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15.06.2017

Skip “Vasco da Gama (The Sailor Man)” on your playlist if you’re in the Todi Mill compound looking for new South American restaurant Luca. First, that’s the wrong explorer. Second, it’s demoralising when you’re looking for a new continent and end up in the registered offices of one Nilgai Foods. Vital as the latter may be to the culinary universe of Lower Parel, we’re going in search of a sight more welcome yet in these parts: a halfway original menu. 

If attempting to get to Luca's large but well-curated selection of cuisine from Latin America and the Caribbean, some pointers for the expedition. The long, low Mahalaxmi Mills building bears two signs for the restaurant at separate points, then offers up a long passageway with a number of potential doors to enter once you’ve picked the right one. Don’t enter the unmarked brown door, the Hathway Cables office, or the green door that leads to Luca’s kitchen.

You’ll know you’re at the right place when you’re greeted by a beautiful glass ceiling -- sunlight pouring in on our lunchtime visit -- and macaw-bright pinks and oranges on the walls. We also discover a friendly face in Luca’s day manager Shrikant, formerly on staff at The Bombay Canteen. He waves us into chairs bracingly upholstered in Aztec-patterned fabrics and brings us, unbidden, an apple-cinnamon mocktail named ‘Tony Star,’ a sweet, if unnecessary apology for the bar license not being in place yet. (It’s bracingly cool and fresh, appealing even to those of us for whom cheap hookah flavouring has forever tainted the smell of green apple.) 

Luca’s menu is divided into categories of modern South American, Caribbean and Mexican fare, which we can report without scare quotes because practically every word on the menu says the right things. A list of appetisers puts a saucisson/sausichon platter next to “crunchy Peruvian corn”; the sides include Tacu-Tacu rice cakes; the Mexican section offers albondigas; there’s not a Reuben or a BLT on a Caribbean sandwich menu. (We’ll let the “Mexican lasagne” slide.) Most encouraging of all, there’s not a Frida stencil to be found anywhere in the premises. We even checked the women’s restroom.

Most encouraging of all, there’s not a Frida stencil to be found anywhere in the premises. We even checked the women’s restroom.

Vinod Ca(ndo)mble 

Perhaps it’s inevitable that the food isn’t all quite as good as it seems. Locro squash soup is thick and rich as promised, but its advertised coconut cream seems to have been supplanted by bites of creamy roasted garlic -- tasty, but hardly the same thing. Caribbean “plantain poppers,” which put us in mind of golden-yellow fried plantains inspired by West African cooking, might best be described as pakoras made of kachcha kela. They’re done with a light hand and blessedly free of grease, but disappointingly bland, especially paired with dewy but understated salsa, and a chickpea sauce that, as Shrikant says, is “like hummus without the tahini.” 

Accras or fried cod fish cakes do better: every bite is a gentle reminder of faraway salty seas, and the cakes are perfectly paired with a hung curd and basil dip. The star of our meal is a main course of Brazilian fajolata. A bean-and-meat stew when it’s at home, Luca’s fajolata is made with kidney beans, edamame and chickpeas, liberally dashed with coriander and pepper, leaves out the meat, and is finished with an artful slice of fresh mango. It comes, steaming, with a bomb of a rice dish, fluffy and flecked with green peas and black beans. Like Socrates and Pelé in 1974, it combines beautifully, fairly crackling with fun and freshness. 

We want to love our Cubano, a hulking, sophisticated sandwich that gets almost everything right, from sweet, fresh bread to cold, crisp vegetables and a cleverly underplayed Mojo sauce. If the pork shoulder had been anything other than chewy, we’d have let it pass; as it is, it’s difficult to finish, even though nibbling around the edges of the meat give us sorrowful hints of how great this could have been. 

Dessert is similarly haunted by wistfulness: chocolate mousse paired with habanero fruit jam, it might have been smashing had the mousse been darker and less dense, and the (fabulous) jam applied with a more liberal hand.

We’re told Luca transforms by night into a creature of darkness and dance music. While nothing we eat here will induce us to brave that prospect, we can’t help but file it away for a future visit anyway. There’s enough on their menu that intrigues us to return, and enough by way of earnest good intention to make us believe that they’d like to do things right. Cook that pork slow and low, please -- just like your lovely Latin playlist.

Getting there: Luca, Mahalakshmi Mills, diagonally opposite Awfis, Todi Mill Compound, Lower Parel. A big meal for two without alcohol will cost approximately Rs 2,500.

Accessibility: Fully wheelchair accessible, although restroom stalls may require assistance to navigate.

bpb reviews anonymously and pays for its own meals.

Sponsored: Don't drink and drive. Remember to take an Uber for your visit to Luca. 

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