Lonnie and Nicky Allon | Nanima Asian Kitchen

Occupying a corner of Kemptown, the brightly coloured restaurant that is Nanima Asian Kitchen has gathered a loyal following of return customers since it first opened in 2019. It’s hardly a surprise as husband-and-wife team Lonnie and Nicky Allon cook up well-priced, flavour-packed authentic Asian dishes from scratch daily and their welcome is one of Brighton’s warmest.

We’re big fans here at BOTI and we’re far from alone – their reviews are glowing and they’re up for several categories in Restaurants Brighton’s annual Bravo awards (vote for them here in Best Lunch, Most Sustainable and Eat Well For Less). If you’ve not been yet, you’re in for a sensory treat – once you go through that purple-framed door, you’ll definitely be back for more.

We caught up with Lonnie and Nicky to chat favourite foodie memories, why they love living and working in Kemptown, and, crucially for Seagulls fan Lonnie, where to watch the footie locally.

For those who aren’t familiar with Nanima, how would you sum it up in three words?

Authentic, unique and awesome! [Ed: sounds about right to us!]

Speaking of the name, what does Nanima mean and where does it come from?

Nanima means ‘maternal grandmother’ in Hindi, Punjabi and other languages from the Indian sub-continent. Paternal grandmothers traditionally play a different role in the nuclear family, and it is still, usually, the mother’s mother who is mostly responsible for passing on culinary knowledge as well as being a central part of the home, involved in child-rearing and domestic support etc. Nicky, our chef and the real talent behind the whole operation, is of Punjabi-Malaysian origin and that’s what we call her mother – she is Nanima! We decided to call our café/restaurant ‘Nanima Asian Kitchen & Café’ to honour the knowledge handed down from mother to daughter across all traditional societies, not only to celebrate cultural identity through national and regional cuisine but also to state clearly the home-cooked ethos that we embody and wish to offer to the community of Kemptown.

Your menu spans the whole of Asia – is it hard cooking up such a broad offering?

Rather than seeing this as a difficulty, we see this is a liberating opportunity. There is such a wonderful array of local, national and regional cuisines across Asia that it makes it a lot of fun deciding on which dishes we’d like to add to our ever-expanding repertoire.

In the four years since first opening, we have learned a great deal about which dishes our regulars and other daily guests particularly enjoy so there are quite a few that we prepare on a random loop. But as everything is home-cooked, things are never really the same each time, so it’s always an exciting mix of established and new dishes.

With so much to choose from, how do you decide what to cook each day?

Nicky plans the week very loosely to ensure that there is a continuing variety of dishes from across national cuisines, and that there are always great non-vegetarian specials, as well as many vegetarian and vegan options each day. And there are always daily soups – two, three or even four options, too.

Our only real constraint is that, due to our model – preparing food in the morning and then presenting the dishes in bains marie for guests to select rather than cooking to order from guests’ menu choices – we can’t offer any Asian dishes that can’t work that way, such as some popular noodle dishes. Other than that, we’re pretty much free to choose what to offer in the knowledge that everything is finished every service, lunch and dinner, as our guests know that each dish is freshly prepared and when it’s gone it’s gone.

And what is about Asian food that you love?

Oh, where to begin?! Asian food is definitely the family’s favourite – not only as that’s what Nicky has been preparing at home for the family (everything from Punjabi-Malaysian specialities to other delicacies from elsewhere) but also as we’ve been lucky to be able to travel widely in Asia and have always enjoyed all the local, national and regional cuisines. Whenever we have a family celebration it involves Asian cuisine, usually dim sum! I’d have to say it’s the fresh spices and great variety of delicious classic dishes that offer a never-ending sense of home and belonging.

Do you have a favourite food memory?

I remember an amazing evening when I was a kid gorging on buckets of massive juicy king prawns in a wooden shack on the Florida Everglades! Other than that, the first time I had T-bone steak is up there, Nicky’s must be her first encounter with durian [Ed: the stinky southeast Asian fruit with the spiky shell) when she was four or five years old; that kind of thing stays with you forever!

And how about a favourite dish on your menu?

That’s very tricky. Seriously, there are so many. I guess I’d have to say the Singapore Laksa. It’s our weekend special and always sells out, with good reason. It’s not an easy dish to prepare, and Nicky always takes special care and attention in the marinating process during the week, but it is one of those dishes that each time you have it it’s like the best thing you’ve ever had! We have very many regulars that come in every weekend just for that, with lots ringing up to reserve their portion.

So Lonnie, you’re front of house and Nicky is the chef – has it always been that way? Do you ever wish you could swap?

That is the perfect division of labour in this husband-and-wife set-up as our very different skill sets complement one another well.

Nicky is just an incredibly talented chef (ironically, as the youngest daughter in her family, she was the only one shooed out of the kitchen and not directly taught by her mother, but she knows how everything should taste and so over time has amassed a wealth of knowledge and experience); she is in total command of the kitchen. It’s a small space, so usually that means that only she, assisted by her sister Bea, creates everything while one trusted kitchen porter helps out in busy periods.

I’m out front, and that’s where I should be. I very much enjoy welcoming our guests, ensuring courteous service, usually with one other staff member during lunch times. It’s fun serving the coffee, chatting to our guests, seeing regulars, curating the atmosphere with great music, and so on. But Nicky does definitely engage with our diners whenever she can, as well as tending to her many plants and generally being gorgeous in every way.

We love that! The friendly atmosphere is definitely something we’re always struck by when we come in. That’s a pretty hard thing to pull off – how do you consistently achieve that?

Thanks, that’s very sweet. Well, the simple truth is that, as a family-run establishment, when people visit Nanima they are literally guests in our home; it’s our place, our work, our life that we’ve created, and everyone is very welcome.

Of course there are some people who find it hard to adjust to the fact that we’re a very unique establishment, both a café and a restaurant, with a daily-changing selection of dishes. Some would prefer us to slot into more conventional patterns, but the vast majority of our guests have responded incredibly positively to who we are and what we do, and it’s great when they just ‘get it’. That means: choose whatever you’d like to eat and drink from whatever is available at that time, kick back, enjoy the vibe, and be happy.

We appreciate our guests very much as there are so many other great cafés and restaurants vying for their attention, so it’s very rewarding when our guests allow us to be the hosts we wish to be and ease into an enjoyable dining experience in our little corner of the world.

Tell us something about Nanima that most people don’t know…

Every morning, Bea prepares proper Indian-spiced masala chai, as in proper chai cooked up in a large cauldron with spices and sweetness and centuries of tradition; none of this powdered fake chai latte nonsense! It’s just awesome, and those that know travel some distance to enjoy that each day. [Ed: We can testify to the chai’s greatness!]

Where in Brighton do you live and what do you love about it?

We’re Kemptown. We’ve lived here since 2010 and love it. We’re incredibly lucky to live next to some wonderful communal gardens that are very much part of our lives, especially in the fine weather. And, of course, there’s the seafront right here, literally yards from our door. Not only is it truly lovely to be so close to the beach but, for us, what makes this part of the world so special is the big sky; just being able to stare out at the horizon every day, to enjoy some incredible sunrises and sunsets, plus whatever the clouds choose to do; it’s amazing.

And then there is the community of Kemptown itself. We love Brighton completely, but there’s something extra-special about being part of a smaller community with a well-earned reputation for idiosyncrasy. There are some real characters here, and it’s great to see so many people flying their freak-flag! Oh, and Nanima Asian Kitchen & Café is here too!

When you’re not at the restaurant, what are your favourite places to eat in Brighton and Hove?

Well, we don’t get out to all the places we really enjoy nearly enough but most are, unsurprisingly perhaps, Asian cuisine establishments. We love Noodle Soup on Queen Street for great, er, noodle soups, and Big Bowl on Preston Street when it’s Vietnamese we’re after. But if it’s South Asian, then Sri Lankan restaurant Moonstone in Hove is easily the best we’ve encountered. Special mention to China Garden for family celebrations! Oh, and Ocean Fish Bar on Manor Hill when the time comes for some excellent fish ’n’ chips!

And drink?

Well, we certainly don’t get out enough these days! I’m more of a drinker than Nicky and do love a good boozer, so I try to make it over to The Great Eastern on Trafalgar Street for the vibe and great music, The Black Dove on St James’ Street for a dark sit-down with a good book, or the Rock Inn very close to us on Rock Street for the local friendly thing.

And, Lonnie, we know you’re a big Albion fan (if the Seagulls win a match, there are free beers at Nanima!) – where’s the best pub to watch the footie locally?

Well, to be honest, it’s been a while since I’ve watched the footie in a pub as I’m usually at the match! Nicky is extremely understanding and appreciates the fact that there is little more important in life than the weekly ritual of supporting your team, your club, your community – home and away! When I do have to settle for the pub and a few jars with fellow non-travelling fans, I’ll be in The Black Horse on Church Street. I’m not a fan of sports bars or pubs with thousands of screens; just give me a choice of one or two well-positioned regular-sized TV screens where I can sit at the bar and order a fresh pint with a knowing nod after each glorious Seagull goal!

Finally, imagine your perfect day in the city – what would you be doing?

Oh boy, that’s not easy. OK, well, it would start early, with a walk down to the beach with Nicky and the kids, and our crazy miniature pincher, Bo, to catch the sun rise. A few deep breaths of fresh clean air and then off for some crazy golf so that we can all enjoy being wonderfully crap at something fun.

After that we’d all be ready for breakfast, a big one, the works, with unlimited builders’ tea. To walk that off, a long stroll into town to mooch around and just enjoy Brighton – stress-free shopping for Nicky and the girls, a relaxed coffee amid the flaneur-ing, a cheeky ice-cream when the time is right, a necessary visit to Resident Records to reward our life-worth-living with new vinyl, hooking up with friends for a cheeky cold one or two, a relaxed bite to eat – hey, maybe pepperoni & anchovy pizza!

Then, depending on the time of year, back to the seafront for the sunset, followed by a stroll along Marine Drive to Concorde 2 for some awesome live music in the best independent venue in the land, or a longer walk up to Komedia on Gardner Street or the good ol’ Duke of York’s in Preston Circus for some damn fine world cinema. Then, it’s a taxi home, all finished off with some time with Nicky in our living room, bourbon in hand, reading and listening to music, earning our fatigue. Then bed… Yep, that’ll do it! 

Nanima is open from Tuesday – Saturday; 10am – 6pm (until 9pm Thursday – Saturday)
36 St George’s Road, Brighton, BN2 1ED