Tapas: Small Plates with Big Impact
An Introduction to Tapas and Small Plates
In recent years, Karachi has really stepped up its culinary game. With the introduction of newer cuisines, more adventurous concepts, and bolder flavors, it has been an exciting time for the local gourmand. And though on an international scale we may still be lagging behind, if we compare ourselves to our options even five years ago, we have been on a steep upward trajectory. Food connoisseurs have been lovingly bringing their passion to our plates and we are openly embracing their offerings. With growing competition, there is a marked improvement in the quality of each culinary experience. As we venture into previously unexplored territories (and flavor palates), a concept that seems to be doing well is the art of small plates or tapas
I refrain from using the term tapas for all three of the eateries I am about to discuss because tapas conjures up a uniquely Latin flavor in one’s mind. However, Karachi currently only boasts one restaurant that identifies itself as a tapas bar, Loco.
While Loco might not be the first place to offer a large selection of small plates or tapas, it is the first one that draws from the Spanish roots of this cuisine. Loco’s menu pays homage to Spain but extends itself to South American flavors as well. The fusion comes together nicely. In order to give the place an authentic Latin vibe, they tastefully incorporate bright colors, patterned tiles, and a print of Frida Kahlo hanging on a brick wall. The proprietors went as far as importing traditional ceramic crockery from Spain to make sure they hit every note in creating the right atmosphere. The lights aren’t dim and the music is lively, but the catch is that they can only fit so many people. Do not plan on going with too large a party and do call ahead for a table. Loco is small, but its limited capacity allows them to pay attention to the food. What it lacks in seating space, it makes up for inputting big flavors into small plates.
A lover of seafood will really enjoy Loco. They offer an extensive selection but there are a few things you must try. The baked crab and cheese dip is something I always end up ordering. It is a creamy dip served with pieces of toasted bread. A not-so-creamy option for a seafood dip (although that is not how it is described on the menu) is the Gambas Al Ajillo, succulent shrimp suspended in garlic chili oil. Gambas Al Ajillo is also served with toasted bread, ideal for soaking up the full flavor of the oil. For a grilled option, go for the Juicy Tiger Prawns instead. They earn the Juicy in their name by being decently sized, appropriately seasoned, and cooked just right.
With more than a few options of tuna on the menu, you cannot leave without ordering at least one. It was a picture of their Yellow Fin Tuna Ceviche that first got me excited about trying out Loco. Four pieces of sushi grade tuna are served in a citrusy sauce, letting the fish speak for itself. The dish is as aesthetically pleasing as it is satisfying to the tastebuds; raw, reddish pink tuna is dotted with a dollop of sauce and a sprinkle of sesame. The yellow-fin tuna on a bed of seaweed with avocado is a close second, but the Ahi Tuna Steak has the potential to disappoint if not done right. Cooked tuna is tricky, and more often than not it ends up overcooked. It should be a culinary sin to eat anything but a raw tuna steak and a bigger sin to serve overcooked tuna, bland and pale.
If it is a good beefsteak you crave, I would suggest trying the Lomo Asado, a sliced tenderloin, nicely charred on the outside and deliciously pink on the inside. It is served with chimichurri and Brazilian vinaigrette with greens and potatoes on the side. Every bite is as juicy as the last since every piece of the beef is prepared separately and not as a chunk of meat. Less delectable are the beef tacos but do not blame Loco, blame the unfortunate avocados in Pakistan that will never be worthy of guacamole.
True to the tradition of tapas, there are enough options on the menu to please everyone’s taste buds. For the less adventurous eater, there are some great wood-fired pizzas. The Bresaola e Rucolae is my go-to, with crispy salted beef, rocket, and, if you ask them, a drizzle of truffle oil on top. Everything’s better with truffle oil. To complement your tapas, you need to try their cocktails. Loco’s drinks menu is limited but ambitious, taking on classics like mojitos but serving a gazpacho cocktail as well. The dessert menu does not give you many options but makes up for it by serving churros with hot chocolate. And of course a Tres Leches cake, but you can get that elsewhere (read: almost everywhere). I will give their coffee a shout out because they do make a decent brew, so do not hesitate to order a Café con Leche.
Another recent addition to the Karachi landscape is Newbury Café. Tucked away behind an art gallery and next to a clothing boutique, it takes up a spot in prime restaurant real estate. Unlike Loco, Newbury boasts two floors of seating space with a beautiful veranda with large, slatted wood windows. For a moment you forget that you are in Karachi. It is dimly lit, with a simple, elegant interior. Muted colors and symmetry add to the contemporary vibe. The space between tables gives the illusion of a private meal in a public setting.
Newbury is a good place to go for an intimate family dinner or a feast with your ten closest friends, and that versatility is due to their interior design. The aim, I would imagine, is to make the meal an experience. Keeping the ambiance pleasing, and distraction free. Allows it to be a subtext that complements the food, rather than competing with it.
The food does not disappoint. I am the first to admit that my taste buds are spoilt and my expectations are always too high, but it is good. Is it great? Not yet, but it has the potential to be. Some plates exhibit culinary excellence, while others remind us of the limitations of our imported fish. It defines itself as the home for eclectic cuisine in Karachi and lives up to the claim. The menu offers a wide assortment of small plates, ranging from cheeseburger spring rolls to poke bowls. The grilled calamari is arguably the best I have had in Karachi. Tangy and well-marinated pieces of squid are served on a bed of greens. It is chewy but not rubbery. On a metal wave, tucked into the troughs, come four pieces of bite-sized yellow-fin tuna tacos. I would have eaten all four in a breath but unfortunately had to share. Then we ordered another round because apparently everyone was craving another. The beef noodle salad is a well-executed safe bet on their part, but it does not excite. What I was excited about was the Carpaccio Crisp, a paper thin, tastier version of the classic. It is just as good in the beef as it is in the tuna. Since their Traditional Beef Carpaccio is too good to be overlooked by a reinvention, a good idea would be to get the Tuna Carpaccio Crisp and enjoy the traditional Beef Carpaccio, traditionally.
The Steak Nigiri is torched beef with a Japanese dressing of ponzu and wasabi; it is all the spice of sushi and the heartiness of juicy beef. On the other hand is the sushi grade spicy salmon. Small bites of salmon are rolled into a ball, topped with creamy wasabi with each piece sitting in sweet soy on a soup like a deep spoon. While the sauce overpowered the salmon, the baked French baguette crisps it comes with were a good pairing.
Most of the items on small plates menu were delightful, or at least appetizing, and so the Garlic Parsley Mushrooms stood out, being severely underwhelming. The mushrooms suffered a great deal more than the salmon, being overpowered by the garlic and parsley. Both are usually great additions to mushrooms when used in an appropriate amount. Newbury’s menu is not limited to small plates. Their big plates and pizzas deserve accolades too. But I shall save those for another time.
Lastly, there’s Côte Rôtie, a bistro tucked inside the Alliance Française of Karachi. Cordoned off from the rest of the Alliance Française by a plant wall, this chic spot is complete with a red cobblestoned outdoor seating area lit up by fairy lights. Large windows give the inside an open feel; allowing in lots of natural light during the day and soft glow of the fairy lights at night. Edison bulbs paired with mismatched furniture, and a bicycle hanging from the ceiling give the bistro a rustic feel. It is a great spot for a birthday dinner, small or large, or just a night out with friends. As small plates are always best enjoyed over big, crowded tables.
The most interesting part of Côte Rôtie is still their menu or lack thereof. Côte Rôtie does not have a set menu, they change it daily, and so your next experience may not be like your last. You might recognize some items, but you will definitely be surprised, and excited, by the new additions you are sure to find on consecutive visits. The breadbasket will always be there, and so will the homemade ice cream, both of which you must definitely try. The artisanal breadbasket comes with herbed butter, olive oil, salt, and balsamic vinegar. You are more than likely to stuff yourself with it, but save room for the rest of the meal.
Côte Rôtie’s dishes are all made for the spotlight, and they do an excellent job all the way down to an overwhelming tea selection. You must not skip dessert, but for the love of small plates, we have to stay focused. Being a French Bistro, the options here are more hors-d’oeuvres and less tapas. Their purpose is to temporarily satiate your appetite and to tease you with the excellence you can expect from your main course. On any given day, you can anticipate around ten to twelve hot and cold starters, from cheese plates to canapés. A party of two should try at least three, but if you have enough people, do not hold back. Trust the chef and owner, Faheem Jaffer, to give you anything but the ordinary. Your dining experience at Côte Rôtie will never be boring.
Go Forth, Be Bold
This is by no means an exhaustive list of restaurants and cafes that serve excellent starters and small plates (well, it is exhaustive in terms of tapas). In the completeness of their individual experiences, they are comparable: a bistro, a café, and a tapas bar. So if you are feeling indecisive and cannot settle for just one entrée, whet your appetite at these Karachi favorites. Or maybe you’ve got your own recommendations, I’d love to hear about them.