Friday, Oct 05 2012 01:06 PM

PETE TITTL: Indian buffet a welcome lunch change

By The Bakersfield Californian


Contributing columnist

Related Info


5123 Ming Ave.


Hours: Lunch buffet 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day. Dinner menu available 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 3 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Reservations recommended.

Prices: Lunch buffet, $7.99 per person. Dinner menu: Appetizers, $3 to $13; tandoor oven, $8 to $16; chatt (fried dough savory snacks), $5 to $7; chicken, $11 to $13; lamb, $13 to $14; seafood, $13 to $15; vegetarian, $10 to $13; breads, $2 to $8; Southern Indian specialties, $5 to $8; "Indo Chinese" specialties, $6 to $12.

Payment: MasterCard, VISA, American Express and Discover accepted. Personal checks not accepted.

Dress: Casual

Amenities: Wheelchair accessible; full service bar; many vegetarian options.

Food: ***½

Atmosphere: ***

Service: ***

Value: ***½

Next Week: Juliana's Art Cafe & Patio

Sometimes people ask me for recommendations on lunch buffets and, other than Hodel's and Golden Corral, I'm hard pressed to offer up suggestions.

I've got a new one, suggested to me by readers shortly after it opened last spring: Zaika Indian Cuisine & Bar on Ming Avenue at the intersection of New Stine, in what was the longtime home of Britannia (and more recently the Indian Delhi Palace). This is a brunch with fresh items, well-prepared, a tad exotic but an incredible value at only $7.99 per adult. Word is already out, and the small dining room was more than half full when we visited on a Tuesday.

This is not one of those diet-busting, expansive Las Vegas buffets with all sorts of foods. It's focused, and what I most appreciated from this small-containers approach was the freshness of the ingredients.

My biggest problem with these operations is food that has lingered too long on the hot plate, drying out and adopting an unappetizing color.

Here the Basmati rice was as aromatic and moist as you get when ordering from the menu. There was saag (a cooked spinach Indian standard that lacks the sometimes off-putting metallic taste of that vegetable), lentils with a nice smoky note, butter chicken as good as the version we raved about at Cafe India, tandoori chicken, and a chicken curry that was medium spicy. There was a curry tofu item that was positively irresistible.

I've always thought the texture of most tofu when used as a meat substitute is pathetic: wimpy, insubstantial, too pudding-like to be satisfying. But what they use has the texture and satisfying bite of chicken breast meat. Our waitress explained that the kitchen makes its own tofu and achieves the desired texture by not putting it in the sauce too early.

I really got a kick out of the curry chicken for the odd sensation it produced. When I first tasted it, it was so subtle I thought it was a mild version (the word "curry" is about as helpful as the word "salsa" in identifying spiciness levels). But within seconds the heat was like a raging bull roaring toward the back of my throat. It was so fascinating how that happened, but not overpowering.

Our only disappointment on the buffet were the deep-fried vegetables, which, at first glance, looked like fritters. They had a sweet-savory combination and a greasiness we didn't see in the other food.

For dessert, try the Gulub jamun if it's available (it's not on the buffet every day, but is available for $7.99 on the regular menu). Think of doughnuts with a dough that has a small amount of cream cheese mixed in, slightly bigger than a golf ball, fried golden brown and presented in a sweet honey-based syrup. Even if you've consumed too much naan, this is hard to resist.

Speaking of the naan, the delectable bread always proves to be our downfall. When we were seated, our waitress asked which variety we wanted. I ordered garlic and my companion ordered plain. We each received a basket of more than enough bread, even having to leave some behind so as not to walk away in desperate need of a nap.

There was work to do. The problem with leaving it behind was its perfection: My garlic naan was crisp on one side, spread with the perfect amount of garlic butter on the other side, and light and hot like fresh-baked bread should be.

The regular menu includes all this and more, so if you're not into a buffet or seek more variety, you can visit after 3 p.m. They have some southern Indian specialties, and even "Indo Chinese" specialties that include fried rice. (One reader had raved about the lamb vindaloo, which he said was prepared in the traditional fashion with whole rather than ground spices. Others say the chicken tikka masala is the must order on the menu.)

Check it out, buffet lovers. This one is on my repeat visit list.

Zaika Indian Cuisine & Bar can be recommended for a fine dining experience.

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