स्वादिष्ट! The Groovy New Indian Cuisine Experience at ZAIKA
Review by Megan Posyluzny, student writer in the University of Alberta WRITE 297 program.
As preached by my family of Euro-Russian descent, “When you’re feeling stressed, just eat butter chicken.”
We live by this earnestly. My mom, who is a brilliant chef in her own right, has nearly mastered this savory hot dish (with the help of Indian cuisine classes). My sister, a lover of bread, has given up making traditional polakk paska in the hopes of kneading perfectly fluffy homemade naan. My dad and I prefer to help where we can, which is typically exercising our attuned palates in the kitchen, if you know what I mean.
Our cravings for outstanding Indian cuisine lead us to Zaika, a contemporary bistro on Ellwood Drive in the southwest. Opening in September 2009 in an expanding neighborhood, Zaika already has several ratings of excellence, scoring number one on ‘The eleven best places to buffet in Edmonton’ on Foursquare City Guide. Food and lifestyle blogger, Twyla Campbell (weirdwildandwonderful.ca) raved about her experience and admitted visiting again. We had to see if this virtual hype would translate to excellent food and a welcoming atmosphere. Most importantly, we were excited to eat butter chicken.
After eating at many brilliant traditional Indian restaurants, all decorated with Madhubani paintings and swirling with incense, Zaika shocked me. Slicked in black and royal violet complexions, the interior was not what I had initially expected. I appreciated the groovy ambiance. There were cascades of light globes illuminating modern mandala prints above every booth, and a gorgeous landscape portrait of eyes that caught my gaze when first walking in. The music was interesting, and not in a condescending way. I would describe it as ‘techno-bollywood jazz’.
A waitress who was energetic and kind seated us immediately, in a comfortable booth. We were dealt a drinks menu, which offered the possibility of wine, beer, signature cocktails and a good variety of other non-alcoholic options. A variety of imported beer is offered. From India, you can try ‘Chakra’, ‘King Fischer’ and ‘Taj Mahal’. Our table meekly decided on waters all around, but I’m sure their Chai would have been outstanding.
The night was off to a wonderful start. The menu immediately sparked my interest with its striking variety of courses, along with vegan and vegetarian dishes. I quickly examined the buffet options before committing to an entrée. To our excitement, Zaika offered over ten menu options, self-served in a neat assemblage of circular chafers kept piping hot. We couldn’t resist. At $24.00 per person (above the age of nine) and unlimited portions, my dad had remarked “Heck yeah!” with a wide grin.
Our dishes may not have sported an organized appearance; however, it was nice to have control over the ‘adventurousness’ of our options, and servings we considered appetizing. Unveiling each dish and its unique potency of fragrant spice was thrilling! We encircled the buffet for several minutes and explored the food hidden within before making our selections.
My mom was impressed by the wide variety of sauce-based dishes. I could tell she was eager to try them all from the slight gleam in her eyes while opening each chafer. I tried the methi malai chicken, dal makhani, mutter paneer, chana masala, baingan bharta, and of course the butter chicken. The waitress brought our table a basket of freshly cooked and nicely charred naan to enjoy with our meal once we were all seated.
The meal was great, saturated with rich flavor and tender meats, all cooked to perfection. Zaika’s butter chicken has a lovely sweet tomato taste that pairs nicely with the traditional spice. The menu claims that this dish is “herb enhanced in a tomato cream sauce”. This differs from my favorite butter chicken dishes that primarily taste of garam masala, cumin and cayenne. The naan, soft and chewy, with a light glaze of garlic butter was an excellent accompaniment to the butter chicken.
My parents had both agreed, “the flavor is very good, however the spicy heat is lost alongside the overpowering tomato.” From my experience, Zaika’s sweet and savory butter chicken is definitely worth eating. I was a big fan of the tomato accompaniment alongside salty, spicy goodness. Our servings of the butter chicken were devoured before the dinner conversation began.
Of my plate, three food highlights captivated my palate. The tender methi malai chicken was encompassed in a creamy sweet and salty base with rich flavors of corn and ginger (this dish is not currently offered as a single entrée on Zaika’s menu). Another hit was the baingan bharta, offering zesty eggplant in a tomato-based spice, going for $16.00 as a single dish. The chana masala was also noteworthy, as the warmly cooked chickpeas in a flavorful-spiced base added nice texture to my plate adorned in various sauces.
This entrée is also priced at $16.00 for a single dish. If the buffet doesn’t suite you I would recommend getting a few single dishes and sharing them amongst company.
Now, dessert holds a dear place in my heart. It disappoints me to admit that Zaika’s dessert buffet included meager bowls of cold and abandoned puddings with a side dish of dry fruit. There was a tray with what looked like sugar art, however once bitten into (if you could manage to), tasted like greasy corn syrup. After further research this was essentially ‘spun sugar’ made with corn syrup that is supposed to be consumed while warm and gooey.
After putting that aside, I ended up mixing two scoops of the rice pudding with a helping of rasmalai (a sweet pudding with cardamom flavor), which was delicious. My sister sampled the mango custard, which was excellently fruity and sweet. I can confidently say that we redeemed these puddings with our own ‘dessert alchemy’. However, these would have been far better had they been fresh and kept chilled.
Overall, $96.00 for four people to dine on good Indian cuisine (including second helpings) with dessert is a great range for families. I would highly recommend the buffet options and pricing to anyone who wants to sample Indian food at their own pace and portions. The sleek atmosphere of Zaika is also versatile for adult and/or young company. The bar on the left side of the restaurant also offers a mature audience the opportunity to enjoy the bistro.
Our visit to Zaika at 7pm on a Thursday evening was quiet, and allowed us to embrace the restaurant and each other’s company. Maybe we were lucky! The waitresses were serving us and three other tables, so we were always taken care of with extra naan and wonderful service.
Large groups are easily accommodated in either the restaurant or the bar in the large wall-booths and tables. If you want Zaika’s food at your own events, check out their inclusive catering options online. They are open from 11a.m. to 9p.m. from Monday to Thursday, closing an hour later on Friday.
I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at Zaika, and look forward to visiting there again soon! “Come for the flavor, stay for the flavor.”
2303 Ellwood Dr SW, Edmonton