideous aftermath of a matatu accident but tastes reassuringly herby.
It comes with an untidy avalanche of chips which threaten to bury the table. Sadly, he reports a case of the thruppeny bits (8) the following morning. My chicken burger is surprisingly good with pieces of actual factual chicken, rather than the usual mechanically recovered chicken ears and noses (9). Onion rings are coated with what appear to be flakes of brioche bread: something I'm still not convinced is a good idea. I haven't yet encountered a portion of onion rings anywhere in the world good enough to serve as my benchmark onion rings (10), which makes me wonder whether onion rings might just be a bit rubbish whichever way you cook them.

The best bit is the floor show, a strange lottery involving numbered tickets and a rotating box. A security guard looms over with his stick, gently twatting anyone who gets too close to the numbered tickets. This is the reason why you should go to L'il Vegas - where else in Kigali can you enjoy a burger and a beer while watching a man being hit in the face with a stick?


What I've done there is a little playful introduction. I don't really care what the name of the restaurant is, and the apostrophe doesn't really bother me, I'm just adopting a curmudgeonly character which sets the tone of voice for the rest of the review. I'm actually quite a cheerful bloke.

(2) Obviously I know they have gambling machines in Vegas, and so do you. This is very gentle sarcasm, and implies that L'il Vegas is nothing like Vegas. It also establishes a little cheeky rapport with the reader.

(3) It is a good website. I really do think this.

(4) I don't think this.

(5) This is a bit of knowing humour for people who have eaten at such establishments that are currently popular in parts of Europe and America, or at least read about them. I figure if you're reading this website you might have a passing interest in such things. If you haven't, then you might prefer the website mentioned in (3)

(6) Of course I bloody can. I don't eat out every night. Why have a burger though when you can stuff a whole chicken with an excessive amount of garlic and eat it with greasy fingers?

(7) It isn't really called this, but you get the picture.

(8) Rhyming slang. Google it.

(9) Contrary to what you might think, chickens do have ears. They're not pointy like owl ears though. They have nostrils too, although it's not clear whether this constitutes a nose. I suppose you could count the Parson's nose. If you don't know what the Parson's nose is then you're probably on the wrong blog.

I have benchmarks for all foods except: onion rings, tofu, candy floss and - until recently - cottage cheese (the only cottage cheese worth eating is Ethiopian Ayib, preferably really fresh stuff from the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples region).

Thursday, 13 June 2013

There's so many different worlds / So many different suns / And we have just one world / But we live in different ones

More Short Calls:

Shokola Lite.

On the surface, it's everything I would normally hate about a restaurant. Staff in brightly coloured "African" uniforms. A starbucksy vibe. The young gifted and white hunched over their Apple Macs idly updating their status. It sucks all the snot out of a dead dog's nose.

But I like avocado milkshakes. Avocados are good for your liver and contain lots of protein - essential for a hard-drinking streetfighter like me. They do a good avocado shake at Shokola Lite.

So if you see a man in a suit sitting alone in Shokola Lite drinking an avocado shake and scowling at people it's probably best not to approach him.

Shokola Lite: Kacyiru, in the ugly building (no not that ugly building, the other one) opposite Top Tower hotel. Just follow the stench of privilege.


A night in Kigali.
One white man is attempting to sing like Ian Curtis. I have to get some air.

Two young Rwandese guitarists perform a short set of Kinyarwanda songs. A white man pats one of them on the head at the end.

Three thuggish looking South Africans wearing matching shorts and work boots lurch around drunkenly, tugging at elbows and breathing hot, boozy breath into offended faces. They look like a shit boy band. They look like they're having fun.

Four asymmetrically-haired young men with matching red-checked shirts stand together self-consciously, narrow shoulder to narrow shoulder, eyeing the South Africans with disgust and suspicion. They look like a shit boy band. They don't look like they're having much fun.

The Coach looks at me from under his baseball hat: "This is very strange".


Lebanese Resto and Bar

Sometimes you arrive at a place and you know, as soon as you cross the threshold that you're going to like it.

So it is with Lebanese Resto and Bar, which is a Lebanese restaurant and bar.

Aside from being located adjacent to a petrol station, it ticks all the boxes: not too brightly lit, decently stocked bar. There are some gentlemen talking with good humour at the bar, perky waiters, couples, Lebanese folk.

You get the feeling that this is the sort of place where you could sit with a good friend, undisturbed, and conversation would flow and riff away like Mark Knopfler. It's unpretentious and calm.

OK, OK, the humous is clearly out of a tin, and the menu hardly does Lebanese cuisine any justice, but I've never been to another restaurant which so evocatively conjures up the aura of hiding in a little shed at the bottom of your garden listening to a BBC world Service program about owl noises while smoking a pipe.

Lebanese Resto and Bar: in the petrol station by Frulep, Gikondo.

I am an Aid Dealer / Injecting charity till your veins cease up

For some time now I've been trying to come up with a pithy blog post which synthesises a lot of what is rotten in this peculiar tropical bubble. A piece of pointless, vaguely arty polemic which punctures the smug, inflated egos of the expat chancers of Kigali.

The problem is: how do I write about the perversity of the self-regarding adventurers enjoying the easy life in the land of a thousand hills, and yet somehow also make it about restaurants?

Well somebody has beaten me to it:

I suspect this book isn't a satire though.

If this really is a book about how some privileged white guy who edits his own wikipedia entry has managed to save Rwanda from itself, then I'm afraid I might have to end it all. Bring me a bottle of good scotch, a packet of razor blades, and a warm bath.

The irony is, post-harikiri I'd find myself languishing in the flames of hell wishing I was in Heaven.

Fuck. You can't win, can you?

Monday, 3 June 2013

It's okay to eat fish because they don't have any feelings.


In some ways Zen is an innovator. When it opened a few people speculated that bringing "sushi" to Kigali was a brave and expensive decision to make. Au contraire my little Kigali chums, it's an almost guaranteed cash cow. Moooooooo.

"You must go to Zen, they have sushi".


Clean lines are everything with sushi. We eat first with our eyes (OK, sometimes with our nose), and proper Itamae know this. Their precision and attention to detail is about confidence, experience, and an appreciation for the quality of the ingredients. If you're going to eat such delicate meat, plucked from ever diminishing ocean stocks you should want to know that it has been treated with due respect.

You should. Or perhaps you don't care. Perhaps you'd rather go to Zen and stick your dirty middle finger up at twelve centuries of Japanese culinary tradition. Perhaps you really hate marine ecosystems, and are on a personal mission to wipe out every last little fishy bastard in the sea. Fine. We all have our pecadilloes.

The mixed plate of sashimi and badly-packed rolls we're presented with at Zen resembles a drawer full of odd socks, yet… nobody even raises an eyebrow around the table. Do Zen's customers really think sushi tastes like a combination of mirin, cheap bilious-green wasabi, tired ginger, and soy sauce? You could substitute the tiny nuggets of frozen-shitless salmon for chunks of finely-chopped raw owl and no-one would notice so long as the chef remembered to pluck the feathers off. What a brilliant scam. 

Sushi aside, there are plenty of gloopy, directionless 'pan-Asian'  items on the menu. A few things come on those pointless sizzling platters. Onions seem to be a key ingredient as per those cheapo all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets you find in basements in the more studenty parts of London. Just wait until you get home though, when the headache and dehydration hits you in the middle of the night. That will be the salt and MSG pressing their stinky feet on the back of your neck. If you're lucky you'll just have a few interesting dreams about penguins. If you're not so lucky you'll wake up shaking and chasing an imaginary bat around your bedroom with a rolled up copy of the Kenya Airways in-flight magazine.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

They seem to be doing a decent amount of trade though. Yay. 

Zen is in Nyarutarama near the MTN centre. Zen has a Facebook page, but why not look at this instead?

Thursday, 9 May 2013

There is a day that is yours for embracing / Everything's nothing, and nothing is ours

The cheerful woman pulls her cardigan tight against the chilly morning air, and whispers with a conspiratorial tone:

"I used to make a bit of extra money from doing research".

"Doing research?" I frown at the translator. "Are you sure?".

"Yes. Foreigners come here from Kigali. They always come to ask us about land, so we go and answer their questions."

I see. Research.

"So what do they ask you?"

The woman pouts and turns her head to one side. "They want to know private things. How many children we have, and if we are poor. Of course we are poor! They ask if we understand that we can inherit land from our fathers."

"Can you inherit land from your father?"

"Yes." she nods "The law says so."

Pascha at the Aberdeen House Hotel

Kigali has a Turkish restaurant.

"The problem is, when I see the word sumac on the menu, I start thinking 'Mmm... sumac'. When the food comes without the promised sumac the disappointment is doubled."
There is a little bit of sumac on the plate. At least I think it is sumac. It is the merest dusting over a pile of raw onions. The raw onions still taste like raw onions.

Çöp kebabs are presented on their spokey little skewers, but the lamb lacks the smokiness of the ocakbaşı - as if they've been cooked over a gas grill. There is little crunch to accompany them - no parsley or salad veg, just half a grilled tomato, a tiny chunk of grilled pepper, and a pile of rice and lukewarm chips. The onion "sumac" is left untouched. The lavash - what little there is - is soft and fresh. Adena kebab suffers a similar fate - no smokiness, too little of interest on the plate. Just bland cooked meat and carbs. At 8,000 RwF a plate this may very well be the biggest rip-off since Heaven water.

You can't fault the service, which is quick and gently obsequious, and it's nicely laid out for daytime eating, with beanbags for children and a bit of greenery.

The parsimony over the sumac seems to sum up what is wrong with Pascha. The strengths of Turkish cuisine lie in its simplicity and generosity. It should be rugged, driven by fresh ingredients and primal cooking techniques. Pascha takes all the guts and soul out of good Turkish cooking and presents you with a greedy bill.

Still, Kigali has a Turkish restaurant.

Aberdeen House Hotel
"Why do you think they come here to talk to you?"

"The woman who brings them from Kigali has an Auntie living in this village. She likes to help people here".

"Do they pay you for answering questions?"

"Sometimes. The American people pay the best. Maybe 1,000 or 1,500 francs just for sitting there talking. Sometimes you just get biscuits and fanta and no money."

We pause. The translator is anxious to go. I wonder if the woman hopes I'm going to pay for our chat.

"Are your parents surviving?"

She looks down, smiles. "No. My father passed when I was young. My mother passed last year"

"I'm sorry... Madame, did you inherit their land?"


I give her a small tray of peanuts from my backpack and we leave for Musanze.

Friday, 3 May 2013

If you get it, great. If you don't, that's fine too. But you should probably read more - Anthony H. Wilson.

Look, I know it says "Kigali Restaurant Reviews" up there, but if you've ever arrived here expecting anything resembling a restaurant review you may have been a little bit disappointed. My usual gonzo meanderings even inspired one particularly blockheaded anonymous commenter to register his/her shock and disappointment below the line.

So here's a proper restaurant review. No circular references, wordplay, literary quotes, metatextualising, or dodgy metaphors. I promise.

The Bistro at Urban Hotel
The new Urban 'boutique hotel' has a somewhat polyfillered take on the tropical modernism style that looks so good on Papyrus. The open feel and warm colours seem to embrace both modern and traditional ideas without resorting to hokey safari-chic. If a few more buildings like this go up in Kigali then we might see a bolder, truer, architectural identity taking hold of the city that looks beyond the hideous Dubai-esque monoliths and joyless red-brick bungalows.

(Sorry, I'll get on with the review now)

Tomato bruschetta comes with an unexpected scattering of coriander. Has the kitchen run out of basil or is this a deliberate South Asian touch? Some sort of jazz bruschetta? Either way, it tastes like the kind of half-baked recipe you'd find in a diet book. Something green and red to look at while you wait for something better to happen.

(OK, not bad. Talk about the main courses)

Things improve with the arrival of the main courses.  A handsome fillet steak comes cooked medium rare as requested, tasting a little on the sweet side. The accompanying baked potato doesn't look much like anything I've seen growing in Rwanda - a Kenyan expat perhaps? There's also a coffee-encrusted steak threatened on the menu, but there is no reason ever to order something like that. It's an insult to the fine animal that died for your dinner.

(I don't think anyone will notice the dig about agricultural imports. It's going well.)

Chicken cordon bleu is definitely not from the diet recipe book. Oozing with Emmental, this dish conjures up the kind of heart-attack inducing schnitzel you'd be glad to find waiting for you on the other side of a snowstorm. Sadly the bar at the Bistro doesn't stock Schnapps, which would have rounded things off nicely. Accompanying veg are the neatly carved lozenges popular in the 1980s.

(Inadvertent wordplay. I'm sorry. Too late now, we'll just crack on with the puddings)

A trio of crème brûlée fails to get it right three times over. Vanilla has an almost perfect texture, but an eggy taste, while Amarula balances the flavours well, but has the texture of scrambled egg. Coffee crème brûlée smells like the last flavoured condom in the pack, and is an eating experience not dissimilar to being waterboarded with cold nescafe.

(No! I've fallen right into the dodgy metaphor trap! I can't end the review with that. Perhaps I should talk about drinks and service).

While service is generally fine, cocktails lack sparkle and take far longer than they should to arrive. House red by the glass turns out not to be house red, but the dreaded Domaine Bergon available at all bad supermarkets for half the price.

(Managed to get through that without using the phrase "OK for Kigali". What now? Some sort of star rating? How about a Spoon rating?)

The Bistro gets 3 spoons out of a possible 5.

The Bistro at Urban Hotel

Kiyovu, Kigali
Tel: 0788 304 155