Graham Greene may have been describing another port city poised on another ocean on the other side of the African continent when he wrote "The Heart of the Matter". A city stretched along the sea, steeped with intrigue and back street conversations carried out under the cover of darkness, the edgy undercurrent of a port town constantly welcoming a surge of strangers with each boat that docks at its shore.
The city in Greene's novel was left unnamed but the author later identified it as Freetown, Sierra Leone. But the city I imagined in my head is exactly what met my eyes on turning up in Stone Town, the labyrinthine capital of Zanzibar.
Nowhere was this impression stronger than from the two rooftop restaurants at which I had dinner on my two evenings in the city - the Rooftop Restaurant at Emerson Spice and the Tea House Restaurant atop its sister hotel Emerson on Hurumzi a few doors down. Two restaurants I would return to in a heartbeat!
Everyone can recognise a special restaurant when they come across it. It somehow has that quality that just makes everything work. For the Rooftop at Emerson Spice it was not just the spectacular view overlooking Stone Town's elegant crumbling old buildings covered in rusty corrugated iron roofs, but a refreshingly different menu that easily is among the most inventive I have eaten in the past couple of years.
Personal highlights for me were Zanzibar's favourite sundowner - Dawa - made from muddled lime, local honey and the popular Tanzanian-brewed sugarcane gin called Konyagi. Anyone who likes their drinks strong and sweet will love this. As a non-beer drinker, this was definitely my tipple of choice during my trip to Zanzibar.
The multi-course tasting menu at the Rooftop at Emerson Spice presents a daily changing selection of dishes made from locally caught fish (the hotel apparently has its own boat), and chicken, veggies and eggs sourced from a local farm. Two absolute stunners at our dinner were a dish of Zanzibar Sweet & Sour Chicken, served with a aubergine salad and beetroot rice that had just the right sweet metallic note that comes with well-cooked beetroot, and a dessert that I could easily have eaten three platefuls of. The dessert was a trio of sweetly spiced creations - an icy cool saffron givre (sorbet), served with a spiced fruit salad and nutmeg-scented tende (date biscuit). It was heaven on a plate!
The Tea House at Emerson on Hurumzi is something else altogether. The billowing silk-roofed restaurant is inspired by Zanzibar's Middle Eastern heritage and serves a Persian-inspired menu. The restaurant is set up almost like a majlis, with floor level cushioned seats and low wooden tables set out in-front of diners (although a few regular tables are available for those who don't find low seating comfortable for an entire meal.)
The meal is conceptualised around a Zanzibari wedding banquet or "soro" - served by friends of the bride and groom to the happy couple on their wedding night, usually accompanied by singing and crowds wearing colourful kangas (traditional African garments woven through with special proverbs. At a wedding these proverbs usually dispense advice on living a happily married life or messages of love).
While there was no singing at our dinner (which was another delicious and laid back multi-course affair), there was an atmospheric soundtrack provided by the adhan going off at sunset in all of Stone Town's many mosques, church bells during the evening Angelus, followed by the rhythmic chanting of Hindu prayers at the city's local temple - a fine example of Stone Town's lively cultural mix.
There was of course some more Dawa at sundown followed by a thick tende sherbet made with milk, dates and honey that provided the perfect counterpoint to the richly spiced menu of shrimp with tamarind, an absolutely amazing beetroot hummus, Persian pilao, tender goat curry that gave way with the slightest touch of a fork, and spiced sambusa with hibiscus mbirimbi chutney for dessert - among other delights.
We were lucky to have an unnaturally red moon make an appearance on both evenings, but even without that little detail those two evenings will be among the most magical and memorable dinners I have ever enjoyed.
Both dinners were organised as part of hosted stays at Emerson Spice and Emerson on Hurumzi, where we spent a night each during our trip. But if I ever head to Zanzibar again (which I very much hope to do!) I can honestly say I would not consider staying anywhere else in Stone Town.
Both hotels are designed with the confident flair of someone who liked a bit of eccentricity and wasn't afraid to show it. That someone was Emerson Skeens, the American, long-time resident of Zanzibar and active patron of the arts after whom the two hotels are named. (Skeens passed away last year after spending a quarter of a century in Zanzibar). I have yet to decide which hotel was my favourite.
Emerson Spice is housed in a towering old merchant house - all intricate wooden verandahs, stained glass and colourful landings - and brings together three World Heritage buildings in the exotic Kasbah of Stone Town.
Each room is named and inspired by Emerson's favourite female characters - both living and make-believe. The room we stayed in was called Mimi - after the character in Puccini's La Boheme and featured an eclectic collection of dhow furniture, an old dressing table, sculptures and art - and two handsome old Swahili high beds (it is believed the beds were so high so that servants could sleep under their mistress' and master's beds should their assistance be required at any time of the night). The gorgeous lobby looks like it has come to life out of an old book.The hotel was one of the most photogenic places I have ever stayed in. (Ok, maybe I do have a favourite after all...)
Emerson on Hurumzi is larger, in a way less flamboyant and more classically elegant, but also incredibly striking. Its colours are bold and strong - rose walls, forest green bathtubs, beautiful woodwork and trellising. South - the room we stayed in - was situated in a completely separate upstairs annex reached by a vertigo-inducing slatted footbridge. The red room with long shuttered windows all around led into a cleverly screened outdoor bathroom (obviously no peeping Toms are tolerated in a devoutly Muslim country!) but it seems like Emerson was the kind of man who liked to push the boundaries. Both hotels have many rooms with (albeit carefully screened) outdoor showers.
Breakfast at Emerson on Hurumzi was served in a relaxing inner courtyard, half-way down the building and was a lovely space to enjoy the morning - and a plate of juicy tropical fruit. It was also a chance to enjoy my favourite find in Zanzibar - the wonderful local "zaitun" fruit (mamey sapote in English) - a moreish cross between the creaminess of an avocado and the stodginess of a sweet potato. The fruit seems popular in South America (and obviously Africa). I have never come across it before. If anyone ever finds it Dubai, do let me know where I can buy some :)
Many visitors to Zanzibar head straight to its beautiful beaches and give its atmospheric capital a miss but I would advise a stop - however brief - in this evocative waterfront city, with its solid stone fort, beautiful filigreed buildings and gorgeous Omani wooden doors punctuating every street. It's a city that will stay with you long after you leave.
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