1 Kensington High St, W8 5NP, www.zaika-restaurant.co.uk
A top-notch Negroni, a Manhattan, and a bowl of smoked almonds. Both the situation and that Manhattan are perfect, the second quite literally – effortlessly occupying that narrow territory between too dry and too sweet. Seeing as we’re getting such a good-value dinner, a pre-pre-theatre menu aperitif seems more reward for our smart dining plan than profligate excess. That’s how we’re justifying it, anyway.
Zaika‘s bar area is quietly opulent – occupying a soft-furnished, jewel-toned cosy corner of the high-ceilinged, library-ish restaurant. With a duo of decoctions and a selection of Indian bar snacks yoursfor £20, we’re sorely tempted to remain and work our way through the cocktail list, making a meal of morsels like crisp Devon crab-stuffed puris, tandoori paneer and almond-crusted potato and sago cakes . But we’d probably end up horizontal, never a good look in such a well-heeled eatery.
The advantage of early dining means we’re able to resist late-afternoon noxious nibbling- that mindless grazing that seems to kick in as some sort of primitive response to knowing you’re got a long hungry wait for your tea. We also get to pick a prime spot, opting for a curved banquette that’s kind on the behind whilst providing ample opportunity to ogle. Not so much fellow diners, you understand, as their grub. Gives a broader, if regretfully vicarious, flavour of the menu.
The high-end nature of Zaika means there’s the occasional spot of inter-course amusement to titillate the appetite. A dusting of that magical, sulphurous elixir, chaat masala, never fails to twang the tastebuds – sprinkled over a paneer pakora and anointed with sour-sweet tamarind chutney, it’s a welcome beginning. The pre-theatre menu is nicely concise- 3 starters, 3 mains and a duo of puds. Skimming the extensive a la carte, it’s a relief to have some of the agonising taken off my hands.
Ottolenghi, that giant couscous zealot, would no doubt find the on-trend grilled moghrabieh cakes to his taste- tough, Yotam they’re to mine, too, and I’m not sharing. I tell a lie, I do exchange one of the satisfying patties for a go at the lip-smacking crumbed spiced haddock with its lobster butter and curried tartare. There’s a couple of fries, too, in a Lilliputian silver frying basket so covetable I’d predict it to become essential trophy thieving for any London food blogger worth his or her Halen Mon.
I’m not too’well jel’, though- I’ve got a whacking hunk of crisp-skinned cod for my main, concealing the garlicky mushroom it’s sat on. It’s the best-cooked piece of fish I’ve had in a long time, delicate enough to allow appreciation of a subtle tomato-cumin sauce and the gunky unctuousness of a baby aubergine. Extra sauce is offered, although I reckon if you’re bold enough to serve it judiciously in the first place, stick to your guns. Zaika diners shouldn’t be after a Brick Lane bhuna.
In fact, the only thing remotely’curryhouse’ is the vindaloo sauce that accompanies succulent poussin grilled in a Goan green marinade- and even that’s in name only, more akin to its tasty Indo-Portuguese ancestor than that chilli powder-enriched base gravy. Naan and paratha both confirm there’s a skilled roti-wallah in the kitchen. Mains are complete dishes, but for me daal is non-negotiable. Zaika‘s comes as a dainty duo- rich black and home-style yellow. Both are top.
Approaching pudding in an Indian restaurant I often get a bit anxious- sometimes because I’ve eaten too much, but just as often because the diverse and delicious scope of the Indian repertoire is neglected in favour of a banal, basic list. Kulfi can be great or lacklustre- this is the former, lychee and pistachio flavours both. My stand-your-spoon-up-thick cinnamon chocolate mousse puts a huge grin on my gob. Thankfully, that current scouge of puds- popping candy- is restricted to the surface only.
With the menu starting from £22.50, and the option for tacking on paired wines for another tenner, the pre-theatre offer is a canny way to have an elegant evening for about the same as what you’d deposit on some distinctly dirty food in Soho. The refined, subtle, sophisticated tastes and suitably sublime hospitality of Zaika, or queuing down a’fragrant’ alleyway for the dubious privilege of being ripped off by a knowing team of smug scenesters? I think I know where the smart money is.