Voices from Our Travels: Café Zoe, Mumbai, India

February 22, 2012Look Travel

There’s nothing quite like Indian food. The depth and intensity of flavor, the richness of preparation, the saturation of color and texture – few cuisines offer so much and so profligately. Yet after some time on the subcontinent, one’s stomach yearns for a fresh salad, or a sandwich with no more than four constituent ingredients (including the bread), and one’s wallet yearns not to be emptied for such simple pleasures. It’s no wonder, then, that Mumbaikars – and particularly expats – are flocking to Café Zoe.

The new Café/Brasserie/Bar (as the restaurant is billed on its own menu) is far from the first continental restaurant in Mumbai, but it is one of relatively few that are so relaxed, so unpretentious, so clearly designed for lingering. This is not, like others of its kind, a place to see and be seen; it is a place to bring your laptop for an afternoon of work over a cup of coffee as much as it is a prime destination for business lunches or first dates.

Under the British, Bombay was a city of textile mills. Mumbai (as the city is now officially known) is a city of film, fashion, business and assorted Big Spenders, and these old mill complexes are home to bars, nightclubs, design shops and, of course, restaurants. Café Zoe capitalizes on its location in one such mill (Mathuradas Mills, to be exact, shared with popular bars Blue Frog and Zinc) with its high ceilings, natural light, brick walls and industrial materials.

The owners here are Tarini Mohindar, Jeremie Horowitz and Viraf Patel – two Indians and a Belgian – and the menu reflects a keen understanding of not only continental cuisine, but also of continental diners. There is a whole (fashionably limited) section of salads and another devoted to sandwiches. There is breakfast served (let the creative class rejoice!) until 5 pm. A few eccentricities aside (why title the ‘soup’ and ‘meat’ sections of the menu in Spanish and the rest in French or English?), Café Zoe’s menu reads like home. And delightfully, when the food arrives, it tastes like it, too.

A sandwich of brie and caramelized onions comes on toasted baguette. Eggs Benedict can be ordered with ham or smoked salmon. Pretty carafes of filtered water are provided for free. Chicken broth is served with matzoh balls, of all things – perhaps the first in Mumbai.

Many travelers who visit Mumbai fixate on the strangeness, the extremity, the disorder – what some choose to call ‘the real India,’ glimpsed in rural communities and on urban street corners. What they never seem to grasp is that India is also a dynamic, changing country, one of the world’s fastest growing economies and a major hub of global wealth. This comes along with its challenges, but also, decidedly, its benefits, among them an increasingly cosmopolitan approach to dining.

Café Zoe is a breath of fresh air in the midst this hectic, saturated city. It may feel to you more like London or New York, Amsterdam or Antwerp, but make no mistake: this, too, is the real India.

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