NEW YORK – The Italian restaurant Piccolo Fiore, which was adjacent to India’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, on 44th St. between 2nd and 3rd Avenue, has given way to a new upscale Indian restaurant, Zaika New York, founded by a New Jersey-based physician, Dr. Mandeep Oberoi, and his partner and chef, Raamanuj Sharma, a veteran in the industry who’s worked in some fine kitchens, including Bukhara Delhi, Nirvana in Beverly Hills, and Tamarind Tribeca, honored with Michelin stars three years running.
Some fans of Piccolo Fiore still walk in, revealed Oberoi, as he joined me briefly at a table, for dinner, at Zaika. Finding that the only thing left of the place is the bar, with the food on the menu – served on tables behind a curved brick façade – changed from staple favorites like prosciutto with melon, chicken marsala, pasta Bolognese, or veal scallopini, to names they find it hard to pronounce, they settle for a drink, to reminisce about old times.
“I convinced them to try some of our appetizers,” said Oberoi. “They loved it, and came back.”
Zaika New York is unique in upscale Indian restaurants in Manhattan, in at least one respect: there’s no fusion food, or attempt at a pan India cuisine; focus is entirely on traditional, sumptuous, aromatic North Indian fare cooked with a variety of spices – on the mild side, that don’t get in the way of actually tasting the flavors. There’s a heavy tilt towards meat-based dishes, inspired mostly from the regions of Punjab, from where Oberoi is originally from.
“We decided to take two steps backs, to the traditional,” said Oberoi, asked on the absence of fusion food in the menu.
It’s a bold move. A welcome one, though.
The interior of Zaika has a meditative appeal to it, almost Zen-inspired, with a panel on Buddha finding prime space in the 150-seat restaurant. There’s also an enclosed private space at the back for a dozen people, or more, suitable for the delegate-rich crowd at the United Nations, a few blocks away.
The food at Zaika, like its name, is succulent and tasteful, explodes with multiple flavors in the mouth. A special recommendation is Tohfa-E-Zameen (which I would have gone for just in respect for the earthy name of it). A trio of miniature tikkis, the patties are stuffed with cheese and herbs, with a dash of blueberry chutney; beetroot with a combination of nuts and spicy tomatillo, and arrow leaf spinach with honey ginger chutney.
The restaurateurs at Zaika seemed to have taken a huge liking to the word ‘zameen’ (Earth). Their standout for dinner is ‘Zameen-E-Doz’ – tender Dover sole rolled in aromatic spices, served in saffron coconut sauce, with grilled dragon fruit. At $41, it’s their signature dish, and doesn’t disappoint. No doubt, the dish is also made keeping in mind the international clientele in the neighborhood. There’s also a delicious tandoori seabass (Zaafrani Machli), with buttered sauted brussel sprouts, carrots, potatoes, pink pepper and fennel cognac sauce, that was a hit at my table.
I’d walked in with a good appetite. After trying the superbly concocted tikkis, it spruced me up for the rest of the evening. As the evening wore on, I discovered that the food at Zaika didn’t intimidate the palate, nor did it overwhelm with its rich ingredients. In fact, one dish led to the craving for another on the anvil.
The Paneer Akbari with its sweet dhoda and cilantro and the Rajasthani Sooley, tenderly grilled lamb kebabs, with crispy bok choy and mango-mint chutney, were also a nod to some of the favorite dishes that proliferates in North India, with a sweet twist to it. The Tawa Scallops were seared to perfection, with a lip smacking combination of saffron chili, red pepper ajwain, and spiced chutney.
As far as I’m concerned, an Indian restaurant to pass muster, has to get its trick right on lamb chops. The grilled lamb chops by chef Hemant Mathur at Tulsi, apart from some of his other restaurants now in Manhattan, including Malai Marke, and chef Prasad Chirnomula’s effort at Thali, remain my overwhelming favorites. The lamb chops they serve up are a delicacy to be savored once in a while, to feel the taste of real grilled meat.
The tandoor lamb chops at Zaika New York were done well too; shouldn’t be missed. They were tender, and mixed with shata pepper, marble potatoes, spicy plum and glazed pears, gave off a feeling of pleasant fullness.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)