"I think Zaika must be at the end of that block," said my friend Leigh Anna as we walked up Shattuck.
"You see the sign?" I asked, trying to peer through my own myopia to read it.
"No," she sighed unhappily, "a crowd."
Despite the buzz surrounding the opening of Breads of India's sister restaurant early this month, I took a risk and decided to hit the place early in its run, hoping that I could escape the hordes. But a little press and a huge sign out front have worked all too well.
The real risk of reviewing a brand-new restaurant is that it won't have hit its stride. For restaurateurs, openings tend to be messy, messy events filled with dust and yelling and sleeplessness and parades of vendors. Somehow, though, Rohit Singh and his team have emerged like Athena from Zeus' head, fully grown and swinging. Overlooking a few problems, Zaika serves some of the best Indian food I have ever tasted.
Singh put a lot of money into making a night at Zaika feel opulent. Heavy silverware and heavier goblets (stuffed with brightly colored cloth napkins) anchor the white linen tablecloths. Meticulous, intricate carvings cover the backs of the chairs, and an eight-foot carved screen surrounds the doorway into the kitchen. The walls bloom with color: Mughal-style tableaux are surrounded by intricate designs representing months of work. In a setting aiming for timelessness, the squeak has not yet left the clean, but the room is spacious, bustling yet relaxed.
Like Breads of India, Zaika focuses on serving freshly prepared, regional Indian specialties made with organic produce and free-range poultry and meat. Unlike the former, Zaika maintains a monthly rotating menu -- not daily -- with fifteen entrées and a few appetizers and desserts.
Don't come for a quick pre-theater dinner -- plan on spending fifteen to thirty minutes waiting outside amid crowds of eager diners. It will take another fifteen minutes to read the huge leatherette-covered menu, complete with introductory mission statement and somewhat hyperbolic descriptions of each dish, along with a full ingredient list and preparation notes.
It's both mouthwatering and informative. The opening menu lists dishes from all over India, such as the oh-so-familiar Punjab, Singh's home state of Rajasthan, and southern Karnataka state, and divides entrées into vegetarian curries, nonveggie curries, and items cooked in the restaurant's two tandoor ovens.
The ovens are also used for a rotating selection of eight breads (Singh claims to have a master list of 160 bread recipes). White-flour naans include soft but bland Tulsi Naan (fresh basil) and strangely bitter Chatpata Kulcha (red onion and mint). While I prefer naan in general, I thought the Churidaar Paratha, a soft round of whole wheat with a crispy, flour-dusted crust, and the Aloo Paratha, stuffed with a thin layer of curried potato puree, had more character.
Most of the main dishes were transcendent, perfectly cooked and vividly spiced. As one friend observed, "in most of the Indian food that I've tasted the spices all meld into a single, rich flavor. Here they're all distinct." Well, you can't exactly identify all the ingredients in masalas with "umpteen spices" (as the menu describes one dish). But you can come close.
We started off with the Samosas -- hand-molded, flaky pastry pyramids enclosing a pungent mix of coriander-spiked potatoes and peas. For once, the accompanying tamarind and mint chutneys weren't needed to de-bland the potatoes. Underripe, slightly bitter vegetables and an underwhelming dressing marred the Kachumbar Salad of chopped tomato, red onion, cucumber, and mint, one of the few duds we tried. However, I loved the Kalmi Kabab to distraction. Somehow, the cooks have tenderized chicken drumstick halves, rubbed them in spices that completely saturate the meat, and roasted them in the tandoor just long enough for the velvety meat to melt on the bone.
It wasn't a fluke, either. Under layers of spice we could taste the sweet shellfish character of our Tandoori Jumbo Prawns (all three of them), whose flesh was like cotton, so delicate we could flake it off with our fingers. I would only recommend to diehard vegetarians the Tandoori Aloo Dilnaz, a whole russet potato hollowed out, stuffed with paneer cheese, potato, and spices and then baked in the tandoor until slightly charred -- and very dry.
We skipped right over standards like Palak Paneer and Chicken Tikka Masala and headed straight to the unfamiliar. I'd never heard of the Rista, large meatballs made of spiced ground leg of lamb braised in a curry fragrant with paprika, cloves, and cinnamon. The sweet, elusive flavor of fresh turmeric underpinned the onion, tamarind, and curry leaf sauce of the Cochini Muragh Yahoodi (Jew's Chicken).
Many of the vegetarian dishes taste as hearty as those bearing meat. My companions loved the Besan Ke Gatte, Rajasthani chickpea-flour dumplings steamed, sliced, and then braised in the most traditional-tasting of curries. I preferred the Coorgi Kofta, "meatballs" made of grated zucchini, spinach, and chickpea flour. Though delicate, their flavor was substantial enough to counterbalance the earthy, chunky tomato sauce that coated them.
It's not just the seasoning but the main ingredients that make dishes succeed. A mild Bengali mixture of fenugreek, fennel seeds, onion seeds, mustard seeds, and cumin animated the Chorchori; the crisp-tender consistency of the fresh zucchini, spinach, carrots, potatoes, and pumpkins within turned it into a revelation. In the Malabari Meenpari, notoriously touchy sturgeon, metallic and dry when slightly overcooked, simpered in a South Indian sauce fragrant with fresh coconut, ginger, and peppery curry leaves.
Indian desserts are not for the meek or the diabetic. However, the two desserts at Zaika are remarkable because some flavor manages to slip past the sugar blast. For example, the cardamom-saffron syrup that permeates the Galub Jamun, that old standby, leaves the mouth perfumed. Ground carrots are stewed with milk, sugar, and fresh cardamom pods and ginger until they reach the consistency of a good bread pudding. Both desserts are topped with gossamer scraps of edible silver foil.
My primary criticism: Traditional Indian meals are not so much a succession of discrete dishes but an ensemble that includes rice or bread, dal, a main dish, a few side dishes, and relishes and pickles. Singh's menu doesn't encourage this style of eating -- apart from the tandoori specialties and appetizers, most of the plates are stews. Nor does it allow diners to taste any of the regional dishes in context. But Singh's mission is to bring an enormous body of recipes (more than 400, he claims) to the public, not to represent one region, and so he sacrifices this aspect of the dining experience.
And it's still too soon to pass judgment on the service, which could use a little tweaking to bring it up to the standard set by the prices. We never knew who was coming to the table next, and courses were indistinct -- appetizers kept arriving with entrées, or mystically didn't appear. However, our needs were always met, and met with a smile.
Expect to drop a few bucks. On my second visit, our table of four big eaters ordered one appetizer, five entrées, and three breads. With beverages and dessert, the meal set us back $30 per person.
Persevere, prospective diners -- don't let the lines scare you away. For once, your endurance and resolve will be rewarded.
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