Authentic desi Lahore cuisine retains its dignity but the city’s culinary identity has been compromised by a desperate urge to go international
Lahore: the culinary capital of Pakistan, or so it was believed to be ten to fifteen years ago. That was a time when a pilgrimage to Phajja’s in the Walled City was essential for the gelatinous, stewed payee (trotters) served there. Bashir Darul Mahi was a fish fix for winters, when fresh rahu would come in and that iconic Lahore masala machli would be fried and served with radish and plum chutney. Dessert wouldn’t be justified without a dollop of Benazir Kulfa and carrying back a box of Khalifa’s almond khatais was a must, no matter where you were headed. Khalifa’s khatais,and the authentic local cuisine,retain their dignity but Lahore’s food - in a quest to adapt to a confusing intercontinental aura - has lost its identity. It is no longer what it once was.
Having spent two weeks in Lahore, tabulating every culinary experience as this ‘Food Trek’…the results come with some pleasant surprises and some disappointments.
1Cosa Nostra used to be a safe staple; the menu crisp, the food fresh and the ambience buzzing. Cosa branched out beyond Gulberg when it opened in Y-Block DHA and then further on with the Cosa Nostra Deli in Mall One. Several visits to all branches of Cosa Nostra this summer (old habits die hard) turned out to be disappointing. For a restaurant claiming to serve gourmet food, their choice of canned mushrooms on their thin crust pizzas was poor. The quintessential Cosa Nostra Caesar Salad, an integral part of every meal there, had lost its sense of dressing and the Nutella Gelato, which once had ribbons of Nutella swirling through its chocolate body, had lost its punch. Cosa Nostra’s standard has plummeted; the restaurant appeared fatigued.
Verdict: Better to save yourself the disappointment if you have a better option; you’ll end up paying a lot for mediocrity.
2You may associate Luna Caprese with Islamabad but the Italian restaurant just recently also opened a branch in Lahore’s DHA. Situated in Y-Block next to Cosa Nostra, it initially picked up Cosa Nostra rejects, that is people who couldn’t find a table next door.It is gradually acquiring a niche clientele of its own, however. The Italian flavours at Luna Caprese are authentic and delicious (albeit a tad too garlic-heavy) but the menu offers a mix of cultures, which depletes its genuineness. And the poor ambience suggests of nothing Italian.
Verdict: Go for the taste but don’t be disappointed by the style (or lack of it).
3Relatively new, Mouthful offered some interesting options and was a good addition to Lahore’s restaurant scene. The lamb chops, for one, were juicy and tender and came with fabulous dipping sauces. The chicken wings and lamb kebabs were equally tempting and with so many well-defined proteins, a post-movie meal became a delight. The servings at Mouthful were abundant, ideal for hearty eaters. The only dessert on the menu - hot and syrupy gulabjamuns - melted in the mouth.
Verdict: Must-visit if you have the heart or appetite of a carnivore.
4The Pantry, a sister concern of the posh Polo Lounge, is the hottest ‘IT’ destination on Lahore’s culinary circuit these days. So it would probably shock you to learn that my first meal served an unsavoury hair in the mango salad. That may have been a rare occurrence so let’s just sweep it under the table because hair or no hair, the mango salad was delicious, the roasted aubergine with pomegranate and a butter milk filling even better and the salt-cured beef sandwich very mature. What won my heart over, however, was the coffee and dessert display; that sticky date and toffee cake that tempted me back for more was sinful. One could live in it!
Verdict: Ideal for midday snacks and coffee breaks; pray you have no hairy encounters!
5 If you find the drive to Avari for Japanese food a bit of a stretch then you can now easily detour to Tokyo in Gulberg, it’s that good. Tokyo is an unassuming and unimpressive space that couldn’t convince you in a million years that it was any good. The ambience resembles that of a commonplace shaadi hall but the food, believe it or not,is amazing. We ordered the sashimi salad and an array of sushi that was fresh and vibrant and very authentic. Definitely an experience worth repeating though management should do something about the décor.
Verdict: Fans of Japanese food must visit!
6Gloria Jeans is an average Lahori’s caffeine fix but it is barely tolerable. What provides a stronger coffee shot is Mocha Coffee. We visited Mocha Coffee in the Gulberg Galleria twice, both times tempted by the delicious macaroons (pistachio being a favourite) and NerG Bar. The coffee was world standard too; you just know, when you walk into an earthy, deep aroma wafting through the air, that the coffee will be good.
Verdict: A great way to unwind and reenergize when you’ve been out shopping too long.
7 Despite the plethora of gastronomical options that have opened up to foodies all over Lahore, Salt n Pepper in Liberty remains to be a staple. Drawn in on every trip to Lahore, must haves are the Chicken Burger and Stuffed Chicken. I have to say the standard has slipped over the years; the chicken apple salad was more liquidy cream dressing than salad and the pineapple dressing that comes with the stuffed chicken was more sweet than standard. But that Warqi Naan and Malai Boti was to die for. Just proves my point that Lahore excels in desi cuisine but struggles with anything that doesn’t come naturally.
Verdict: Stick to the staples and don’t leave without trying that crisp, tiered Warqi Naan.