A welcome assault on the senses
Overall rating on a scale of 1-10
Service 9 Food 8 Ambiance 9 Price – $$$
After doing some research, I learned that “Zaika” means “taste” or “full of flavor.” I was optimistic that this was a good omen for my first visit to the Clifton Park restaurant – but, let’s be honest here, Zaika could have easily been named “place where Indian food is served” and I’d be excited to review it.
The adventure began when my dining companion, Peter, and I approached Zaika, housed in a square, wooden building, located right behind Clifton Country Mall. The large outdoor tiki-style bar threw me. As soon as we walked inside, the familiar comforting aromas and draped fabric dcor I generally associate with Indian restaurants, surrounded us.
We had reservations, a good thing, because on this Saturday evening the place was hopping. Warmly welcomed by the hostess, we were immediately led to a table on the perimeter of the circular dining room, one of two dining rooms in the restaurant. As soon as we were seated, we were handed menus. A basket of Papadum, a crispy flatbread typically served as a meal accompaniment, along with a tamarind chutney and a refreshing Raita sauce made from yogurt and fresh herbs.
As we munched on our condiment-drenched Papadum I took in the surroundings. The circular shape of the room was unique, and seemed to create a communal environment, both cozy and comfortable. Even though the room was full of diners, the draped fabric walls provided a level of sound proofing, providing both a functional and aesthetic element.
I ordered a house Pinot Grigio, light and crisp, and a good way to cut through any rich and spicy foods to come. Peter decided to go authentic by ordering a Taj Mahal, a refreshing lager-style beer brewed in India.
Realizing we could easily fill up on bread alone, we decided to share the Pakora appetizer, ($4.50), a selection of eggplant, cauliflower, onions and potatoes, coated in a chickpea flour, then deep-fried. Our server brought them out quickly, disappearing almost as fast. The generous portion was piping hot and well prepared, both tender and a little crunchy, not heavy or oily. Dipped in the spicy and sweet tamarind chutney, the Pakora proved to be an enjoyable introduction to the menu.
Zaika’s menu leans a little more toward Northern Indian cuisine, less spicy and not unlike Pakistani cuisine, features more dairy and meat than Southern Indian cuisine. However, both regions were represented on the menu, in the form of curries, tandoori dishes, kebabs and a generous selection of vegetarian entrees.
One thing was clear, the choice would be a tough one. I opted for the Fish Curry ($17.50) featuring breaded and fried cod fillets in a rich curry sauce, served with basmati rice. I’ve never had a seafood curry, so I eagerly awaited my dinner. Also, have too often experienced the inclination of some Indian restaurants chefs to tone down the spice level accommodating Western palates. Because of this, I wanted to assure our server that this would not be necessary: “Bring on the spice!” I wanted to say. However, I forgot. I know, now you’ve lost all confidence in me as an eating professional. I’m happy to report that when my meal did arrive, the chef did not compromise the authenticity of the dish by adjusting the spice level.
The intensely flavored curry was brimming with turmeric, cumin, coriander and plenty of red pepper, resulting in just the right amount of “kick.” The fish was tender, flaky and mild, a nice foil to the assertive sauce. It took all of my self-control not to lick the bowl; however, if I was dining alone, I can’t promise it would not have happened.
Peter decided on one of the vegetarian dishes, Kadai Paneer ($12.50), Indian cheese cooked with spices, peppers, onions, also served with basmati rice. “Paneer” is one of the few types of cheese indigenous to India. Mild and creamy, the cheese takes on the flavor of whatever it is being cooked with, not unlike tofu. I was skeptical about trying this dish, but it turned out to be so exceptional, I would order it for myself in the future. It was full of contrasting textures and flavors; both sweet and spicy, full of crunchy onions and peppers and cubes of soft, silky cheese. Peter would have to guard his dish closely the rest of the night.
We accompanied our dinners with the obligatory, (at least in my book), side of Naan, ($2.50). There were several varieties offered, including Tikka Naan, stuffed with chicken tikka, but to best complement the complex flavors in our dinners, we ordered traditional plain Naan. It was slightly crispy on one side and soft on the other, brushed with melted butter, with a toasty flavor that comes from baking it in a hot tandoor oven.
For dessert, we shared the Mango Lassi ($3.75), a blended fruit and yogurt drink, similar to a smoothie. Unsweetened varieties typically accompany a meal, but we thought this sweet variety would be a pleasant way to end a hearty, spicy meal. Our server brought out the lassi in a large glass with two straws, a nice touch. It was cool, rich and fruity. We gave it our best shot, but could sadly only finish half of it. This was not a reflection on the drink, just a tribute to the rest of the satisfying meal.
At the end of the evening, my overall impression of Zaika was very favorable. The staff was attentive and eager to please, the atmosphere was cheerful and friendly, and best of all, the food was authentic and true to its name–full of flavor.
The total cost for one glass of wine, one beer, one appetizer, two entrees, a side dish and one dessert (excluding tax and tip) was a very reasonable $57.
Zaika is located at 54 Clifton Country Road in Clifton Park. Dinner hours are Mon – Sat: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday: 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. For more information, call 688.1548 or 817.3953 go to www.zaika-anindianrestaurant.com.
Christina DeMers is an online marketing manager, food blogger and amateur cook who lives in East Greenbush, but eats just about anywhere.