Review

Zinda offers freewheeling tour of pan-Asian fare in downtown Raleigh

CorrespondentJune 27, 2013 

  • Zinda

    301 Fayetteville St., Raleigh

    919-825-0995

    Zindaraleigh.com

    Cuisine: contemporary pan-Asian

    Rating: * * * 

    Prices: $$-$$$

    Atmosphere: trendy mix of organic elements and purple neon

    Noise level: moderate to high

    Service: highly variable

    Recommended: som tam salad, calamari, shaking beef lettuce cups, mahi vindaloo, sides

    Open: Lunch Monday-Friday, dinner Monday-Saturday

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: full bar; get a sitter; good vegetarian selection; parking on street and in nearby garages (valet parking $5).

    The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *  Extraordinary *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *  Above average. *  *  Average. *  Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

According to Zinda’s website, the restaurant’s name is Hindi for “alive.” In a number of ways, it’s an apt name for the newest member of the Eschelon Hospitality group of restaurants.

It’s certainly a suitable description of the decor, which more than lives up to the reputation for visual drama that has become an Eschelon trademark in restaurants such as Mura, Sono and The Oxford.

Zinda’s two-level dining room fairly throbs with the tension between earthy and organic elements (stone walls, contorted root balls suspended from a high ceiling, two nine-foot communal tables fashioned from a single tree trunk) and the yards of purple neon that frame a sleek bar and keyhole-shaped doorways. A recurring Asian motif -- bamboo canes, Buddha sculptures and prints, exotic wood chopsticks on the tables -- is woven throughout, unifying the disparate elements.

And setting the stage for a menu that takes you on a freewheeling tour of pan-Asian fare from Indian chana masala to Chinese duck chow fun to Filipino pork adobo. Descriptions helpfully include the country of origin for each dish, most of which favor contemporary interpretation over strict authenticity. Occasionally, the menu ventures into fusion territory, labeled as “New Asian”: crispy channa with beets, grilled beef “lollipops” on sugar cane sticks, and the like.

Five-spice fried calamari, tossed with garlic and Thai chiles, are a fine way to wake up your taste buds. So is som tam salad, a refreshing contemporary riff that’s lighter than the original while remaining true in spirit.

Shaking beef lettuce cups, so named for the way the nuggets of tender New York strip steak hop about in the wok as they’re being cooked, is another winning starter. So are steamed buns, with one caveat: I’d pass on the surprisingly bland pork belly version, and opt instead for chicken katsu, mushroom, or duck confit.

The entree selection is similarly diverse, traipsing all over the continent from masala-spiced lamb to nasi goreng to miso-glazed scallops to vegetarian lo mein.

A deconstructed mahi vindaloo serves up a moist piece of fish, subtly spiced and expertly seared, alongside a mound of rice and a ladleful of potatoes in a vinegar-tinged vindaloo sauce that’s toned down from the traditional version but nonetheless tasty.

The coconut-based Macau yellow curry is even milder, in this case authentically so. As long as you’re not expecting the punch of an Indian or Thai curry, you’ll be charmed by the delicate flavor. Like me, though, you may find yourself wishing the kitchen would be more generous with the mushrooms, tofu, zucchini, red bell peppers, carrots and onions promised by the menu in this vegetarian dish.

Szechwan bison flank steak, on the other hand, was firing on all cylinders when I ordered it: lean, tender petals of dry-fried meat, lightly glazed in a brown sauce punctuated with green onions, chiles and just a suggestion of Szechwan peppercorn.

The bison has since been replaced by flank steak, the result of a recent tweaking of the menu. I can’t vouch for the new version, though the description otherwise remains unchanged.

I can, however, tell you that at least one of the new items -- a Malaysian salad featuring bamboo-skewered grilled shrimp on a bed of mixed greens, topped with a vibrant mango salsa -- is a keeper. And, as far as I can tell, “Filipino cigars” are the same toothsome pork-and-carrot-filled spring rolls I enjoyed when they were formerly listed under their authentic name of lumpia.

Zinda’s dessert offering is brief but varied, with options including flan, molten lava cake and the Indian-spiced s’more that tantalized but wasn’t available the night I wanted it. Judging by the merely passable mango mousse I got instead, I’m inclined to recommend spending the calories on side dishes with your entrees. Greens braised with hoisin and bacon, say, and exceptionally fluffy naan with mint and tamarind chutneys.

Depending on the luck of the draw, service can be very good. Or you can get the short straw in the form of a server who exhibits all the liveliness and charm of a zombie. As our party waited, and waited, and waited for her to make a rare appearance one Saturday night, we joked that maybe she only came to life after 10 p.m. That’s when Zinda morphs from restaurant into trendy bar on weekends, living up to its name in a different way.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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