With trendy exposed brick walls akin to a typical New York warehouse, Cafe Zoe has an impressive array of unique claims that are unequivocally customer-oriented: it is the first establishment to open in South Bombay at 7:30am, it has the cheapest Kingfisher beer in town and strictly no children are allowed after 7pm.
Boasting an army of 110 staff encompassing waiters, bartenders, chefs and bakers, every single component of each dish is home-made, from the bread, to the sauce, to the ice-cream.
With an in-house kitchen that used to be open literally 24 hours a day, the company moved its night operations next door to a catering kitchen so the in-house kitchen could take a rest.
The restaurant turns into a bar after 10:30pm on weekends, filled with the chic local townie elite and refined expats. Cafe Zoe is truly one of the few places to see really, really good-looking people who aren’t in the glamour industry.
The menu encompasses traditional cuisine from all Europe – France, Spain, Italy. All the dishes are prepared in a style unwaveringly authentic to their country of origin – if you don’t like it, don’t order it.
Note: I requested sample size portions to be supplied in order to
minimise food wastage, hence pictures shown are not indicative of actual
The pork and lamb meatballs arrive mysteriously crouching under a layer of home-made potato crisps, which are lightly less crunchy and salty than store-bought chips. I brush them aside and attack my hapless victims.
The meatballs fall into a pool of tomato sauce which is rich with flavour and utterly Italian. Indian mutton generally has very little fat and tends to dry out quickly when cooked. In order to combat this, pork is used to give tenderness to the overall meatball.
The meatballs have a robust, sweet flavour which is heightened by chewy melted mozzarella and the roasted flavour of the tomato sauce.
The chips serve only as a distraction and I pay them no heed, although I am told they are very much a part of the traditional dish.
Next up is the tenderloin steak. Made from local mutton, it requires virtually no preparation in the form of tenderising and is chargrilled in the usual simple, no-nonsense way.
As a buffalo steak, it is reasonably soft and the accompanying au jus does a good job of adding lubrication, however I still find the meat little dry and monotonous for my fussy palate.
Due to the naturally lean nature of the meat, buffalo is never going to have the interesting characteristics marbled beef steak possesses.
Largely a seasonal dish and unavailable during monsoons, the mixed seafood provencal is a dish which returns regularly by popular demand. I am eager to see what all the fuss is about.
A colourful broth of Belgian-style mussels, rawas, prawns and calamari lie nestled amongst extremely finely chopped vegetables of red and yellow peppers, zucchini, onion, garlic with a hint of chilli for flavoring, rather than spice.
The entire dish is like a warm hug from a handsome stranger – hearty and exhilarating. The fish is cooked to carefully precise perfection, the calamari not too chewy and each element of the dish working in harmony in terms of taste and texture. The garlicy broth is the most addictive and I lap it up eagerly.
The kitchen uses single-pan cooking to speed up the process. This involves heating a very hot pan with olive oil and throwing in all the ingredients together. The lid is then shut tightly as the steam rises; later on butter is added.
I can see why people keep coming back for more.
The 8 hour braised lamb with homemade parpadelle is the luxurious result of genuine effort.
As the name suggests, mutton is slow-cooked for 8 hours to give it the silky softness characteristic of lamb. It is encouraging to see so much effort put into meat preparation, as it can make or break a dish.
Even though the pasta is parpadelle, the flatness of the pasta, its layered presentation and the flavours of the dish remind me of a richly authentic lasagne, with dramatic bursts of parmesan cheese and tomato garnished with generous pieces of meat.
Now for dessert.
A staple of regular Zoe aficionados, the waffles here are slightly less sweet than the traditional staple in Belgium, but taken just as seriously, prepared with a specially imported Belgian cast-iron waffle machine to ensure the dough cooks evenly and retains
Instead of normal sugar, imported pearl sugar is used to give a caramelising effect. I bite into the rough exterior and my mouth is filled with warm, doughy, subtle sweetness and powdery sugar.
Normally served with traditional maple syrup, my conservative sweet tooth is already satiated after a few bites.
I end with a new dessert on the menu – the Häagen–Dazs ice-cream sundae.
Boasting a huge spread of cream, fruit, nut, cookie, ice-cream, chocolate syrup and blueberry compote, I’m pretty sure consuming this dish will turn me into a diabetic.
To my surprise, the descriptive concoction of flavours only sounds scary, when in actual fact it eats more like a fruit salad, if one scoops the whipped cream from the top. The combination of crumbly cookie base and ice-cream is enjoyable, with no obviously unnatural sweet flavours.
The mouth has plenty of textures to concentrate on: creamy, crunchy, chewy and mountainous with red grape, Granny Smith apple, kiwi fruit and Valencia orange.
Cafe Zoe has a distinct home-feel to its environment – all people are welcome in whatever attire they wish. Due to the immense space, customers are encouraged to stay all day and ‘hang out’ with free wifi, comfy sofas and reasonably-priced fare. Regular customers are greeted like friends and frequent the place two to three times per week.
A community noticeboard highlights upcoming social events and programs and the restaurant has even established a book-swap program where customers can trade their old books for existing books housed on Zoe’s immense bookshelf.
The staff are well-trained and efficient with a distinctly friendly, customer-service mentality.
Ambience 9, Food 8.5
Cafe Zoe is located at Todi Mathura Mills compound, NM Joshi Marg, Lower Parel.