“RSVP is a product of passion. I always wanted to be in the restaurant business and I wanted to come back to Lagos because it’s home to me and I was fortunate enough to find someone who was willing to take that journey with me and was equally as excited.” begins Nahi Halabi, who together with his wife Maya Halabi founded RSVP: a restaurant and cocktail bar that has been feeding and watering an eclectic and discerning clientele for over two years. One can see their singular vision which has quality front and centre, in every element: from the caramel leather banquettes where many a delicious dining brunch, lunch or dinner has commenced to the chilled vibe of the poolside bar, it’s all about creating an experience that will have customers hooked and coming back.
Interviewing the couple one is struck by the way their approaches and nature clearly complement one another in life and business. Nahi is clearly the dreamer: “it is almost a romantic story when it comes to food for me” he says chuckling whilst Maya is more pragmatic: “It is very controversial how I look at food because I work in the back of house and I get to see the different stages that build up to that romantic experience that Nahi was talking about. I am very involved in how the food is prepared, a perfectionist really, thinking of the stages from the produce to the garnish to the plating itself. I am focused more on the experience and on the genesis or the idea behind every dish,” She says with a broad smile. “Yeah Maya gets excited about produce. We had a twenty five minute conversation about zucchini because she is doing something with zucchini so we literally spoke about it for twenty five minutes.” Nahi adds a wry smile playing on his lips.
The dish in question is a newbie on the menu that I had the privilege of tasting: it is a sublime pan-fried salmon fillet sitting on a bed of grilled zucchini, cherry tomatoes and for the foodies out there, what might sound like a jarring umami inflected sauce. Does east meet west on a plate? Can it work or will the flavours fight like an ill-matched couple? I am pleased to report that everything balanced out perfectly with said zucchini being somewhat smoky because of the charring but still juicy on biting, and I polished my own plate at a rate that was so speedy as to border on bad manners.
Lofty standards abound but they are embedded in an ethos that seeks to create magical moments for diners and drinkers alike; with painstaking care in creating all elements from scratch including sauces, stocks, and pasta.
In an industry that oftentimes seeks to exploit the consumer, adding an extra zero to a dish or drink for no other reason than they are seeking to increase profits, this is refreshing:
“We serve burgers and steak sandwiches but we wanted to take it to that level that you are using real steak and our own home-made mayo to build up the flavour profile, but this translates into expense. Unfortunately some people will claim ‘gourmet’ but without the same labour and effort.” Maya explains
Nahi adds: “About the pork sliders, they are cooked for fourteen hours and served on fresh baked brioche and the chef used to tell me this is a starter and I would be like yes, and he would be like ‘but Nahi do you realise how much effort and expense you are putting into a starter?’ And I remember telling him that that is exactly the point.”
Other variables such as sourcing play a huge factor in both what they can serve and keeping all aspects to their high standards intact: Maya notes: “Sourcing here is very, very challenging, but with time you build your own network, it’s easy to do farm to table here because that’s your only option to get good food and you have to go to the roots. The fact I deal directly with fishermen I love it. I wouldn’t deal with fishermen in New York. When I get someone calling me saying ‘I caught a 50kg tuna madam do you want it? I get excited and I am like open the kitchen right away …The tuna we serve today is wild tuna it is not farmed it is from the Atlantic Ocean. And yes, I hate the freezer so never serve frozen fish.” Only someone as resourceful and spirited would embrace an approach that requires epic levels of tenacity and dedication.
Elevating the familiar into the extraordinary seems to be a calling card to RSVP, with many of the restaurants most popular and enduring dishes having begun as a conceptual exercise in creating complexity and perfection in the unexpected. Take the chicken pop, a legend in its own culinary lifetime: “My favourite item on the menu, the chicken pop, the amount of ingredients that go into making that sauce is insane. You can categorise it as a fried chicken nugget but it’s so much more. That’s the best selling item, people love it.” Says Nahi. Like any superstar item, the dish’s development has gone in the restaurant’s folklore as the quest for the missing chicken starter: “we started at around 10.30 in the evening and it took about five hours, It took about eighteen maybe nineteen tries, we were done by three in the morning …It was basically about getting the right crunch, the right size, the right sauce.” Relays Nahi. The best-seller is the epitome of gourmet comfort, with a sauce that is frankly sinful.
Necessity was the mother of invention for Maya’s favourite dish: “the roasted vegetable salad represents a bit of our journey, it’s very simple and the vegetables in it are all sourced locally… It actually started with Wara cheese from the north but Wara cheese did not have that tang. So it has a bit of goat’s cheese, which yes is imported but gives the tang that you can’t get here.”
Both are keen for guests to explore the menu, which is not fixed in one geographic culinary location but has at its premise a means of eating that is typically Middle Eastern: “Where we come from which is Lebanon food plays a very big role. Officially mezze has ninety-eight dishes, which are the equivalent of starters and divided into hot and cold dishes. So on any given meal, you are going to have a variety of flavours which are going to keep evolving while you are eating. We have designed most dishes here to also be shared which brings that same communality to dining.” says Nahi, and it is this element of adventure that can make no two trips to RSVP the same.
For the would-be bar-flys of Lagos –one is hard-pressed to beat RSVP where cocktails are a key component:
“Cocktails are very fun, for me they get you ready for what is about to come…. it gives a nice ambience, the sound of the Boston Shaker is something that I love when I am dining in the background…We only serve premium spirits and we use premium ingredients so our Margarita is done with a proper Mexican lime. We make sure we are giving you the drink you want, it’s not so much the innovation of creating cocktails that no one has ever heard of; it is actually giving our customers exactly what they want: if you want an Old Fashioned, I will give you a proper Old Fashioned.” Nahi relates. However, innovation has come in the form of the Gin Basil: a simple but addictive concoction of gin, fresh basil and fresh lime. When questioned further on this winning combo both laugh with Maya simply stating. “The Gin Basil is my favourite drink.” and Nahi concluding: “The Gin Basil to the cocktail bar is what the Chicken Pop is to the kitchen.” Trust me, there is nothing quite as delightful, in fact, right and proper as starting one’s weekend with one or maybe two of these!
During the Christmas season, there is a special menu until the 3rd January 2018: ”Our Christmas feast is designed for two or four or six or eight, the more the merrier and was created by Chef Michael Elegbede who brought a lot of love to the table and a lot of talent. It’s going to be a fun and rich experience, definitely wear stretchy pants!” Nahi says.
I would advise wearing loose smock like ensembles at all times when visiting RSVP as the food is truly delicious, and, if you are going to dance the night away poolside cocktail in hand, some chunky wedges that won’t get stuck in grooves as you throw shapes to the carefully curated playlists. Your reasons for popping in might change but one thing is certain: a wonderful experience from a couple and team who are committed to delivering excellence on every conceivable level.