New Delhi, India
January 9, 2012
Zambar is a moderate-sized restaurant, with a lot of the fairly clichéd trappings of a South Indian joint: carved wood pillars; a gleaming brass lamp on the floor, one half of the room covered with a curved ‘ceiling’ of coconut matting, to resemble the houseboats of the Kerala backwaters. Pleasant, but not memorable. The one thing about the décor that began to pall after a while were the TV screens high up on the walls, on which they constantly run an ad for Zambar. As it is, I hate TV screens in restaurants. Pubs, okay; restaurants, no. And when what’s being shown is a looping run, again and again again of the same two-minute commercial (of a restaurant you’re already sitting in!)… what’s the point?
Anyway, we ordered our meal from the pretty extensive range of vegetarian and non-vegetaria appetisers and main courses Zambar offers. Four of us opted for fresh coconut water as a drink; the others had lagers. With our drinks, we were given complimentary crisp fried papads, along with a trio of chutneys: a yellow lentil-based one, a tangy tomato chutney, and a green coriander-and-coconut one. Also on our table was a little jar of sesame oil (known as gingelly oil in India), though we ended up ignoring that.
We’d not ordered appetisers (though Zambar offers a dozen or so to choose from, including sampler platters); instead we’d opted for a main course. This arrived within about 10 minutes. The mutton stew, a very mild and fragrant one based on coconut milk, with bits of goat meat (which is what ‘mutton’ in India actually is) and veggies, was nice and soothing. My sister-in-law, ordered a vegetarian version of the same stew, without the mutton – equally good. We also ordered a Malabar fish curry, with a slightly sour, thick tomato-and-onion gravy in which pieces of fish had been simmered. Like the stew, this was delicious too, but the pieces of fish were small and few and far between.
Since Zambar’s speciality is seafood, we also ordered a Travancore crab thooran, a dry dish of crabmeat cooked with onions, curry leaves, and lime: very tasty, and low on the spice. Further on in the meal, we realised we’d perhaps under-ordered, so we added one more dish to the lot: a Tharavaram prawn curry. This one proved my favourite: gorgeously tender fresh prawns, in a coconut gravy with just enough spice to give it some punch, not enough to set your mouth on fire.
Along with the curries, stew, and the thooran, we ordered steamed rice and appams. The rice was fine, but the appams (rice-batter pancakes) were a bit disappointing. Firstly, their quality wasn’t topclass: a good appam has a soft, fluffy centre and a crisp, thin edge. These ones got the edges right, but the centres of some were thick and undercooked. Worse, Zambar seemed to have only one cook working on the appams, which meant long waits. We ended up waiting, our food growing cold, for the appams to arrive.
With all that under our belts, we couldn’t fit in dessert, but we opted for South Indian filter coffee – a rich, strong brew that can be addictive if you like coffee with milk. This was another of Zambar’s flaws: the coffee wasn’t as hot as it could’ve been. What was worse, it had shreds of thin cream floating about in it and getting stuck to our teeth. Awful. For a meal that cost us Rs 5,847 (for six people, inclusive of all taxes and a tip), I’d have expected better – in terms of quality and timing – appams, and far better coffee. Still; the food (on the whole) was good, and the ambience was relaxed and comfortable. Worth a repeat visit.
From journal Getting Your Spice Fix in Delhi