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Come dine with me: An evening at Loco

Loco, is the latest ‘it’ restaurant to open its doors in Karachi. As word spread the euphoria was great, and so was the frustration. Karachiites, desperate to worship at the altar of the God of Tapas, were unable to get through to make reservations, and much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued on various social media forums. Some even went so far as to swear solemn oaths to never eat there, after multiple failed attempts to secure a table.

 

Is it worth the heartache? Let’s find out.

First of all, the reservation process. Clearly the Loco team has done something to streamline the process. I called on Monday for a table for Wednesday. The phone was picked up within three rings, and my reservation was promptly confirmed.

So far, so good.

The restaurant itself is small (I counted 28 seats) but tastefully decorated, with a lovely mural and a Frida Kahlo style print on the wall. Edison light bulbs abound, as is the current design craze, and the high ceilings are great. Given the small space, it can get quite loud, but that is pretty unavoidable. There were two of us, and we decided to order a few drinks and a bunch of food. She had the Mojito, while I had the Banana Sangria and the Cucumber and Jalapeno Margarita (because, why not?).

The Mojito was unlike any we have ever had before. There wasn’t a whole bunch of muddled mint, and the color was also much darker than what I would expect from a Mojito. I am guessing that the darker color was because of the brown sugar in the drink, which also imparted an interesting flavor dimension to the beverage. Interesting, unique and refreshing – a good start to the evening.

The Banana Sangria was also a winner. The sweetness of the banana was offset by the slight bitterness of the orange juice, and the result was a beautifully balanced experience. This drink alone is worth the price of entry.  The Cucumber and Jalapeno Margarita was…well, strange. I wouldn’t say it was bad, per se, but the heat from the chili was not really complemented by any sweet notes in the drink. This is one experiment that didn’t work for me.

On to the vaunted tapas part of the meal. This being Ramadan, the wife and I had already got our fill of potato based dishes at every iftar, so we gave their much-vaunted patatas a wide berth. Instead, we opted for the Gambas, the Pollo Frites, and the stuffed button mushrooms.

 

The Gambas, then. Fried jumbo prawns, served in a bath of olive oil, seasoned with a bunch of herbs and spices. You may already have seen this dish as a starter on the menus of several Karachi restaurants (Aylanto has a particularly good version) but this was certainly a strong contender. The prawns were cooked perfectly, the seasoning was spot on, and the flavored oil was fantastic.

There was no theatricality to this dish. Other places may bring it to the table with the oil still sizzling (a nice throwback to the days of Chicken Manchurian in desi chinese restaurants), but here the dish was served in a much more pragmatic fashion. If I were to pick any nits, the accompanying bread, to soak up the oil, could have been less anonymous, but to be fair I am being extra critical here. A winner of a dish.

 

Next up were the stuffed mushrooms: these are available with either a spinach or a crab stuffing. We opted for the crab.

This dish was an absolute explosion of flavors!

The mushrooms served as a great base for the stuffing (crab, cheese and a hint of chili), with the meaty flavor of the mushrooms and the sweetness of the crab meat playing very nicely off each other, and the chili in turn coming to nicely balance out the sweetness of the crab.

The garlic and herb dressing that accompanied the dish worked extremely well with the flavors, and the overall impact was extremely memorable. This was another winner, and strong candidate for dish of the day.

Next up were the Pollo Frites, shavings of fried chicken with a habanero aioli. We had the choice of going for either the calamari or the chicken in this particular category (the description for both is the same), and went with this as it is new to the menu. The dish, while inoffensive, was unmemorable. The chicken was cooked through, the batter was crunchy, the aioli was creamy enough. But no single element was there to lift the dish beyond the ordinary.

The aioli, didn’t have enough of a habanero kick to be anything more than a mayo-based dip, and this was the only item we ordered that we didn’t polish off entirely.

Next up were the large plates. First, the Lomo Asado, strips of (local) tenderloin, grilled and served with a chimichurri sauce, roast potatoes and mixed greens. The meat (we ordered it medium) was cooked fairly well (some slices were perfectly medium, others slightly over), and the chimichurri sauce complemented it very well. There was an almost sweetness to the steak, so well balanced were the flavors, and the meat really shone through.

The rocket in the salad with its peppery notes, played off very well with the sweetness of the steak. For me, the best way to enjoy this dish was to cut off a bite of meat, drizzle on some of the sauce, spear a leaf of the rocket, and wolf it all down in the same bite. This is one of the better pieces of local beef I have ever had.

Finally, the last dish of the day: the tiger prawns. These were served in a visually spectacular fashion, piled artistically, one on top of the other. The meat peeled easily off the shell, and the flavor was, frankly, ridiculous. Cooked to perfection, with a nice char to it from the grill, the meat had a sweetness to it that is normally associated with lobster. The texture was creamy, with that melt-in-your-mouth quality that we only hope to emulate at home. What a fantastic treat!

This dish was slightly let down by the sides, though. The prawns were accompanied by the same roast potatoes and mixed greens that accompanied the steak, but here they don’t make much sense. There was no interplay between the salad and the protein, and the potatoes, while perfectly well cooked, were just… there. Also, if I were to be picky, the prawns could have done with a bit more lemon juice.

Still, a very good dish overall.

Overall, Loco is definitely living up to the hype. The dishes are well thought out, well executed and taste extremely good. The staff is well trained and efficient. It’s a small and busy restaurant, and both the kitchen and front office teams manage it efficiently. There is room for improvement, but largely this is actually one of those instances where the buzz is actually justified.

Total cost for 2 (excluding tips) was Rs 6,800. Loco doesn’t currently accept credit cards, and is located on Khayaban e Muslim, DHA

Mansoor writes about food and books here.

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