Can Islamabad's reincarnated restaurants recapture old magic?

ISLAMABAD (DAWN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - After the authorities cracked down on commercial entities operating in residential areas last year, several eateries disappeared from the map of the capital. Some saw reincarnation; others were never heard from again.

The problem with most sequels, be they in movie theatres or fine-dining establishments, is that they seldom live up to the expectations of their audience. But the capital’s diners, it would seem, are just as discerning as Siskel and Ebert when it comes to picking restaurants.

The House of Bombay (HOB) is one such outlet that was forced to vacate its erstwhile premises in Margalla Road and it has now moved to the Super Market in F-6.

Though it has set up shop in a smallish space, it does not feel cramped, thanks to the presence of a floor-to-ceiling window.

Aside from shortening its name to HOB, the restaurant has also added two soups to the menu and a few bowls, which are now their main attraction.

The Hibachi beef bowl contains a generous helping of juicy spiced and fried strips of beef, tossed with noodles and green chillies.

The khao suey is noodles and chicken in a coconut curry – originally a Burmese dish – with a local twist. But this is not as interesting as the HOB curry bowl, which consists of brown rice, chicken and prawn in a mild curry, accompanied by a thick peanut and chilli sauce that renders it more suitable for desi palates.

The burrito bowl is, by far, the most interesting of the new additions to the menu, if only for the number and variety of ingredients.

The dish contains lettuce, rice, beans, corn and grilled chicken garnished with a dollop of sour cream. Doing away with the fried meat and curries, this dish is suitable for those looking for a healthier option.

When asked what its most popular dish is, the restaurant management said customers like the Singaporean rice the best. Consisting of seasonal greens and chicken stir-fried in hot sauce and served with rice, all of which are layered with crispy fried and spiced noodles, the dish is certainly not a disappointment.

(Clockwise from top) Dim sum and Singapore rice from HOB; Tuscany’s signature flatbreads; and the delectable sizzling  chocolate skillet brownie. — Photos by Mohammad Asim
(Clockwise from top) Dim sum and Singapore rice from HOB; Tuscany’s signature flatbreads; and the delectable sizzling chocolate skillet brownie. PHOTOS: MOHAMMAD ASIM

The maître d’ also suggested Mom’s Crispy Chicken pillows as a starter, but it turned out to be a less exciting version of Nando’s peri bites. The pillows are soft, seasoned crepes stuffed with a creamy chicken filling, but do not compliment any of the entrées or the newly-introduced bowls.

This is certainly a far cry from the restaurant’s old menu, which consisted mainly of traditional foods such as biryani, daal and achari qeema.

The upshot of dining here is that HOB is not too hard on the pocket if one is used to dining out at the capital’s more pricey establishments.

But with smaller serving sizes than its competitors, such as Khoka Khola, a hearty meal here could set you back a few thousand, easy.

When asked to compare between both incarnations of HOB, businessman Kamran Khan Sadozai said that initially, HOB served only traditional, desi food.

“It has a lot more variety now and has included some interesting dishes, which are not as bland as its food used to be,” he said.

The Italian place

Uprooted from its signature location in F-7, Tuscany Courtyard has been located in the cosy confines of Kohsar Market for quite some time now, but the stream of patrons coming through its doors has not let up one bit.

The friendly face of Mr Sikandar Bakhtiar, the director of the establishment, is a familiar sight at Tuscany and he can be seen chatting with customers, making them feel right at home.

The restaurant built its reputation doing classic European food; light flatbreads and crisp pizzas and fare from continent. The food on offer is reminiscent of Cosa Nostra, the Lahori institution, but there is far more variety on offer.

Even the presentation is on a par with most international-standard restaurants; the sizzling chocolate brownie skillet is one of the most sought-after desserts in the city. In the words of journalist Maryam Usman: “It is worth every penny.”

From the marinara and olive flatbread that are served as a gratis starter at each table, the food here is generally quite memorable.

The mushroom melt burger, the jalapeno chicken with a cheesy sauce and the beef pepper steak are guaranteed to satisfy most diners.

But does the new incarnation manage to capture the magic of the old Tuscany?

“The charm of the place was in sitting in their courtyard and this new (location) just doesn’t measure up,” recalled Mr Nida Rasheed, a regular at the old premises.

But many patrons also shared less-than-pleasurable experiences.

“The vegetable sides have been too bland and are sometimes under-cooked,” said Mr Mohammad Nasir, who said he has stopped going to Tuscany since it shifted.

When asked about these concerns, Mr Bakhtiar admitted there were teething problems when they moved to the new location.

“It was a new kitchen and a new space, so there were obviously issues. But now, I can safely say we’re serving up food that’s just as good as it’s always been.”