If you are looking for truly fine North Indian and Pakistani cuisine, search no further. The Northern Indian food at Zayna is an elaborate gourmet experience impossible not to enjoy.
Tucked away in the very quiet New Quebec Street, Zayna is a cosy, tranquil spot. The venue spreads over a room of medium size, just a few steps up from street level, and a second room in the basement. The decor stays true to its culinary roots, with lots of wood elaborately carved with exotic patterns around the large mirrors on the walls and on the wooden applique on the ceiling. Columns and other areas of limited size are painted with a fashionable Eastern floral pattern.
The furnishing is consistent throughout. Chairs with a tall backrest in a stripy fabric are matched with simple square wooden tables, dark as all the rest. Settees able to accommodate two people are located around tables for four, which are golden-brown in colour and are covered with cushions of different sizes. A bit too low, these seats look great but to have dinner in a chair is by far recommended. Fresh flowers, straw placemats and a great presentation including brass pots and wooden trays add to the glamour of the truly elegant space.
Zayna is rather isolated. The only other venue around is the Chinese take away opposite, but this obviously attracts a completely different clientele. Hence, expect a quiet experience with people from nearby hotels, businessmen, small families and couples showing up at random. Zayna is definitely a favourite with the locals and it also attracts a good number of North Indians, all enticed by the kept promise of genuine traditional flavours. The subtle background music adds to the relaxed atmosphere while the deferent, formal staff contribute to create the illusion that Zayna is an expensive, exclusive experience. Prices, in reality, are above average but not dramatically so, so you can enjoy the feeling of spoiling yourself rotten with great cuisine without actually spending a fortune.
The decor may be great but the food is definitely the strongpoint of Zayna: the details and layers in flavours are amazing. First and foremost, all the spices are proudly ground in house, the peas are shelled one by one from the pod, while all the meat is halal and all the chicken is free-range. The flavours are North Indian and Pakistani, distributed over a menu that highlights the cooking method rather than the end result. You won’t choose from curries or fried dishes, but from food cooked on the grill, the pan, the tawa (a Lahori griddle used for dosas and other recipes), the oven and dum pukht (a traditional way of slow-oven cooking).
From the list of starters (£4.50 - £8), the samosas are very good. The crust is uniform, brown and crisp, although the outside is a bit too greasy. The mango salad is fresh and zingy thanks to thin sliced mango, red onion, cucumber and coriander topped with a passion fruit and mango sauce. The portions are rather small but it is not a bad thing since the mains are often so filling you won’t be able to finish them.
The grilled meats (£6.50 – £9 as a starter or £11.50 - £18 as a main) are marinated overnight to ensure the flavour is as full as it can be. The pan selection (£14 - £17), instead, hides gems like the naareal mucchli (salmon simmered in a coconut based sauce with onions, garlic and herbs served with saffron lemon rice) while the tawa selection (£13 - £16) includes rare delicacies like the tawa gosht (lamb chops and lamb mince cooked together), a famous street food. If the oven section (£14 - £17) provides the well-known tandoor, the dum pukht (£11 - £17) is the method used for biryani and pilau rice.
One of the best ways to actually sample the variety of flavours Zayna is capable of is by choosing from the vegetarian section. Each dish is £8 to £12 but you can sample two half portions for £12 and experimenting with the different dishes is truly worthwhile. The Lahori Chunay, for example, is one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, a very spicy chickpea dish perfectly flavoured with a bouquet of aromatic spices. Cooked overnight with onion, garlic, ginger and cumin, this is another terrific market food dish. The Tringa Tarka, also very spicy but far from unbearable, is an exciting mix of three lentils, garam, moong and musoor. Pulses have never tasted so good and the amazing flavour is due to fresh ingredients like garlic and ginger sauce knowledgeably used.
The shipketa, a home-style, no pretences dish, is less remarkable compared to the burst of flavour of the previous two dishes, but no less enjoyable. It’s much milder and uses more Western ingredients like cauliflower, carrots, garden peas, potatoes and turnips. The bhindi karahi has a nice novelty value; okra is seldom used as a main ingredient but here it takes centre stage with good results in a mild recipe with sliced onions and dried pomegranate seeds.
To accompany the lot, boiled basmati (£3) is ideal since mushroom pilau (£4.50) has more flavour but it is also slightly oilier, adding a (very thin) layer of unnecessary grease to an already very rich meal. The naan stuffed with potatoes (£3.50), instead, is ideal to soak up some juice and could be easily ordered instead of rice.
The desserts (£4 - £6) include Western and Eastern treats like chocolate fondant, bread and butter pudding and the more recommended falooda (homemade kulfi with cardamom and pistachio topped with rice noodles and red syrup), gujrayla (traditional pudding made with rice, carrots and milk) and gulab jamon (round balls of dried milk fried and dipped in syrup).
The wine list is another good surprise. Complete and knowledgeably compiled, it easily rivals the lists of nearby high profile restaurants. You can choose from ten wines by the glass (£4 - £5.75) and three dozen bottles between reds and whites (£15 - £41). A couple of half bottles are available for both whites and reds and there are also three roses to pick from (£19 - £37).
For connoisseurs looking to match the wine with the food, the choice falls to the small selection of fine wines (£41 - £110). The Barolo Classico Riserva is a great red, while the Meursault Clos du Cromin, a white from Burgundy, is an excellent white. Sparkling and Champagne isn’t missing, either. Choose between Lambrusco (£25), Prosecco (£28) or a rich selection of unusual Champagne (£37 - £75) including Jean-Paul Deville Carte Noire Brut, Philipponnat Reserve Rose and Ruinart Blanc de Blancs.
The Last Word
The food at Zayna is just divine. There is hardly a flavour out of place and the elaborate service, discreet atmosphere and lavish decor just enhance the experience of delicious, perfectly spiced dishes. Recommended.