The sizzling hot day was making me feel like rice in a pressure cooker when my eye was suddenly caught by MariBelle — the new kid on the E Street block in Clifton, Karachi, where restaurants and cafes nestle cheek by jowl. This is a franchise of the original New York restaurant. When I walked in, a coral pink Volkswagen and the matching walls drew me into a quaint courtyard bordered by glass doors.
The door opened and I was whisked into a captivating baby pink haven, with lush flowers, delicate furniture and vivid murals. One depicted a stylish woman with her pet dog, sipping a cappuccino at an outdoor café with the New York skyline in the background — shades of Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Another mural showed the cornflower blue sea, magenta bougainvillea and a boat that promised to row me far away from Covid.
Room for dessert
Inspired by the elegant lady in the New York mural, I ordered a hand-crafted cappuccino, to steady the flowering of my aesthetic sensibilities. The cappuccino arrived in a rosebud bone china tea cup and was brewed to perfection.
The dessert menu was extensive, so I asked the waiter for their best desserts. Having tried my share of disappointing chocolate slices that were invariably too sweet or heavy for the palate, I did not have high hopes from the Double Chocolate Lindt Cake slice with cookie crumble and nuts served with a quenelle of ice cream. But, much to my surprise, this dessert was dark, intense, rich yet light and brilliant; each bite of the chocolate melted in the mouth and was topped off by the ice cream.
Next was the New York cheesecake with raspberry sauce. The crust and the cheese crumbled into the pungent sauce and hit the right notes like a Beethoven piano sonata.
Taste European cuisine cooked to perfection in a new restaurant
The French toast was brought with a flourish, sauce and cream on the side. Somehow French toast is never done right in Pakistan with its clumpy sticky flavour saturated with sauces, so it was with some trepidation that I reached for my forkful. But it was a revelation. Just a hint of sweetness despite the cream and the bread is fluffy and delicious, topped off with raspberries.
MariBelle certainly passed the dessert test, but how were they faring with the European cuisine on their varied menu? Wasn’t it an ambitious venture to obtain the franchise from the original New York restaurant, and start a chain of restaurants in Pakistan? According to the owner Mahmood Sheikh, the first branch opened in Lahore and the lesson they learnt was that the Lahori palate was not suited to a European menu, hence the food was tweaked accordingly.
But he held out the assurance that the menu at the Karachi branch is exclusively European, so another tasting was in order to indulge my taste buds.
Treat for the senses
During visit two, first up were the appetisers: grapefruit salad with feta cheese (and walnuts, the waiter informed me helpfully), and crispy seaweed tuna tartare. The salad was juicy and healthy with the satisfying crunch of walnuts. The crispy seaweed tuna tartare was piquant, with the seaweed living up to its crispy billing.
For the main course, I plumped for Brazilian tenderloin steak with baked potatoes, which was perfectly cooked with the accompanying sauce bringing out the texture and flavour. Next up was grilled lobster with lime sauce. Succulent and fresh, the lime sauce complemented it to add the tangy edge.
As Italian American chef and writer Giada de Laurentiis put it, “I’m very into colourful food. Obviously lots of flavour, but I think we eat with our eyes first, so it has to look great. The presentation has to be great.”
MariBelle passes the test on both counts. The food is a riot of colours and the presentation makes your aesthetic senses pop. It’s a virtual boon for Instagram.
Mahmood disclosed that he has not poached any staff currently working in other restaurants, which may be why his team of waiters needs some direction, although their eagerness to serve and help the customers is endearing. Apart from the fine dining and attention to detail, what makes MariBelle a winner is the proactive Mahmood who engages with the customers and seems open to constructive critique.
Alas, it was too good to be true. The mural boat could not sustain its promise. Soon enough, all outdoor dining was closed due to rising Covid cases, and this little oasis in the heat and dust of Karachi was no exception. Thankfully, you can still order from MariBelle for home delivery and be transported after trying these heavenly treats.
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, May 2nd, 2021