The Calabash Restaurant
A year or so ago Glasgow’s African dining options encompassed much of the continent’s varied cuisine, but a rash of closures left only Egyptian and Moroccan restaurants standing. Now the Calabash has filled the gap, offering traditional dishes from Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Nigeria and elsewhere. It is easy to miss the doorway amid the Union Street hustle, though the thumping bass drifting streetwards is more obvious. On a Sunday afternoon the basement venue is positively jumping – partly due to Kenyan R&B and reggae star Wyre filming in the lounge area, with a DJ spinning tunes behind the bamboo-fronted bar. Elsewhere, children flit between the two dining areas with their unlaid and slightly mismatched tables while customers mix and mingle, giving handshakes, hugs and smiles all round. It’s all very enthralling, entertaining and highly infectious. The food is a match for the unique ambience, with relaxed and friendly staff offering advice for the uninitiated. A handful of starters include peri-peri chicken wings and livers, sweet potato soup and mshikaki – a Kenyan skewer of beef with peppers that's not the most tender of cuts but is given a tasty tinge of mellow spices. Mains feature hearty spicy stews such as mchuzi – popular throughout sub-Saharan Africa, served with ugali (a doughy cornmeal mash) or rice. The Ugandan katogo is a thick stew with potatoey green bananas and lean beef in a spicy tomato sauce with a satisfyingly hefty afterburn. The menu plays to Kenyans' taste for grilled meat, particularly the beef version, nyoma choma. Sold in half portions or a full version with added sides, it comes as a plateful of spiced meat, some on the bone, all deliciously grilled. Sides include sweet potato chips, mukimo (potato and veg mash) and chapatis. To drink there’s a selection of African beers including Tusker, Star, Castel and Hansa. Prices are great value for such a central spot, particularly one offering an exotic cuisine of such quality in an entertaining environment, and the menu is small enough that it makes repeat visits to try absolutely everything a real temptation.
The narrowed front of the Calabash belies what leads into a capacious trans-African restaurant complete with two separate dining rooms, takeaway service, late-night bar and lounge area utilised for live music. Throw in a menu that makes a decent attempt in journeying across an entire continent and it’s fair to say that a visit is bewitching, confusing but certainly never dull. Highlights include a khima curry, of Tanzanian origin, an intense dish of lamb mince and a celebration of spicing – garam masala, cinnamon, cumin and cardomom among others, gauged with attentive consideration. Stretching beyond curries or stews and a couple of specials (boiled goat head being the most noteworthy), mains revolve primarily around choma, which loosely translates from Swahili to ‘feel hot’, or in this context, grilled meat. A half portion of nyama choma is a gargantuan offering of spiced lamb strips and a steal at under £10. Don’t expect too much from desserts, a sweet plaintain is the most enterprising available, yet with such an enticing selection of savoury dishes plus interesting African beers, there isn’t really any need.
- High point: Strong, modestly priced African beers including Windhoek – an absolute gem from Namibia
- Low point: When busy for takeaway orders, food can take a while to arrive
- Notable dish: Khima curry
- Delivery: £3.00 charge, 1.5 mile radius. Last order 10.15pm.
- Private dining: Up to 100 covers
- Provides: Halal options, Children's portions, Children's high chairs, Free wi-fi
- Live entertainment: DJs
- Capacity: 169
- Largest group: 100
- Open since: 2011
- Number of wines sold by the glass: 3
- House wine: £10 per bottle