Zayka Indian Cuisine has two entrances, though it's not readily apparent from the outside of the building, lined on both sides with parking spaces in the sprawling Brierdale Shopping Center, which is the front entrance and which is the back.
Enter through the front (it's the one facing east, toward Lumley Road), and you're warmly greeted just inside the door by Harry Burman or his partner, the equally affable chef Gulshan Singh. Take the back entrance, though, and you've got a bit of an awkward walk across the length of the narrow dining room to get to the host stand.
It's a minor inconvenience and easily avoided once you have your bearings. The dual entrances are even fitting, in a way, as they foreshadow the widely divergent potential of the dining experience that's in store.
When the dining room is bustling, as it often is during the lunchtime rush for the popular buffet, the activity resonates with the warm earth tones of abstract paintings and the rich reds and creams of upholstery and table linens. But in the evening - particularly when the tables are sparsely occupied, as they were both times I dined there - the cold stainless steel and granite tops of the dormant buffet steam tables dominate the room.
The food can be similarly variable. Sometimes it even manages to cover the spectrum from good to bad in a single presentation, as was the case with an assorted appetizer platter that served up toothsome nuggets of chicken tikka, alongside greasy samosa and vegetable pakoras and pasty seekh kebabs. Given a second chance on a subsequent visit, the vegetable samosa redeemed itself with a savory filling of mashed potatoes and peas in a crisp pastry crust that wasn't in the least greasy.
Thankfully, hits outnumber misses by a wide margin. Chef Singh's specialty is Punjabi cuisine, and his experience shows in his renditions of the exotically fragrant masalas, rich cream sauces and tandoori specialties that have earned the food of the northwestern region a reputation as India's most refined.
Rogan josh, a Punjabi classic featuring lamb in a subtly spiced sauce thickened with ground almonds, is expertly rendered. So is the perennial favorite chicken tikka masala, which serves up moist cubes of tandoori-roasted chicken in a creamy tomato-based sauce.
Navratan korma, a medley of assorted vegetables in a sauce sweetened with dried fruits, comes close to the mark but falls short of the rich complexity of the best renditions. But Malai kofta curry, which stars "sausages" of grated vegetables and Indian cheese in a delicate sauce studded with cashews and raisins, is on the money. So is the sublimely simple coconut soup - silky, light, and redolent of the unadulterated perfume of coconut.
At the opposite end of the flavor spectrum is achar gosht: lean, tender chunks of goat (the menu description of "lamb" notwithstanding) in a thick, spice-bronzed stew that's pungent with vinegar. Bold flavors are likewise a hallmark of the coconut curry in chicken Madras, one of a handful of dishes that prove the chef is also comfortable venturing into the southern part of the subcontinent.
From the tandoor
Tandoori chicken is moist and flavorful, and arrives on a sizzling platter showered with onions and peppers. For my money, though, the yogurt-marinated chicken reshmi kebab - cooked in the same method but with different spicing (and notably absent the red food coloring) - is even better. Fish tikka isn't as dry as some I've had (seafood is notoriously tricky to cook in the extreme heat of a tandoor), but would benefit from larger pieces of salmon.
The tandoor also turns out a varied assortment of breads, from earthy whole wheat roti to fluffy naan, which is available in variations ranging from garlic-topped to chicken-stuffed. Breads are baked to order, which means even the plain naan arrives at your table piping hot and intoxicatingly fragrant. The aptly named bullet naan, punctuated with chiles and cilantro, isn't listed on the menu, but it's a must if you like hot - and I do mean hot - flavors.
Come to think of it, it wouldn't be a bad idea to order two different breads. They're that good, and it certainly wouldn't hurt to get a taste of both ends of the spectrum.