"I knew how to give people an experience, but I didn't know how to run a restaurant," says owner Sarah Aziz
It all began with a few too many online reviews of brand spanking new restaurant D'Alma at Khayaban-e-Nishat that claimed to bring Portuguese cuisine to Karachi.
In Karachi, every new restaurant that pops up gets its 15 minutes of fame because not only do we love food, our social lives revolve around it. Dining out is the primary source of entertainment for most Karachiites and the critique that follows online is the after party.
Combined with our addiction to social media, this obsession means that mediocre or even average food just doesn't cut it anymore. A new restaurant that serves subpar food is quickly torn apart on one of many Facebook food groups like Karachi Food Diary or SWOT that've popped up online in recent years.
But bad food wasn't the reason for the sudden uptick in chatter about D'Alma online. The reviews that started to roll in after D'Alma opened its doors were more focused on the new restaurant's prices... and on the dining experiences provided by the eatery's owner, Sarah Aziz.
"We couldn't believe it when we saw the bill! What a rip off!" read one of the first reviews to surface online.
Another said: "I’d like to comment on the service. It took the owner, who was the only one taking orders, about 25 minutes to reach our table and take our order. However, instead of taking the order she was actually telling us what she’ll get for us. Had to forcefully stop her midway and tell her about our preferences."
I wanted to go try the place, but what if I ended up having a terrible experience? Could mere inquisitiveness justify paying the high prices D'Alma listed on its menu?
Another angry customer mentioned, "I saw in this forum it was written 'D'Alma is an exclusive experience and people who can understand and appreciate it fully are welcome, and I am like well I don’t know if I understand it so I guess I am not welcome. Restaurant owners CANNOT have an unwelcoming attitude."
As more comments and reviews rolled in, I noticed the same thread running through them all: posts (several of which have now been deleted) referenced the attitude of the owner, who was said to be very overbearing, rude, and bossy.
It went on to: "Before the tapas came, I looked around for a napkin but didn’t see one so I asked the waiter to grab me one. He brought over a few paper napkins which I was pretty surprised by. I would expect a restaurant that is relatively 'high end' and on the more expensive side to have napkins. This may not bother some people, but it’s something that really irked me."
And: "D’alma really needs to apologise to Karachi for existing!"
The few positive reviews were met with comments like, "Why do I feel it's all paid!" and "D'Alma's owner sure has a good bunch of loyal friends."
These comments made the foodie in me intensely curious. But like everyone else, I seemed to be in a D'Alma dilemma. I wanted to go try the place, but what if I ended up having a terrible experience? Could mere inquisitiveness justify paying the high prices D'Alma listed on its menu? After all, photographs posted online by customers showed that a dish of tacos cost over Rs4000 and a seafood platter cost Rs12,000. Add to that a cover charge for live music and...
After two weeks of controversial posts, the buzz died down. Ramazan descended upon Karachi and with it, D'Alma's existence on social media dwindled. D'Alma was just around, existing in a city that didn't want to give it a chance.
So I spoke to a few people I knew personally who'd gone to D'Alma when it first opened. A colleague told me about how the first time she went it was packed and the second time (a week or so later) it was empty. But she also told me she enjoyed the food.
This was the comment I was waiting for but one that put more questions in my head, like: is pricey food really so much of an issue in a city like Karachi where many fine dining restaurants exist and are flourishing? As another customer put it in D'Alma's defense, "You get the same bill at Loco, Okra, Flo so it’s good competition."
Was it the 'rude' owner causing all the ruckus? And if it is such a controversial place, where did all that hype go a mere month after it opened?
What is the status of D'Alma now?
I decided to head on to the restaurant with the team and I got in touch with owner Sarah Aziz, who was excited to have us over and tell her side of the story. I must admit though, I did have the all negative comments I'd read online in the back of my mind, but I forced myself to have no expectations. How pricey is this food exactly and why is it like this? Why is Sarah such a controversial person in the food industry?
Sarah had warned us to come with an empty stomach and to make sure we'd have time, because we'd be eating a multi-course meal with our conversation.
The dimly lit restaurant was empty at the time we got there -- at around 5.30pm. A mural of a smoking woman with graffiti reading 'Ousa fazer o que é ousado' which translates to 'Dare to be dared,' covered one wall; rows of glass bottles covered another.
Masks and other trinkets decorated any blank spaces within the restaurant. Sarah Aziz sat at the head of our table, dressed up and excited to meet us. Our table was set with pretty blue mats, which Sarah said was how the Portuguese set up for a dinner with guests.
Before our first course, we could not resist asking Sarah about herself and D'Alma. What with D'Alma suddenly popping up in Karachi without any context, barely having any social media presence and Sarah herself being a personality not known in the food business, how could we not? Sarah was willing to chat as our glasses were poured with sangria.
Sarah Aziz is an engineer by profession with a passion for the arts and an even stronger passion for food. Her father is in the armed forces and that caused her to move around a lot when she was young. Later on it would be her own job that took her to different places in Pakistan.
Over a plate of baby snapper ceviche with dehydrated olives and blended chickpeas (a dish not offered on the menu), she told us how D'Alma is a culmination of a deliberate shift she made in her life.
"I couldn't find the satisfaction that I needed in my job, sometimes money isn't enough," said Sarah. "I wanted to travel more, and I don't know what happened but that's all I wanted to do. So I quit and used up all my savings to travel."
And travel she did, to over 70 countries.
"Everyone should travel, it really changes your life. But you really need to leave your comfort zone to truly experience it," Sarah said.
I understood what she meant, I've had amazing experiences traveling myself. But perhaps it was the way she said it that reminded me of a reviewer who posted about her tone.
Sarah's style of speech is emphatic, persuasive and larger than life. To say she's got a strong personality is an understatement: this is clearly a woman who isn't afraid to voice her opinions. Sometimes this kind of persona reads as if it comes from a place of extreme privilege. If you're a woman, people (and internalised misogyny) may say you have an attitude problem.
After spending hours in her company over dinner I could tell that with Sarah, being condescending was not her intent. But I can understand that many were rubbed the wrong way. Nonetheless I was still enjoying her story and wanted to know more.
Our second plate of ceviche, this time with with a tapioca base and smoked curd, arrived. Listed on the menu as the 'ceviche with white pearls,' the smokey flavour of the curd and the texture of the tapioca blended well, and the dish was an interesting change from the citrus-based ceviches we're usually treated to in Karachi. I had to admit the first two starters had impressed me. The food made listening to her tales fun as she revealed that it wasn't Portugal but initially a stay in Spain that started her affair with food.
Sarah went on, "I made a friend in Spain, Begona, who was famous for a Spanish TV cooking show. Having traveled, I had tried out so many cuisines so we had such fun conversations. One day she asked me to appear on her show and when I did, the letters started pouring in. She introduced me to many chefs and they'd end up inviting me to try out their food because they wanted feedback from a person with a different palette. I started understanding food, combinations of flavours and the importance of the right flavours."
With a Romanian chicken salad in front of us now, Sarah explained it was after this that she went on a food-based journey, meeting chefs and critiquing food.
She landed in Portugal, a place with culture and food so rich she decided to extend her stay. Biting into the very fresh salad full of fruits and nuts, I couldn't help but compare Sarah's adventure to Ratatouille, with Portugal stepping in the place of Paris, especially with the way she would talk about her experiences and food in such a romantic manner.
Sarah revealed that one of the chefs who would ask for her opinion on food was chef Kiko Martins, owner of A Cevicheria, a restaurant in Lisbon, Portugal. Sarah would later on be asking Martins for his opinion on dishes, realising "I want to do something with my love for food."
"I came back to Pakistan and decided to use all I had to jump into this industry. I burned all my boats and started working on D'Alma in January . Alma means soul in Portuguese and while it's heavily influenced by Lisbon, I wouldn't call it a Portuguese restaurant. It is innovative cuisine inspired by my travels in Europe."
"I worked with chefs abroad trained myself but then I also had them train my staff. We would have Skype sessions in the kitchen. I even traveled with a few of my staffers to teach them about gastronomy so they would understand what I want from D'Alma and [now] they do. I love my team, they are my lifeline."
A plate with calamari two ways, fried and grilled, arrived at our table. The calamari was served with fried ginger and lemon respectively. The seasoning of the grilled calamari was spot on, I didn't even feel the need to dip it in the trio of sauces it was served with. The fried calamari was light, had the right crunch and went well with the fried ginger. Full marks.
"I may be new to the food industry but I did feel I want to change things and I wanted this specific idea in my head to work," said Sarah.
The calamari was joined by D'Alma's jumbo prawn with potato cream, a delicious, comforting, homey dish. But at this point I was focused on what Sarah had to say. We'd moved on to the beginnings of D'Alma, the restaurant I wanted to know more about.
"I faced a lot of challenges in the start and I'm still going through some stuff but I'm learning to handle it," admitted Sarah. "I'm thankful to the people of Karachi because of all the criticism, and there was a lot of criticism. I mean, there are arguments going on over napkins. We've learned our lesson and we bought the napkins. It's not so problematic. At least tell me about the cuisine!"
As the 'fruti de mare' pasta reached our table, a hearty dish with a rich earthy flavour, I remembered the reviews. I remembered "D'Alma needs to apologise for existing," and I genuinely felt bad.
"I just wish the criticism was more constructive and less angry," said Sarah and I agreed.
I recalled another comment saying, "The owner of D'Alma has to listen to the complaints being voiced here," and wondered why that person felt so certain the owner wasn't paying heed already. The Facebook groups don't realise that they may have started as a place for mini reviews and have evolved to a place that even restaurants are gauging themselves through, checking if they can even survive or not.
"How come you never responded to any of the complaints?" I asked her.
"I'm not at war. I don't want to be at war," said Sarah. "I want to improve my restaurant and I hope that people who dislike it are willing to give it another chance. We're still welcoming to new people, there is no snooty atmosphere here. and I don't want to clap back at anyone, if someone wants to have a conversation for their constructive criticism I'd love to chat, but I can't be at war on social media over hateful comments. Those who understand the vibe of the restaurant will understand mine and those who don't may just need time, I'm not going to force them or bash them."
"My dishes aren't meant for a single person!" said Sarah. "They're huge, and I'm glad I kept it that way. I want people to come here, share a meal and have a fantastic experience."
On social media we forget there is a person on the other end reading our posts. Sure, some may have genuinely not enjoyed the food, but the truth is they never gave a reason why. They never spoke about seasoning or cooking techniques, the comments were just hateful.
Sarah may be a personality that comes off too strong for some but I respected her for the way she handled the reviews. Not once had she clapped back at posts that even got too personal.
"Thanks to that criticism I'm able to improve my restaurant and learn more about the industry and I'm able to give you guys an experience today," she said.
Looking at the crab citron that had just arrived, I couldn't deny it. This is an experience. The crab was beautifully presented, light, perfectly cooked, had the perfect balance of flavour and the light citrus notes complemented the light crisp coating on top. And eating it in good company, talking about the food while talking about our own lives, connecting the two whenever possible... I realised this was the experience that Sarah wanted to give her customers.
Added Sara, "I don't want D'Alma to be a conventional restaurant. That was never the plan. I want this place to be all about experiences . Every dish on the menu has a story behind it, and I want to share that story, I want people to taste that story."
Seen this way, one begins to understand why she insists on taking customers through the menu herself.
In a city like Karachi that houses a booming food industry, it felt nice to see Sarah talk about the purpose of her restaurant this way. Food is the biggest entertainment here. Be it a family event or catching up with old buddies, it's done so over a meal. But what happens when the meal arrives? We all stop talking and chow down, I am very guilty of that.
We'd been at D'Alma for a few hours now, taking our time with every dish and having an in-depth conversation about the meal, about what we thought of it and how we felt. Again, very Ratatouille. And while we didn't expect our evening to draw out this long, we did have fun.
Sarah repeated, "I knew how to give people an experience, but I didn't know how to run a restaurant. I'm learning."
When the Hungarian chicken platter greeted us, we were in awe. Chicken, cooked four ways, served with grilled fruits, a delectable pastry and a delicious peanut sauce. My team and I are not huge on chicken, we always prefer other proteins, but the presentation of the dish, the tenderness of the chicken, the light, bright spices and Sarah revealing that D'Alma uses organic chicken for their platter had us planning another trip to get some more.
Also, while we had specifically asked for smaller portions, the chicken platter was huge. The platter can easily feed 3-4 people which means I felt its price (Rs6985) was justified.
"My dishes aren't meant for a single person!" said Sarah. "They're huge, and I'm glad I kept it that way. I want people to come here, share a meal and have a fantastic experience."
D'Alma definitely is generous with their portions, as the meat platter that followed boasted 1kg of meat cooked in a variety of ways. The platter comes with a creamy risotto and grilled vegetables. While the wow factor already came with the chicken platter, we were still impressed and threatened. It was a lot of meat! I could imagine 4-6 people or even more enjoying this, and again, I felt the price (Rs9200) was justified.
As I looked at the platter another review popped up in my mind, where a reviewer claimed the food was not worth the money. which did baffle me because as I took my first bite into the tender ribs from the platter, I forgot about everything else. Tender, melt-in-your-mouth meat does that.
"I use local meat, but local A-grade meat. I think that's better than imported C-grade meat and yes, it does cost a bit more but I want nothing but the best," says Sarah.
I don't know if Sarah read my mind but before I could ask, she went on to say, "The spices are not from here. Everything apart from the meat is not from here. It's all authentic, so the prices are going to be a little 'up there'. They're organic as well, completely healthy. And even with the meat; the many restaurants here that have imported meat, rarely import the A-grade quality. I use local meat, but local A-grade meat. I think that's better than imported C-grade meat and yes, it does cost a bit more but I want nothing but the best."
It made sense to me.
Also, again, thinking about how large the portions are and the amount of people that can easily fill up on a single platter, the prices aren't as exorbitant as many other restaurants here in Karachi. I also know of a few friends who were able to eat here and end up with a bill of Rs3000 for two people, so it's all on how your order. Especially now that Sarah has divided her menu into tapas, small plates and premium plates.
I'm very conscious of the contents in my wallet, but who's saying we go to D'Alma or any high end restaurant everyday?
Looking at the half taco platter, which was another visual treat with tacos done four ways, I also wanted to commend D'Alma for their sharing plates. Each plate has at least 5-7 different items, all done specifically for the plate including the sidelines and condiments, which are also made from scratch.
When I do splurge, I want it to be worth it, and to me, D'Alma seemed like a place where the splurge would be worth it.
The lobster thermidor only proved my point. Perfectly cooked lobster meat with creamy sauce mixed with mushrooms and the works.
Sarah would have a genuine smile every time we'd praise her food. I could tell that that was what she wanted; people to try out her cuisine and talk to her about it. I can imagine every owner being happy with positive feedback, but Sarah doesn't just want positive feedback. She wants a conversation to begin with every bite.
"That's why I want to be the one taking orders. I wanna have a chat with my customers, understand what they would like. And I've been working on these recipes for so long I feel like I can tell what my customer would really like. That's what I'm working on."
Perhaps that's why many feel Sarah to be such a strong personality, even though it's how she wants to distinguish her restaurant from others.
I won't lie though, I do understand where the customers are coming from.
For Sarah to want to be the face of her restaurant in such an active manner is very idealistic and well-intentioned, but problematic all the same.
If D'Alma has a full house, getting to each table in a timely fashion would be next to impossible. Not only that, but we have to accept that not everyone who comes out to dinner wants to chat with the restaurant's owner. So much of service is being able to read the table, and Sarah might not be the best at doing that.
Sarah has an idea but she needs to figure out how to go along with it. But hey, she's working on it.
I did wonder whether Sarah was getting flak for the same behavior that would be tolerated if she were a man. I don't think I've seen any other owner be involved in such a way at any restaurant to draw the comparison, but even if that were the case, I'm pretty sure terms like 'pushy' or 'bossy' wouldn't be used.
"I guess I have a niche now, although that was never the plan. D'Alma does have its regular customers and since I also do catering, my restaurant is doing well. I do hope it keeps on reaching more people. We aren't some 'exclusive' place, we welcome everyone. I'm still working on dishes and making innovative menus, I can't wait to bring them to the menu."
While I wish Sarah well for this, I have my reservations simply because I was one of those people who took their sweet time to even bother giving D'Alma a chance because of all the negativity surrounding it.
I know they say all publicity is good publicity but when it comes to Karachiites and their food, this is not so. Bashing can shut a place down, and I worry that D'Alma may suffer the same fate.
So how is D'Alma really faring? While the buzz may have died down there are days when the restaurant really is at full capacity, even booked by large groups. But no one mentions that. No one mentions the packed weekends and the loyal following that brings on new customers with each visit. Maybe D'Alma should? Maybe the groups should.
The reviews are powerful, and like Sarah, I too wish they weren't so negative. D'Alma is actually a place worth visiting at least once, and their prices make sense considering the dishes are made for sharing and many goodies aren't available anywhere else. And the food is delicious.
We ended our meal on a very sweet note with a decadent slice of cake. We'd been in D'Alma for over five hours, eating, talking, sharing our experiences while having one ourselves. Sure, it's pricey for someone like me, but I am planning another trip there for when I'm able to splurge.
It's been four months to D'Alma, a restaurant that's been learning and growing. It is still there, and I'm glad I gave it the chance few are willing to give it.