Driving down Mehmood Kasuri Road in the last few weeks, you might have noticed a somewhat familiar looking forest green signboard. Only that this is another signboard, a new one. And, it’s just across the dividing lane from the hitherto-existing one. Those of us who’ve been living in Lahore for the last ten years or so can vouch for the fact that Mehmood Kasuri Road was a non-entity on anyone’s map until Coffee Tea & Company sprang up in the middle of nowhere. That was then and this is now.
And, now there’s Chai Kaafee aur Siasat. With Sattar Bukhsh being rather new to Karachi too, one is tempted to draw a comparison and question if restaurant spoofs -- if one may so call them -- are trending. Or, even that the aforementioned in Karachi could have been the inspiration for this one. Be that the case or not, there is a lot going in CKAS’s favour.
For one, it requires some amount of tongue-in-cheek wit to think of this one, and place it cheek-by-jowl with big brother. But, hey, that is just the idea I’d say, since this one is the antithesis of the prim and proper CTC. No comparison, just a bit of fun.
There are other factors too, to be factored in. Such as, from 3 to 5pm on Fridays, CKAS holds what they call "interactive talks on significant serious and comical contemporary issues." Or, that this joint keeps extraordinary timings -- 7am to 3am.
Breakfast is something that they also boast of, but clearly the net is cast wide, from early-morningers to late-nighters. Which also implies that students and pseudo-intellectuals having discussions far into the night are among the target customers.
But then, Chai Kaafee aur Siasat is clearly that kind of place. And for that alone, it is a first in Lahore. Indeed, says Muhammad Musab, one of the partners in this venture, CKAS came into being with this idea - "a chai, coffee place with good food where we attract the youth and the older people and take steps towards improving our motherland."
On one of the evenings that I was there, it was interesting to note the mix of people. Generally scattered across the comfortably large establishment were students and 20-somethings, there was a family or two, behind me sat two 30-something men engrossed in philosophical debate, and across the room an older couple occupied a table, both with noses buried in books, oblivious to their surroundings.
I wouldn’t refute the cafe’s claim of a "uniquely congenial ambience." Clearly, they know who their customers are to be, since they declare being ‘rich on the palate, light on the pocket.’ There is no pretence of snobbery here. Unless it’s intellectual snobbery. In that sense, are such watering holes the Pak Tea Houses of today, one wonders.
Perhaps. Over here at least, as much as they offer specials of the day, they also announce books of the day.
And inside, there is not only a bookshop, there is also a book selection for in-house reading. And, a newsstand sponsored by an English publication. There is, in addition, an area tagged ‘writers’ niche’ besides ‘the launch pad’ and a ‘cigar lounge.’ There are certainly things that you notice about this place that don’t exist in other cafes, and the enclosed smoking area is definitely one of them.
In the case of this cafe, the food and the decor do tie in well -- you could call it a funky, westernised dhaba. Loads of small prints, mostly with thought-provoking quotes on them, line walls that are emerald green with canary yellow and royal blue accents. The music playing can vary from Pakistani film numbers to Iqbal Bano ghazals.
The menu is a balance of the standard burger-sandwich types to more unusual offerings, with a dash of desi thrown in. And the taste, too, likewise was found to be a mix. There are some things that they do very well -- the Pita Rolls and Mozzarella Chicken Spirals rate high, while the Chillers need some more attention. The Butterscotch Chiller was found to be too sweet and the Coconut one passed muster, if a bit watery.
Again, I’ve had better Mozzarella Sticks; perhaps it’s the seasoning that needs to be turned up a little. Their crepe, too, is not the best I’ve had in this town: thinner please. Likewise, the Caesar Salad disappointed, the dressing being a tad too sweet and creamy (mayonnaisey, more like).
On the other hand, their Cream of Almond Soup is worth trying, being appropriately creamy and, uh, nutty. So are the Buffalo Wings -- the perfect combination of spicy-tangy, they hit the spot. I do also recommend the Brownie here, or perhaps it’s the way I like mine to be -- not too dense, not too dark and certainly not over-sweet either.
To round off your morning or evening you could pick up a batch of naan khatais (and a book or two) stepping out, which it seems are popular. They had run out of them when I enquired. Bread is also baked fresh and I did manage to procure a bunch of baqarkhanis for my doggie-bag. This is a place where dinner turns into breakfast… in more ways than one.