Let’s get this fact straight – I am a tea drinker. Inevitable when you grow up in a state renowned for its tea exports and where tea is as ubiquitous as dust and an amnesic government. I used to hate my vegetables (I love them now), love my afternoon cup of tea (I love them even more now), and was oblivious to coffee, which to me was a strange phenomenon (something like forty degrees-plus summers and Honey Singh songs). At times, though, you find the strange to be comfortable. Especially when it comes in the garb of a perfectly made latte and an extra large couch. So, from the days of austerity at the local CCD to craving that early morning cup of caffeine at your office’s nearby Costa, my journey has been similar to that of every tea lover who turned their delicate nose up at the sight of this firang drink only to end up being a fan, eventually.
Since I have traversed through enough coffee shops in my lifetime, I suppose I am adequately qualified to offer my opinions on some of them. Not that most of us require any qualification to have an opinion. It so happens that I also have an opinion on the Ukraine crisis but unfortunately the powers that be have chosen to ignore it—which can be quite perplexing.
Costa, SDA market, Delhi
Disclaimer first: I might be slightly biased towards Costa, having had their coffee every (well, almost every) weekday during my first four years as one of those strange people who voluntarily choose to sit behind a desk. I like their latte, which is my favourite coffee drink. [I believe the way to recognize a good coffee shop is simply to ask for one of the standard cappuccinos or lattes before proceeding on to the fancier African Safari or the Moroccan-grown, Nicaraguan-bred, Chilean-brewed variant. You can’t do the simple things right, you probably stink at the complex ones too. But I digress.]
So, Costa usually gets the simple things right. And does fairly okay at the less simple ones. The good thing about them is that the taste of their sandwiches and dessert offerings usually remains the same throughout their outlets. So while they score on consistency, it does rule out the possibility of you getting hold of that one magical Tandoori chicken sandwich that will compel Kareem’s line-up to take notes. Their interiors and décor is nothing much to write about, which perhaps is something they may want to look at, seeing how Starbucks has done a great job at it. Stiff sofas and stiffer chairs – some cushy couches needed, please.
I have often visited the SDA market outlet. It helps that they regularly come up with the coffee shop version of happy hours. For instance, once a friend, who doesn’t even like coffee, dragged me to the place at 10 pm in the night just so he could have coffee and food at half the price [the offer was applicable only post-10 pm]. It always amazes me how people will buy anything if you just dangle the discount bait, even if they don’t particularly care about that something. Gary Carter Jerseys
So this one time we went, we dutifully made a note of the drab interiors. While outside seating was available, we chose the less thrilling option of sitting inside, which felt a bit cramped. But then real estate is at a premium in South Delhi. The staff was in that in-between zone of ‘not really friendly’ to ‘nearly unfriendly’ and so you responded accordingly. We had to remind them a couple of times to get another chair for us, so maybe they just didn’t like our faces. You have to order by yourself here and most of the menu options were available – another good thing about Costa. Surprisingly the food came first, which can mean that either they are notoriously slow at making coffee or they are conscientious while doing so. The toffee cake was cold but quite delicious; they have a pretty good dessert collection. The hunger wrap was a bit meh. My friend found it a bit stale but finished it nevertheless; even his disapproval comes with healthy respect for food. The latte and cappuccino were standard stuff, which means they were good. Not a big fan of the tall glass that they used for the latte, though. I prefer mine in the fat uncle mug version – I am sort of old fashioned that way.
The bill came up to be a little over Rs 500, which is respectable since Costa is one of the more expensive shops out there. We did get the cake for free, as they had an offer of a dessert free with every hunger wrap. We weren’t complaining, of course. Since it’s SDA market, the crowd is generally a mix of the local IIT boys and the South Delhi hangers-on, which means you won’t find too many lecherous-type men. But don’t expect anything fancier – basically, the crowd will be made up of people like you and me, which is acceptable.
Café Coffee Day, Carter Road, Mumbai
CCD reminds me of my college days when it used to be a once-in-a-month sojourn for us students who had very little to spend. It was not even that we particularly like the food or the coffee; we just went there to check out the crowd as we had plenty of time to while away then. At that time, CCD was the queen bee of coffee shops, with Barista its only real competitor. So, one must congratulate CCD on still being a player in this market and trying to reinvent itself (not very successfully, though), while Barista has sort of faded away like a mediocre dream.
Ubiquity has to be CCD’s differentiating factor. Its coffee is the closest equivalent to the roadside tea stall. Love them or loathe them, you will always find them. And therein lies its problem – when you have outlets all over the place, how do you maintain some semblance of consistency in taste, service? Even if you only consider CCD Lounge, which is the upmarket (and hence more expensive) version, there is so much variance among the outlets that honestly you don’t, and can’t, know what to expect. Even within the same outlet, the coffee tends to be moody in taste – it has good days and some shockingly bad ones. In such a case, I generally adopt the approach of thou shalt go for what thou knows, and with CCD I just don’t know.
Another prickly thing about them is that they almost never have half the things that are listed in the menu. Looking for that Kiwi Lemonade? Tough luck, mate. Can I get that Iced Sparkle? Why don’t you try the Eskimo drink, sir? And these are not one-off experiences – with CCD I am always resigned to the fact that what I want probably won’t be available due to some mysterious reason (terrorist attacks, leprechauns, cancer research? You decide). Staff is indifferent at best and pitiful at worst. Aside from being omnipresent, the only thing that’s going for CCD is their relatively low prices, in the non-Lounge version.
We landed up at the Carter Road outlet one fine humid evening. Now, Carter Road, for the uninitiated, is where everyone in Mumbai lands up on weekends. And if you are not found there, it’s because you (like me) don’t prefer crowds. I must admit that part of it is quite charming, especially when the sea breeze decides to breeze in. There are plenty of eating joints to tempt even the staunchest vegan fanatic. However, save for a few, these joints undergo a recycling process every other month. Carter Road is a tough cookie, much like the ones you would find in a CCD.
The outlet is probably the most coveted spot in Carter Road and it can be quite pleasant to sit outside, looking at the crowd milling about, enjoying the musty smell of the sea (best not to look at it, it’s not exactly a sight for sore eyes), enjoying your coffee. However, the CCD folks have managed to ruin that experience marginally, by insisting on playing songs that belong to a tacky night club in the early 2000s [think Taio Cruz]. Now I like my share of groovy music with horrible lyrics, but not when I want to merely relax and chat with my friend.
We ordered a latte (what else) for me, Iced Sparkle for him, and a tomato and mushroom bruschetta for both of us. The Iced Sparkle was zeroed down on after multiple failed attempts at ordering a lemonade and iced tea. The drinks arrived promptly enough. ‘Regular’ latte here would probably be akin to a ‘small’ at other places but then the price is comparatively less, so no complaints there. The drinks were decent enough but the bruschetta was a disappointment. I don’t think the makers were aware of the concept of a bruschetta. I am no master chef but I know it definitely doesn’t involve burning a piece of bread and heaping cheese, mushroom and tomato on it haphazardly. Would have been safer to opt for a regular sandwich – even when it’s bad, it’s at least filling. The total cost came up to be a healthy 460 bucks. Not sure we got our bang for the bucks. But to expect anything more would have been wishful thinking.
Starbucks, Connaught Place, Delhi
First, let me get me this out of my system – why on earth was there such brouhaha over the entry of Starbucks in India? It’s a coffee chain, not the reincarnation of Gandhi or Sachin coming out of retirement. For months, my Facebook newsfeed was flooded with people eagerly checking in at a Starbucks, because, of course, that’s what one should always aspire for.
Having tried Starbucks a couple of times, my general impression of them is good coffee, passable food, too many people. Since I can get the first two at other coffee places without the added burden of tolerating a huge crowd, I usually opt to not do the Starbucks experience. Perhaps when people realize that it’s just another coffee shop, maybe I can truly enjoy that experience.
This time I decided to go it alone at the CP version and it turned out to be a good decision since the place was too noisy to have a meaningful conversation with anyone, except perhaps your own self. It’s self-service here, which means you get to deal with the rude waiter at the counter. On hindsight, I can’t blame him since the number of people on that busy Sunday afternoon was quite overwhelming. All seats were taken, including the community-style table that I quite liked, and one could enjoy the mildly funny sight of people carrying around their trays looking for that one empty table and in the process annoying people who occupied those non-empty tables.
I ordered my staple regular latte and a chicken sandwich. It came up to around 400 bucks, which wasn’t too bad considering that they could raise the price by half and people would still happily clamour to enter the hallowed space. I was resigned to standing around like a jobless delinquent—like half of my brethren there. It must have been my lucky day, though, since the moment I traipsed upstairs, a table was immediately vacated and my amateur dancer’s reflexes helped in beating two other parties to the coveted seat. I could not help but crow at my achievement.
The latte was much appreciated and the sandwich was what one had come to expect from most coffee shops – don’t expect much and you will be reasonably satisfied. So, in terms of the actual content, I was reasonably satisfied. Tried reading the book that I had got along as my faithful companion but the cacophony around didn’t allow me to proceed beyond a few pages. The crowd was made up of a motley bunch of people. College students making that Metro trip from North Campus, curious denizens from the less glamorous locations of Delhi, firangs who were expecting a regular, quiet Starbucks only to be left bewildered, and an undercover reviewer.
I did appreciate the interiors. Between Tata and Starbucks, I suppose money wouldn’t have been an issue and so it was adequately splashed on to a world map on the walls and a decent attempt at creating an ancient, otherworldly charm. I guess I would have liked it much more had I been able to read in peace and had Starbucks been just another coffee shop.
Café Qahwa, SDA market, Delhi
I decided to cover Qahwa almost as an afterthought. It’s a standalone coffee place in SDA market but standalone places deserve their fair share of reviews too, so that’s what I am going to do. Now the place is opposite Costa (already reviewed here) and ambience-wise it’s much more homely and welcoming. Comfortable couches and a generally warm vibe give one a fuzzy, nice feeling inside. You can lounge about pointlessly and somehow you know it’s okay to do that here.
Talking about the menu, it’s pretty extensive and needs about five minutes of dedicated time to go through before you finally know what you want to experiment on. I have been here a few times and while the portions are not too large, the food is decent by a regular café standard – it whets your appetite for a few hours and is not overly expensive. You get pasta, salad, sandwiches, but my favourite is the all-day breakfast that comes in handy on those dreaded mornings. On the flip side, the drinks are pretty poor in taste unless you stick to the regular coffee drinks. Best not to take risks while ordering, you might just regret it.
This time we ordered for a chai latte and crispy potato cheese bites. The chai latte was unusual in taste, which is a polite way of saying that I did not like it. The food, though, was a hit with us, especially the dip, which was a strange peanut curd amalgamation but thankfully worked. The waiters seemed disinterested and went through the motions, including the motion of asking us for some change. Two cheers for the music there – Dave Mathews has always been a favourite and it’s always pleasantly surprising to hear good music being played at these places.
Try out this place if a heartfelt tête-a-tête is your main objective and the coffee an afterthought.
The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Select Citywalk, Delhi
Possibly my favourite coffee shop among them all. I like everything about it – well, maybe not the price so much. Every time I land at the international terminal of Delhi Airport, I make it a point to sit at one of those awesome sofas, sip coffee and watch the planes trudge by. It’s quite an experience even if your flight is in the wee hours of the morning and you barely got any sleep that night. Excellent coffee, good food, friendly staff and a nice, warm ambience make it a cut above the rest. Pity then, that there are only so many outlets to savour.
I was quite heartbroken when Starbucks usurped my beloved CBTL from many of its prized spots in Delhi, including the ground floor at Citywalk and GK 1 M Block market. These were my top haunts whenever I felt like opting for coffee over something more potent. As a mark of respect, I have decided to expunge my ghostly presence from those places unless somebody forces me not to.
For the purpose of this review, I landed up at the Citywalk outlet. While I usually try and avoid malls, they do have the advantages of bundling some of your favourite shops into one noisy whole. CBTL, forced to evacuate its coveted ground floor spot, has moved one floor above (Barista being the casualty there). It’s not the most ideal location since the noise tends to hover in the unfavourable decibel range and wafts in freely through the windowless shop. It’s also quite cramped owing to the paucity of space, unless you can grab one of those nice couches where the din is marginally less and you can actually attempt to read.