I have thought about Zindagi Indian Bistro often since we first dined there six months ago and were blown away by several elements of the experience, especially the wonderfully balanced and precisely seasoned food, the modern décor and a small wine and beer list that aspired to be food-friendly.
In my "First Impressions" piece back then, I told readers that this new restaurant in Davis seemed destined to emerge as a bona fide destination for inspired Indian cooking.
The more I deliberated about the food in the months afterward, the greater my expectations became. When it came time to revisit this smart little place, explore the menu more thoroughly and take a serious look at this restaurant, I wondered: How would it hold up?
Would Zindagi continue to flourish? Or did I happen to catch the place on a magical night when everything the chef touched turned to gold?
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We arrived on a beautiful weekday evening and settled at a table on the small patio out front. It was a perfect vantage point for people-watching in the heart of Davis' lively downtown grid.
Seconds after we sat down, an effusive woman dining at the table next to ours simply couldn't contain herself.
"Have you eaten here before?" she asked, craning her neck and smiling. "You have to try the papri chaat. It's fantastic. We read about it in The Sacramento Bee."
We nodded and promised to give it a whirl.
Though she stopped short of offering us one of her papri chaat, which are absolutely suitable for sharing with strangers, we thanked her for the suggestion and, indeed, took her advice.
That papri chaat, of course, was what had me so absolutely over the moon in May, when I hammered out the following pronouncement about this appetizer: "The textures are crunchy and then velvety on the finish, and the flavors are so soothing and thorough that I didn't want the dish to end. Would it be wrong to follow an appetizer with the same appetizer?"
Indeed, that first version, with the taste sensations of chips and chutney and chilies, was mesmerizing. But this was different. This was clearly not done by the same magician. This one was not so neatly arranged. There were more ingredients more haphazardly applied. There was more distraction and less finesse, from the visual aspect to the actual eating. It had gone from great to good.
Alas, so had Zindagi.
If an appetizer is a pre-cursor, this one was telling. With every course afterward, including during a follow-up visit, the marginally diminished appeal of the papri chaat was duplicated with several – but not all – of the dishes. The tandoori chicken was of fine quality, but it was no longer perfect. It was good, if slightly dry.
The chicken tikka masala was still delicious, including its thick, red sauce, but it was more up-front, more obvious in its seasonings. There was plenty of the goodness but plenty less of the magic.
To me, Indian cooking, when all goes well, has the potential to sweep us away into a dreamlike state. This masala dish, like a similar vegetarian one called paneer tikka masala, was satisfying, solid and appreciated – a reaction that fell short of my expectations.
How could this be?
For one thing, restaurant cooking is not an art, no matter how much we want to believe it is. It is a craft. Creating new dishes and breaking new ground may be an art form and a creative expression. But that's a minuscule part of cooking at this level.
Even chefs such as Grant Achatz or David Chang spend only part of their time creating. The rest of the time they execute. They cook. They plate. They repeat, or at least their assistants do. And the first version of the dish has to be identical to the 200th, night after night, with little tolerance for creative detours or artistic inconsistencies.
To be sure, there are still enchanting moments at Zindagi. The prawn saagwala (prawns sautéed with creamed spinach) was very good, its flavors and aromas soothing and exotic.
The navratan korma, described on the menu as "spicy curry variation with seasonal vegetables and Indian cheese," was outstanding. To the uninitiated, it looks like a bit of a mess, a green glob of mixed-up seasonings and vegetables buried in a creamy sauce, all of it green.
Appearances are deceiving, especially with Indian cooking. The flavors were complex and alive. There was heat. There was balance. There was the texture of butter and cream and silky, puréed vegetables.
Break off a piece of warm, fluffy naan bread, then grab some of this korma. It really worked.
It was nearly enough to even the score and make me think Zindagi was as great as during that first visit. But the vindaloo brought me back to reality. Vindaloo is a red-hot, nuanced curry dish whose origins can be traced to Portuguese cooking. The meat is marinated at length. The seasonings take time to come together.
Over the years, I've eaten vindaloo dozens of times, sometimes recklessly ordering it "extra hot." I still remember the great ones, even if they were from 15 years back and 3,000 miles away. This version worked, but it didn't wow.
The most interesting dessert on the menu was perhaps the simplest: the carrot halva, a carrot pudding with blanched pistachio nuts and milk. It tasted of fresh carrots, nutty ghee and exotic yet familiar spices like cardamom. It was a comfort and a treat, a well-realized dessert.
I like the feel and the look of Zindagi. The décor is modern, crisp and clean. There is a flat-screen TV, which was great when the San Francisco Giants were storming through the World Series but less appealing when it's pre-season NBA or silly-season golf.
The service is solid, friendly and attentive, and the wine is handled professionally. The compact list tries to find labels that work well with spicy, complex Indian food. We succeeded in that regard with a bottle of mildly sweet riesling by Blufeld from the Mosel region of Germany, and a Spanish sparkling rosé by Campo Viejo Cava.
I realize now that I hit Zindagi on a magical night that may never come again. Even so, this small, smart 21st century Indian bistro does enough to make us happy and keep us coming back for more.
Zindagi Indian Bistro
213 E St., Davis
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Beverage options: Wine and beer
Vegetarian friendly? Yes
Noise level: Quiet to moderate
Overall ★ ★ ★
After it opened with such gusto that we quickly wondered if this was going to be the best Indian cooking around, Zindagi has settled in as a good – but not yet great – restaurant. More consistency and a bit more precision will elevate lesser dishes to the very impressive standards of the best ones.
★ ★ ★
The curries here showcase the exotic yet familiar flavors of classic Indian cooking, and the sauces are often velvety smooth, rich and deeply satisfying. Favorite dishes include the papri chaat appetizer ($5), chicken tikka masala ($12), an excellent eggplant entree called Bengan Bertha and, perhaps our favorite offering recently, the vegetarian navratan korma ($10), with the winning combination of rich texture and complex spices with a bit of heat on the finish. Tip: it tastes much better than it looks! The small beer and wine list has a few quality, food-friendly choices, including an off-dry Riesling ($6 glass, $24 bottle).
Service ★ ★ ★
Our servers handled our wine with aplomb and placed our sparkling rosé in an ice bucket after opening it. All the servers are friendly, attentive and able to discuss details of the menu.
Ambience ★ ★ ★
Modern, crisp design elements and contemporary furniture inside, with a small, pleasant patio out front that looks onto a lively but not overly noisy downtown street.
Value ★ ★ ★
Most of the best main courses here are in the $10 to $15 range, and all but one vegetarian entree is $10. The quality of the cooking ranges from solid to excellent, though the portions run on the small side. Wine by the glass is $6-$9. The beer is also fairly priced, with several $5 20-ounce drafts.