My best friend landed a residency in the US. Hurrah, hurrah. He had worked at least a quarter of his life away, halfway across the world, in pursuit of this goal, and always came up with the same gripe: Lahore doesn’t do fine dining right. In an attempt to honor his achievement (and settle his woes about Lahori cuisine), I booked us both an iftaari at the School of Culinary and Fine Arts (SCAFA). In particular, SCAFE, the ‘student run’ restaurant for the culinary school, was to be our destination for the evening.
Prepared under the supervision of chefs trained abroad, SCAFA’s food tasting menu consists of seven-courses, making it unlike any other restaurant in town; the price tag and covert method of payment reflects exactly that.
We arrived at the restaurant, a modern kitchen tucked into the side of the EFU building on Jail Road, with enough room for six people to sit disconcertingly close as they watch their meal being prepared each step of the way. The decor is nothing to write home about, all chrome and black marble, and the only remarkable feeling was that of the AC unit pretending to be a deep freezer. If you’re sensitive to the cold like I am, take a blanket. Obviously, you run the risk of looking a little loony but it’ll make the experience so much more comfortable. We waited for 45 minutes after iftaari, because two of the expected diners were following Pakistan Standard Time, i.e arriving 30 minutes after the reservation was scheduled. Once everyone was accounted for, we thanked the Lord and began our meal.
Our first course consisted of cold smoked scallops on a spicy mango salad. The showmanship of this dish was great, a little glass dome, much like the one that held the rose in Beauty and the Beast, was filled with smoke (and in my case, wonder) and placed in front of us. Once the lid was lifted, two anemic looking scallops emerged from the smoke, resting on a mush of mango, papaya, and red chilies. Now my unsophisticated palate had never had scallops before, so I’ll forgive the sinewy, slimy texture. Seafood is weird like that. The cold smoke, on the other hand, still seemed like an abomination. It felt and tasted so incredibly industrial that I felt like I was swallowing a million chemicals. The salad was lovely, tart, and spicy, but overwhelmed again, by the cold smoke. My friend and I kept our brave face on, and somehow finished the dish, apprehensive about the moment the chef would ask for our comments; damn interactive dinners. Thankfully, he didn’t linger too long and quickly plated up our next dish.
Fried mozzarella on yet another salad. This is how it looks like in the picture; a cheese nugget on kachumar salad. And while this wasn’t something I would deem ‘fine dining,’ it was delightfully basic. The cheese was perfectly fried, still ductile and gooey inside, and the salad was spicy and fresh. After cleaning up my own plate, I gobbled up my friend’s serving, down to the last bite.
We moved on quickly to the course I was not looking forward to at all- the ginger glazed sole. I’m not a fan of ginger, and this may or may not have something to do with traumatic childhood experiences involving those terrible ginger biscuits sold by the dozen at Shezan bakery. The dish was served up and I only took the first bite because my friend coaxed me into it. And what a lovely surprise it was! The fish was almost sweet, delicately cooked, and the accompaniments left us licking our fingers. Who knew beetroot puree could be more than just baby food? Not this pleb.
Excited now, we quickly dug into our next main, the sous-vide tenderloin. In complete MasterChef mode, my friend cut into his steak while I hummed suspenseful music…and the meat was grey. It was far gone, and my friend was very disappointed. However once I began eating it, I found it to be moist and juicy. I missed the char I like on beef steaks, but by no means was this portion dry or tough. The mashed potato piped on to the plate looked a bit like someone getting sick on my plate, but was perfectly delicious. The vegetables were oddly flavored and I did not end up finishing those.
A Teriyaki-style chicken thigh was up next. I’m afraid I cannot review this course because the first bite brought with it a taste of coriander that was so, so overwhelming that I pushed the plate far, far away from me. For me it was vile, and even though my friend soldiered through because we were a bit afraid of offending the chef, he was in agreement with my analysis of it.
We were glad to be at the dessert segment of the evening, especially excited for the duo of mousses that we were promised. Served at room temperature with some sort of coulis and biscuit, I was fairly disappointed by this to begin with. This is mostly because I feel mousse is supposed to be enjoyed cold and firm, not billowy and warm, collapsing and melting all over the plate. Once I dug in, the flavor was reminiscent of the old Hico ice creams- which are a 100 in my book- and paired with the biscuit and the coulis, it was really quite delicious. No aspect of that plate was out of sync. But the tepid temperature and the scanty crumb was ruining an otherwise perfect plate for me. I loved it, I hated it, I wanted to take it home and put it into the fridge for a couple hours.
Our last course of the evening was a rich date sponge with caramel sauce. And oh my! My first bite and I saw God. Moist, heavy sponge, with a hint of toffee paired with warm caramel sauce that did not overwhelm the taste buds. I never wanted this dessert to end and have been unsuccessfully trying to replicate it ever since.
The chef now passed around little cards with little pencils for reviews and comments, and given the opportunity to remain anonymous, I wrote the truth: the experience is lovely when you’re with someone who makes you laugh and feel good, because the food is very hit AND miss. Also, dining solo, you won’t go home extremely happy, especially with an empty wallet. The desserts were spectacular but perhaps their guests deserved more than nice desserts and cheese nuggets and chicken tikka, for the price they paid.
All in all, SCAFA is not fine dining. It’s not even dining really. It’s an experience, to be enjoyed with a DEARLY loved one, so the misses don’t feel too bad, and the hits feel great. Don’t go expecting a 5 star dining extravaganza, and you’ll have a fun time.