(Published in Dawn on Jan 27, 2013)
Sights, sounds and smells of the sea waft through most of the southern side of Karachi, Pakistan’s port city, in which wet ‘fish’ markets line the ocean where it meets land. This is where fresh produce comes in every morning, caught in nets and trawlers that bring treasures of the ocean in for popular consumption. It’s by no means a selection that would entice novelty seekers but to be fair, it is abundant and diverse enough to keep Karachi’s seafood lovers’ appetite well whetted. It surely is better than the selection available anywhere else in the country. And Karachi’s restaurateurs like to make the most of it.
Seafood characterizes dining in Karachi, whether you like to rough it out at BOTS (Biriyani of The Seas); the honey prawns and chili crabs are delightful (and relatively affordable) or whether you prefer the fine dining at Okra or Flo. The scallops at Okra, the chowder at Flo and the sushi and sashimi at both Sakura and Fujiyama bear witness to the freshness the city’s seafood is enriched with.
On the other side of the spectrum, fast food touches upon salt-water flavours with McDonald’s offering the Fillet of Fish burger (widely available in the rest of the country and world) and OPTP (One Potato Two Potato) offering Fish and Chips in winter. If you’re one for adventure and you have a love for crabs then the boats that depart from Kemari and take you out fishing also serve a feast of freshly cooked crabs, desi style. The garlic studded, spicy ‘lollipops’, as the fishermen like to call the claws, are quite the favourite amongst boat riders.
Falling in between the fast food and fine dining are cafes and delis like Xander’s Café in Clifton that offers the popular Fried Calamari (served with the best sweet and sour Thai dip) and the Prawn and Calamari Spaghetti laid down in a butter and bird’s eye chili sauce. And then there is Burns Road, where the spicy grilled pomfret attracts visitors far beyond Karachi.
The latest restaurant to open with an exclusive commitment to seafood is Hook, Line & Sinker in Clifton. It’s still very young but is rapidly picking up a reputation (and clientele) for being the only, truly fine dining seafood restaurant in the city. An initiative of foodie and restaurateur Haroon Leghari, HLS has made a debut with an impressive menu that generously covers local, Oriental and Mediterranean cuisine. Within a month, the establishment promises, they will be serving delicacies like Beluga Caviar and Norwegian Smoked Salmon along with fresh oysters and later on, even shark.
It’s not like the wait is going to be a compromise on the taste buds. HLS, with its open kitchen, starlit upper deck and ‘choose your own fish’ display also serves some of the most delicately balanced seafood dishes prepared for fussy eaters.
Amongst the various fish and shellfish that we ordered on our first visit, the crabs – Crab Gratin and Sabzwari Crab (a recipe created by Mr Leghari himself) – were easily my favourite. You could taste the sea in the freshness of the sweet meat of the crab despite the gratin being cooked in a smothering of butter and the Sabzwari in a mix of fresh green herbs. The gratin appeared like a tiny portion but the single dressed shell was misleading. The richness of the dish made it more than adequate for one person. Anything more, we agreed, would have us calling the cardiologist in!
The worse thing is to overwhelm delicate flavours of the fish with an assault of seasoning but even in the fish biriyani that we sampled, the zest of sea bass retained and rose above the saffron, cardamom, cinnamon and the abundance of spices used liberally in this particular dish. What more? The Fish & Chips were popular amongst kids looking for a hearty serving of comfort food and the Singaporean Seafood Noodles had the most aromatic puff of coconut braised in delicate Oriental spices. It was comforting through and through!
An extra nod goes out to HL&S’s desserts, which are outsourced. Zarmine Kadir’s chocolate mousse, Aamina Jehangir’s New York Cheesecake and Maahir’s Lemon & Lime Sorbet are three of the best desserts that I’ve had in Karachi. I wouldn’t mind going back solely for pleasing the sweet tooth!
Sights and sounds: Hook, Line & Sinker has a rich, macho feel to it. Wood dominates the dining area on the ground floor whereas the first storey seating could just as easily be a cigar lounge. The upper deck is popular amongst regular diners though the loudspeakers in the neighboring mazaar overwhelm and drown the jazz (often playing live) in the restaurant, especially on Thursday evenings.
What’s around: Oishi Sushi is right next door and China Kitchen a few doors away so this strip of restaurants is dominated by seafood, more or less. HLS is a stone’s throw away from the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine and the popular Dolmen City Mall.
What to order? If you love crab then by all means go straight for the Crab Gratin and Sabzwari. Fish lovers can go for any of the vast variety from black pomfret to sea bass, salmon, trout and red snapper. Each fish has defining features which food connoisseurs will already be aware of but the maître ‘d is more than helpful in assisting you if you’re spoilt (and lost) for choice.
What to avoid? The soups aren’t very impressive and the appetizer portions are too flimsy to justify the price. The grilled calamari was extremely fresh but two skewers for over 450 rupees would not a happy experience make!
(Photos of Hook, Line & Sinker courtesy Zara Tareen, H&Z Agency)