I’d been hearing good things about this café for a long time, but the mere fact that it’s outdoor—even if there is a skylight-like roof, and there are fans—made me blanch at the thought of eating here in the summer. But now that we’re almost into November, and the afternoons aren’t quite so brutal, my husband and I decided it was about time we checked out Café Lota. My sister, her son and her husband (who is a lawyer, and thanks to the Supreme Court being right next door, visited Café Lota shortly after it opened) came along with us.
Café Lota is attached to the Crafts Museum at Pragati Maidan (a tip: if you’ve never been to the museum, and are even vaguely interested in arts and crafts, do make it a point to visit. It’s one of my favourite museums in Delhi, with an outstanding collection of Indian crafts, including a superb textile gallery). The entrance is from Bhairon Marg, just opposite Purana Qila. The café lies spread out near the entrance, with the Crafts Museum beyond. The Museum shop is right next to the café, so my sister and I spent a little while—after ordering our food—window shopping.
But, about the café. Café Lota is a very pleasant place, informal and perfect for a winter lunch. Amid scattered greenery, there are unfussy tables and chairs, with one wall—shared with the shop next door—painted white and decorated with lovely mirror work. The menu is in keeping with the flavour of the place: very Indian, yet chic and modern. This is not the place to go if you’re looking for paneer tikka and tandoori chicken. The Indian khaana here is very different.
There are two things in particular which appealed to me about Café Lota’s menu: firstly, it’s not huge (too vast a selection of dishes always puts me off). Secondly, it is pretty pan-Indian, with dishes fairly representative of a number of different Indian cuisines, including some which most Delhiites wouldn’t be too familiar with. We decided to order an individual main course each, preceded by a selection of starters to share. Café Lota serves no alcohol (or even aerated drinks, which broke my nephew’s heart), but the rest of us ordered masala chhaas and nimbu paani.
The masala chhaas was creamy, lightly salted and with the barest hint of spice, the top of it liberally garnished with lots of chopped green coriander. A drink with enough character of its own to be had as is, and yet not powerful enough to overwhelm a dish if you had it alongside food. Nice, though I received a shock a few sips into it: a dead mosquito was plastered on the inside of the glass. Replaced, of course, but—government style?—with no apologies, and charged.
The food, thankfully, made up for it. Our starters arrived, one at a time (which I prefer: it means you get to actually savour everything). First up was the khatta-meetha dhokla, served in the form of a large, squat, cream-coloured cylinder, sprinkled with a tempering of mustard seeds and curry leaves, and with a small bowl of green chutney on the side. My sister was the only one who really liked this dhokla: the rest of us thought it boring (and I personally thought it too dense, not spongy enough, not soaked right through with that lovely sweet-sour-salty syrup which should be part and parcel of good dhokla—and just too lacking in interest). Not bad, but nothing great either.
Next up was the paalak patta chaat: three whole leaves of spinach, dipped in a besan batter and deep-fried to a crisp (this was enough to win me over, I’ll admit; it reminded me of how our mum used to make paalak pakoras when we were kids). Along with this came a pool of regulation chaat accompaniments: whisked yoghurt, tamarind chutney, lots of crunchy little squiggles of besan sev, some pomegranate seeds, chopped green coriander. Good stuff.
Even better was the sabudana popcorn. This was something I’d particularly wanted to eat (I’m a sucker for sabudana). Served in a paper-lined metal cone, this consisted of a basic sabudana vada mix—cooked sabudana, boiled potatoes, all very lightly spiced—shaped into walnut-sized balls and deep-fried. Crisp golden-brown on the outside, soft and delicious on the inside. And, with the spicy green chilly chutney served on the side, super.
The only non-vegetarian starter we’d ordered was mutton sukka. I’ve had this before, while on holiday in south India, and I thought Café Lota’s version—boneless mutton, spicy (but not blow-your-palate-off type), with curry leaves, green chillies and strips of fried coconut—was excellent. It came sitting on a fluffy, puce-coloured raagi appam. My brother-in-law mentioned that when he’d eaten at Café Lota with his colleagues before, one of them had ordered the mutton sukka as a main course. It may be too small a portion for that, we agreed; but as far as taste is concerned, I would certainly not mind having a big portion of that.
On to our main courses, then. My nephew had chosen a galinha cafreal, chicken cooked in a green sauce, served with a healthy-looking salad of lentils and sprouts, and with a spinach bao on the side. My sister had a Konkani fish curry (with red rice, though one can also order it with basmati), and said it was very good. My brother-in-law, my husband, and I ordered the Parsi salli boti. This comes with a choice of phulka or paratha, so I settled for a paratha.
The salli boti—mutton cooked in a spicy (not terribly hot) thick gravy, was served in a bowl with a very generous pile of thin, crunchy golden potato straws (the salli) on top. The paratha, a large square one made from dough into which chopped coriander had been kneaded, was great with the gravy and meat, though perhaps just a tad too rich.
By this time, my sister and my nephew had to leave—he was supposed to go give an exam—so they took themselves off, and the rest of us got down to the serious business of ordering dessert. Not too difficult a task, since Café Lota offers only three desserts. My husband and my brother-in-law both chose the bhapa doi cheesecake; I’d been wanting to try that too, but for the sake of a more balanced view (and because I am very fond of apples cooked with cinnamon), I ordered the cinnamon apple jalebi.
Bhapa doi, of course, is that Bengali dessert of steamed sweetened yoghurt. This was a good desi reboot of a cheesecake, and delicious: nice and creamy, with a lovely gur-scented steamed doi atop a crumby golden base.
The cinnamon apple jalebi (which takes 15 minutes to make; it’s mentioned on the menu, and the waiter repeated it when I ordered) came after the cheesecake was over, and was—like the cheesecake—an interesting fusion of East and West. The classic cinnamon and apple flavours of a good apple pie, with the crisp batter-and-thin-syrup of a jalebi: this was a large apple fritter, a ring of apple dipped in a thin batter and fried to a crisp outside and a soft, fruity inside, all of it then drizzled over with a very thin syrup and dusted with powdered cinnamon. Had as it was, this was a trifle too sweet for me (I will admit, though, that my tolerance for sweet is rather low).
However, the cinnamon apple jalebi came with a dip: a little bowl of coconut rabri, made (from what I could tell) by cooking sweetened coconut milk until it was thick—or perhaps it was just very thick coconut cream. At any rate, it was the perfect way of cutting the sweetness of the jalebis, and I ended up liking my dessert a lot.
We paid Rs 4,010 (inclusive of all taxes and service charges) for our meal. For five people, three of whom had the works—starter, main course, dessert and drink—that isn’t bad. Especially not when you consider how good the food was, and what a pleasant meal it was, all in all. Good enough, actually, to let me forget that mosquito in the chhaas.
We will be back. There are lots of other mouthwatering dishes on the menu (including some interesting pahari dishes) which I’d love to try. And, since Café Lota opens bright and early—at 8 AM (they have a breakfast selection on their menu)—perhaps, the next time round, we might just treat ourselves to a hearty breakfast here.
National Crafts Museum