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“On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…” lunch at Zaika Restaurant on London’s Kensington High Street.
We’ve had a busy summer and September has been busier than usual, with October getting ready to beat our personal records. So when the originally-planned date for our Tenth Day of Christmas came and went without notice, we looked at one another with an almost “do we have to?” look on our faces. Yes, we were tired, but were we tired of eating out? Were we getting blasé about all these Michelin stars and fancy meals?
In addition, having had quite a few Indian meals lately, including Imli and Café Spice Namasté, we began to wonder if we would be able to do better than these. So on the last Saturday of September we half-heartedly and last-minute-ly booked a table for lunch at Zaika – and we’re so glad we did!
Housed in a former bank building whose stone-carved interior looks like something from the Renaissance, Zaika blends the old with the new lending clean lines and crisp colours to create a uniquely relaxing atmosphere. Zaika’s menu does the same, showcasing traditional ingredients with unique flavour combinations and updates. Make no mistake, this is not your usual high street curry house.
Fusion or Confusion?
We took advantage of the excellent-value lunch menu, offering two courses for £18.50 or three courses for £22.50. Our meal started with a complimentary cup of Chicken and Yoghurt Soup topped with a mini Chicken Pakora. An intriguing aroma pervaded this subtle blend of turmeric, chicken and chilli. On the third or fourth sip we requested confirmation that there was actually truffle oil floating on top of the soup, lending an earthy flavour to the exotic spiciness. This was our first real taste of Zaika’s unusual flavour combinations.
Our first courses were Goan Kekda Alo Tikhi (Goan spiced crab & potato cakes, tempered with mustard seeds, ‘Dorset’ crab chutney) and Tali Machli (Crispy tempura tiger prawns, mixed leaf salad). John’s crab cakes were quite simply “The best crab cakes I’ve ever had.” The brown crab was deep fried to give a crisp and firm outer crust, while the white crabmeat was mixed with lime juice for a beautifully balanced zing. My tiger prawns were perfectly cooked in a crisp batter flavoured with turmeric and coriander leaves that enhanced the softness of the prawns. I fail to see the point, however, of serving a Western-style mixed salad – and a past-its-best one at that (my leaves were black and gooey around the edges) – seasoned with even the lightest vinaigrette, alongside such beautiful and delicate Eastern flavours. The salad was total distraction. This was fusion bordering on confusion.
There is a selection of naan breads available from the à la carte menu which illustrates Zaika’s intriguing East-Meets-West flavour combinations. In addition to a traditional Peshwari Naan, there is a Fennel Naan whose dill and fennel tastes would be a good palate cleanser. More unusual are the Khumbi Naan, flavoured with shaved dried wild mushrooms and truffle oil, and the Malai Naan which is filled with ‘Chèvre’ (French goats’ cheese) and English mature cheddar cheese, flavoured with onion & chillies. We ordered the Khumbi Naan and while we didn’t really see how it enhanced our starter choices, we enjoyed its earthy flavours. I imagine that the Malai Naan would be a great mix of Western cheese flavours with onion and chillies as a stand-alone dish, but once again I don’t really see how these flavour combinations enhance the subtle Indian spices when eaten together.
Sophisticated Flavours and respect for ingredients
Our main courses were nothing short of divine. Following on in the prawn vein, I chose the Jhingha Masala (Black tiger prawns, poached gently in a coconut and lime masala tempered with mustard seeds and aromatic curry leaf, steamed rice). The simplicity of presentation belied the sophisticated flavours of this dish, and perfectly illustrated the restaurant’s name: Zaika translates as “sophisticated flavours.” If I only ever ate one more Indian dish it would be this one. The creaminess of the coconut was balanced by a subtle hint of lime, and the whole sauce was brought together by the other ingredients, none of which overwhelmed but all worked together. Once again the prawns were perfectly cooked and just translucent. A pure, fragrant delight. It made me think of BBC Celebrity MasterChef’s Greg Wallace who probably would have described this as a long taste of gentle spice that came around and kissed you on the cheek!
John chose Zaika’s Kebab Milan which is a selection of four tandoor-cooked dishes which showed off the kitchen’s cooking prowess and as well as its palate. We first tasted the King prawn flavoured with chillies (just enough heat to spice up the prawns but not overpower them), then moved on to Chicken marinated in basil and coriander, lemon thyme & ‘ajwain’ seeds. Beautifully moist chicken in an exceptional blend of herbs, and just a delicate touch of ajwain. As if the chicken weren’t exceptional enough, the Salmon marinated in blood oranges & cardamom was exquisite. The fish was perfectly cooked so that the innermost part of the salmon was still just translucent and fabulously velvety. The blood orange and cardamom marinade subtly enhanced the natural flavour of the fish, bringing out layers of ocean and gentle spice. Even the Lamb sheekh coated with fresh pepper retained the meat as its star rather than the spices and chillies. I loved this respect for ingredients.
Two desserts are available on the luncheon menu so we of course ordered one of each. I chose the Reshmi Mithai (Pine nut, cashew & pistachio brittle with silky chocolate mousse, masala tea ice cream). There was just enough chocolate flavour to satisfy any chocolate lover without going over the top – very enjoyable and just the way I like it. Silky and creamy, the chocolate sits atop a beautiful brittle that gives a nice contrast in texture as well as taste. The masala tea ice cream’s subtle spices offset the chocolate and make for a thoroughly enjoyable dessert. Like the Reshmi Mithai, John’s choice of Rose and black cardamom crème brûlée was an excellent combination of Eastern and Western flavours. The subtle hints of rose and cardamom were beautifully balanced by the creaminess of the crème, which was itself offset by the gentle acidity of a raw apple jam-like chutney. A real winner.
Taking a peek on Zaika’s à la carte menu we see a great deal of locally-sourced British as well as Western-style ingredients in its dishes. Dorset crab in one dish, Loch Duart salmon in another; soft shell crab or corn-fed chicken take pride of place in yet again others. I applaud this sort of culinary integration where home-grown ingredients meet imported influences.
Originally pioneered by Chef Sanjay Dwivedi, the East-Meets-West flavour combinations are Zaika’s signature. We first heard about Zaika while watching Chef Dwivedi compete on the high-tension cooking show, Iron Chef UK in April and May of 2010. During lunch we asked to see Chef Dwivedi (we needed another photo for Madame Thermomix’s Rogues’ Gallery!) but were given an evasive answer by our server. Subsequent web searches for “Sanjay Dwivedi” result in pages from Zaika’s website that no longer exist, and no mention is made of the chef on any existing page of the Zaika site. Zaika’s signature flavour combinations live on, but has Chef Dwivedi jumped ship? Whoever is currently at the helm certainly does a splendid job of putting subtle blends of spices together with locally-sourced UK ingredients to create truly memorable meals. We will remember ours for a long time.
Bon appétit !
No1 Kensington High Street,
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7795 6533
Fax: +44 (0)207 937 8854