“ Type: African / Address: 10 Devonshire Square / London EC2M 4YP / Tel: 020 7929 5533 „
One of the benefits of being in a decent sized corporate enterprise is that you get to dine out on the company's dime on a fairly regular basis. As our office is located in the City of London, there is no shortage of fine dining establishments to try, many of which are eye-wateringly expensive, even by City standards. You could argue that this makes a review of a place like Kenza of limited practical use to a majority of readers, as few are blessed with bottomless wallets, bankers bonuses or a rich aunt to dine out with. That said, whilst Kenza will set you back a fair wedge, it's not outrageous by London standards and could conceivably fall into the "special night out" category.
Or could it?
Kenza (which means "treasure" in Arabic apparently) is located in Devonshire Square, a traffic-free series of connected courtyards teeming with shopping, bars and eateries that is located between Liverpool Street and Aldgate. Along with Kenza, the area boasts the Cinnamon Kitchen and a Marco Pierre White steakhouse. As expected, it's very popular with the professional crowd, as trains and tubes home are just round the corner. The entrance is off the main courtyard and down an unassuming side passage - just walk toward the red carpet - the only thing of real colour in the alley. Parking in the area is difficult at best, so public transport is your best bet.
The ornate entrance, which leads to a softly lit spiral staircase, is small taste of things to come. It leads to a fabulous basement dining room richly and lavishly decorated with fabrics, soft furnishings, and intricate Moorish art. The room offers a variety of seating arrangements such as long tables, private booths, and secluded corners, with a private dining room also available for small groups. Our party was seated at a long table, with each dark red napkin adorned with a single red, silky rose petal. Once seated, our drinks orders were taken by a distinctly Eastern European looking waiter. There is an intriguing selection of cocktails available (menu on the table) but beer was limited to either Efes (Turkish) or Cobra (Indian) which didn't really seem in keeping with the theme. The menu provides a broad variety of familiar hot and cold meze, and a large selection of grills and bakes for the main courses, but as a party, we had a set menu (at £29.50 per person) for the evening, so my interest in some of the items proved a little academic.
While we waited for the cold meze to commence, we were served our drinks and provided with some excellent green and black olives, some crudités and a tahini-based dip I was unfamiliar with. A short while later, we were served delicious warmed pitta bread, along with a pretty good hummus, a fantastic baba ghanoush (a tahini and aubergine dip) and a decent tabbouleh nestled on a romaine lettuce base. After a short interval, the hot stuff followed - a patata harra (reminiscent of patatas bravas in tapas, but a LOT spicier), deep fried lamb and bulghur kofteh filled with mince, onion and pine nuts (a personal favourite of mine) and sambousek - a delicious concoction of shredded chicken with onions and walnuts. So far so good. The food was effortlessly matching the lushness of the décor. Portions were very well sized, leaving plenty of room for the mains to follow.
Once the hot meze was demolished, there was something of a pause. The piped music, which to that point, was a rather incongruous mellow house mix, suddenly changed tack and started blaring out cheesy Arabic pop. The reason for the change of pace soon became apparent as three scantily clad belly dancers started to make their way through the dinning room wiggling for all they were worth. Now, I'm as red-blooded as the next man and given my Middle-Eastern roots, am quite used to this almost obligatory exposition in such establishments, but the only possible connection these nubile and well proportioned young ladies had with North Africa was probably a summer holiday charter flight to Marrakesh from Stansted airport.
The whole performance seemed a little twee and forced, and frankly, could have been done without. The female diners studiously ignored them, whilst their male partners kept eyes down, with the occasional surreptitious sneak peek so as not to offend their dates. The only really interested party seemed to be a group of about ten lads with a bit too much Cobra in the system, but even they got bored quickly. After about ten minutes of strutting their stuff to some distorted wailings over the in-house speaker system, the dancers withdrew, never to return. The music reverted back to mellow house and it was as if the whole thing never quite happened.
A short while later, our mains arrived - a veritable mountain of various barbecued meats piled on a plate of rice and salad. It looked quite promising but unfortunately, in keeping with the dance performance it followed, it was something of a disappointment. Apart from the spiced minced lamb (kafta lahmé) everything was too dry and more than a little overcooked. The lamb cubes (lahem meshoué) which should have been quite tender were especially stringy - much more in keeping with a High Street kebab house than a City eatery charging a premium for it. The chicken cubes were quite flavourful and well marinated, but the taste was let down by its texture. Only copious helpings of the garlic and harissa sauces provided saved the main from mediocrity.
At this point - 9pm on a Tuesday night - most of the early punters had been and gone, and no one seemed to be coming to take their places. I was surprised to learn that the restaurant is only open until 10pm. In any event, it seemed the waiting staff had disappeared with them, as we barely saw anyone for five minutes at a time. Fortunately, we were absorbed in our own company, so this wasn't really an issue, but garlic sauce makes one thirsty and there didn't seem to be much interest in keeping us plied with drink. Eventually, the equivalent of a North African chaiwallah appeared with a pot of sweet mint tea (he was from Sri Lanka, but let's ignore that for the moment) and made a grand performance of pouring the tea from a great height into the glass cups on his bronzed tray. With the tea dutifully distributed, we were plied with a tall desert stand filled with Turkish Delight, some decent baklava and sweets, and a large helping of fresh fruits. I'm happy to say that the beginning and end were much better than the middle.
Now apologies for the next bit, but I felt it worth an honourable mention. The excessive consumption of liquid in various forms led to an inevitable sojourn to the karzi, which proved to every bit as decorated as the dining room. The main feature of the WC, if you can call it that, was a large communal bronze urinal which was set too high up the wall. At just under six foot, I am not a small chap by any means (stop sniggering at the back - I mean in height!) but found the facility uncomfortable to use and am sure those shorter than me would not even try. Otherwise, the toilets were immaculately looked after.
TRAGIC OR TREASURE?
So, is Kenza worthy of a special night out? Given that the a la carte menu offerings average around £5.50 a plate for the meze, £18.00 per main and £6 for puddings, a couple could expect to part with around £50 a head (including a £1.50 per person cover charge and the "discretionary" 12.5% gratuity added to your bill). Cocktails are priced around a tenner, which is average for this neck of the woods. There is no doubt you are paying for its location (a hop and a skip to Liverpool Street), its décor (certainly interesting and different) and its lack of competition (there are very few of these joints in London, never mind the City), but even with all of the quibbles I have included in this review, overall, its still a thoroughly enjoyable experience. That said, food-wise there is better value to be had elsewhere in London - such as any of the Marroush empire in the less salubrious surroundings Edgware Road, but Kenza has its place and is worth a look.
Recommended - for the dining room if nothing else...
10 Devonshire Square
London EC2M 4YP
020 7929 5533
Mon - Fri 12:30 to 3:30pm (Lunch)
Mon - Sat 5:30 to 10pm (Dinner)
Closed on Sunday
© Hishyeness 2011