Tuesday, 12 July 2022

Zaika, Kensington

For a time after I first started this whole blogging thing, I was quite sniffy about 'posh' Indian food. This is largely due to the fallout from two desperately disappointing meals, one at Benares in Mayfair which we'd trooped to for a friend's birthday to be served a variety of bits no better than you could get at any high street curry house, and another at Amaya where I seem to remember they refused to serve us poppadums with chutneys. And this is completely their prerogative of course, but I want poppadums and chutneys.

Maybe I'm less fussy these days - though this seems unlikely if I'm going to be honest - or maybe the posh Indian restaurants have gradually realised they have to do something more special than serve the same high street curries in fancy bowls and with nicer toilets, and have gradually upped their game. Surely this is something to do with the arrival on the scene of JKS superstar places like Trishna and Gymkhana, which must have made the existing Mayfair/Kensington set really sit up and take notice. Since then I have had genuinely enjoyable meals at Tamarind, Amaya and the like, and of course at any number of Surrender Mohan (Jamavar) and Rohit Ghai (Kutir, Manathan) operations which have taken the cuisine to a new level still.

Zaika is, I'm sure they won't mind me saying, one of the old school, a stalwart of Kensington High Street since waaaay back in 2002 in a space that was once a fancy banking hall - in fact the old safe, too large and heavy to remove, is used as a pantry. The menu is comfortable and familiar and attractive, with the usual array of kebabs, tikka bites and tandoori dishes alongside curries and biryanis, with plenty of decent pescatarian and vegetarian options. The tasting menu, which we were treated to, comprised a selection of highlights from the A La Carte, starting with (no poppadums, so a point off for that) this summery avocado and mango chat salad thingy, studded with pomegranete seeds.

Next came two vast scallops (admittedly this was to share between two), gently coloured and surrounded by a moat of amazing tomato, chilli and pineapple sauce, and topped with a very interesting coconut and beetroot "chutney" the texture of soft cheese. The scallops were nice and sweet, and we both enjoyed the coconut but the real star here was the complex, fiery pineapple-chilli sauce, quite unlike anything I'd had before.

Always my favourite part of meals like this, the platter of tandoori dishes did not disappoint, from wonderfully charred and textured lamb chops to a firm yet tenderly spiced tandoori seabass, and some juicy chunks of chicken, also coloured with flecks of black char. And yes, if I'm going to be brutal the lamb chops at Gymkhana probably have the edge, the fish at Jamavar is more deliriously complex, but these were still very enjoyable, very competent examples of their kind.

As is the tradition in these kinds of meals, all the remaining savoury dishes arrived at once, tableside, on a giant serving platter groaning with bowls, plates and jugs. Notable amongst them were the butter chicken, which all the best Indian restaurants do so well, a lovely silky yellow daal and a stack of tandoor-fresh naans, all fluffy and crisp in the right places.

This being an invite, though, we were treated to a couple more a la carte dishes intended to show off all the skills of the kitchen. First, a stunning slow-cooked lamb shank sealed in pastry, with a chimney of bone poking out of the top. Into this bone was poured a thick, rich cumin sauce, basting the lamb meat even before the pastry was cracked. Clever stuff.

Second (and not pictured, sorry, must have been enjoying myself too much), a chicken biryani so powerful and fragrant it not only drew gasps when the pastry casing was broken, but when other tables in the room had the same dish at various moments the same evening, the same incredible aroma launched itself around the room.

Desserts were a decent if slightly crystallised ginger stem ice cream and a nice and moist if otherwise unspectacular gulub jamun. I don't think there's any restaurant in this category that's yet completely nailed the dessert course, and though I'm not completely distraught considering I could barely eat much of it anyway thanks to the mountain of food they'd given us previously, it does make you wonder why so many stunning courses of complex and skillful cooking are so often followed by ice cream and a bit of cake. Or maybe I'm just not a fan of Indian desserts, who knows.

Desserts aside, though, this is a restaurant well worth bothering with, and even if you ignore the lamb shank and biryani which were cheeky extras, a hugely generous amount of rewarding and exciting food for the £65 price tag. For Kensington indeed, that counts as something approaching a bargain, and with a couple of cocktails and glasses of wine you should expect to come away with a bill of about £100pp. True, it's slightly overshadowed by the flashier new wave of high-end Indian restaurants, but that's no reason to dismiss it - it does what it does very well, efficiently and with a smile on its face, and you can't ask fairer than that. Here's to another 20 years.


I was invited to Zaika, and didn't see a bill.

1 comment:

David Barnes said...

Pointless reviews.

Ill informed and paid-for commentary. I've been to Zaika four times and it is nowhere near as good as Jamavar, Bibi, even Pali Hill (noticeably cheaper).