There is no paucity of restaurants that serve South Indian food in Delhi, ranging from top-end (and often expensive) restaurants like Dakshin, which offers probably some of the most authentic cuisines from the Deccan; to the numerous Udupi restaurants which have a vast but fairly predictable (and economical) menu that invariably features favourites like dosas, idlis, utthappams and the like. A little less common are places which serve good (and not quite so common) dishes, but don’t charge a hefty price for them. Like Carnatic Café.
Carnatic Café is a small, unpretentious restaurant on the ground floor of the tiny shopping centre which also houses The Rampur Kitchen. A bright mustard yellow sign with quirky black lettering adorns the outside of the Café (the other side, closed off by plate glass, looks out onto a bank of potted plants). Inside, the decor consists of odds and ends: a little forest of fluttering paper cut outs hanging from the ceiling near the entrance (which, by the way abuts the kitchen, so you can actually have the chance to see some cookery in progress, as we did); three large and attractive leather puppets pinned to a sheet draped on a wall; and bunches of dried (fake?) maize hanging from the ceiling. A glimpse of Karnataka, but not overdone. There are some eight or ten tables in here, seating two to four people each.
The menu of Carnatic Café isn’t huge, but it’s adequate enough, and has an interesting blend of the more common items (curd rice, lemon rice, vadas and plain dosas among them) to an array of dishes you don’t often get to see outside of Karnataka, least of all as far north as Delhi.
We were six of us for lunch at Carnatic Café, and barring my niece and nephew (who ordered a fresh lime soda and a Mountain Dew, respectively), we all chose majjige (spiced, salted buttermilk) as a a beverage to start with. (Note: Carnatic Café serves no alcohol). The majjige, which came chilled, was a pretty pale green in colour, lightly salted and minimally spiced (perhaps with a little roasted cumin? I couldn’t tell), and blended with a lovely fresh mix of herbs—predominantly green coriander, but also some curry leaves. A great appetiser, and very refreshing.
Majjige over, we moved on to our main courses. Except for my niece (who chose a coconut utthappam), we all ordered dosas. A plain one for my nephew, a Malleshwaram 18th Cross (which was smeared with what tasted and looked like gunpowder, that lovely, nutty, spicy blend of chillies, roasted lentils, and more that is so popular down South) for my father, and raagi masala dosas for my mother, my husband, and I.
The dosas were served up within minutes of being ordered. My raagi masala dosa, made from raagi (finger millet) flour batter—and therefore healthier than a regular rice flour batter had its ‘healthy’ image ruined a bit by the generous quantities of ghee in which it had been cooked on the griddle. The flavour of the dosa itself (even without its filling)however, was so good, in a nutty, redolent with ghee way, that I put aside my conscience for a little while. The masala filling, boiled mashed potatoes sautéed with onions, chana dal and urad dal, while delicious, might have been a little more in proportion to the size of the dosa itself.
On the side with each of our mains, came three types of chutney: white coconut chutney; green chutney (coconut ground with green chillies and fresh herbs) and a red chutney (coconut ground with tomatoes etc), and sambhaar. A good sambhaar, as we all agreed, and a pleasant change from the usual South Indian restaurant-in-Delhi sambhaar (which is typically too spicy, and invariably heartburn-inducing).
Main course over, we were faced with a decision: dessert? Or filter coffee? Or both? As far as dessert is concerned, though, Carnatic Café offers only two options: kesari bhat (rice cooked with ghee, sugar, etc) and obbattu. The latter, when I asked the waiter for an explanation, was described as a type of puranpoli (which I know – though I’ve never eaten it—is a kind of roti stuffed with a sweet filling, sometimes of grated coconut, sometimes both other variations). “They’re being made right now,” the waiter added, and we succumbed. My nephew and niece declined dessert, but my husband, my parents and I decided to share two portions (each portion consisting of two obbattus).
Since they were being cooked right then, our obbattus were served up less than a minute later. These were thin, roti-like pancakes, seemingly made from a maida dough, filled with a mildly sweetened mixture of cooked chana dal. The flavour of the dal was (for me, who’s not a fan of dal when used in sweet dishes) subdued, and yet the filling not overly sweet. On the side came, as an interesting accompaniment (it may be traditional, of course; it’s just that this was new to me) a little bowl of lukewarm, lightly sweetened milk. We poured this over our obbattu as we ate, using it to soften the pancake a little. Nice, though since I’m not a fan of flour-and-ghee desserts, I may pass this up the next time round.
We finished off our meal with filter coffee: good, strong, typical South Indian style kaapi, served frothing in little steel glasses, each of them nestling in its own matching steel katori. Perfect.
For six people (though two of us skipped dessert), our entire meal (and a good, satisfying one it was, both in terms of quality and quantity) cost Rs 1,783, inclusive of all taxes and service charges. That’s good value for money, and enough reason to want to come back here someday soon.
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