I had forgotten how much I like mulligatawny soup. It was one of the first dishes I ever ate in an Indian restaurant, decades ago, when I was just beginning to explore the world of flavors that exist outside the little corner of North Carolina where I grew up.
I remember thinking the soup was the height of exotica. It’s riddled with lentils and finely diced vegetables, redolent of the curry spices that gave it its brassy yellow color, and garnished with a lemon wedge to add bright counterpoint to the earthy lentils. At the same time, it’s soothing, a chicken stock-based brew whose flavor is at once complex and deeply satisfying.
I later learned that “mulligatawny” means “pepper water,” though the soup isn’t particularly spicy. I also discovered that mulligatawny soup isn’t Indian, strictly speaking, but an adaptation of the cuisine developed for English palates during the British Raj.
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Which may explain why I’ve come across mulligatawny soup so seldom among the profusion of Indian restaurants that have sprouted up all over the Triangle in recent years, many of them specializing in authentic regional cuisines. Looking back over my notes, I see the last time I had mulligatawny soup was nearly 10 years ago.
Until last month, that is, when I spotted it on the menu at Zeera, a cheery little family-run eatery tucked into a Fuquay-Varina strip mall. I ordered the mulligatawny, needless to say, and soon was transported back to a simpler time (gastronomically speaking), when going out for Indian meant one thing: the curries, tandoori-roasted meats and gently fragrant vegetarian dishes of Northern India.
Mulligatawny soup is by no means the only dish at Zeera that Westerners have been eating long enough to think of as Indian comfort food. The menu offers a veritable road map of memory lane, from traditional homestyle curry to tandoori mixed grill to chicken tikka masala (a dish so firmly entrenched in the British diet that it was proclaimed a national dish in 2001), with frequent excursions down the vegetarian side streets of aloo gobi, dal makhni and saag paneer. Garlic naan, and a little mango chutney and raita on the side? Yes, please.
That’s not to say that Zeera is a gastronomic museum, or even that the menu is limited to Northern dishes. In addition to nostalgic nibbles of samosa (lamb or vegetarian, both highly recommended) and pakora, you’ll find the Southern Indian favorite chicken 65, and Indo-Chinese specialties gobi Manchurian and chilli chicken among starter options – which, just to show you they’re keeping up with the times, are listed under the Small Plates heading.
You can get your chicken tikka masala fix here – or take a walk on the wild side and try it with fish instead. Or lamb, or shrimp, or even beef. Many entrees at Zeera are offered in your choice of several animal proteins.
Satisfy an old craving for homestyle curry in any of these protein variations, or jazz things up a bit with the Madras Special Curry (chicken or lamb), whose vibrant gravy is accented with the Southern trademark flavors of coconut and mustard seed. Either way, be advised that, true to old-school practice, your server will probably ask how spicy you want it on a 10-point scale – and it will probably arrive two or three notches milder than you specify.
If it’s heat you’re seeking, then look no further than lamb vindaloo, which delivers the goods in an authentically vinegar-tinged curry.
The clay oven makes a good showing, turning out seven tandoori dishes from fish tikka (salmon or mahi mahi) to lamb chops to a mixed platter of tandoori chicken, kebabs (lamb and seekh), and shrimp. Your eager-to-please server will apologize if he fails to get the dish to you while it’s still sizzling on a bed of onions and peppers — even though he has missed the mark by only a minute or two.
Among vegetarian entrees, aloo gobi and saag paneer won’t disappoint. But it’s navratan korma’s medley of vegetables in a rich almond-thickened cream sauce that stands out among the old standbys. If you’re looking for a little adventure, then either baingan khas (an eggplant-and-tomato stew topped with a generous dollop of yogurt) or bhindi do pyaza (okra simmered in a sauce of tomatoes, onions and spices) ought to do the trick.
In keeping with a practice that seems to have become obligatory in recent years at Indian restaurants of every stripe, Zeera devotes a separate section of the menu to biryani. The list includes half a dozen choices, from lamb (my favorite) to Hyderabadi chicken dum biryani. Your server will also tell you about the chef special biryani, which buries savory morsels of lamb, chicken and shrimp under a mound of spice-perfumed basmati rice and a scattering of cashews and mint. He’ll tell you the dish is nicknamed “mountain of rice,” though the portion doesn’t appear to be any larger than the standard biryani offering.
Taking its cue from the menu, the modestly furnished dining room is decorated with an eclectic mix of traditional and contemporary art on buttermint green walls. A print on the wall of a hallway near the rest rooms advises, “Eat well, travel well.” You can do just that at Zeera, whether you choose to stay on well-trodden paths or explore new ones.
1311 E. Broad St., Fuquay-Varina
Atmosphere: casual and cheery
Noise level: low
Service: eager to please
Recommended: mulligatawny soup, samosas, navratan korma, baingan khas, lamb vindaloo
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Other: Full bar; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
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.