Cafe Lota Again (Delhi, December 2018)


We first ate at Cafe Lota—the restaurant attached to the Crafts Museum in Delhi—in 2014, not too long after it opened. We loved our meal so much we went back a few days later. And on our next trip in 2016 it was one of the places we returned to. Since then the original chef has moved on—we ate in 2016 at his then-new Rustom’s Parsi Bhonu but I think at the time he was still attached to Cafe Lota as well. In the intervening period there’s also been a lot of uncertainty about the Crafts Museum as a whole. There was talk of the BJP government—which does not have much use for Indian culture that cannot be said to have emerged from a cow—shutting it down; but I’m glad to report that it hasn’t happened yet. I didn’t make it into the museum proper on this trip but I did meet an old friend at Cafe Lota for lunch. The restaurant looks much the same, but is the food still as good as it was?

Well, I’m not very good at suspense: the answer is, no, based on this meal, the food is not as good as it was. Don’t get me wrong, this would still be one of the best Indian restaurants in the US; and some of what we ate was very good. The menu is still an intriguing pan-Indian mix of traditional dishes, some of which have been re-articulated in a cheffy manner—but, on the whole, it seemed to be missing some finesse in both conception and execution. Some dishes sounded very interesting on paper but were blah in reality; some were solid but unremarkable; a dessert was a shadow of its original self; only one plate was truly strong. Still, as I say, it would have been an excellent Indian meal in the US and if I had access to something like this here I would be there once a week.

Though changes have obviously happened in the kitchen the rest of the restaurant seems unchanged. It was not quite as busy as it was on our previous visits—we did not have to wait for a table and there were quite a few empty tables throughout our meal (though it was not as empty as the pictures in the slideshow may make it seem—those were mostly taken as we were leaving). The clientele seemed like a mix of locals and tourists. The ambience, on the whole, remains as attractive as ever. The menu has not stood still. While some of the dishes we ate and saw on our last visit are still on the menu, there’s been quite a bit of turnover since then. It seems like there are more vegetarian dishes on the menu now than non-vegetarian—as to whether that has any greater significance, I do not know.

This is what we ate:

Smaller Plates

  • Sandeep’s prawn fry: I have no idea who Sandeep is but this is basically the dish that was just called “Prawn fry” in 2016. And my response to it is what it was in 2016: nice, but could have been more robustly flavoured.
  • Chicken idli: I was very intrigued by this and ordered it over my friend’s skepticism. Should have listened to him: it was basically like a weak chicken kabab.

Larger Plates

  • Sattu paratha aur chokha: This plate of Bihari dishes was the best thing at the meal. I quite liked the smoked eggplant mash (though I was very surprised to see the word “eggplant” on the menu; the Indian English name for the vegetable is brinjal); and I liked the sattu paratha (paratha stuffed with spiced chickpea paste) too.
  • Toddy shop fish curry. This Kerala fish curry with coconut and kokum was tasty enough but lacked some vibrancy and heat. I did enjoy it with the red rice though.

Sides

We got the dal of the day. I don’t recall what it was but I do recall it was rather good.

Desserts

  • Do gajar ka halwa: In the past I have always loved their carrot halwa, made with a mix of black and red carrots, but it disappointed this time. Perhaps because by the time I got to Café Lota on this trip I’d already eaten a lot of excellent gajar halwa at various homes—shout out in particular to my friend Neetu’s mother’s heartstoppingly great version. It must be said though that this was far. far superior to the crap version we ate at Talli Joe in London last June.
  • Khajoor ke samose: We were both looking forward to this based on the name (samosas stuffed with date puree, we assumed). But what showed up was, as my friend said, basically indistinguishable from the date pancakes that have been served in Chinese restaurants in Delhi for a long time now.

In addition to the above, my friend had a coffee and I had some tea. They still offer single estate coffees and teas (the teas are all from one estate in Assam and the coffees from one estate in Coorg—this is new, I think).

Launch the slidehow to take a look at the food and the space. Scroll down to see how much it cost and to see what’s coming next.

Because of the way the food is served at Café Lota—plated, not family style—you don’t encounter the usual Delhi drama of servers trying to spoon food onto your plate (and yes, this practice bugged me long before I first left for the US). Indeed, service is here still quite good. Prices haven’t gone up too much either. For all of the above I paid Rs. 2830 (or just about $41). Not a cheap meal in Delhi but, even with my reservations, a pretty good value for what it was. You can pay a lot more in Delhi; and it goes without saying that you can pay a lot more in the US without getting anything anywhere as good.

Next up from Delhi, a very good dinner at another place I went to in 2016, a Kerala specialist. And if the weather this Saturday doesn’t play us false, I should have another Twin Cities report soon too.

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