Dishoom – Not Quite Va-Va-Voom

Dishoom
12 Upper St Martin’s Lane
London WC2H 9FB
Website
Map
Phone: +44 (0)20 7420 9320 (note: no reservations taken)

  • Breakfast from £3.20-8.50, small plates from £2-4.50, mains from £6.50-9.20, desserts from £2-5
  • For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal

Dishoom purports to be London’s first authentic Bombay Café. There is certainly some potential in the food, though based on my visits, there seemed to be issues with consistency at this early stage. It is not the type of place that would ever totally blow my socks off, but it could develop into being a good middle-of-the-road Indian restaurant with a twist. Given the time & money they are spending on their image & branding, it certainly appears as if the idea is to roll these out across the town, and the country for that matter, but only time will tell. It is certainly a pleasant space & if the present issues can be resolved, it’s not a bad venue for a jovial meal if you’re in the area – but nothing more than that, in my book.

An interloping lunch

I found out that my friend @mathildecuisine was having lunch near my office. She happened to be dining at Dishoom, an Indian restaurant on the restaurant row that Upper St Martin’s Lane has suddenly become. It had just recently launched – hey, another day, another restaurant opening in London – and I figured it was a good excuse to try it. I only found out at the last minute that she was going to be joined by recently retired food blogger extraordinaire @foodieguide. I politely asked if I could crash their little party and become a lady who lunches too, in a matter of speaking of course, and was pleasantly surprised that the answer was ‘yes’ on such short notice.

I actually used to work within about 10 seconds of the restaurant, and was slightly perturbed to see that there are now a bunch of new places sprouting up in the immediate vicinity which weren’t there when I was. But I’m still only a short walk away, so it’s not the end of the world.

What time is it? Lunchtime, silly.

Dishoom looks attractive from outside and, given the fact that it has an all-window shell, you can easily see in to get a sense of the dining room as well. Once inside, it’s all black metal, dark wood, marble and brass. It is tastefully done, and it has a nice vibe once it is full with patrons.

The slick dining room

There has been a lot of comment amongst the twitterati about the Bollywood-style pictures and mish-mash of memorabilia (the accusation being that they’re of the cookie-cutter faux variety), but @kristainlondon (who is currently reinventing her virtual identity since having recently moved to Chicago) knows someone who knows the owners and apparently it is either mostly or all their own personal photos and artefacts. They must have one glamorous lady in the family, that’ all I can say. Whatever you might think about the authenticity of the decor, there is definitely attention to detail (check out the female loos – not that I did of course) throughout.

The menu

Anyway, I arrived to find my fair ladies already there, so we got down to the business of ordering pretty quickly.

A tough call

We ordered a few small plates and a few mains and, being food bloggers (or at least retired ones), we were naturally going to share and make sure we tasted everything.

Café Crisps

First up was a little snack to tide us over until the proper food arrived. They were advertised as being “handmade and tangy” on the menu, and while I assume the former is true, the latter descriptor was definitely apt. While I started out slow (a crisp here, a crisp there), they soon became rather addictive and I felt like I was eating more than my dining companions, which was especially rude given they are both such elegant ladies. An LF FP (faux pas) to say the least. Pardone moi!

Trio of Chutneys

The crisps came with a trio of chutneys but for some reason I opted not to sample them, so they just sat there looking pretty. Is it just me, or are other people often confused about which chutneys are supposed to go with which dishes? Oh right, so it’s just me then.

Trio of Lassis

We did however delve into our liquid trio of lassis: mango & fennel, rose & cardamom, and a salted plain one. I had the mango & fennel lassi, which was perfectly passable, though it wasn’t thick or creamy enough for me and could have had a bit more mango flavour running through it. I wasn’t blown away.

Dishoom Calamari

The menu informed us that the calamari would be served “with zesty lime and chilli.” There must have been quite a bit of sugar (or some other sweetening agent) in them as well, because it was rather sweet overall. I didn’t mind this so much as I have a natural disposition toward sweet things, but while the lime and chilli were there in the background, the flavors could have been a little better balanced. That said, they were perfectly crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, without the taint of rubberiness which so often blights poorly cared for calamari.

Spicy Lamb Chops

We had ordered two lamb dishes which sounded very appetizing from the menu descriptions. The first I tried was the spicy lamb chops, which were meant to be “rubbed with crushed black pepper and chillies.” It certainly looked like they would be tasty. The problem here was that the chops themselves had been woefully overcooked, leaving them with a literally leathery toughness. Therefore, while they had been well marinated, the dish was not really worth eating.

Lamb Boti Kabab

Unfortunately, our silence on the lamb continued with the lamb boti kabab. These cubes of lamb had a reddish hue and smelled delicious (if that’s possible?) but were insanely dry and chewy, therefore leaving us devoid of pleasure from our second main course in a row. The menu said it was meant to be “juicy spiced mince lamb with cumin and lime.” Well, they were certainly not juicy, although they were spicy, and I suppose there was some cumin and lime in there somewhere, but all I can remember is the dryness of the lamb itself.

It should be noted that other people I know who had the lamb dishes at Dishoom in the opening weeks said that their meat had been better cooked and was not at all tough, so maybe this simply points to the inconsistencies of a new kitchen.

Dishoom Chicken Tikka

Luckily, a hero turned up to save the day, in the most unlikely of guises. Who would have thought “chicken tikka” at an Indian restaurant trying to stand out and be different would be the dish of the meal? Well, I can confidently say that, along with the calamari, it was one of the two best things we sampled. The meat itself was serenely succulent and the ginger and chilli (both green and red) flavours came through beautifully. It was zesty and meaty at the same time; an excellent dish.

Foodie Guide had ordered some of the house black dahl, and it never turned up. She reminded the waitress about it a bit later, whose response was, “Oh, do you still want that?”, to which she replied with a pretty perturbed “Yes!” It arrived shortly thereafter and it was different, that’s for sure. It had a very rich and sweet tomato flavor, which was not exactly what I was expecting given the normal yellow lentil dahl I’m accustomed to eating. I liked it though, even if it was a tad too sweet, sort of like the calamari. As we were engaged in conversation at that point, I forgot to take a picture of it – another LF FP.

The bill

For a mixed bag of a meal, luckily the damage to our wallets (and purses) wasn’t all that severe, with nothing tipping the £10 marker.

I would add “no overcooking of lamb” to the café rules

As we didn’t opt for dessert – they were “being good” you see – I headed back to Gino, a new-ish gelato place I had walked by on the way (well, it wasn’t really on the way, but who’s checking) to sample some of their frozen fare, and was pretty satisfied with that ending to the meal.

Dark chocolate & coffee gelato from Gino

Ah, but wait, the story doesn’t end there. There is a brief breakfast addendum.

Feeling hot-hot-hot

You see, Dishoom’s tweeter told me to come in and try their breakfast and chai. I promised to do so, and did. For sake of clarity, I paid and was both unannounced and anonymous. When I turned up, there was an army of people (they looked like consultants and/or PR people…and I should know) holding all kinds of meetings with the people I presumed to be the owners/managers. I slunk off to an empty booth – actually the whole place was empty and I think I was the only paying customer there for a good while.

I must say I found the breakfast menu to be slightly odd. I don’t know everything about Indian food and culture, but I do know a bit, and I would question how authentic a breakfast of porridge, cinnamon rolls or granola is for a “Bombay Café.” In any case, I went for the more Indian-sounding stuff.

House Chai

I duly ordered a cup of their house chai, and it arrived in a dainty glass. It was pretty good. It’s definitely not the best I’ve had, but it displayed a nice texture (I prefer it to be a tad creamier) and good spicing. I had to add a bit of sugar to get it to the level of sweetness that I prefer.

Bombay Omelette

The Bombay Omelette arrived in cling-wrap roll form, hunched over a marvellously grilled piece of toast, and accentuated by the crimson of some vine tomatoes which had also been grilled. The omelette was well cooked and hid a wealth of spices in its central core. D*mn that thing was spicy, but it was the kind of spice I kept wanting to eat more of, so that was a good thing. (Maybe it’s no coincidence that the dish’s acronym is BO?). The tomatoes were sweet and the bread was, well, bread, and I thought it could have used a touch of a sauce to alleviate what was a rather dry plate. Looking at the picture now, I guess I could have had the tomatoes and toast together, but I wasn’t that clever at the time. I did add a touch of ketchup to the omelette every now and then – I am American, after all – which I thought in this case actually worked.

So breakfast was pleasant and, given they have free Wi-Fi, you could presumably work from here for a good part of the day without too much trouble (or expense) – though I’m not sure how they’d take to that!

The only one?

Overall, I guess I sort of like Dishoom. It’s not the kind of place I’d travel across town for, but given it’s within about a five-minute walk of my work, it is the type of restaurant I’d frequent on occasion. They also have a downstairs, which wasn’t open during my meals. It seems quite cavernous and could alleviate the waiting that diners apparently often endure in the evening due to the no reservation policy.

It certainly appears as if Dishoom is taking its image, branding and corporate reputation very seriously and that his is a template that could be easily copy and pasted across the town, and the country for that matter. So maybe that’s the plan. My only reservation (pardon the pun) would be consistency, as with all chains of whatever size. Even if they can manage to sort out the consistency in their original restaurant, it is a whole new ball game once there are multiple sites.

*Note: I have dined at Dishoom twice, once for lunch and once for breakfast.*

Dishoom on Urbanspoon

Gino Gelato on Urbanspoon

Malabar – The Indian Meal that Tasted of Nothing

Malabar
17 Uxbridge Street
London W8 7TQ
Website
Map
Reservations: +44 (0)20 7727 8800

Starters at £3.65-11.25; Mains at £7.35-13.60, Sides at £4.50, Desserts at £3.50, Sunday Lunch Buffet at £10.50

If you fancy going to an Indian restaurant that has fairly nice decor, a good buzz on a weekend night, a menu that reads well & food that tastes of absolutely nothing, then Malabar is your place. I sincerely hope the Flavor Gods can bestow their blessings upon Malabar’s kitchen in the near future, otherwise I fear they will go out of business. If they don’t, it simply means their clientele couldn’t give a toss as to what they eat, but are more interested in how many Cobras or glasses of wine they can down before going out for the evening.

We needed a curry in a hurry

It was January, we were back from France. There we were, for some unbeknownst and unforgivable reason, watching the worst series so far of Gordon Ramsay’s F Word. The only good thing about the particular episode was the food emanating from the mind and hands of Aktar Islam, the Head Chef of Lasan, one of the ‘local’ Indian restaurants that had been nominated by viewers as ‘the best local Indian restaurant’ in the country. I had to admit, the guy’s food had some flare and, if it tasted even close to as good as it looked, it must have been pretty amazing. He certainly seemed intent on pushing Indian cuisine beyond the normal confines of the UK restaurant scene. To make a long story short, this guy was getting us in the mood for a good curry, so we decided we would have an Indian meal the next night, which happened to be a Friday.

Lasan, the Birmingham-based Indian restaurant led by Chef Aktar Islam, that won the F Word’s best restaurant in 2009, had gotten us in the mood for some good Indian food

So we went through the list of good Indian places that we could go. But we didn’t want anything fancy (so places like Zaika, Tamarind, Benares, etc. were out), and we didn’t want to go too far from home. After quite an in-depth Google rampage, I thought I had done the unthinkable and uncovered one of London’s hidden gems. It had no blogger reviews on Urbanspoon, but lots of great comments in an array of less noted diner forums alluding to the fact that this was a ‘hidden neighborhood jewel’ of a restaurant in Notting Hill which mostly only locals frequented and that they had some rather unusual dishes when compared to traditional curry houses. After perusing their menu online through their rather annoying site (why have two sites instead of one?), I felt quite confident when making our reservation that we just may be onto a winner. If only life could be so simple…

How to make food that tastes of nothing

We had actually walked by this restaurant a few times on strolls through Notting Hill over the past few years, so knew where it was and that it looked the part looking from the outside in. It certainly continued to look the part as we entered that Friday night and were led from the ground floor dining room to the downstairs one, where we were given a table along the back wall, which had bench seating on the wall side of the table and chairs on the other. The place was decorated simply but tastefully in a modern slightly-nicer-than-IKEA way. It also had a good buzz, with large tables of friends downing Cobras (okay, so maybe this wasn’t going to be as refined as I thought it might be, but it could still be good), and generally appearing to have a good time.

The decor was plain, minimal, modern & there was certainly a buzz about the place

We had a look through the menu, and it read very well. There were lots of dishes that sounded appetizing and tempting, and a number of dishes I had not seen on other Indian menus elsewhere in London. Despite Mrs. LF’s dietary situation (as you will know from recent posts, she didn’t have appetite for anything very ambitious given her stage of pregnancy), I insisted that I would order at least one of the more interesting dishes which I had read were good from other diner reviews.

The menu read well, with many Indian options we hadn’t seen before, and the carafe of water was pretty

The waiter brought us a carafe of water, which was presented in a nice aqua colored glass vessel and I perused the small but adequately thought-out wine list and chose a glass of the house wine (Hazy View, Chenin Blanc, Western Cape, South Africa at £4 per 125ml glass), which I figured would mesh well with the flavors of the Indian food. Decorative silver plates were laid down on the table and the waiters seemed to be kind, efficient and professional.

Starter 1: Chilli Bhutta – sweet corn kernels mixed with fresh green chillies & green pepper

Our first starter sounded like it might be a bit different as I had never personally had corn with chillies. Unfortunately, it didn’t excite our palates at all. In a nutshell, this dish could be described as someone taking a tin of sweet corn, emptying it onto a little silver platter, chopping up a few slices of green peppers, and throwing in a few green chillies. Yeah, it tasted like plain old sweet corn that a college student had tried to dress up by chucking some green stuff in. Nothing totally clashed, but nothing was working together either, and it just tasted boring if slightly weird. Strike one. 3/10.

Starter 2: Devilled Kaleja – charcoal grilled chicken livers, marinated in yoghurt, mustard oil & paprika

As John Torode or Gregg Wallace might say, “So, from sweet corn to devilled liver.” Yeah, I had gone with something a bit more ambitious. My starter of devilled chicken liver arrived on a huge black hot plate, lying on a bed of onions. The portion size was ginormous…I mean this literally could have been a main course. Possibly this is because the starters were meant to be shared family-style, but the waiters never warned us of this.

In any case, I was eager to try what was meant to be one of the kitchen’s specialties, but my excitement was sorely misplaced. As I bit into the relatively soft meat, I searched for the words to describe the taste. It did taste faintly of chicken liver, just. I could tell there were some spices thrown in, but none of them came through clearly. Basically, it was a lot of a something that had the tender texture of liver, the faint taste of liver and not much else, stuck on top of some not very flavorful or well-cooked onions. In a word: muted. I don’t know why, but I have this horrible habit of trying to finish everything on my plate (even when it tastes as boring and bland as this did), and Mrs. LF eventually succeeded in getting me to stop about two-thirds of the way through. What a waste of a dish. Again it didn’t taste ‘bad’, per se, but tasted of very little. 3/10.

Main Course 1: Harra Murg – chicken prepared with fresh lime, green chillies, coriander & green tomatoes // Main Course 2: Murg Makhni – barbecued chicken slow cooked with butter, cream & kasuri methi // Side Dish: Kaddu – spiced pumpkin & fresh herbs

Surely we would do better with the main courses. I had ordered the Murg Makhni, which sounded like it would be a succulently barbecued chicken soaking in a rich butter sauce. What emerged was chicken that had no hint of being barbecued, but was rather dry and severely lacking in flavor, a sauce that was more tasteless than any I’ve had from the many local curry houses I’ve lived near throughout my nearly ten years in London. Yes, I was getting the distinct feeling that everything we were going to be served at this meal was going to taste of nothing. 2/10.

I was certain that Mrs. LF’s chicken main, which was meant to have ‘fresh lime, green chillies, coriander and green tomatoes’, would have to have at least some kick of flavor. No. Once again, it was dressed nicely but was completely devoid of character and flavor. It didn’t taste ‘bad’, but it also didn’t taste ‘good’. It just tasted of an Indian dish whose soul had been sucked out by the flavor devil and banished to hell where it would never be tasted again by a living soul (perhaps this was why my liver dish’s moniker included ‘devilled’? It certainly wasn’t spicy or hot). 2/10.

The Kaddu, or pumpkin, side dish deserves special mention. It hadn’t been skinned competently and was taken from the hard part of the pumpkin near the edges, not the nice soft center bit. So it was rock hard and followed the pattern of the meal by having no seasoning whatsoever and tasting of bland, watered down pumpkin at best, and nothing at worst. Where were the ‘spice’ and ‘fresh herbs’ that the menu description had promised? 1/10.

Starches: Rice & Peshwari Naan

At a lot of Indian restaurants that suck, you can often say, “Well, at least the rice was good.” Uh-uh, not at Malabar. It was completely normal at best and lacking of any aroma or taste. 3/10. The Peshwari Naan, which I usually really enjoy (due to my rather sweet tooth), seemed to us to be like one of the naan breads you buy from the supermarket and warm up yourself. It was the worst I’ve ever had in a restaurant, with the bread being totally undercooked and the filling inside being way too pasty and thoroughly uninspiring. We tried to eat about half of it, but left most of the bread. 2/10.

The most flavorful part of the meal

Mrs. LF was quite anxious to leave at this point, and I really didn’t fancy tasting a dessert that looked like it would taste sweet, but in fact was just a mirage of a pudding, so we opted to get the hell out of there. Some bright little mints were brought to the table with our bill. They were the sugar-coated dry seeded spices that you often get at the end of an Indian meal. I shoved a handful in my mouth and smiled. By God, these actually tasted of something. Praise the Lord. I think I polished off the entire bowl in 30-seconds flat, I was so glad to have some serious flavor alive and kicking around in my mouth.

Paying something for nothing

Unfortunately, reality set in and I realized I was going to have to fork out £40+ for something that had seriously depressed us. We chalked it up to experience, thanked the waiters for looking after us (they had done a decent job, to be fair, it was the kitchen that had sorely let us down), and headed back to our car thoroughly unsatisfied and with an empty feeling in our stomachs.

The ugly truth: they were going to charge us for this

I couldn’t help but think of the monster in one of my favorite childhood films, The Neverending Story. It is called ‘The Nothing’ and it is devours everything in its path, eradicating any shred of creativity, joy or life. This force seems to have swept through the kitchen of Malabar. Maybe our meal that night had been the shell of the former restaurant, which has been in the same location since 1983, and may once have been somewhere good to eat. I mean, if it’s been around that long, it must have been good at some point(s), right?

What awaited us at Malabar was The Nothing, the most dreaded enemy in one of my favorite childhood movies, The Neverending Story, that devours every sentiment of creativity, enjoyment & life

We did have to cover our faces in our hands when we heard the posh English lady sitting next to us exclaiming loudly how ‘wonderful’ and ‘amazing’ her food tasted, so that she wouldn’t see our shock and awe. I simply can’t believe that her dishes, which looked very similar to ours (in fact, a few were the same), could have been much better. But the place did seem to be inexplicably packed with people who were definitely enjoying themselves.

I was more than appalled to learn a few weeks after our meal that Malabar holds a Bib Gourmand in the UK Michelin Guide. This does make me seriously question the judgement of Michelin as I can’t believe that even on its best night this kitchen could turn out anything that warrants that kind of accolade. At its height, I can only envisage Malabar’s food as bland and inoffensive, but certainly not something that stands out as the best food of its type to be had at a good price.

So, even if for some perverse reason, you fancy an Indian meal that is style over substance, still don’t go to Malabar, as there are many other pretenders to the throne that at least will give you some flavor. I mean, even places like Imli have some dishes that taste good and are vaguely satisfying. Malabar definitely needs a kick up its backside, and I hope its seemingly large client base can at least give it some constructive criticism, though I doubt this may happen as most of the people who we observed on this night seemed to be having a pretty good time.

Rating

Ambience: 5/10

Service: 6/10

Food: 2/10

Wine: very short, but a decent wine list for a neighborhood Indian restaurant

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Malabar once (thank goodness), and it was for dinner.*

Malabar on Urbanspoon

Zaika – Go for the Food

Zaika
1 Kensington High Street
London W8 5NP
Website
Map
Online Reservations

Tasting menus from £39-58; À la carte starters from £7.50-£12.50, mains from £16-21 and desserts at £6.50

It is a shame that Zaika’s innovative, flavorful and well executed food & grand space are let down by an inconsistent and generally unprofessional dining experience

It is a shame that Zaika’s innovative, flavorful and well executed food & grand space are let down by an inconsistent and generally unprofessional dining experience

The memory of ‘that’ taste just wouldn’t go away…

A few years ago, I visited Taste of London for the first time. I had a lot of good food on a gray and drizzly London afternoon, as you do. I distinctly remember a small dish from a restaurant named Zaika, which I had never been too, and the refined modern Indian taste of that little morsel somehow managed to ingrain itself into my head ever since. I have therefore been meaning to actually go and dine at Zaika for a long time now, and finally managed to do so last Friday after work. Mrs. LF had been there once before for a business dinner (i.e. she didn’t have to pick up the tab), and said that the food was excellent but that the service was pretty horrendous.

So, duly prepared for what might be awaiting, I left work promptly, got delayed on the Circle Line (what else is new?), and arrived uncharacteristically late by about 10 minutes. I tried to snap a picture of the facade, but my Blackberry camera just wasn’t up to it (see effort below). I stepped inside, eager to see what this place was all about and to hopefully end the working week on a high note.

Zaika's Facade

Zaika's Facade

Can we have 5 minutes to actually read the menu, please?

I was greeted by a very pleasant Eastern European woman whom I informed that my wife had already arrived, and she knew exactly which table I was after. As I was in a bit of a rush, I didn’t really take in much of the environs, except to notice that it was a very old and grand space, and that it seemed to be decorated tastefully for the most part. I learned later that the building was originally a monastery and later became a bank, before being converted into the present-day restaurant. I soon settled and had a chance to survey the restaurant. I noticed aside from the large and semi-casual open space there was also a very pleasant, medium-sized bar area – always useful – and overheard a waiter espousing the merits of the cocktails more than a few times to other customers, whom he eventually converted to his line of thinking. But I was there for the food, so after chatting with a French member of staff (who I suspect had been trying to chat up Mrs. LF prior to my arrival as they seemed rather cosy with each other :)), we got the menus and got down to business.

The food at Zaika is under the direction of Sanjay Dwivedi, who originally hails from Delhi, but left at the age of 16 to pursue a life in London with his elder brother. He ended up putting in time at some very reputable establishments (including Le Caprice, The Ivy and The Lanesborough), and afterwards spent some time at restaurants in the Maldives and Los Angeles, and finally 6 months at Tabla in New York, which is a wonderful ‘new Indian cuisine’ restaurant that I used to enjoy visiting when I lived in that fair city. Zaika’s food mixes refined takes on Indian classics, along with some interesting flavor combinations which fuse Indian and Western tastes.

It was a very ‘in’ restaurant when it first opened its doors, and soon thereafter had the honour of being the sole Indian restaurant in London to hold a coveted Michelin star. However, it hasn’t had its star for a while now, and I was very curious to see what would be arriving on my plate, and how it would be presented.

There were 4 tasting menus by my memory, with the cheapest (and to me the most appetizing) being £39 for 6 courses, which is quite reasonable for dinner at a restaurant of this calibre in London. By the way, they are also doing a special ‘credit crunch’ lunch deal – £20 for 2 courses or £25 for 3 courses, including a glass of wine and coffee – which seems like good value. We, however, have been eating too many tasting menus as of late and wanted to give our stomachs and livers a rest, so we opted to go à la carte, even though we knew it would probably end up costing about the same as a tasting menu.

After perusing the various menus and choices (and it’s quite a bit of reading material) for no less than a minute or so, we were suddenly interrupted by a rather tactless and charmless waiter, who actually appeared to be running the floor. “You ready to order?” I felt like telling him where to put all of his various menus, but regained my composure and restrained myself by replying curtly, “We just got the menus, could we have a few minutes to look at them?” He said nothing and scuttled off. We couldn’t help but thinking that this kind of service would be more at home at our local Indian takeaway, which might be doing a disservice to them.

He finally did come back, and took our order. I tried to ask him a question about how a king prawn dish was served, and he didn’t quite seem to grasp what I was getting at. He was wholly un-engaging and completely disinterested in us all together – he was just there to get his order efficiently and rush it off to the kitchen. So we obliged. I cautiously asked him for a recommendation for a glass of wine, and he gave me two options – luckily, one of them was the one I had wanted to go for anyway, so I did, although I didn’t feel any more confident in my selection as he didn’t even bother to get the sommelier to come over (I hadn’t realized there was one at that point).

My flavorgraphic memory hadn’t let me down

So far, so shaky. I certainly didn’t feel very invited, but was still excited about the prospects of the food. My wine arrived quickly, already in its glass with no offer of seeing the bottle. It was a 2006 Grüner Veltliner Haidviertel Weinviertel Dac (Pfaffl, Austria), and it was good, refreshing and complex, as a proper Grüner should be. I was happy to be sipping on the perfectly chilled wine and my palate was now on high alert.

Soon after the wine arrived, another waiter (a young Spanish guy this time) came with an amuse bouche, which he explained as best he could. We made out that it was a Chicken and Yogurt Soup with a Chicken Pakora served on top. It was served in a little white china cup with a matching lid, on top of which was placed the little pakora, which tasted the part and had been deep fried adequately well. The little cup of soup was a revelation, and I detected coconut sweetness which was balanced beautifully by the sour streak of the yogurt. We thoroughly enjoyed it, and were now eager to see what would follow. 8/10 for the soup.

The starters arrived promptly after the teaser course had disappeared.

Tuna Chaat Starter

Tuna Chaat Starter

Starter 1:
Machli Chaat / Tuna Salad (£9): Seared yellow fin Tuna, crusted with mild spices, coriander & fennel seeds crushed jersey royals, green beans, coriander cress lime oil. My starter was fresh and fairly well executed. The tuna had been seared well, although the a few slices were a bit more well-done than they should have been. Overall the flavors worked well together and it was a nice dish, but nothing to write home about. 5.5/10.

Aloo Chaat Starter

Aloo Chaat Starter

Starter 2:
Aloo Chaat / Potato chaat (£7.50): Yukon ‘gold’ & globe artichoke ‘tikki’, black eye beans laced with tamarind chutney, sweetened yogurt & ‘garam’ flour vermicelli, topped with artichoke fritter. Mrs. LF’s chaat was much tastier, and was very well done. It was quite sizeable for a starter (actually, mine was too), and this refined version of classic Indian street food fit the bill. The best part about aloo chaat is the combination between the sweetness of the chutney, the creaminess of the yogurt and the starchiness of the potatoes. Although it was good, both of us agreed it didn’t hold a candle up to the Bombay Chat at La Portes des Indes, which comes in bite-sized portions and has much richer and distinct flavors. Still, it was a quite acceptable and very satisfying dish. 7/10.

The main courses were brought very soon after our starters were cleared, which unfortunately was in-keeping with the lead waiter’s ethos thus far.

Main Course 1:
Sarsonwala Titar / Tandoori guinea-fowl (£18.50). Tandoori breast of guinea fowl marinated in mustard and aromatic curry leaves, fired in the tandoor, ‘masala upma’ polenta, Asian greens, summer truffle shavings, chilli consommé. My main course was wicked and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Part of the guinea fowl had been baked in the tandoor, while other half appeared to have been cooked via more traditional methods (probably in pan). I was relieved to find the tandoori part of the bird to be extremely moist and infused with the flavors of the mustard marinade, as so often meat cooked in the tandoor can become dry, rubbery and flavorless. The consommé was excellent and definitely packed some heat (the right amount for me), the green beans added a good bit of crunch, and the summer truffles really accentuated the polenta base – giving the dish that extra element which made it truly memorable. 8/10.

Again, it was a large portion, but that’s a good thing when you’re dining à la carte, right? Speaking of large portions, we noticed that the couple sitting next to us had gone for the tasting menu, and the portions seemed very large compared to most of the tasting menus I’ve seen – which I guess is a good thing if you’ve starved yourself…but we were glad we stuck with the main menu on this occasion as we just weren’t up for that large and diverse an intake of food. The couple did seem to enjoy each course and talked about the food a lot, which is always nice to see. So often in expensive and/or fancy London restaurants, I find that people don’t seem to pay the slightest attention to the food – which always grates on me.

By the way, I had ordered a new glass of wine to go with the main course. I kind of wanted to stay with the Grüner but in the spirit of exploration, I spoke to the sommelier to get a recommendation (the French waiter finally called him to our table after my questions took him beyond his comfort level). After going around in circles for a few minutes, I decided to stick with my original inclination, a 2007 Laborum (Torrontés) from Cafayate, Argentina. It was a good companion to the guinea fowl dish but I found it to be slightly too alcoholic and it was rather dull when sipped on its own. Possibly it had been served too cold, as after it sat for a while, it did develop slight honey notes, but the finish was pretty absent.

Main Course 2:
Tikhi Jhangli Machli / Spicy Cod (£16.50). Pan fried ginger and chilli marinated Scottish cod, crushed summer peas tempered with mustard seeds and mint, green cabbage and asparagus flavoured with fennel seeds. My wife’s cod dish earned some serious accolades from a woman who by her own admission is “not the biggest fan of fish.” The cod was cooked perfectly: it was delicately soft, flaked just how it should, and was very fresh (she said it didn’t taste at all ‘fishy’). The sauce was excellent too, lending a welcome bit of spice, and the peas had been skinned, giving them an extra soft texture which worked well with the fish. She was very impressed by this dish and gave it 8/10.

PS – sorry there are no photos of the main courses; we started eating them before we remembered take pictures, and it looked to messy by that point!

By the time we had finished our mains, we were pretty stuffed, so the palate cleanser generously offered by the kitchen was much appreciated. It was a passionfruit granita, with some passionfruit seeds placed on top. It was fresh and tangy, and did what it was meant to…get us in the mood for dessert!

Passionfruit Granita

Passionfruit Granita

Against our better judgement, we opted for the largest possible dessert on the menu – but it was okay, we were going to ‘share’ (amazing what you tell yourself to have what you shouldn’t!).

Gourmet Dessert Platter for 2

Gourmet Dessert Platter for 2

Dessert:
Zaika Gourmet Platter for 2 (£12.00). Chocolate silk, chocolate samosa, rose kulfi, tandoori saffron pineapple, rosewater & vanilla crème brûlée. All of the desserts, with the possible exception of the ‘chocolate silk’, delivered elements of traditional Indian desserts (a nice touch), and it was a well thought-out assortment of flavors and textures. The tandoori pineapple was very good on its own but the thin, soft biscuit underneath wasn’t really to our taste (I think it had almond paste and cardamom in it). The rose ice cream (kulfi) was excellent and the crème brûlée was very crisp on top and rich and creamy inside – with the right dose of rosewater. I personally liked the chocolate samosa and, although the chocolate filling was a tad too dry, the hot banana underneath was always going to be a winning combination (Mrs. LF wasn’t so keen on this one for some reason). The ‘chocolate silk’ was in danger of being too weak and samey as it was basically a thick and chilled chocolate mousse on top, but the base layer created enough and interest and contrast of textures as it contained many chunks of fruits and nuts. 7/10.

It wouldn’t take much to turn Zaika back into a real winner

Zaika has a lot going for it. The dining space is grand, open and well designed. The food generally lived up to my memory of that first dish I tasted years ago at Taste of London. It was consistently well executed and each dish had a little individual flair to it, which elevated it to something that you couldn’t order from your local curry-in-a-hurry. The flavors were well conceived and combined, and made for a very refined and original take on Indian food with its subtle Western influences.

Unfortunately, you don’t get treated very consistently or very well as a diner at Zaika. We had a completely random assortment of staff serving us, both in terms of nationalities (we counted French, Spanish, Italian, Eastern European and Indian) and attitudes. This isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, but the real fault lies with the fact that no one seems to be properly trained and there is no consistent way of doing things. While some of the staff were very nice and chatty, they didn’t come across as being professional, and the head waiter bordered on being rude most of the time; he was just there to execute orders and serve them as quickly as possible. This is based on our experience over the course of the evening, and also the missus’ previous dinner there about a year and a half ago – when she made identical remarks.

This is most certainly the main reason Zaika has lost its Michelin star, and I don’t think it would take too much effort to remedy the situation. I really hope that someone tries to take control of the front of house and make sure that their guests receive a warm and professional service, because if they can do that right, they might start attracting in some more regular diners aside from the tourists and business suit / expense crowd that seem to make up a large proportion of their current customer base. The food and the building itself certainly deserve more than that.

Rating

Ambience: 6/10

Service: 4/10

Food: 7/10

Wine: 6/10

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have only dined at Zaika once, although the missus has been there twice (and didn’t pay on the previous occasion).*

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