Lahore is used to this familiar conundrum: it’s a special occasion and you’re thinking of a restaurant where you can go and celebrate with a good meal. You’re looking for a place that gives you a fine balance of ambiance, service and most importantly, interesting food. You start crossing off the options in your mind – Aylanto’s been done to death; Cosa Nostra is in need of a serious revamp; Fujiyama is too limiting in terms of cuisine (you don’t feel like sushi) – until there’s nothing left.
Into this void comes SCAFA (School of Culinary and Finishing Arts) – culinary school by day and fine dining restaurant by night, promising to take you on a gastronomical adventure unlike any you have witnessed in the city. The Lahore branch of the Dubai-based school offers a seven-course meal designed and created by Chef Cristobal Ruiz, who hails from Chile and has worked at Michelin-starred restaurants around the world.
Locatedwithin the unassuming EFU Building on Jail Road, there is little to indicate from outside that the small space houses big ambitions. But don’t let the uninteresting exterior fool you – once inside, everything, from the immaculate kitchen to the exciting menu and the exquisite plating, will challenge your preconceptions about food and flavours and coax you into stepping out of your comfort zone.
Walk into Chef Cristobel’s kitchen to be greeted by the man himself. Don’t expect starched white tablecloths on fancy tables here. In fact, don’t expect tables at all, for guests (a maximum of 12) are seated around a granite counter on bar stools where the students are instructed during the school’s numerous courses.
This is fine dining stripped bare of all distractions. Call it a “food lab” for want of a better term, a place that will eventually be run by theinstitute’s graduating students, allowing them to put their skills and creativity to test. That, however, won’t happen for the next few months when the first batch is ready to take over the kitchen. For now, this is Chef Cristobal’s domain and rest assured, he’ll keep you thoroughly engaged with his wealth of knowledge of all things culinaryas he goes about his meticulous business of putting the dishes together.
The first course, called “Soups and Textures” consists of a trio of soups served in shot glasses. The Pea Mint Foam kicked off the proceedings, a delicately spiced take on this classic home favourite. The Mushroom Cappuccino, named because of its resemblance to the coffee drink, is an explosion of the earthiness of fresh mushrooms. The Roast Pumpkin and Beetroot Cream combines the smoothness of pumpkin cream with the bite of beetroot chunks and is a rich little delight that tastes as good as it looks.
“Smoke in the House” – a fillet of home smoked salmon served on freshly baked ciabatta bread with a dollop of radish foam on top – was one of our favourites from the meal. The fish flaked perfectly at the touch of the fork and literally melted in the mouth and the radish cream provided the right kick to the delicate salmon.
Chef Cristobal, whose resume includes two years at Noma in Denmark, voted the world’s best restaurant for three years in a row, goes into great detail to explain the science and the art behind each dish. The “Slow Tongue”, for example, undergoes a cooking process of 48 hours whereby it is sealed in an airtight bag and placed in a thermal immersion circulator. Cooking the beef at a controlled low temperature in a water bath ensures that it is cooked evenly, its juices remain intact and it doesn’t dry up.
The beef tongue, he admits, remains their most controversial dish. “Some people are put off by the name; until they taste it and realize that it is their favourite from the menu,” he smiles as he slices the meat into glistening slivers and places them over a bed of pickled cucumbers and onions. But, he’s quick to point out, a 7-course meal anywhere in the world means that you taste everything and just move on from the course you don’t like. “No, the chef won’t be offended,” he laughs as if he’s read my mind.
It takes some mental prodding to bite into the piece of tongue – I like my meat but I draw a line at eating the animal’s internal organs. When I do taste it, I’m surprised at how juicy and well-flavoured it is. The Beet Risotta that follows is a vegetarian’s dream – velvety and intense in both colour and texture, topped with shavings of parmesan; just heavenly! The main course – a confit leg of goat served with a potato mousseline – rounds off the savoury side of the menu with a dish that is traditional and hearty and elevates mutton to a new level.
For dessert, the chef has prepared his version of a bread pudding with homemade brioche (a type of French bread) that comes bathed in a divine crème angleise – a silken custard cream flavored with real vanilla. The last course of the night is called Classic with a Twist – pears cooked in honey syrup and topped with a crunchy walnut crumble. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth but even I wanted seconds of that delectable dish.
“The fruits and vegetables in Lahore are so fabulous!” enthused the chef when asked about where he sources his ingredients from. According to him, one can find anything they want in the city, if one knows where to look and is willing to pay a price for it. Other than the very fancy products such as truffle oil, vanilla pods and the chocolate used for baking, all items are sourced locally.
Barely a month into its dinner service, the SCAFA restaurant has already created a stir amongst serious foodies in Lahore. “Fine dining has always been a very mixed bag in this city,” says Farahnaz Haque, who runs SCAFA’s Lahore branch along with Chef Cristobal. “Most such eateries end up adapting recipes to suit local tastes and cater to everyone. At SCAFA, we are adamant to provide food of international standards that isn’t tweaked to cater to any person’s whim or individual preference. We want to offer a unique global culinary experience.”
Perhaps SCAFA will succeed in this mission where other eateries have failed to do so, because the dinner service is not bound by commercial considerations (at least for now) the way restaurants are. It is a school first and that’s where the organization makes its earnings. The kitchen/ restaurant remains thebreeding ground for experimentation, creativity and culinary adventures that push the envelope. And Lahore is more than happy to go along for the ride, especially at the extremely reasonable price of PKR 2,000 a head.