What new does Lahore have to offer the tired palate? Many cafes, and a canteen…
There are many things I miss about Karachi, and food is just one of them.
Many a time have I been embroiled in the Karachi-versus-Lahore debate. Interesting: there’s never the Karachi-Islamabad debate, and the Lahore-Islamabad debate. But this would then open up an entirely other debate. Which leads me yet again to one of the key points deliberated over in the Lahore-Karachi argument: Karachi food is better, far better than Lahore. Or at least, as I so believe, I am always trying to defend a pet peeve as a self-confessed foodie over this.
My points of argument ricochet around the city, from Burns Road to Dhoraji, down to Seaview; from Zainab Market’s authentic, ‘dirty’ Bun Kabab, to Agha’s Fast Food’s humble Prawn Biryani, to the breakfast at Mews, or Clifton Tea Stall’s chai, Royal’s Blueberry Shake… Nothing quite does it the way memories become entwined with the sensory experience of a leisurely meal enjoyed with good company, in an interesting setting.
But, as I was saying, I miss Karachi food. And so it was but natural that when I saw the signboard go up on MM Alam Road that said ‘Karachi Kanteen,’ my mind turned kind of mushy with a combination of nostalgia and anticipation. This was to be a combination of my two loves, after all - Karachi, and food. It had better be good. Oh yes, I have missed my Khaosuey (Simple Dimple), Bun Kabab (the little nook inside Zainab Market is a well-kept secret) and some pretty awesome desserts -- Pista Rabri from Burns Road, and Croissant and Butter Pudding at Xander’s.
Karachi Kanteen is still in its nascent stages and the teething troubles are there. Having said which, the staff is attentive, and very polite. Go to some high-end places, and one may return dissatisfied with the standard of service: high-end doesn’t just imply prices, the restaurateur has to understand that patrons want a premium experience. The differences lie in the details. A recent trip to Andaaz left a bad taste in the mouth for the same reason; there is simply no excuse for established restaurants to offer slack service. So, the Kanteen. This little eating out place is a welcome addition to Lahore’s run-of-the-mill cafes, and I’d say they should keep on evolving as well as changing the menu from time to time in order to stay atop of the run-of-the-mill curse, and tweak some of their recipes. Plus, something that would really go so well with their concept is an outdoors area -- whether a courtyard or a little garden. The present basement setting doesn’t allow for that, unfortunately. However, it is a bright and cheerful little joint.
My favourite on their menu has to be the Bun Kabab. Yes, the Bun Kabab, good as it gets, in Lahore. This point was argued over by a friend at our table, comparing the Bun Kabab to Lahore’s ‘Doggy Burger’ … um, no, that’s like comparing apples with oranges. Kanteen’s Bun Kabab is fiery and drippy, loaded with sliced onions and chutney, just the way it should be. Then there is the Fried Chicken Sandwich, among between-the-bun options. This is a good one to try too, very crispy (goodbye, Zinger!), with a dollop of mayo, a better option for the bland palate. They do have a ‘Desi Club’ too, and have recently introduced a Masala Sloppy Joe.
What else? No menu associated with Karachi can boast of being complete without Paratha Rolls and Biryani. And, somehow, Khaosuey. The Biryani was a hit at our table, but to me it reeked a bit of commercial taste over the homemade kind. Too much garam masala was perhaps the reason. Perhaps KK should consider offering spice level options like some places do.
Which brings me to the Khaosuey. This can be ordered in either chicken or beef. It just so happened that the evening I dropped in to have Khaosuey, they could only offer beef Khaosuey, having run out of the chicken option. No problem. My Khaosuey looked promising, droolsome enough. I could see the coriander, and garlic flakes, and the red chilli. Oh the chilli. And no, I don’t mean that in a good way. The spice level was OTT. As I said, KK should offer spice level options. This one came in at ‘hit the roof’.
And now we come to the Kanteen bit in the name. There are daily specials on the menu, but I have been unable to fathom why anyone would want to go to a café to have aaloo gosht. To me, aaloo gosht is something that should not even be had at home, but has to be had at home. So why go out to have it? Other specials on rotation include Chicken korma and aaloo keema.
It is where the menu deviates from the norm that the fun part to this eatery lies -- Bhindi Fries, BhelPuri Fries, or Three Milk Cake: moist and suffused with cardamom. Do try them all. Unfortunately, the Khubani Ka Meetha disappointed -- do it like the Karachiwallahs, guys. The authentic one is dense with slow-cooked khubanis, best had with a rich dollop of cream. Then why is Kanteen’s served with a layer of custard on top? (Insert sad smiley emoji.)
Lahore has quite recently adopted a new-fangled café culture. We now have the ‘Mall One strip’ to boast of -- you may have your 26th Street and Kohsar Market, other cities. However, you go to one, you’ve gone to them all, in most cases. I do keep looking for the exceptions, and can easily say there are reasons why oldies like Zouk and Espresso are still around. Ultimately, you want good food, without feeling like you’re having the same old pasta at a new place, but why should you break the bank while at it. And so, while still trying to suss out The Brasserie and The Burning Giraffe, close on their heels followed Eately Ristorante, and then Café Beirut.
Mostly, the menus are a little disappointing, and lack the bravado to break away from the herd. There’s a formula that goes down well with Lahoris, so why not pander to it, and make some quick bucks; throw in Burgers, Sandwiches, Chicken Tarragon, and don’t forget the Caesar Salad and the Molten Lava Cake! Who has the patience or commitment to try and be Café Flo (Khi) or Table Talk (Isl). Or the originality to be Evergreen, or East End … yes, it’s all good food in Karachi.