Location: 924 Presque Isle Plaza, Rt. 286E, Plum Township; 724-325-1247
Hours: Daily, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; 5-9:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $3-6; entrees $10-15
Atmosphere: Spacious, open and bright
Smoking: None Permitted
While Indian restaurants come in many shapes and sizes -- Northern, Southern, fluorescent-lit, candle-lit, bare-bones, bistro -- their menus, in our experience, hew to a predictable formula: a dozen more-or-less familiar sauces crossed with lamb, chicken, seafood and vegetables to create a comprehensive array of "specialties" of the vast Indian subcontinent. While variety is good, and Angelique takes comfort in knowing that her favorite, channa masala, is bound to be available no matter where we break naan, the downside to this approach is that it offers no signposts for locating any given kitchen's strengths.
Out in Plum Township, conveniently located "just minutes away from all temples" near the epicenter of Pittsburgh's Indian diaspora, Meena Kumar of Zaiaka has taken a different tack. A former preschool teacher whose passion for cooking led her to open a restaurant, Kumar has created a menu of manageable length and breadth by choosing to serve her own favorite recipes. The specialties of her two chefs -- Gopi Gopaul Thiagarajan, who makes the curry dishes, and Abdul Matin, who oversees the tandoor clay oven and grill -- are even designated as such. And while Zaiaka's offerings still consist mostly of tried-and-true classics like tandoori chicken, chicken korma, and, yes, channa masala, Kumar's personal selection includes a few dishes rare in local Indian establishments.
Zaiaka's big, bright dining room is a cheerful place in which embroidered draperies dress up the strip-mall windows, and where the occasional European Classical figurine can be seen mixing it up with Ganesh, Shiva and other Indian deities. As we seated ourselves at a white-clothed table, we took a moment to ponder this cross-cultural union of statuary, then turned our full attention to the culinary choices before us.
Our first, a mixed vegetarian appetizer platter, turned out to be well chosen. Cauliflower florets, carrot coins and chunks of paneer -- Indian yogurt cheese -- were firm yet tender within a crispy, subtly spicy batter. Pakoras -- mixed vegetable fritters -- had an unusually flavorful filling of sweet potato, peas and onions, while the samosas were filled with creamy white potato and bright green, uncommonly fresh peas. All in all, a highly satisfying assortment and a promising start to our meal.
For entrees, we ordered mixed grill and two of the more unusual dishes from Zaiaka's menu: malai kofta and lamb jalphrezi. Malai kofta, which was described somewhat cryptically as "cheese wrapped in vegetables," turned out to consist of balls of paneer blended with mixed vegetables for a creamy, rich flavor. The sauce, apparently made with tomatoes and cream, was bright and lively, with the cream enriching the texture without dulling the flavors.
Unfortunately, lamb jalphrezi did not quite live up to this glowing standard. Angelique was excited to try it because jalphrezi is a dish she has enjoyed in other cities, but has rarely seen in Pittsburgh. It is a type of curry made by frying marinated pieces of meat and vegetables in oil and spices to produce a thick, paste-like sauce; unlike many Indian curries, which focus on one or two ingredients, it contains a variety of veggies. At Zaiaka, the vegetables -- broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, onions and sweet bell pepper -- were colorful and well cooked, but the meat was gristly and the sauce sweet and too oily. In all, the dish had the character of an Indian pot roast, in which several flavors blended amicably but none particularly stood out.
Zaiaka's mixed grill presents the usual array of chicken, lamb and shrimp; the difference is in the execution. Here, all the meat -- including the shrimp, which can be tricky in the super-hot tandoor oven -- was moist and flavorful. Chicken tikka masala, in sliced breast form, was especially satisfying, and the generous portion of spiced lamb went well with grilled peppers and onions. The only caveat was that the shrimp and lamb, especially, tasted of too much salt.
We know it's not particularly authentic to eat bread and rice with an Indian meal, but sometimes we can't help ourselves. Although fluffy basmati rice accompanied our entrees, we treated ourselves to both aloo paratha and onion kulcha. The former is a chewy flatbread made more substantial by a filling of potato, herbs and bits of finely diced red pepper; the latter's zingy flavor put us in mind of savory scallion pancakes from other regions of Asia. Both were substantial sauce-mopper-uppers and also delicious in their own right.
"Zaiaka" means "flavor" in Hindi, and for the most part, we found that the restaurant lived up to its name. Meena Kumar's personal touch has created an enjoyable, distinctive atmosphere for diners who may be distant from Pittsburgh's restaurant scene, but who are central to local Indian culture.