Salt n Pepper Village, one of the most famous buffet restaurants of Karachi burned down a couple of years ago. It made a comeback after just a few months of complete renovation.

We paid a visit to check how it has been faring in the second life. Although Village and Lal Qila are not the pioneers of theme-based restaurants in this part of the world, they are the ones responsible for making this category a hit with the masses. Buffet has never been the same with the arrival of these two more than a decade ago. There’s not much to choose between the two in terms of choice of food or even the sumptuous factor. Some people rate the sumptuous factor of Village more than the Lal Qila’s, but all in all, both are essentially the same.

However, when it comes to pricing, Village takes the lead. Village, however, has brought some innovation in its pricing structure lately. Now a buffet costs Rs.650 from Monday to Thursday, and Rs.795 from Friday to Sunday, both prices inclusive of taxes. The soft drink which is, as per buffet style default not included, costs Rs.50. The Floating Ship however broke away from this tradition when it first opened and offered cold drinks free with the buffet. Not anymore though. In fact, the restaurant itself appears to be no more, for it was closed when we passed it on the way to Village.

Now that’s a tragedy. Karachi doesn’t have that many buffet restaurants, and now one of the few has gone down. Maybe it is due to the cut-throat competition or maybe it’s the after-effects of the recession. And this seems to be affecting Village as well going by not only its pricing structure, but by what ensued on our latest trip there.

Village well, I called it earlier to make reservations. The guy at the other end assured me that there would be no need for reservations and that we will get the table easily. I found it odd, but then agreed to it. However, when we reached the place at about 10pm, the place was swarming with people especially in the waiting area. When I approached the receptionist, she said we would have to wait. On which I narrated the earlier conversation with their staff about not reserving the table. Suddenly, as if by magic, a table was made available for us.

So, yes, sometimes it pays to create a scene, especially in front of prospective customers. The ploy to keep the rates down during the week-day seems to be working for them. Or maybe there was going to be a holiday the next day- Kashmir day- that made people come to Village in droves.

The last time we were here was before the fire, and the first thing that hit us after the perfunctory round around the main table was the shrinkage of the menu compared to pre-fire era. There were only three BBQ items – chicken boti, chicken and beef seekh kabab, that’s it. Compared to its competitor Lal Qila, that is peanuts. The salad bar was too limited. There was no nan or chapatti available, just a strange looking paratha and a puri paratha, unlike Lal Qila which focuses specifically on these items.

Here’s a brief list of the main items with the verdict:

S.N Food Item Verdict
1 Tawa Fish Average
2 Fried Shrimp Excellent
3 Chicken boti Average
4 Chicken Seekh Kabab Very good
5 Beef Seekh Kabab Good
6 Chicken Fried Rice Good
7 Chicken Chowmein Very Good
8 Sweet & Sour Fish Good
9 Batair Average
10 Beef Lasagna Good
11 Pizza Bad
12 Mutton Steam Roast Good
13 A La Chicken Bad
14 Chapali Kabab Average
15 Chicken Karahi Good
16 Anda Chana Good
17 Fried fish Didn’t taste
18 Nihari Didn’t taste
19 Haleem Didn’t taste
20 Biryani Didn’t taste
21 Sautéed Vegetables Didn’t taste
22 Mutton Karahi Didn’t taste
23 Aalo Tarkari Didn’t taste
24 Saag Didn’t taste
25 Mirchi Fish Didn’t taste
26 Paya Didn’t taste

All in all, there were about 25 main course items. Although the number of items has gone down, it’s not the quantity but the choice of items on display as well as their sumptuous factor.

For instance, many items conspicuous by their absence were tandoori chicken, reshmi kabab, malai boti, behari boti or kabab, kata kat, shami kabab, chargha and even  chicken lever, something which the Revolving Restaurant is offering.

The next thing we noticed was the crowd build-up at the Batair and Fried Shrimp stalls. People were literally standing in a line to get their hands on these two delicacies. While the fried shrimp was simply divine, far better than its competitors Lal Qila and Shan-e-Mughlia, the Batair wasn’t up to the mark

For some inexplicable reason, people were flocking to the pani puri and chaat stall which was designed in the form of a traditional thela. You would have thought that people would be eating that stuff some place far cheaper than a Rs.650 buffet, but then, consumers don’t think or act rationally, something which shrewd brands realize and exploit to their advantage.

The Tawa fish was a real disappointment, especially since it looked appetizing. The problem it had was, well, it had no taste. Just plain white meat. Meat which was oozing with miniscule ‘kaantey’. Extremely bad choice of fish for a buffet. A fish of this type is eaten when it is the sole object of focus and you have all the time in the world to consume it, not in a buffet where people are on a rampage of gastronomical proportions to try everything out.

The chapali kabab tasted like it was made with those standard packaged Shan and National Masalas, and not the genuine recipe.

The chicken and beef seekh kabab fared much better. A glaring observation was the lack of meat on the ‘chicken botis’ found in most of the chicken entrees. This was epitomized by A’ la Chicken, something which ought to have boneless meat, and yet when I took a succulent looking chicken piece in my mouth, I was treated to a teeth shattering piece of bone.

A pleasant surprise was the chowmein. Now this is a dish which is omnipresent in all buffet dinners irrespective of whether it’s a desi, continental or Oriental cuisine. And in almost all instances, it is made bad, average or worse. At Village, it was very well made. It looked to be cooked in a sort of garlic sauce with just the right amount of garlic essence to tantalize your taste buds.

The dessert section was more or less the same story. Some good stuff and the rest nothing to write home about. The ice cream bar with just two choice of flavors was a disappointment, specifically because the ice cream wasn’t any special offering of Village but one of those packaged ones, probably Wall’s. The Gulab Jamans were good, so was the Caramel Custard. The Gajaraila, although looked good, was nothing to write home about.

The item most popular with the masses was the Kulfi. There were two varieties available – one the falooda type, the other ‘dandi’ wali.

Salt n Pepper Village rose to the pinnacle of the buffet category by sheer quality and taste. It looks like to be losing the plot, something which so many restaurants do after having achieved the No.1 position. All is not lost though. They just need to realize that in spite of the crushing recession coupled with inflation, the competition is still getting tougher, and the way to combat both simultaneously is stick to those virtues which made you famous in the first place.