I got a tongue twister for ya: Pesto's pesto is the besto.
But I would be doing a disservice if I didn't talk about my entire experience at Karachi's latest restaurant that promises a "healthy spin on mainstream food".
Run by two couples, who also happen to be best friends, Pesto came to life after the four realised that the city lacks healthy eateries for families.
"Our kids don't want to go to a place like Evergreen so we wanted to come up with a [healthy] restaurant that is kid-friendly," says partner Nabiha Iqbal, adding that they've designed the menu keeping children and families in mind.
For the calorie conscious or those counting their macros, the menu comes with a nutrition breakdown for each dish.
There's also Garden Bistro, I realise, which runs on the same concept but partner Imran Sheikh chimes in that there's plenty of room in the market as people are constantly on the lookout for new healthy finds. Which is true.
Where to go
Located on Saba Avenue, a street away from Chai Wala Chhota Bukhari. Pesto's emerald door and big windows with wooden blinds are not the easiest find. Their valet service though is a bonus as it's a cramped main street.
The restaurant boasts a contemporary design with dim lighting. The small space is tastefully done with a minimalist interior giving it a roomy feel.
When to go
Pesto opens at 7.30pm and closes at 11.45pm. It recently opened its doors for lunch (12pm) and plans to start breakfast soon.
What to order
They have an intriguing menu and my friends and I struggle to pick only a handful of items. Finally after much deliberation, we come to a decision.
On to the food...
We start the night with their Airfried Halloumi Sticks. Who can resist fried cheese especially when the dairy is sourced from Karacheese?
When the dish arrives it looks a bit lackluster with four small sticks and sauce on the side, but it's a completely different story once I dunk it into their in-house pesto sauce. First thoughts: the pesto! The crunch! The coating is light, crunchy and non-greasy, then comes the smooth, semi-soft cheese (Karacheese always delivers) and to top it off, their fresh, homemade pesto scores the homer.
(We wipe the sauce bowl clean and agree that we'd buy jars of it if they offer to sell.)
On the Pesto team's recommendation, we try the Buddha Bowl which is part of their vegan menu. The serving size is pretty decent; the bowl comes filled with seasoned chickpeas, broccoli, quinoa, tofu, beetroot, carrots with a side of tahini sauce. We give it a quick mix before digging in. The protein and veggies are crunchy and well-cooked and the tofu is fresh.
Although, the dish ties together well because of the tahini - the nutty, sweet yet bitter paste is the perfect add-on - but this lean bowl lacks excitement.
When it's time for the mains, we can't help but eye their Pesto Prawn Spaghetti. We're highly skeptical as the pasta is a make or break, but this dish surprises us. The plate arrives with a generous mix of prawns in pesto covered spaghetti, topped with parmesan cheese shavings.
The pasta has the right consistency, the protein is cooked well, the sauce is evenly distributed and the prawn to pasta ratio is perfect. Our table is all praise. A simple dish executed skillfully; easily one of the best pasta dishes I have had in the city.
Now it's time for the Pesto Chicken flatbread. The flatbread made from whole wheat flour is coated with Karacheese mozzarella & ricotta cheese, grilled chicken, sun-dried tomatoes and their pesto. I'm impressed by the ample toppings, though there's definitely more room for sun-dried tomatoes.
The flatbread is thin and soft (I prefer a slight firmness to the crust) and the toppings are flavourful and light. If there is one word to describe this dish it is 'harmonious'. The elements come together, the taste is right and even without the protein, the dish works wonders. One thing that is needed, however, is the use of textures, and what better than pine nuts for some crunch and sweetness?
Next on the table is their Chili Lime Chicken with Fruit Salsa. Before digging into the chicken I try the salsa. It's a burst of flavours, it's fresh, sweet and zesty - definitely my favourite element on the dish and deserves a separate mention on the menu. The chicken, on the other hand, looks fantastic with grill marks but is dry and lacks seasoning. This is possibly, my least favourite dish of the night.
I move on to the Crying Tiger Beef Steak. It's a perfect medium-rare; juicy with a tender chewiness and is a star on its own. I'd say ditch the sauce, it kills the flavour of the meat. The vegetables on the side can be replaced with the fruit salsa (like I said, it's genius) and the dry, flavourless boiled potato can be replaced with a mashed potato and garlic & herb butter that came with the chicken - but I understand that the chefs have to careful of the calorie count.
It's time for dessert. I immediately reach for the glossy Greek Yogurt Chocolate Mousse. I've been waiting all night to try it. The mousse is silky and airy but tangy owing to the yogurt. I find the chocolate underwhelming; I prefer a strong chocolate kick, however, others on the table savour the mousse, enjoying the faint acidic taste.
Their Vegan's Cheesecake is next. I dig in with zero expectations and it surprises me. I'm talking light, velvet and creamy filling made from Philadelphia cheese complemented with a soft, crumbly almond flour base. This, in fact, feels like a guilty pleasure. Definitely one of my favourites.
The last item on the table, the Dark Chocolate Tart isn't on my list of things to try, but my team insists. Made with an almond flour base, and filled with Lindt's 80% dark chocolate and natural sweeteners, this dessert makes me an instant convert.
The crust is soft yet firm. It pairs well with the light, smooth chocolate filling and subtle hint of coconut (cream). This rich dessert hits a high note on the table; we only wish it was topped with more strawberries. Do we fight over the last bite? Yes, we do.
The only thing left is their Hotpot everyone is raving about. So we decide to make a second trip. Unfortunately this time around they're understaffed, it's a full house and everyone's ordered the Hotpot.
We try their Airfried Chicken Strips to kill time before the hotpot arrives. The batter is cooked perfectly, the crisp golden-brown exterior is speckled with herbs and the creamy herb dip pairs well with the appetizer, the main let down is the chicken, it's dry.
From their drinks section we order a Mint Lemonade made with Stevia and it's pretty good and refreshing.
Finally we're served our Hotpot with separate servings of our choice of proteins: prawns and beef, vegetables: peas, carrots, spinach, spring onions, baby corns, shiitake mushrooms and red chilies and pasta: egg noodles - the prawns and noodles are semi-cooked. You have the option of getting a mild or spicy chicken broth; we opted for the former (In retrospect, maybe that wasn't the best idea).
As the broth bubbles, the server slowly puts in the proteins first, veggies second and noodles last and then covers the pot. We panic as the hotpot is too hot and will definitely overcook the semi-cooked ingredients as well as the beef. We're told to wait for 3-4 minutes but after an impatient wait of more than a couple of minutes, we open the lid and quickly scoop out the broth.
The noodles are limp, the beef is chewy and the prawns are tough. The broth itself is a bit disappointing. Everything is mushy and overcooked.
Assuming it was a bad day as they didn't have enough people on deck and were working at full capacity, I'm still on the fence about another visit for their Hotpot, but for their other items on the menu I'll definitely be making multiple trips!
Damage on the pocket?
The most expensive dish is their Hotpot which ran for about Rs3440 with the ingredients of our choice. However, the other dishes are reasonably priced with the most costly being the Crying Tiger Steak at Rs1190, followed by their flatbread which costs Rs1050. The desserts are all around Rs500 or slightly under
One of the main reasons I appreciate Pesto is for its use of fresh ingredients and in-house sauces, believe me when I say their pesto elevates the dish times ten. Frankly, if more places got healthy food right like Pesto I'd be willing to spend more eating out. Now they just have to work on their consistency, till then I shall wait for them to open for breakfast!