Zaika Indian Bistro and Bar
160 Willis St Ph: 801 8883
Fully licensed and BYO
Open: breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days
Price range of mains: $15-$20
Cost: $72 for two (excluding drinks)
As the world's leading dairy exporters, it's no wonder New Zealanders crave all things buttery and creamy. One manifestation of this is the rich Muglai curry we guzzle at our ever-burgeoning tandoori houses.
When Zaika Indian Bistro & Bar opened in Willis St earlier this year, it became the 70th tandoori house in greater Wellington. That's more than our Chinese and Japanese restaurants put together.
Just thinking about cubes of meat swimming in a sea of creamy, spicy gravy raises phantom bouts of burning reflux from deep within my system, but clearly mainstream Kiwis think differently. For them, Zaika offers the full litany of dairy-laden cliches: korma, madras, malabari, pasanda, shahi paneer - not to forget the mandatory butter chicken.
I, however, headed straight for the section headed Zaika Specials, where all dishes proved thoroughly recherche, yet so delightful you'd wonder why every tandoori house isn't doing them. Maybe they soon will be. Since all these specials are entree sized, we turned our Indian meal into an impromptu tapas session.
First up, Galouti kabab impressed not only for its unique taste and texture, but also for its sharp nouvelle presentation.
Another goodie was Peshawari Murgh, which proved a delightful variation on tandoori chicken - a series of chunky kebabs, for once not the colour of congealed blood. Rather it was a light shade of turmeric, due to its cinnamon-flavoured marinade of yoghurt thickened with chickpea flour, which the heat of the charcoal oven had turned into a lightly battered coating.
The irony of the chicken's succulence lay in the meat being just a tad under-cooked: when we got to the last piece, the flesh was so slimily raw and pink, we were afraid to touch it for the sake of our continuing good health.
Two comforting vegetarian entrees followed: Bharma Mushroom (yummy, tandoori-roasted mushrooms marinated in mint and spices and stuffed with cheese) and the poetically named Hara Bhara Kabab, a vegetarian favourite for caterers in contemporary India: it's a stiff, bright-green fritter of pureed spinach, peas and potato, subtly spiced and stuffed with melted mozzarella. The accompanying garlic naan was nothing short of exemplary: lightly crisp on the base, fluffy within.
Zaika occupies the former Yangtze Chinese restaurant, and while the cleverly angled photos on its website (zaika.co.nz) suggest a total makeover, in reality the place has been done on a budget and in parts is somewhat rumpty.
That said, the waiters wear groovy embroidered kurtas over classic white stovepipes, and attend to wine, water and other minutiae with warmth and grace: our main course lamb achari (a deliciously pungent braise with pickling spices) was placed upon a tiny tabletop warmer.
Clearly, word about Zaika has already spread: we went along on a Monday night expecting it to be empty, only to find the place filled with customers of Indian ancestry - in this country, an extremely rare honour indeed.
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY
Zaika Galouti Kabab Allegedly invented in Lucknow as comfort food for a toothless Nawab, this spicy fritter of bright red lamb, beaten to a smooth paste, shallow fried and served on a tiny disc of shermal flatbread, is a famous centrepiece of Indian weddings. Once you've got your head around the unusual concept, it's lovely.