Walking away from Zaika, cabby/techno musician Dirk Waldeck’s favorite Indian restaurant in Berlin, I couldn’t help but remember the words of a Bulgarian taxi driver named Netko as he was telling us about his favorite place to eat in Sofia: “There are a lot of places with worse food.”
Though I’ve tried to come up with a more romantic way to sum up the meal at Zaika, or to attach it to some larger theme — such as the inherent perils of transplanting one of the world’s greatest cuisines to a place with a radically different palate — I keep going back to Netko’s assessment. I can’t think of a more accurate way to describe the food at Zaika.
As at many Indian restaurants in Berlin, there’s an awful lot of cream on the menu. Actually, there’s an awful lot on the menu, period: it goes on for 19 pages and includes “not only mild north Indian dishes but also spicy dishes from south India,” along with cocktails like the Kamasutra (with 7-year-old Indian rum, apricot brandy, amaretto, lime, pineapple, orange juice and grenadine).
You’ll also find an entire section devoted to duck dishes, though duck dishes are uncommon in just about every region of India except Kerala (I agreed with one of my dining companions when she said they should get rid of the duck section, not to mention the duck with mango sauce daily special on the sandwich board outside).
How can the kitchen possibly do a good job on all 108 of its pan-Indian dishes? It can’t, of course. But they do make some of one of the better versions of palak paneer (house-made farmers-style cheese with spinach, cumin, ginger and garlic) I’ve tasted in Berlin. Also, they aren’t shy about serving a genuinely spicy green chili sauce with their papadums, and vindaloo that makes you sweat. Unfortunately, sweating is about all you’ll do – I couldn’t taste much beyond the fire in either the lamb or the vegetarian vindaloo. And I couldn’t taste any fire in my channa masala (garbanzo beans with onion and tomato) – though fire seemed like the only thing this dish needed to draw out the subtlety of the spices.
Why would I order dessert, given the relative mediocrity of our mains? I guess I was as unwilling to give up hope as I was desperate to find something outstanding on the menu — and I wanted to know what seven-year-old Indian rum would taste like in a fruit cream salad. But not even seven-year-old rum can cover up the fact that most of the fruit in this salad comes from a can (as does the whipped cream).
In conclusion: if you’re in Prenzlauer Berg and absolutely must have Indian food, Zaika might be one of your better options (assuming you skip the fruit cream salad). But if you’re looking for Indian food worthy of a pilgrimage, then I suggest you go west, to a place called Satyam, an ayurvedic vegetarian south Indian restaurant in Charlottenburg I came across thanks to my (self-described) cranky-expat-food-snob friend Becca.
Tel. (030) 40 00 34 35
Open: Daily, 12:00-24:00