“Zaika” is a word from the Urdu language, mother tongue of the Indian subcontinent, and it means “flavor.” It’s also the name of Sonny Brar’s new Indian restaurant in Clifton Park. So there’s an implied promise of palate-pleasing adventure even before you walk through the doors.
Brar, who worked for 22 years at the popular Sitar restaurant in Colonie, 17 of them as manager, has struck out on his own and the result is the charming Zaika on the Clifton Country Road site formerly occupied by the Park 54 restaurant.
WHERE: 54 Clifton Country Road, Clifton Park. Phone 668-1548 or 817-3953
WHEN: Lunch from 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays and noon to 3 p.m. weekends; dinner from 5 to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
HOW MUCH: $60.45
MORE INFO: All major credit cards. Handicapped accessible. Children’s portions available.
Before we get to the food, a word about the place itself. Brar has decorated the interior with lots of rich green drapery with lace underpanels and the occasional Indian icon here and there. The result is not only pretty to look at but intimate and warmly inviting, with acoustics that don’t require you to shout across the table to be heard, even with the exotic background music.
As for the food, let’s agree first that there are good Indian restaurants and not-so-good, just as with any other cuisine. Zaika is a very good Indian restaurant.
As we were sipping a beverage and waiting for our first course, we talked about what makes Indian food so popular, and my dinner date, who is a true believer, said it had to do with the wonderful spices and the way a good Indian cook can take something as simple as a potato or an eggplant and cook it and flavor it and present it in ways that excite the senses — not just taste and smell but sight as well.
There’s an unusual collegiality among diners in Indian restaurants, I’ve found. The people at the next table are very likely to offer advice on your menu choices if they happen to overhear you puzzling aloud about what to order. Certainly, that was the case at Zaika, where our next-door neighbors kibitzed in a friendly way about the goat dishes that they had thoroughly enjoyed and encouraged us to try, not that we needed much nudging.
Service at Zaika is friendly and efficient. Courses arrive exactly when you want them to. We landed there early on a Saturday evening and had a few minutes’ wait, which we spent in Zaika’s small but serviceable bar. (They do not take reservations on weekends unless you have a party of six or more.)
Brar got out on the floor to greet customers from time to time and confided at one point that the stress of starting up his new restaurant had caused him to drop 20 pounds. More than most start-up businesses, restaurants are notorious for their uncertain futures, but Zaika seems even this early in its existence to be on the right track. We observed a lot of contented faces among the eclectic group of diners who occupied every table during the couple of hours we were there.
Zaika’s menu is quite ambitious. (You can find it on the restaurant’s Web site at www.zaikany.com.) The restaurant specializes in northern Indian cuisine, but there also is a selection of southern specialties. There are separate menu sections for chicken dishes, lamb and goat creations, seafood, vegetarian, rice dishes and breads, and wonderful warm naan, including flavored and stuffed varieties of the signature clay oven-baked bread of India.
Our meal began with a complimentary appetizer of pappadums, dried lentil wafers heavily seasoned with black pepper. The savory treats are accompanied by dipping sauces, one of them a refreshing yogurt with cilantro and the other a sweet tamarind. We also ordered raita, Zaika’s own yogurt served cold with tomato bits and cucumbers (and in other varieties I’ve had, mint or cilantro), a palate refresher that is especially enjoyable if you choose to order some of the spicier dishes.
We wanted to try a variety of dishes, and so we ordered a “Zaika sampler” appetizer assortment ($6.25). It included a traditional potato and green pea samosa, pakora (slices of eggplant, sweet potato, cauliflower, and a fritter-type onion mixture lightly breaded and fried) and little paani puri, which are semolina balls that are hollow and deep-fried to a crispy gold and then partially stuffed with spiced potatoes, chickpeas and other things, depending on the chef and tradition. They are served with spiced water that you spoon into the puris and then pop them in your mouth for an explosion of flavor and interesting textural contrasts. (My dinner date also likes to add the cilantro, tamarind and raita sauces to hers.)
I also chose a sampler plate ($17.95) for my entree, again wanting to try a variety of Zaika’s offerings. It came with a generous quantity of delicious tandoori chicken, reshmi kebab (boneless white chicken meat, also from the tandoor), sheek kebab (cylindrical shaped spicy ground lamb which was quite tasty), a basketful of warm naan, aloo palak (an intriguing spinach, potato and onion dish), rice and kuchumbar, which is a salad of diced cucumbers, tomatoes and onions with lime and cilantro. If that weren’t enough, there was a choice of lamb or chicken curry. I chose the lamb and found it to be a very good decision, tender and flavorful lamb stewed in a delicious sauce. It was a memorable feast from start to finish. The servings are quite generous and we carried home cartons of what we couldn’t finish for nibbling on later.
My date chose the chicken shahi korma ($16.95) for her entree, boneless chicken in a rich cashew sauce, which comes with rice or naan. She offered me a taste and I found it remarkably good, with hints of tomato, onion and cream in the cashew sauce.
Our check, with sodas and tip, came to a reasonable $60.45, and as we left we were already making plans to visit again soon.
A friend who knows of my warm affection for mustards of all kinds has signed me up for the newsletter of the Mustard Museum of Mount Horeb, Wis., which dispenses information about “new” mustards, mustard recipes and other news geared to “gourmet condiment lovers.” The Web site is www.MustardMuseum.com. Enjoy.