Going back in time at The Bakery Cafe

- HANTAKALI, Kathmandu

Jun 6, 2019-

A belligerent, spitting, violent mess of ingredients that spews over the table before sitting down—why is Kathmandu so taken with the sizzler?

Collateral splatter on the table, the sizzler is the last to arrive at The Bakery Cafe in Teendhara Marg. The momos were steaming gently on arrival while the mutton tawa was fragrant and welcoming as it hit the table; the sizzler, on the other hand, was brash and attention-seeking. All sizzlers are.

The sizzler is little more than a generous portion of vegetables, carbohydrates and protein. The chicken, drowning in a sea of gravy, sits atop two large mounds of potato and between noodles and wilting vegetables. It’s a cacophony of ingredients and about as theatrical as a drunken clown.

It’s a necessary excitement, however, for this version of The Bakery Cafe. The restaurant looks dated, but was probably recently renovated. Its fit-out of marble tabletops, sticky leather booths and Holiday Inn-style bar are akin to a roadside hotel. Deserted and unloved, the liquor labels look older than the restaurant itself.  

That sizzler is one of the mainstays on this institution’s menu—it’s one of the dishes that the restaurant has become famous for, and it probably introduced Nepalis to this ‘sizzling’ mass of protein and carbs. The Cafe’s diverse, albeit huge, menu has long offered flavours from South India, Thailand, Italy, the United States and China, as well as Nepal. The restaurant, established in 1991, was the first place for many Nepalis to experience food from outside the borders--whether in the form of burgers, pizza, pasta or stroganoff--and it seemed to have the winning formula. It paved the way for many a restaurant, which can be seen pretty easily in Kathmandu considering the number of copycat multi-cuisine restaurants, and its success has seen it open eight outlets.

While everyone and their father has copied The Bakery Cafe’s formula, not many can top its service. The topi-clad wait staff are anything but boring--they are appropriately informative and attentive without being overbearing. You might find that your waiter cannot speak, for The Bakery Cafe employs many hearing-impaired people--but this has never meant that the service is lacking. They’ll suggest anything on the menu to you, and give you assertive justification, all with a smile as bright as the sun.

With orders and reasoning out of the way, the table set and squirty bottles of sauce at the ready, a dozen steaming-fresh buff momos arrive in tactical formation. The Bakery Cafe’s momos are a strong lure for many, and that’s why they’re produced in what seems to be quick-smart military fashion. While they’re steaming and ready for dipping, their packets fall apart as they are plucked from the plate, rendering the sauce situation slippery. The open packets of meat and dough catch industrial amounts of achaar, which is a non-peanutty iteration of the Nepali favourite, and overwhelm the meat to become an inflammatory mess. This doesn’t mean they’re not tasty but rather the parcel lets down its interior and makes for a flavour the chefs surely did not intend.

The meat is homogenous, without much residual fat streaming from the mix, and doesn’t have the sporadic sinewy chew that others do--which is good--but the momos are let down by their flimsy wrappers.

Next comes the mutton tawa, a tandoori-like marinated mix of goat flesh and spice. Accompanied by freshly cut vegetables and recently fired chunks of chilli, garlic and ginger, the flavour speaks for itself. The mutton is obviously steeped in something containing sour yoghurt, but the deep claret hue of the meat infers it’s likely a more distant cousin of the tandoori. The spices in the mix are warm and friendly to the palate, as opposed to the more violent momos. The meat is tender, chewy, then sinewy, then pure fat, and sometimes like an old boot, but the flavour means all transgression should be savoured--it’s a solid pass, but won’t be top of the class--while dipping sauce seems to be the meat’s marinade itself.  

Now, back to the sizzler, which seems to have fallen into a drunken stupor and given up due to a lack of attention. Done with sizzling, and fizzled out, the generous portion of scran is enough to feed two light-eaters. A whole chicken thigh  accompanies the vegetables and double carb, sitting ominously under its brown sludge. The smell of burning wood has all but subsided, so it’s time to take a stab.

That sludge is intense, and because it drips over everything on the plate, it is the singular taste fronting the various textures of the dish. The chicken is perfectly cooked, juicy and tender, but the charred skin loses its crisp under the gravy. The continued cooking of the already-cooked vegetable medley of carrots, cauli and zucchini means they’ve become a little lifeless. The gravy that dominates the dish is unfortunate, it’s all ginger. It’s singular sting robs all food of flavour, greedily stealing any semblance of goodness.

What also happens when things are placed on searing-hot iron pans is that they tend to burn. The base of the meal has all but blackened. While it might be considered a good thing for some, there is an unintended acrid effect here. The bisected potatoes have blackened against the iron, leaving them slightly bitter but somehow still undercooked; the noodles have developed an odd and somehow pleasing crunch and chew, with a taste of the smoke that permeated the room earlier. When the dish is almost finished, customers can perhaps pull out their icepicks to chip the noodles from the plate.

The Bakery Cafe cannot be accused of delivering pallid food nor can it be accused of ripping people off. The food is flavourful and the portions are generous, hence the restaurant chain has a space in many a Nepali’s heart, but the chain is clearly resting on its laurels. It might have charted the course for Kathmandu’s culture of dining out but it’s falling behind in flavour, as more than a few young guns blaze a new and experimental gastronomic trail.

The Bakery Cafe

Food: ★★

Ambience: ★★★

Value: ★★

Published: 07-06-2019 07:00

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