Eight years ago, three roommates who shared a deep love for the dishes of their native India decided to pursue a passion project.
That dream would take them from weekend gatherings and casual dinner parties to the creation of Zaika, which today stands as one of Miami's most esteemed Indian restaurants.
Drawing inspiration from their shared experience working at the prestigious Taj Mahal Hotel Group — a chain of luxury resorts spanning world-renowned landmarks — friends and business partners Manoj Patel, Avanish Shrivastava, and Shivashankar Malabanti tell New Times they found their true calling as restaurateurs.
The establishment that got its start as a humble ode to their home country has since grown into a beloved neighborhood spot in North Miami.
"Back then, we were all working in the hospitality industry in Miami," says Patel. "We started hosting dinner parties at our house for fun, cooking our favorite dishes from back home. When friends started asking for more frequent events, even offering to pay for them and bring guests along, we realized we had something special on our hands."
Together, the trio opened Zaika, a modest venture that quickly became known as a neighborhood gem for its straightforward take on regional Indian fare.
Now, eight years later, the thriving 90-seat restaurant has since expanded to include a second location in Weston, with plans for a new establishment in Key Largo in early 2024.
Step inside the original North Miami restaurant, however, and you'll feel right at home. The simple, earth-hued interior provides a relaxed backdrop for enjoying a satiating meal where each dish takes center stage.
The menu has a predominant emphasis on Northern Indian fare, renowned for its bold spices and rich, butter-laden fare. But dishes also venture into the subtler flavors of India's southern staples, notable for their use of coconut and curry leaves.
Meals here can begin only one way: with the housemade garlic naan. It arrives from the kitchen piping hot, thin, smokey flatbread topped with zesty cilantro that is best when used to ladle saucy dishes from plate to mouth.
Take the Zaika malabar chicken, juicy morsels of meat served in a luscious coconut sauce adorned with curry leaves, red chili, and mustard grains. The more deeply-flavored lamb roganjosh, slow-cooked in a tomato base infused with ginger, is just as good. Likewise, for the yellow lentil dal, a richly textured stew topped with a paste of butter, garlic, and spices.
The tandoori clay oven, integral to Indian cuisine, works its magic on an array of heavily spiced, yogurt-marinated proteins, all cooked on a skewer until charred and served sizzling at the table. Standouts include the tangy paneer skewer, cubes of homemade cow's cheese interlaced with green peppers, as well as the juicy and tender lamb seekh kebab.
For a sweet finale, diners should not miss Zaika's take on the traditional gulab jamun, a duo of delicate doughnut spheres steeped in rose water syrup and crowned with a single slice of almond. The sweet treats arrive piping hot, their interiors beautifully absorbing the syrup, resulting in a soft, tender texture that's irresistible no matter how full you might be. There is no saying no to just one more bite.
Reflecting on the success of the restaurant, Patel attributes it to the unwavering commitment of the proprietors, grounded in consistency and fueled by their genuine passion for the arts of gastronomy and hospitality.
"We're really strict about keeping our recipes and preparation methods authentic, paying attention to every little detail," sums up Patel. "It all comes from our love for the food, and the experience we want to create for our guests."
Zaika. 2176 NE 123rd St, North Miami; 786-409-5187; zaikamiami.com. Tuesday through Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.