Monday, August 01, 2016

Zaika Indian Bistro, Woburn, MA

I recently visited the Boston area, as I do several times a year, since my family lives in New Hampshire, and I always fly in and out of the Boston airport.  Ojan's family lives outside of Boston too, so, I tend to spend some time closer to Boston besides just the airport.  You can read all about my east coast adventures linked to from my master post.

On one visit, I decided to take advantage of the airport drive, and stop with my parents for lunch en route to the airport.  I've done this several times before, stopping in Manchester, NH for good lunches at Republic Cafe and Campo Enoteca, and in Lexingon, MA for mediocre indian cuisine at Royal India.

This time, we had a pretty tight timeline, so I need to find somewhere fast, and, since both my parents were with me, my options were pretty limited due to my father's dietary preferences (as in, he doesn't eat a whole lot).  I mean, I could have gone for fast food, which I do from time to time, but I had just discovered that he is willing to eat some Indian food when we had highly mediocre takeout from Taj-E-India in my hometown.  Since I love Indian cuisine, and my mom has enjoyed it the few times she has had it, an Indian buffet seemed like just the thing.  And luckily for us, there were many options along our route.

Now, I know you are thinking, "But Julie, you are such a food snob, how could you possibly want a buffet?"  Um, I love buffets.  I love to try EVERYTHING.  Buffets are my secret love.  Of course, most food doesn't work well in buffets, but Indian cuisine is an exception.  The sauces hold heat well.  And, my favorite thing with Indian food is combining a bunch of dishes, which buffets are perfect for.  I actually almost prefer an Indian buffet over ordering a la carte, unless I'm going with a huge group.

I had a list of 5 different restaurants to choose from, all with great reviews, in different cities along the way, but Zaika Indian Bistro kept standing out of the crowd, for a few reasons.

The Buffet

First, and most important, they offer fresh naan made to order when you order the buffet.  Naan that sits in steam trays on a buffet seems like it will always be soggy and gross, so this is a major perk.  And even better, you can choose regular or garlic naan.  Oh, yes, please!

Next, they always include desserts.  Many buffets do this, so not quite as unique as fresh naan, but, definitely a requirement for me.  They also include chai, not necessary, but a nice feature.

The buffet itself has rice, 4 rotating veggie entrees, a meat entree (always the crowd pleasing chicken tikka masala), a second meat entree on weekends, and appetizers such as their famed veggie samosas, veggie pakora, and two others (one fish, one chicken).  And they also include a salad bar, complete with assorted chutneys and raitas.  If you have ever read my reviews of Indian cuisine before, you know how much these components matter to me.  I'm all about combining things, and I always want the accompaniments, but I never want to pay extra for them.  The weekend buffet is more extensive, with the extra entree, more appetizers, and more salad selections.

Zaika basically sounded perfect to me, so, I set the GPS to lead us to Zaika Indian Bistro, on Main Street, in Woburn, MA.  Is Woburn known for Indian food?  No, so this was obviously a random destination, but, given that I've never liked the Indian food in San Francisco, I was hoping for a miracle.

And, it happened.  Zaika was awesome.  I was in love with many dishes on the buffet, and stuffed myself silly.  This was the summer of 2015.

Fast forward a year, when I was visiting again.  There was no question where we'd stop this time.  Again, we went for the buffet.  Again I waddled out, ridiculously full.

I'd return in a heartbeat, for the buffet (weekend or weekday), but also for the a la carte menu, as I'd love to try some of the food with a bit of heat, as everything was mild in the buffet.

The Space

Casual Setting.
The restaurant is fairly narrow, so it isn't the easiest to move around, a bit unfortunate given that everyone is constantly getting up to use the buffet.  They could leave the side row of 2-tops out of course for more space, but, I assure you, those tables were filled nearly as soon as someone got up.

The buffet is set up near the entrance, with plates and bowls in assorted sizes ready to be loaded up.  You could return as many times as you wanted, which I clearly did, but signs instructed us to always use fresh plates.

The restaurant was busy, so buffet items were being replenished quickly, but they also choose to prepare the food in small batches, so it was always fresh.  I saw fresh food going by constantly.  In the small lulls between swarms visiting the buffet, they always took care to shut the lids to keep things hot.  Really, a well run buffet.

My only complain, ridiculously minor, is that the flow of the buffet is a bit odd, with condiments at the start, dessert as the second item, and appetizers mixed in among everything else.  But really, minor issue, and didn't detract from my experience at all.
Table Setting.
Tables are set as soon as they are vacated, and ready for the next guests.

At our table was glass water goblets (immediately filled when we sat) and silverware wrapped in cloth napkins.

As soon as we sat, we were asked which type of naan we'd like freshly made for us.

Everything was fast and efficient.  Once we sat, I went to use the restroom, fill my platter, and as I returned to my table, our piping hot naan was delivered.  Service was incredibly attentive; every time any of our water glasses got even remotely empty (as in, if it was 80% full), it was immediately refilled.  Our dirty plates were cleared immediately.  Our check was brought within moments of finishing.

Given the lunch setting, and the fact that we were in a rush the first time, we did really appreciate this.

Service was great, the food was great, the prices were great, overall, a total winner.

The Weekday Buffet: Visit #1, July 2015

During the week, the buffet is $8.95, which includes unlimited visits to the extensive buffet, chai, and your choice of naan.  It runs from 11:30am - 3pm.  

On our first visit, we arrived at 12:30pm on a Friday afternoon.  It was bustling.  A short line at the door, but not actually a wait, the hostess got everyone seated quickly.  

Everyone in the restaurant seemed to be getting the buffet, I didn't see a single party ordering a la carte, although it was an option.  I quickly understood why, as this is indeed a steller buffet.
Beverage: Masala Chai.
"Darjeeling tea w/ spices & milk boiled together in water."

Included with the buffet was self-serve chai.

It wasn't sweetened, but there were sugar and sweet-n-low packets available on the side.  I actually appreciated it being served unsweet, so you could sweeten as much, or little, as you preferred.

It was creamy, decently spiced, basic chai.  Nothing remarkable, but nice to be included.  I enjoyed it on both visits.
Garlic Naan.
"Unleavened white flour bread baked in our Tandoor."

As I mentioned, we had the choice of regular or garlic naan.  As if that is really a choice!  We all opted for garlic naan, and, a few minutes after we returned to our table, the naan was delivered, piping hot.

Now, my father has only ever had take out Indian food, so he had never had fresh naan.  I was excited for him to experience this finally.  But of course, not all naan is created equal.  Some is soggy.  Some is burnt.  This?  This was exactly what naan should be.

The bottom was crispy, a slight char, but not burnt.  The top moist and buttery, with just the right amount of garlic.  It was fluffy.  Yes, please.

It was the perfect vehicle for soaking up all the amazing sauces I was about to discover on my plate.

I loved this naan, and gladly finished far more than my share, which is rare for me.  I do always like having the naan to lap up my sauces, but, I try not to fill up on bread, but I couldn't resist this naan.  Too good.

As I said, the naan is included, fresh made to order, but the garlic naan is $3.50 a la carte (which seems a bit high, but luckily didn't matter for us).
Salad, Condiments.
The buffet begins with the salad bar and condiment section.  This is the only part of the buffet that wasn't labelled.  I appreciated the labeling elsewhere, and found it a bit odd that they didn't include any labels here.

Ok, who gets salad at an Indian buffet?  Answer: my dad, of course.  I skipped it, but actually, it looked like a decent garden salad, loaded with fresh vegetables.  Also in this area was slices of lemon, raw red onion, and melon slices.  I'm not really sure what any of those were for, perhaps I'm missing some knowledge about how to properly eat Indian cuisine?

Also in this section were tamarind, mint, and onion chutneys.  All rather unremarkable, but, nice to have to jazz up my plate.  The mint was the most disappointing, it didn't seem all that fresh.  This is perhaps the one area where the little Indian take out place, Taj E India, near my hometown, actually did a better job than anywhere else I've been.  I soon discovered that I liked dunking the fish pakora in the tamarind chutney.

There was also raita, "yogurt relish with shredded cucumbers and mint".  Thin style, basic raita, not particularly notable, but again, nice to have to complete the meal ($2.95 if you get it a la carte).

Finally, another white, milky substance, already in tiny dishes.  I had no idea what it was, but took one.  I assumed it was some other kind of yogurt?  And then I tasted it.  Thin, watery, milky ... and sweet?  Huh.  It almost seemed like rice pudding, except it had no rice in it.  And, the dessert of the day was rice pudding, in a separate vessel, with bigger bowls next to it.  So what was this?

I'm still not sure, but, at this point, I'm fairly convinced that it was actually rice pudding.  Why it was here, when there was additional rice pudding, I really don't know.  But, if you can think of what this was instead, please enlighten me!

I did find the flow a bit odd, salad makes sense to start, but the condiments would have been better after the other food, so I could put them on some of my appetizers.  Not a big deal though, as I prefer it on the side anyway.

Speaking of odd flow, the dessert actually came next, but, I'll review that last, since it makes more sense.
Appetizer: Vegetable Samosas, Accompaniment; Basmati Rice.
The first item, besides salad and dessert, was an classic appetizer, vegetable samosas, always a fixture in Zaika's buffet, and one that many reviewers rave about.

"Light spicy turnovers stuffed with vegetables."

I don't generally love samosas, so I skipped them on my first round, but since so many people seemed to love them, I planned to return for one on my second trip to the buffet.  I never did, only because the other food was so delicious that I couldn't get enough, and didn't want to jeopardize my ability to stuff myself with more of the things I knew were great with something I was less likely to like.  I'm still curious though.

My parents both tried them, but since neither had ever had samosas before, they had no comparison point, and they didn't take my advice to get chutney to put on them, so they just shrugged and said they were dry.  Well, obviously.

Anyway, veggies samosas are on the regular menu as an appetizer for $3.95, and also available with lamb for $1 more.  I'd probably try one next time, just to satisfy my curiosity, and, since everything else was great, I could imagine actually really liking one.

Also in this serving area was the basmati rice, described as "India’s long grained flavorful rice."  I skipped it too, since I never like rice and prefer to use naan.  Available as an a la carte side for $2.95 for a small serving.
Entrees: Saag Paneer, Dal Makhani.
Next up came two vegetarian entrees: saag paneer and dal makhani.

"Homemade cheese and freshly chopped spinach in rich butter sauce."

I started with the saag paneer, always a favorite of mine, and probably everyone else, hence why it is a common fixture on their buffet.

Saag paneer can come in many forms.  Sometimes it is overly creamy, really rich and heavy.  Sometimes the spinach is finely pureed, indistinguishable.  Or sometimes you can actually taste the spinach.  Every style has its place, and  I'm by no means opposed to cream, butter, and fat, but, I do like to actually taste my spinach, so I dislike it when it is just a heavy, creamy base.

The Zaika version was a nice balance.  It certainly had its share of butter and cream, but it didn't feel quite as heavy, and I could taste the spinach.  It wasn't pureed, so I could see the greens.  It also had some tomato mixed in, but not enough to take over the flavor.

Speaking of flavor, that is my only criticism, it was very mild.  I wanted some spice to it, but, since it was a buffet item, I understand why it was so mild.

The paneer was small chunks, obviously a housemade fresh cheese, really soft.  It broke apart nicely.  I do prefer paneer to have a bit of a sear on it, a little crust or something, but, for this style, it was quite nice.

Overall, a good version of saag paneer, and I'd get it again, but only my third pick of the dishes I tried, because the others were so amazing.

All of the classic curries, saagwala included, are available with assorted proteins on the regular menu.  If ordered a la carte, the paneer version would have been $12.95.  Other options included chicken ($14.95), lamb ($15.95), or shrimp ($16.95).  The a la carte prices do seem slightly high, but, this is quality product, so, not unreasonable.

"An aromatic marriage of lentils, fresh garlic and ginger ."

The other item in this section was dal makhani.  I believe this was just one of the rotating vegetarian items of the day, or it may be a permanent fixture, I'm not sure.  Since I dislike lentils, I didn't try it.  My mom also skipped it, I'm not sure why, as she liked dal the last time I introduced her to it.  My dad tried a few bites, and shrugged.  He isn't a man of many words.  Available a la carte for $12.95.
Daily Special Entree: Aloo Gajar.
Next came the aloo gjar, described simply as "potato with carrot".

I actually tried a bite of this, but it was just potato and carrot, slightly spiced, slightly mushy.  Certainly not interesting to me (ok, this was my least favorite dish, but given my single bite, I'm not counting that).  But ... my dad liked it!  He went back for seconds!

This is a major breakthrough in my mind.  I commented on him getting more, and he said, "well, it is tasty!"  Now that is an endorsement on his part.

This dish is not on regular menu, and I'm guessing is not part of the standard rotation, hence the handwritten sign, but it is probably similar to the aloo gobhi for $12.95.
Entree: Chana Masala.
"Chick peas soaked overnight and cooked gently with tomatoes, onions and spices."

Next, another vegetarian entree that I skipped, chana masala.  I don't like chickpeas, so there was no reason for me to try this.  My mom also skipped it, my dad had a few bites and shrugged.

$12.95 when ordered a la carte.
Entree: Chicken Tikka Masala.
"All time Indian favorite. Tomatoes, light cream, herbs, & spices."

The other entree always part of the buffet, and only non-vegetarian entree in the weekday buffet, is chicken tikka masala.

Clearly the popular item, as it was nearly empty on my first trip (there was plenty of sauce, but not really any chicken).  This wasn't a problem for me, since I only wanted the sauce anyway (I dislike chicken, but adore butter chicken sauce, so I always want people to order it just so I can eat the sauce).

Now, let's talk about that sauce.  It was really, really good.  It was creamy, well seasoned, nicely balanced and developed.  In particular, it didn't taste too tomato-y.  I hate it when tikka masala sorta just tastes like tomato paste.  Of course, mild again, and I'd prefer spicy, but, hey, this is what you get in a buffet.

I dunked the delicious garlic naan into the sauce, over and over, lapping up every last drop.  And then I went back for more.  And more.  I couldn't stop.  I haven't over-eaten like this in a long time, but wow it was worth it.  This was very good.

On my second visit to the buffet in this sitting, I decided to try the chicken, given my mom's rave review.  She kept saying how different it was from the other chicken tikka masala we had the previous week in my hometown, how it was like a different thing entirely.  On my return trip, the chicken was again nearly gone.  Everyone couldn't get enough of this stuff!  I got one chunk, and, I do admit, for chicken, it was well prepared.  Good flavor from the tandori oven, still very moist, tender, good quality chicken.  I still don't like chicken, but, they did this well.

Chicken tikka masala is $14.95 a la carte, or a veggie and paneer version is $13.95, lamb $16.95, and shrimp $17.95.  Again, the a la carte prices actually seem a bit high, but, when the food is this good, I'm not really complaining.

My favorite dish of the meal, and I still can't get over how good the sauce was.  I want more.  Now!
Appetizer Specials: Fish Pakora, Chicken Wings.
And finally, one more batch of offerings ... appetizers.  Remember what I was saying about the layout of the buffet not quite making sense?  Appetizers last?  Regardless, I was happy to see more appetizers than just the samosas (not that they were really appetizers since I was eating my platter all at once, but, you know what I mean).  It was nice to have something besides just curries.

Both had handwritten signs, and aren't on the regular menu, so I think these were just random items of the day.

"Fried tilapia in chickpea batter".

First up, fish pakora.   Woah, a fish option in a reasonably priced buffet?  I didn't exactly have expectations for this, but, I took one just to try it on my first round.  Spoiler: I went back twice more for this!

It was really good.  I had seafood a few other times during my trip, at far fancier restaurants, and none of it satisfied me like this did.

Tilapia isn't the most exciting fish, but it worked well here, just a mild white fish, and it held up to the batter well.  It was well coated in batter, nicely fried.  Not too greasy or oily.  Somehow it stayed crispy, even in the buffet.  Again, Zaika's frequent replenishing clearly paid off.  The fish was flaky and moist inside.

I loved the fish, and it isn't something I ever normally get at an indian restaurant.  I may need to start reconsidering my order if fish pakora is ever on a menu elsewhere.  My second favorite dish, but I did find that I wanted some kid of sauce for it.  I used the tamarind chutney, but that wasn't quite what I wanted.  Maybe I should have squeezed the seemingly random lemon from the salad bar over it?

Really, I wanted something like a tartar sauce, which I know is totally not indian cuisine, but I had been craving fish and chips on my entire trip, and didn't ever get any.  I love fish and chips on the east coast because we don't get Atlantic cod or haddock on the west coast, so even simple fish and chips there tends to be good.  This fish pakora totally satisfied my craving, even with tilapia, and even sans tartar sauce.  It does make me wonder about some kind of fusion cuisine though, with a indian spiced tartar sauce.  Mmm!

As I mentioned, the fish pakora is not on regular menu, but the appetizer menu has chicken, paneer, and vegetable pakoras normally for $4.95-$5.95.

I skipped the second option, chicken wings, since, well, chicken.
Dessert: Kheer.
"Rice pudding gently cooked in milk flavored with cardamom and topped with pistachios."

And finally ... dessert!

The buffet always includes a rotating dessert of the day, including ras malai, galub jamun, kheer, carrot halwa, and more.  I don't generally like the first two, so I was delighted to see kheer on offer.  I love my puddings!

As I mentioned, the dessert was in the buffet after the salads, and before the appetizers, rice, mains.  My mom, who is new to Indian food, didn't realize this was the dessert, and took it with her main food.  Lols.

When I finally went to get my rice pudding, a new batch had been brought out since my mom's visit.  When I saw hers in her little bowl, it looked like what I expected rice pudding to be.  When I got mine ... it didn't.

It was thin and watery, although milky.  But, the notable thing was ... I didn't see rice.  In fact, it looked remarkably like the same white milky substance that was in the little tiny bowls in the salad bar.  Hmm.

It was ... fine.  It was sweet.  It didn't have much spicing.  I didn't taste cardamom.  I didn't see any pistachios.  There seemed to be little bits of rice that had been ground up perhaps?  Hmm.  Not bad exactly, but not what I was going for.

I also tried my mom's version, which was more of a classic kheer.  Why were they different?  I have no idea.  Neither really wowed me, and I gladly just went to get more chicken tikka masala sauce to polish off the naan with.

$3.95 on the a la carte menu.

The Buffet: Visit #2, July 2016

The weekend buffet is $2 more, $10.95.  It includes everything the lunch buffet does, but also an additional entree, usually goat or lamb, an extra appetizer, and more extensive salad bar.

On the second visit, we arrived at 1:15pm on a Sunday, and it was busy, but not quite as busy as the weekday visit.
Side: Garlic Naan.
"Unleavened white flour bread baked in our Tandoor."

We again opted for garlic naan.  It took a little while longer to arrive this time, as I went to the bathroom, took photos, made chai, filled up my plate, was about half my first plate full when the naan finally arrived.   Doh.  I really wanted it sooner, to lap up my sauces.

The naan also just wasn't as good this time.  It didn't have nearly as much garlic, nor butter, nor char on the bottom.  It was hot, fresh bread, but, just not remarkable, a bit too plain.

Our portion was generous though, as there were 3 of us, and the basket had at least two full naan in it.  We didn't finish it, and my mom asked to have it boxed up.  I have no idea what she was going to do with it, as we had no leftover food since it was a buffet, but, she didn't want to waste.

Anyway, not bad naan, but not great.  The a la carte price was raised to $4 since our first visit, but still included in our buffet.
Side: Basmati Rice.
"India's long-grain flavorful rice."

The buffet changed up the type of serving dishes since my previous visit.  This time, the rice started the buffet, in a round chafing dish, rather than in a double wide chafing dish was samosas also in it.

As always, I skipped the rice, opting for naan instead.
Weekend Special Entree: Goat Curry.
"Goat in Indian Herbs & Spices."

Because it was the weekend, the buffet included an additional meat entree.  On our visit, it was goat curry.  I skipped it, but, my mother did not, mostly out of curiosity (and, because my little sister has goats, and my mom wanted to tell her she ate goat).

She said it was the only dish in the buffet that she didn't like, that the meat was too chewy.  I have no idea if that is normal for goat, or if this was poorly prepared goat.  Goat is not normally offered on the regular menu either.
Entree: Chicken Tikka Masala.
"All time Indian favorite, tomatoes, light cream, herbs, & spices."

On my first visit, the chicken tikka masala was my absolute favorite dish, as the sauce was insanely delicious, and I loved dunking the equally delicious naan into a mix of tikka masala sauce and palak paneer sauce.

As I approached the buffet the first time on this second visit, a fresh batch of chicken tikka masala was brought out.  Knowing I just wanted the sauce, I opted for a little bowl (likely meant for the desserts), and filled it with sauce, skipping the chicken entirely.

The sauce was good, but, it wasn't nearly as good as I remembered.  It was creamy, it was balanced (not too much tomato, not too much cream), but, it didn't have all that much flavor.  And since the naan wasn't great this time around, I didn't find myself wanting to have a yummy sauce to dip my naan in anyway.

Still, my third pick of the savory entrees and it is always included in the buffet and on the regular menu.
Special Entree: Aloo Baigan.
"Potatoes and Eggplant."

On our first visit, a handwritten sign was placed in front of a potato dish, alloo gajar, "potato with carrot".  It was my dad's favorite dish, as he likes both those items.  I was hoping they'd have a potato dish that he would like again this time, but, the choice on the second visit was aloo baigan.

He doesn't like eggplant, so, he skipped it.  I think my mom tried a bite of it, but, said it wasn't great.

Just like the potato dish last time, it did have a similar handwritten sign, and is not on the normal menu.
Entree: Chana Masala.
"Chick peas soaked overnight and cooked gently with tomatoes, onions and spices."

Next up was chana masala, another staple on the buffet and regular menu.  Since I don't like chickpeas, I didn't try it, but it was the only entree my dad really tried (and even then, he didn't really like it).

Special Entree: Egg Chili Broccoli.
The next entree was another hand labelled dish not from the regular menu.  It didn't even have an Indian name, it just said, "egg chili broccoli".

This one was fascinating to me.  It looked like a bowl of hard boiled eggs, with some chilies.  And only one or two chunks of broccoli.  No real sauce.  And it was served warm, and was an entree?

Since I don't really like eggs, I didn't try it, but, amusingly, my dad did on his second trip to the buffet.  My dad, the one who is totally unadventurous, and was mostly just eating salad.  I told him that he'd like samosas, but he wouldn't try them (because he couldn't see what was inside).  I told him he'd like the final curry, but, again, he wouldn't try it, because he couldn't identify it.  He doesn't eat goat, chicken, fish, or eggplant, so, at this was his only option besides salad and naan, and the little bit of chana masala he had on the first round, as he ruled out all the other entrees and appetizers.

Anyway, his comment?  "Tastes like a hard boiled egg".  I asked if it was spicy, and he said not really.  I asked if it was strange to have a warm egg, and he said not really.  He ate it only because he could identify it, but, at least he got some protein?
Special Entree: Punjabi Kadhi.
"Fried vegetables in yogurt with herbs and spices."

Next came the final entree, again with a handwritten sign, this one a bit hard to read.  I wasn't really sure what to expect given the description, but it was at this point in the buffet that I realized there was no palak paneer, which I was looking forward to.  In fact, no paneer at all!  I will admit I was a bit disappointed that there was no paneer option at all, and, if I had realized that before opting for the buffet, I might have gone a la carte instead.  I do really love paneer dishes.

But instead, I had this as my final entree choice, and since I didn't want the other 3 veggie entrees, nor the 2 meat entrees (save the sauce), I decided to try it.

It was actually quite tasty, and unlike anything I've had before.

The fried vegetables seemed to possibly be small veggie pakora, fried bits of veggies in jagged ball shapes of assorted sizes.  (Or maybe not pakora, but it seemed like it?).  I found onion and sweet potato, plus other unidentifiable veggies.  Oh, and a full chili.  It was strange to have these in the sauce, as I'm more accustomed to pakora as a appetizer, or to have kofta in a sauce like this, but, it did totally work, and, I liked it more than the regular veggie pakora as an appetizer.

The sauce was excellent, creamy, and flavorful, like a thick gravy.  It reminded me of other Indian curries I've had in the past, but again, usually served with something more like a kofta.

I enjoyed this dish, and even went back for seconds.  It made me wish I liked the naan more, as I would have gladly lapped up the sauce.  It was my second favorite dish, and I'd get it again, but, really would prefer a paneer option.
Appetizers: Fish Pakora, Chicken Patties.
After the entrees, came a double chafing dish of appetizers.  I was really happy to see the fish pakora from my previous visit (except, the tray was basically empty).  I eagerly waited for the fresh batch, which came out soon.  The chicken option this time was a patty.

"Fish fritters deep fried in chick peas batter."

Last time, the fish pakora was labelled as tilapia, this time it just said "fish fritters".  This might make you think it would be generic fish, perhaps mushed up, but, instead, it was lovely chunks of fish filet, flaky, moist, mild fish, not fishy.  The fish was coated in a chick pea batter, super crispy.

It was excellent.  Think of the best fish and chips you've ever had, and then improve on that.  Seriously.  I had fish and chips just the day before at 4 Aces Diner, and this wasn't even in the same ballpark.  Two weeks before, I had fish and chips, in London, at one of the top rated fish and chips shops there (North Sea Fish Restaurant).  This blew that away too.

I can't explain it, but, the fish pakora was just downright amazing.  Moist, flaky fish, amazing batter, super crispy.  Last time, I lamented not having tartar sauce with it, but, this time, I decided the tamarind sauce was actually perfect with it, just, not quite what I'm used to.

I went back for seconds, for thirds, and for forths of this.  Hands down, dish of the day.  I kinda wished I hadn't bothered with anything else.  I kinda wished I'd just had more for dessert instead of the desserts.  Really, it was that good.  It amazes me that you can't order this from the a la carte menu, but, clearly it is a regular offering on the buffet, as the sign is not hand written, and we had it on both visits.

On my 3rd portion, I was trying to explain to my parents why I liked it so much, and it dawned on me what it reminded me of.  This will sound crazy, but I'll share it anyway.  My hometown is not exactly known for having ethnic food.  We had one Chinese restaurant, that also served sushi and tempura.  It was crazy Americanized.  One dish we always ordered (on the VERY rare occasion where we got Chinese food as my dad doesn't eat it) was the sweet and sour chicken (remember, I'm talking 20+ years ago, when I used to eat chicken).  The sweet and sour chicken was ... different.  It came as deep fried chicken fingers in one container, and a very sweet sticky sauce with peppers, onions, pineapple, and maraschino cherries in another.  I'll be honest.  I loved it.  I loved the deep fried, heavily battered chicken fingers, and I loved the sauce.  I also liked dunking the fingers in duck sauce.

It was those ridiculous "Chinese" chicken fingers from my youth that the fish pakora with tamarind chutney reminded me of.  There was something about the batter, the crispy exterior, and the sweetness of the tamarind sauce that just struck a memory for me.  And I loved them.  Seriously, I want more now.

"Fried chicken cake with Indian herbs and spices."

I skipped the chicken patties because I don't like chicken, but my mom tried one.  She said it was dry.  But, she also didn't put any chutney on it.  I tried to explain to my parents last time that they should use some chutneys with their samosas, but they didn't.  The same thing happened on this visit.  I explained the chutneys, and, they still didn't use them.  Their loss.
Assorted Appetizers.
Next was more appetizers.

In the back row was potato samosas and veggie pakora, both kept hot, and some puffy mini pooris.  The next row had cooked potatoes, red onion, some kind of bean paste, and tomato.  In front was crispy gram flour sev.  On the side was what looked like a mint drink, except, there were no glasses.

None of this was labelled, and I wasn't quite sure what to make of it.  I feel like the ingredients here (besides the samosa and pakora) must have been meant to combine some way.  I tried the crispy gram flour sev as a snack, since I love to munch on things, but, it wasn't particularly interesting.  Same with the crispy mini poori.

When I went home to write up this blog post, I discovered what this was.  It was a station to make your own panipuri, and the "mint drink" was actually a sour and spicy mint water (pani), that you can dunk them in.  It seems like they could have, uh, used some instructions here ...

I skipped the samosas, and tried to get my parents to try them, but, they wouldn't.

"Cut vegetable fritters deep fried in chick-pea batter."

Since the fish pakora was so amazing, I tried the veggie pakora too.  It was ... fine.  Pretty classic mixed, shredded, vegetable pakora.  Not really my appetizer of choice.  I liked it more when in the punjabi kadhi.
Salad, Chutney, Desserts.
This section was a bit random.  It had a basic mixed greens salad, more red onion, watermelon, raita, tamarind chutney, mint chutney, and then, seemingly, two desserts (a pudding and ras malai).

The chutneys and other condiments I used throughout my meal.  As last time, I didn't find any of them remarkable, but, I really, really loved having all the condiments to add to my food.  The tamarind chuntney with the fish pakora was the winner of course.

Next to the watermelon was little bowls of ... something.  It actually looked like bowls of mayo.  I couldn't reason about what it might be, given the other contents of this area.  Salad dressing?  And next to that was balls of something, that looked like they were in a yogurt sauce.  It seemed like these would both be savory items, but, I think they were actually desserts.

I took one of the balls on my plate with my savory food, as I really thought they were something like chickpea cakes in a yogurt sauce.  I was pretty confused when I tasted the white sauce, clearly not yogurt.  And the cake broke apart easily with my fork.  I concluded that this was ras malai, but, since it got mixed in with my savory food, it was pretty confusing and I'm still not entirely sure, as it didn't really seem sweetened.

The little bowls were also very confusing.  Once I tried one, it seemed like custard or pudding.  It was a bit lumpy, but, I don't think it had anything mixed in, I think they were just lumps.  It tasted like Boston cream donut filling, or any other very thick custard.  A bit plain on its own, and I wanted to love it since I love puddings, but, just kinda lacking any major flavor.  However, my mom discovered that if you added sauce from the galub jamun that it sweetened it and made a wonderful combination, which I agreed with.  My favorite of the desserts, particularly with a little sweet sauce added.
More Desserts.
Next to that section was two more desserts, these labelled, gulab jamun and kheer.  I was very happy to see that they had multiple desserts on the weekend buffet.

"Condensed milk with cardamom shaped into balls deep fried and soaked in sugar and rose petal syrup."

I'm not generally a big fan of gulab jamun, but, I tried one anyway.  And, I felt about the same as I always do.  I like fried things, so I almost liked the fried balls, but, the syrup was just way too sweet.  Oh, and these were served hot, piping hot.  If you didn't watch out, you'd burn yourself.

On its own, a ball of gulab jamun was ok, but with the syrup, it was way too much.  But ... if you added custard, it really worked.  Custard with just the syrup, custard with syrup and a chunk of the ball, either way, it was really quite nice.  The creamy, thick, rich custard really cut the syrupy-sweet sauce well.  I was able to create some dessert bites I enjoyed, but, I wouldn't rave about them, and would rather try other options for dessert.  Really, I wished I'd just stuffed myself with more of the fish pakora with tamarind sauce!

"Rice pudding gently cooked in milk flavored with cardamom and topped with pistachios."

I didn't care for the kheer last time, when it was the only dessert option.  I felt the same way this time.  It was very thin, the rice short grain and not all that well cooked.  It at least had a little cardamom flavor, but, overall, really quite lackluster.  My least favorite dessert, and I think I might even actually not try it next time.
Zaika Indian Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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