Restaurant Review: Zaika Restaurant, High Street Kensington, London

Last night I had the pleasure of being taken out by a friend to Zaika Restaurant in High Street Kensington (London).

Zaika is a modern and stylish restaurant offering Indian fusion cuisine –offering both reworked traditional classics and original dishes blending eastern and western flavours.

On opening in 1999 the restaurant garnered very positive reviews from many restaurant critics as well earning a number of impressive accolades including Best Indian Restaurant in the 2000 London Restaurant Awards, three AA rosettes and high praise from guides such as Time Out, Zagat and Good Food. Even more impressive in my eyes, with chef Vineet Bhatia at the helm the restaurant earned a coveted Michelin star – one of only two Indian restaurants in the UK to do so at that time.

Now that chef Sanjay Dwivedi, involved in Zaika since it’s opening, is in charge of the kitchen, the question on my lips was whether Zaika was still as good as those earlier awards and reviews suggested?

From the moment I walked in to the airy, high-ceilinged restaurant, full of wonderful architectural details, sumptuous and elegant décor and smiling staff I had high hopes of a special evening.

My friend and I started our evening in the bar and once I’d communicated my order to the barman (who had difficulties recognising the name of a cocktail listed on the menu he’d just given me) I was served a well-balanced raspberry mojito. After a while we asked to be taken to our table; a member of staff transferred our drinks whilst we settled in.

Having both looked at the menus on Zaika’s website in advance of our visit we swiftly ordered two Zaika Gourmand tasting menus; my friend adding on the suggested accompanying wines.

With nine courses they didn’t bother with any unexpected amuse-bouches and we kicked off with a rich, creamy and steaming shot of crab and coconut milk “shorba” served in a miniature lidded mug. Some small, black caviar was scattered on top of the lid and on top of that was a batter-coated ball pierced with a cocktail stick. This fairly bland pakora was presumably the crab dumpling mentioned in the menu. I had some trouble working out how best to eat the caviar and resorted to scraping it, unelegantly, off the lid with a finger! The soup was absolutely delicious but the flavours seemed much more Thai than Indian to me. Still, it was a great start with it’s unusual presentation and intriguing combination of flavours, textures and ingredients.

The second course was also a winner with both of us; the wild mushroom and truffle samosa was enclosed in an impeccably crisped filo casing; the filling was generously indulgent; accompaniments were a pear and celeriac mash scattered with slices of truffle and a sweet pear and clove chutney that cut through the mustiness of the truffle very nicely.

Scallops, cooked with a light touch and interestingly presented, are one of my favourite things to eat so the third course didn’t disappoint. Both were cooked beautifully – touches of caramel on the outside and meltingly tender inside. One was served on a bed of puree that was introduced as chilli mash (though I couldn’t detect the heat of the chilli) and squirted at the table with a bright yellow lime leaf “foam”. The squirter was very Heston Blumenthal and the foam was more of a sauce but the coconut and lime flavour certainly enhanced the sweetness of the scallop. Incidentally, the scallop had apparently been poached in “kokum” – an ingredient I’d never encountered or heard of; a little research shows me that it’s a spice mainly used in the western coastal regions of southern India, that it’s actually a dark purple fruit related to mangosteen, is usually picked when ripe, has it’s thick rind removed and dried and is used to impart a slightly sour taste, similar to tamarind. I can’t say I detected any sourness myself. The second scallop had sesame and onion seeds pressed into one side before being seared and was served on a bed of tiny couscous bound by black squid ink. On top of the scallop was a tiny dot of green chutney. The couscous was quite mild and a really interesting texture. On being served I’d wondered if the mixed seeds would overpower the scallop but was pleased to find they too enhanced it’s sweetness and the chutney provided a burst of fresh coriander which was very welcome. Definitely one of my two favourite courses of the meal.

Course number four was a tandoori sampler with a succulent slice of tandoori salmon, a single tandoori king prawn and a small salad. The king prawn was pleasant enough though a touch dry even with the zig zags of green chutney beneath it and I couldn’t detect the rosemary or ginger it had been marinated in. The mixed leaf and afalfa sprout salad was more popular with my friend but then I’m not a fan of sprouts. The salmon’s sweet, thick honey-mustard marinade made it the strongest item of the three and I really loved the puddle of cucumber and dill raita beneath it.

(Please excuse the poor quality of the photos; they were taken on my mobile phone!)

I’d been anticipating the fifth course ever since I saw it listed on the website and it didn’t let me down; pan-fried fresh foie gras dusted with spices and cooked so perfectly that it really did melt in the mouth; served with wild mushrooms over a moist little circle of naan bread covered in chopped green herbs and oil. I found the dollop of mango chutney to the side much too strong and syrupy to complement the foie gras; it seemed like a unecessary interloper on a plate that was perfectly composed without it. To my surprise the Indian spices really did fuse well with the flavour of the foie gras and this, with the exception of the cloying chutney, was my other joint-favourite dish of the meal.

Both my companion and I felt that the dishes went a little down-hill from this point though that doesn’t mean they were without any merit. We still enjoyed some wonderful flavours in the remaining four courses.

Next on the menu was the tandoori lobster, another dish I’d been looking forward to given my love of it’s main ingredient. But, as I should perhaps have expected, the strong Indian spices disguised the subtle flavour of this luscious crustacean. The lobster was served on a shaped bed of cauliflower and curry leaf rice with a healthy pool of thick, ochre sauce. Unfortunately the sauce contained one pungent flavour that I just couldn’t bear and scraping the sauce off the lobster didn’t help. The menu description mentioned sour spices and cocoa (the latter was dusted over the dish after it had been brought to the table, though I couldn’t detect it). Curious about the ingredient I was finding so offensive I asked our waitress what spice was used to impart the sour taste. She went to ask the chef and came back with a response of saffron, brandy and cardamom but none of these are particularly sour and I know I like all of them. My best guesses on the mystery flavour would be fenugreekor tamarind but I’m not sure at all. My friend didn’t have any aversion to this dish though she didn’t find it special either.

Our next dish seemed to be the main one as it came with (shared) rice and naan bread. Both of us were served individual dishes containing lamb, butter chicken and cumin spinach. I’m not sure whether the lamb was actually the nariyal ka gosht described on our menu, cooked in coconut milk, mustard seeds and curry leaves, or the rogan josh, listed in the regular menu, cooked in a rich onion & tomato sauce. Certainly the two flavours that stood out were tomato and ginger rather than coconut. Either way, it was tender, well-flavoured and enjoyable. The butter chicken was the most pedestrian dish of the entire meal for me and better left to the local curry house; certainly nothing innovative or distinctive about it. The spinach consisted of large wilted leaves rather than the more finely-chopped Indian standard and tasted more strongly of garlic than cumin. The naan bread was light and managed to be moist and crispy at the same time. The winning dish from this course for both of us was the rice which was mouthwatering. Certain that we could taste something dainty, perfumed and floral in amongst the saffron we asked our waitress to tell us more about it’s preparation. The chef sent a reply admitting only to milk, cardamom and saffron but both of us are determined to try a few drops of rose water or kewra essence (made from pandanus flowers) in our rice next time we cook up an Indian feast!

Overall neither of us felt this last dish really fit in with the earlier part of the menu with it’s more innovative, fusion flair. Certainly we didn’t need it in terms of hunger as we were very satisfied already and it seemed to pander overly to those expecting the standard curry house fare.

At this point we took a break and headed to the bar for a breather. The restaurant had filled up and was rather too warm and we appreciated the cooler air nearer to the door. On our return to the table we were served small glasses of “lychee granite” over which champagne was liberally poured. Pushing aside thoughts of marble worktops, I was surprised at how successful the lychee and champagne combination was and I found the chunky textured ice of the granité more interesting than a straightforward sorbet and just as refreshing.

The dessert finalé was a bit of a let down after the deft touch shown in so many of the courses that preceded it and I don’t think this was wholly down to our already feeling quite full. We were each served a plate with several sweets presented on it. The large pot of rose water and vanilla crème brulée was too sweet even for my exceedingly sweet tooth and I couldn’t make out the rose flavouring at all. A huge chocolate slab was billed as a “silk” with mentions of pistachios, pine kernels and cashew nuts but again, the chocolate was overly sweet and it reminded me of the cheaply-produced brownie I’d bought from a train station coffee shop that same morning. The chunk of pineapple marinated in saffron and blasted in the tandoori oven was served over a bed of “pineapple halva” which I liked very much – here at last was an innovative fusion of traditional semolina-based halva with a new pineapple twist. Most popular with both of us was the rose petal kulfi in which one could easily find whole, slightly crunchy petals smothered in the creamy pink ice-cream. A small pile of finely diced fresh mango and strawberry completed the dessert plate, most of which we left unfinished.

My friend’s comment on the 6 wines that were chosen to accompany this set menu was that whilst they were perfectly acceptable and reasonably priced for a restaurant of this calibre, none stood out either as exceptionally strong or poor choices for their partner dish. Servings of each were quite small which suited my friend but might disappoint someone expecting standard servings of the reds and whites. Champagne and dessert wine servings were more standard in size.

Most of the staff are friendly and helpful though our main waitress was difficult to understand (both due to her quiet speaking voice and strong accent) as well as quite reluctant to elaborate on what we were eating beyond the basic stock description given on the point of serving. A smile wouldn’t go amiss either. Our main waiter was both friendlier and more accommodating and also seemed more knowledgeable and we also had a friendly visit from General Manager, Luigi Gaudino.

Overall, we both enjoyed the meal very much and agreed that the first half of the menu was by far the most enjoyable, exciting, innovative and appealing. If we come again, and we’d both like to do so, we’ll probably ask in advance whether a menu based on the starters only can be arranged or perhaps order from the a la carte menu, though many of the gems we enjoyed are missing from it’s pages.

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