Zaika has a pleasingly convoluted history. Pay attention, now. It opened in 1999 under the auspices of chef Vineet Bhati and two years later won a Michelin star – the first time an Indian restaurant had received the accolade (two did that year). It held onto the star for four years, during which time it moved from its original home in Chelsea to swanky new digs in Kensington.
But in 2004, Bhatia moved back to Chelsea to open Rasoi; Zaika lost its Michelin star and never really recovered. Fast forward to 2012, when The Tamarind Collection – owners of Tamarind of Mayfair, the other Indian to win a Michelin star in 2001 – took over Zaika. What better way, you might think, to reinvigorate the place than this meeting of subcontinental dining dynasties?
Only it didn’t reopen as Zaika, or as an Indian at all – it became an Italian. Because why not? And it was almost exactly a year ago today that I sat in the re-christened One Kensington complaining about the community hall lighting, the timid food, the exorbitant prices and the general lack of direction.
In a cruel twist of the knife, Gymkhana opened in Mayfair a few weeks later with exactly the kind of adventurous Indian menu One Kensington should have been serving. Gymkhana was named restaurant of the year; One Kensington quietly closed its doors. So it goes.
Not to be deterred, The Tamarind Collection spruced the place up, brought in a new team headed by executive chef Sanjay Gour, re-rebranded it Zaika and pretended that the whole One Kensington thing had never happened. What One Kensington thing? Exactly. The result is a vast improvement. The dining room – a rather awkward former banking hall – is warmer and gloomier. The lofty ceiling is broken up by low-hanging chandeliers and gilt-framed prints fill the acres of space above the dark wood panelling.
The new menu specialises in north India’s Awadhi cuisine, which borrows elements of Middle Eastern and European cooking. And, for the most part, it’s good. Sometimes it’s even very good.
The Malai chicken tikka I had to start, for instance, was perfect – soft and buttery, served with a little squadge of green chilli and coriander. Grilled tiger prawns were fat and juicy and just the right amount of spicy. Lamb chops marinaded in papaya, fennel and star anise, though, weren’t half as interesting as they sounded, and the brown tubes of sheek kebab returned to the kitchen almost untouched.
The chicken biryani – its domed pie-crust lopped off at the table – was excellent, each cumin seed and cluster of spices distinct and vibrant. The slow-cooked lamb shanks in a thick broth of “aromatic spices” – again carved from the bone at the table – promised much but was something of a damp squib, the mild, slightly smoky sauce too meek for the pungent lamb.
Dessert – which I rarely look forward to in an Indian restaurant – was the unexpected high-point; rich scoops of mango and pistachio ice cream; a lime tart with real zing; and a “bounty bar” of glistening chocolate smothered on coconut nougat, served with apricot puree and garnished with a little flower. I washed it down with a decent bottle of Indian viognier.
As is de rigueur with a curry, I packaged up what I didn’t eat and had it for breakfast the next morning, which confirmed that the biryani was indeed lovely and the lamb shanks were indeed disappointing.
But at least this time around I’m discussing low-level gripes like the flavour of the lamb broth instead of bigger issues like, oh: YOU OPENED THE WRONG RESTAURANT YOU BUFFOONS. And on those terms, the new Zaika should be seen as a roaring success.
First published in City A.M.