Zaica's varied menu is all about quick, practical and cheerful dining

Zaica's aspiration to ‘fine dining' is baffling. Especially considering their logo — brash green lettering set on a carpet of fierce orange flames. To ensure that this subtle reference to fiery food doesn't get lost in translation, it's all topped by a jaunty red floating chilli.

The whole effect is more reminiscent of a pizza delivery chain, conjuring up images of speedy bikes, ketchup and jalapenos, rather than a quiet restaurant tinkling with fine crystal and murmured discussions on Parisian vacations.

Nevertheless, the interiors are a nice surprise. Despite the traditional grand old Indian restaurant format, with the requisite lashings of gilt and gold, the overall effect is classy and welcoming with soft lighting and arty, but restrained, furnishing.

They're particularly proud of their gaming room, set up for restless children. I'm not a fan of restless children, and listening to them shriek through one of those ghastly virtual wars, resonating with gun fire and macho grunts, isn't my idea of fine dining. However the Zaica owners are much more forgiving. “We give them headphones, but, yes, there'll be some dhaaam dhoom,” they shrug, smiling. Fortunately the dhaam-dhoom brigade is at school when we visit at lunch time, and the goggle-eyed grown men squished into the gaming room play in such morbid silence one can only assume they're being unceremoniously squashed by Lara Croft and her ilk.

The restaurant is intelligently divided into a series of rooms, which means you can choose to be seated away from the noisier areas. There are also a couple of rooms that can be closed off for privacy, an unexpected perk in a restaurant of this category where space is at a premium. How much privacy? Well, mid-way through lunch, we're gleefully told that a couple is having a ‘candle-lit lunch' in one of the backrooms. Go figure.

We start on a great note with paneer made in-house, from thick buffalo milk. Its yielding texture is edged with a crust of cashew nuts. Sparingly flavoured with spices, the taste of the paneer is subtly accentuated instead of overwhelmed. The other starters include rich chicken kebabs marinated in coriander roots and cream, tender baby potatoes stuffed with shredded paneer and vegetable kebabs stained deep red with beetroot.

There's no a la carte menu here. You either opt for a vegetarian or non-vegetarian buffet. Often buffets tend to be lacklustre, aimed at people who prefer quantity to quality. Zaica's version of a buffet, however, is a thoughtful compromise.

Starters are delivered to the table straight from the kitchens, so they're hot and fresh. Then, guests help themselves to the main course from the buffet counter at the centre of the restaurant, which offers a reasonable number of options. We try spicy mutton curry and paneer, both of which are standard buffet fare — adequate without being impressive. There's biriyani and pulao, sleek with ghee. The best part however is the bowl of black dal delivered to the table, luxurious with white butter and cream, and silky from hours in the tandoor. It's no surprise to learn that corporate chef Shalik Ram was previously at the Maurya Sheraton in Delhi, given the dal's resemblance to ITC's popular Peshawari dal.

The hot gulab jamuns are excellent, thanks to the buffalo milk khoa made at the restaurant. There's shahi tukra, but its oil slick effect is a little frightening, and the coconut burfi tastes like it's lived through some long, tough Dickensian times. Stick with the gulab jamuns, with crumbly badusha on the side.

A satisfying meal on the whole, especially if you concentrate on the highlights, and consider the price. Zaica doesn't need to hanker for a ‘fine-dining' tag. It's about quick, practical and cheerful dining, which draws a lot more fans.

(Zaica is on Cathedral Road, opposite Chola Sheraton Hotel. Lunch is priced at Rs. 350 for vegetarians and Rs. 385 otherwise. Similarly dinner is Rs. 550 and Rs. 580. Call 2811 3837 for details.)

Keywords: Zaicachicken kebabs

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