For our third dining experience, us Food Dudes got a chance to sample the taste of India at Zaika Indian Cuisine & Bar. For those who remember Britannia Restaurant & Pub, you now know where to find Zaika. Nestled in the corner space at Ming Avenue and New Stine Road, Zaika has taken up the mantle of offering Bakersfield “a trip overseas.”
We met up at the bar prior to our dinner session, where bartender and waitress Jamie Whitlock shared the short history of Zaika with us. It was established in March last year, but owner Harry Bhullar has been in Bakersfield since 1987 and attended Cal State Bakersfield where he earned a master’s degree in marketing. He also owns two Subways in town.
Even though he’s been in the food industry since 2004, he wanted a more individualized experience, as opposed to owning a franchise. When he took over the previous restaurant, Indian Delhi Palace, he remodeled the inside and hired an experienced chef to develop their exceptional menu, full of taste and flavor (which is what Zaika means).
After the history lesson, Jamie showed us to our table where we were in for an enjoyable experience.
Editor’s Note: Food Dudes ate family-style, and for this article, they touch on their favorite dishes.Having been to India recently, the rest of the Dudes felt that I should order the food, as I was most familiar with it. We started with some samosas, which are deep-fried triangular-shaped egg rolls, filled with potatoes and peas. If you’re a fan of the Chinese egg roll, you will love this Indian variation. For extra flavor, there are two special sauces for dipping; one is the green mint and chutney sauce that has a nice little spicy kick, and the other is the tamarind sauce, which is similar to sweet and sour. The chef made us a special item not listed on the menu — sizzling lamb chops cooked to perfection. The meat was tender, juicy and not gamey.While I have always enjoyed Indian food, I have the hardest time remembering the names of dishes. Fortunately for us, our server suggested a variety to choose.
From the tandoor oven, we ordered three dishes: the seekh kabab, which is a red lamb curry; the tandoori fish, which is one of Zaika’s signature dishes; and the tandoori shrimp. You can’t go wrong with any of them, but I must say that the tandoori fish was my personal favorite.
For the inexperienced, Indian food can be very spicy. Our initial dishes were prepared mild to medium, but I requested that the lamb curry be prepared on the spicier side. I love spicy food! But I cheated and mixed in some yogurt with the dish to cut down on the heat.
If you look in my freezer at any given time, you are bound to find Indian flatbread, otherwise known as naan. At Zaika, we enjoyed the garlic naan and onion kulcha, and Vin insisted that we order the cheese naan as well. While the bread was excellent, the real treat came when our host allowed us into the kitchen to see how it was made. Naan is cooked in a tandoor oven, which is a large cinder oven with a large hole down the middle. The chef prepares a ball of dough, throws it against the inside of the cylinder, and within moments, it’s ready to eat.
This was one of the more enjoyable outings we have had. The owner was very personable and sat with us for a while, telling us his story of the restaurant. And our server Jamie provided us with not only excellent service, but detailed explanations of every dish we enjoyed.
Rick Hudgens: Zaika exudes class with its dim lighting, elegant seating and wall decor; the staff is extremely friendly. As an inexperienced Indian food consumer, I was a bit apprehensive, yet eager to dive in. Without question, my most memorable dish was the tandoori fish. The blend of semi-spicy herbs and fresh swai fish pieces was amazing. The fish was flaky, incredibly tender and melted in my mouth. I’m not a fan of catfish, but this member of the catfish family was quite a treat. Throughout the evening, I returned to that succulent platter in the middle of our table.
In the past, I have consumed many types of curry, but the seekh kabab red lamb curry was an entree I had never tried before, and I was not disappointed in the least. It was spicy, yet it made the lamb emit a more robust, richer flavor.
Finally, we were showered with a variety of Indian desserts. The two that I liked the most were the gulab jamun and the kulfi. The gulab jamun are homemade sweetened cheese dumplings sitting nicely in a sweet syrup. The cheese was not what I expected with its rich, semi-sweet flavor, and the syrup made it even more flavorful. The kulfi, mango and pistachio ice cream, were both excellent. The mango was sweet and somewhat tart as one would anticipate, but the pistachio was nutty and blended with the mango ice cream quite well.
I would like to thank our fellow Food Dude, Vin, for ordering some of the wonders of Northern India.
Rick Kreiser: Do you ever get the feeling you’re going to have a positive experience the moment you enter a room? Well, that’s exactly how I felt as we assembled in the comfortable lounge at Zaika. Jamie made us feel instantly welcome, and it was soon obvious that the staff had some special treats for our visit. Jamie and Harry reviewed the appetizer and entrée menus with us, and we decided that a family-style presentation would afford us the opportunity to really get a taste of the variety Zaika has to offer. It’s a cozy, well-appointed restaurant, the food is fantastic, and the great staff completes the picture.
Making its way to our table from the tandoor was the chicken tikka masala — a baked chicken dish prepared with a heartily-seasoned creamy tomato sauce. Dishes seemed to appear in rapid succession with the bhindi masala (fresh okra sautéed with onions and spices); baingan bhartha (roasted eggplant cooked with garlic, onions and ginger); and completing the vegetarian triumvirate, aloo gobhi (fresh cauliflower and potatoes sauteed with ginger and garlic).
So, here’s where the real fun started. Ordinarily, it’s best not to let Dudes in the kitchen, but Jamie and Harry gave us the real cook’s tour. Getting up close and personal while the chef whipped up our dessert was almost as good as eating it!
Derek Abbott: Of the menu items we tried, a few stood out for me. The mango lassi, which was served with our appetizer round, is a luxurious yogurt drink made with rose water, fresh mango, yogurt, sugar and cordamon. It has a delectable taste similar to melted orange sherbet. The roasted lamb chops served as an appetizer were the best lamb I’ve tasted yet, simply prepared and flavored. The tandoori fish was a real revelation. As a sporadic fish eater, I wasn’t expecting much, but the dish wowed me with the tenderness and succulence of the fire-roasted swai fish. The milky lassi was a trusted companion throughout the rest of the main course, as I sampled the spicier menu items not suited to my personal heat tolerance, which is very low as I’m half German, half American and therefore, as white as can be. For dessert, the pistachio ice cream was a creamy comfort closer to an international journey, bringing us back to the local flavors of Kern County’s nut harvest.
I found the experience of dining at Zaika to be a unique opportunity to sample a palate of spices and flavors that I’m not often exposed to. From the opening discussion with Harry, it was clear that his passion was the restaurant business and its singular ability to bring people together, around a table, for a common experience. And Jamie was the most welcoming and helpful server I’ve met. She stewarded our journey through the courses on the menu, taking care to address our special requests and thoroughly explain the food we were served. Vin has been to Zaika on numerous occasions, and the four us plan to return in the near future. We hope you will, too!