Douglas has been a professional food writer since 1986. He is also an award-winning actor and director in Community Theatre and has been for many years. His blog may be found at: www.urbaneguerilla.wordpress.com
Published June 9th 2012
The last few reviews have been of what I would cheerfully call 'posh' restaurants - restaurants one might feel the need to wear a tie to - even if, in the end, one couldn't be bothered.
So this month I was looking for an inexpensive, cheerful, small restaurant that offers excellent food and preferably a new one that could profit from a bit of exposure.
Not an easy set of criteria, but I was fortunate enough to get a tip from a good friend, Amanda, who said 'Try Zaika'.
So James and I trotted down into Midland, near the Town Hall. Zaika is in a store-front that, to my certain knowledge, has been home to many restaurants before. The location is not great, as previous failures have shown, but if a success can be made here then Zaika can make one.
It is an Indian Restaurant, offering both take-away and dine-in.
The previously dingy and musty shop has been scrubbed and cleaned to within an inch of its life. I've never seen the place so clean. It was then given a coat of fresh paint and new equipment was installed - a shiny new coffee machine, tables and comfortable chairs brought in and, less than two months ago the doors were opened.
The room is clean, unpretentious, open and cheerful. The tables are laid with linen, and with linen napkins, too - lovely to see.
We were seated by a polite Sikh gentleman in a handsome turban and impressive beard who took our order. The restaurant was buzzing with diners and a small queue waiting for their take-away.
The menu is large, divided into Tandoor, Tasting Plates, Mains, Lamb, Beef, Seafood, Vegetarian, Chef's Special (goat) and Breads and Rice. There are also a couple of desserts - not something the sub-continent specialises in - and a small range of banquets and side dishes.
Each of these divisions has a number of dishes, so the whole menu has a total of about fifty dishes - difficult to do well.
No sooner had we sat down than water was delivered - bottled. Service was swift and polite. We ordered some old favourites and the wait was about twenty minutes or so while they baked the bread freshly for us.
The curries were served in Balti dishes of stainless steel and the chinaware was crisp white. But honestly, forget about the details, even though great attention has been spent on them, because it is the food that's important.
Curry divides diners into the 'Oh God, yes, I love it' and 'Hmm'. There appears to be no middle ground and apart from wine, I know of nothing that attracts such snobbishness and picky-ness.
But even the most picky would find something here to admire. We had a dish of Onion Bhaji ($7.50 - take-away $5.50), which as I'm sure you all know is sliced onion, dipped in a chick-pea flour batter, then fried with spices and served with a chutney - Zaika's was excellent. Three large ones with a little salad. Delicious, they were, hot but not so hot that it cauterised the flavour.
We accompanied our curries with garlic Naan bread ($3/$2.50) - baked in the Tandoor while we waited - absolutely superb.
As, indeed, was my lamb Korma - generally a safe dish, but Zaika's is delicately flavoured and so deeply spiced with fresh herbs and spices that it lifted right out of the norm into the 'Wow, this is really good' class. ($18.95/15.95).
James had a Butter Chicken ($18.50/$16.95) which was just as good - rich and savoury. We accompanied this with Saffron rice ($5.50) and side dishes of 'Selection of Four' ($7/$5).
These are - pappadam (freshly cooked), Mint chutney (looking and smelling like toothpaste, but delicious), Mango chutney (hottish) and Mixed Pickle (very yummy).
The food was exceptional - I would say probably the best curries I've ever eaten in Australia. Fresh, high quality ingredients and considerable skill have combined here into professionalism of a high degree.
On my next visit, which will not be long delayed, I will try some of the more exotic and less familiar dishes - Aloo Mattar, Baigan Bharta, definitely the goat curry and the Zaika Special Chicken Dhabacurry ($18.50) - chicken cooked in cashew nuts, yoghurt, onion, tomatoes with coriander and mint.
All these lie in a happy future over a number of visits because I found that one curry and a Bhaji and a half was about all I could manage. And the feeling of comfortable repletion lasted for several hours.
I wish Zaika well, but not luck, because with the combination of the excellence of their food, the moderate prices, swift service and central location will ensure success.
Zaika is not licensed, so take your own (corkage $3 per bottle) - a fruity white or beer would be best, although I imagine the lassi would be of help with the hotter dishes.
Incidentally Zaika means 'tasty' in Urdu - never was a truer word spoken.
Looking forward to trying out your recommendation. I go to Midland Cinema occasionally, but never know where a good restaurant is, so I'll defintely give this a go as you're review has really made me hungry :-)