It has been eight years since our first meal at Carnatic Cafe—but that meal was not at this Carnatic Cafe exactly. Back in 2014 there was only one location of Carnatic Cafe, in the Friends Colony market. Now, as with almost every successful restaurant in Delhi, it has multiple locations all over the National Capital Region—including a new one at Terminal 3 in the international airport; indeed, I think that original location may no longer be in business, or may have moved into more upscale digs in some shiny new mall or the other. And it was at one of these newer, albeit not very shiny, locations—in Greater Kailash-II’s M block market—that I met up with a bunch of old friends for lunch a few days before returning to Minnesota last week. Here’s how it went.
In that 2014 writeup of our first meal at the original location of Carnatic Cafe I wrote about both how limited my understanding and experience of South Indian food of any kind was in my youth and also a little about my impressions of the progression of the South Indian food scene in Delhi over the last few decades. Well, at this point South Indian restaurants of various kinds are all over the larger metro area, to a degree that makes 2014 seem as long ago as 1994 had seemed from then. It is now very easy to find not just vegetarian food of the kind that was once synonymous with South Indian food in Delhi (and most of North India) but also more of the wider range of South Indian regional cuisines. But as per my informants, Carnatic Cafe remains one of the better places to eat the kind of vegetarian food it serves: your idlis, vadas, dosas, uthappams and so forth.
Of course, with all the proliferation of locations it’s hard to know if quality has been diluted or if enough talent has been imported from the home region to staff all the kitchens. My sense of this meal was that it was not quite as good as the one in 2014 at the Friends Colony original but it’s also hard to be sure of these things, comparing two meals eaten across eight years. I can tell you though that this was, at any rate, a very good meal in its own right and one I’d kill to be able to eat in the US.
There were five of us and we shared our food promiscuously. We started out with three orders each of the idlis and vadas. Both were very good but the vadas were truly excellent: a perfect crisp on the outside and spongy and springy on the inside. Both were served with the same sambar and trio of chutneys that also came with the dosas. And between the five of us we ordered four different dosas: two got their signature Malleshwaram 18th Cross dosa which features an inside smeared with a mildly spicy podi/masala; one got the rava coconut masala dosa whose inside was likewise smeared with a coconut paste; one got the ragi masala dosa—made with a millet rather than rice batter; and I got the Mysore masala dosa, smeared with yet another spice paste. Along with the chutneys and sambar, all were served with the same masala alu on the side rather than inside the dosas. All the dosas were very good—my favourite on this occasion was the rava coconut dosa.
A few sweets to end. First up, a kesari bath/halwa all but floating in an expanding pool of ghee. Made with rava/semolina and pineapple, this was very good indeed. Even better, in my opinion, was the obbattu—thin flatbread stuffed with jaggery spiced with cardamom (puran poli, more or less). I could have eaten the entire plate by myself. It came with a saucer of what looked like milk but I didn’t bother dipping it in it. And we also got some ice cream. They serve a large selection from the Delhi outfit, Jaatre and we tried the tender coconut flavour, which was very good. Speaking of tender coconut, a couple of us got coconut water to drink—served tender coconuts with the top taken off. Another got the plain buttermilk (they were out of the spiced version).
For a look at the food and the restaurant launch the slideshow below. To see how much it all cost etc. scroll down below.
They were not full on the Tuesday afternoon that we were there but in addition to the dine-in custom they seemed to be fulfilling a steady stream of delivery orders. Service as a result got a bit ragged from time to time and there was some confusion with parts of our order: we had not in fact ordered a ragi dosa of any kind but after two different varieties showed up in sequence we took pity on the server and kept the second one. The bill also took an inordinately long time to arrive. With extra tip over the included service charge this came to just about Rs. 700 (or <$10) per head, which is very good value indeed for the quality and quantity of what we ate.
Another thing different between 2014 and now: I closed that review bemoaning the lack of good dosas in the Twin Cities. This is now no longer true. As local readers may recall, I ate a pretty good Mysore masala dosa at Godavari in February. Not quite as good as this one but very creditable indeed (and far better than the dosa I ate in Los Angeles in December). So the fall-off now is far less steep than it once was.
Alright, next up from Delhi will probably be a report on lunch at Cafe Lota. That’ll be this weekend. Next Tuesday I’ll be back to reporting on Twin Cities meals—probably Thai from somewhere in St. Paul.