Stepping down into Zaika (you have to walk below street level to enter) feels like entering a swimming pool. The walls are bathed in a deep, purple-y blue light that washes onto each white tablecloth. Besides some kitschy India-themed wallpaper (not of patterns, but featuring gilded doors and a giant Buddha)—a side effect of the restaurant’s not-so-hip location in Midtown—the décor proved relaxing as I sank my teeth into a delicious meal flavored with cumin and, at one point, blueberries.
The berries made their way into our first dish. My dining partner and I enjoyed the tohfa-e-zameen, adorably shaped yam, beetroot, and spinach tikkis paired with delicious chutneys: blueberry for the yam, spicy tomatillo for the beetroot, and raspberry for the spinach (my personal favorite), our server told us. Their thick, almost sticky consistency let us spend plenty of time with the vegetable and starchy flavors as they mingled with the chutneys in our mouths. Zameen, I learned from Google translate, means “earth,” harkening to the vegetable-heavy, earthy flavors of this delightful starter.
Next we tried salmon and pork tandoori. While my dining partner found the pork to be one of the less flavorful dishes of our meal (I found its salty, cumin-heavy taste pleasing), he closed his eyes in pure bliss while devouring the salmon. He said “wow” at least three times as he bit through its charred exterior to get to the soft, juicy fish meat. Accompanied by kinpira-style carrots (cut into thin strips and prepared with oil and sesame seeds), the salmon deserved its multi-“wow” status.
After receiving our North Indian-inspired entrées, we chatted with Zaika’s manager, Mohan Ahluwalia, a 42-year hospitality industry veteran, over steaming chicken biryani, chana masala, lamb bhuna, and corn-filled saag. (The saag featured bursts of corn instead of paneer—cheese—because my dining partner is lactose-intolerant. Management was extremely accommodating.) Ahluwalia removed his glasses in satisfaction when talking about the chana masala, reflecting our contentment with the dish. The chickpeas were crisp and doused in a sauce unlike any other I’d tasted in a New York City-based Indian restaurant (in a very good way).
Later, as tender lamb broke apart and melted in my mouth, I listened to our server explain how Zaika had opened up in February and how her commute to the restaurant is so easy because she lives in Queens. It turns out she and I share a proclivity for spicy drinks. I’d ordered her favorite Zaika signature cocktail—a guava jalapeño margarita, made with agave and tequila. At once spicy, sweet, and salty in nearly equal measure, it “has everything,” our server said. It did.
Rather than culinary masters as the food would suggest, Zaika was created by two physicians. Food from the upscale eatery comes from the mind of Chef Raamanuj, who earned his culinary degree in Jaipur before moving on to restaurants in Delhi and, eventually, the United States, where he helped Tamarind Tribeca earn three Michelin stars.
While sopping up the remaining gingery, tangy sauce on my plate with paratha that was simultaneously flaky and doughy, I watched my dining companion again close his eyes as he savored the last of his meal. He’d been going through some hard times lately, so watching saag bring him so much pleasure was just as satisfying as eating the meal myself.
Zaika seats about 150 diners at adequately spaced tables. Portions are generous, so we declined dessert (opting for hot coffee and green tea instead, both welcome after we’d spent our days in rain-soaked Manhattan) and had leftovers for the next day. I liked that that the toilets were black (a personal preference) and that the servers were friendly without being overbearing. I’d recommend swinging by Zaika before or after a Broadway show. It’s close enough so that you won’t be late to Hamilton or the Mean Girls musical, but far enough that the crowds won’t overwhelm you and, unlike the many mediocre-to-bad tourist trap restaurants that populate Times Square, the food is very well worth the price.
You can visit Zaika at 230 E 44th Street in Manhattan. It’s open seven days a week, with an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet from 11:30am – 3pm every Monday through Friday. Appetizers range from $8 to $15, and entrées cost between $16 and $39. For hours and other information, check out Zaika’s website