Café Lota, Two Years Later (Delhi, January 2016)

Cafe Lota: Do Gajar Halwa
Café Lota was one of our favourite stops on our last trip to Delhi, silly name and all. We ate there twice and liked the food so much that it was the one place we knew for certain we would eat at again on this trip. And we did so, twice again. Neither meal quite rose to the heights of our 2014 experience but I still stand by my claim that this is one of the best and most important restaurants in Delhi. Alas, its future is not bright. This is not because of any problems with the restaurant itself but because the future of the Crafts Museum complex, of which Café Lota is a part is not clear. Nor is it entirely the extent to which this is a political matter.  

The word on the street is that the BJP, the reigning national government, wants to shut down the excellent Crafts Museum. It is to be replaced with a handicrafts academy sponsored by the Textiles Ministry. The government denies this. It is also true that the call for a national crafts academy, on par with the arts and literature academies, has been made for some time preceding the Modi government coming into power. Now you might say that this is in any case six of one and half a dozen of the other but this is not true. There are 5000 other locations in Delhi where a handicrafts academy could be housed (or even built). Why this has to displace or impinge on one of the key cultural institutions of the capital—and it is hard to see how it would not—is not clear. It is clear, however, that there is politics involved: the chairperson of the museum, Ruchira Ghosh (who I so appalled on one of our visits on the last trip—see that earlier review), who was appointed by an earlier regime, has already been shipped out and rumours persist about the fate of the museum. It would be easier to take the government at its word if it were not the case that this is a regime that, for all its talk of Indian tradition, and its fascination with Vedic-era plastic surgery, has little interest in the actual, living folk culture of the country.

Anyway, again, of all the bad things happening in India, losing a restaurant is not close to the top of the list (losing the Crafts Museum will be far worse) but if you are going to be in Delhi soon you should go eat at Café Lota while you can. There are rumours that they may relocate elsewhere (to Triveni possibly) but you never know. There’s nowhere else in Delhi that you can go for such a range of regional dishes presented in forms that are both traditional and contemporary at the same time; the latter being partly a function of contemporary plating (as at Varq, but far less involved) but also of a lighter touch (in terms of a measured use of both fat and spices).

I will say that the restaurant has clearly been embraced by the city. In January 2014 it was still new and it was very easy to get in. This time it was jammed on both occasions—we had to wait for twenty minutes on the second occasion. This despite the fact that the restaurant seems to have expanded a bit as part of a larger remodel. What’s interesting is that the profile of the average diner at the restaurant seems to have changed as well: on our visits in 2014, when it was only a few months old, the restaurant seemed to have far more people eating there that you’d expect to see at places like the India International Centre (more liberal elites, I mean); you’d have heard a lot more English spoken then for sure. At these visits the clientele seemed far more weighted to a Hindi speaking middle class. A small sample size to base such hypotheses on, to be sure, but supported by the friends we ate there with.

As I said, we ate there twice again on on this trip. I have arranged the massive slideshow below not by the meals but in terms of sections of the menu. Brief descriptions and evaluations of the dishes are in the captions in the slideshow.

The prices remain as reasonable as ever. Both meals together totaled less than $90. That’s for five starters, six entrees, a couple of sides, three desserts, tea and coffee. A very good deal, if you ask me (the two meals together were just over a third as expensive as our meal at Varq).

While not everything worked for us and only a few things really got us excited, I was very impressed to see how comprehensively the menu had turned over since our visit two years ago. I could be wrong but I want to say that only the palak-patta chaat and the apple jalebi and bhapa doi cheescake were holdovers from what we saw and ate two years ago. This is not surprising, of course, as the breadth and depth of regional cuisines in India could allow a restaurant like Cafe Lota to overhaul their menu every few days if the kitchen could keep up. I do hope I’ll be able to see another version of the menu on my projected visit to Delhi in December.

I will add as well that this strikes me as exactly the kind of restaurant that could be a huge success in the US, with its pan-Indian menu and its light touch. I hope someone has an eye on replicating this template.

This is the last of my formal meal reports from Delhi—I’ll probably post one small roundup of a few more informal meals. Up next: more Hong Kong eating!

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