A Sheffield restaurant has once again won the Telegraph’s sister paper’s curry house of the year award, so it was about time we paid it a visit.
Owner Shabaz Choudrhy opened Zara’s on Crookes in 2009, moving on from Ayesha’s on Ecclesall Road.
“It was on two or three levels of running up and down stairs so we moved!” joked Shabaz.
He said: “I’ve spent most of my life in restaurants in Sheffield”, following his brother into the trade as a schoolboy.
Zara’s caters mainly to a pretty loyal local clientele of professionals, rather than Crookes’ student population.
They also have regulars travelling from all over South Yorkshire.
That following helped them to win The Star’s Curry House of the Year title three times, including last month.
Shabaz said: “We’re doing very well, so we must be doing something right.”
His family are from Kashmir but his head chef Anamul Hoque, who he has been working with since 1994, and his kitchen staff are Bangladeshi, so the menu reflects both styles of cuisine.
The menu is overhauled almost every year, with three or four dishes changing, said Shabaz.
Main courses in Zara's, Crookes Popular dishes are on the chef’s specials section of the menu, including the inevitable chicken tikka masala.
One dish, Duncan’s Special, was named after a loyal customer.
There might be a Sylvia’s Special in future, named after a Sheffielder who moved to Egypt a decade ago but always drops in when she’s back visiting.
She’s back at the moment and has made four visits to Zara’s during this stay.
The restaurant was surprisingly busy on Monday night when I visited with my friend Linda.
Vegetable samosa starter at Zara's in Crookes Inside, the decor is predominantly red and black and the walls are entertainingly full of exotic clutter.
The atmosphere is cosy and comfortable, especially at our corner table right next to a radiator, which pleased warmth-loving Linda, who is ‘nesh’ personified.
The attentive staff, ably led by manager Sultan Moody, made sure we had drinks as we looked at the menu and promptly brought a jug of iced water when we asked for it.
The jug was also swiftly refilled by our waiter.
The menu is fairly long, with 27 starter choices alone, so it takes a fair bit of perusing.
As well as the aforementioned chef’s specials, there are sections covering tandoori dishes, baltis, seafood, hot and spicy dishes, karais, biryanis and vegetable side dishes, plus traditional dishes, which covers all the familiar dopiazas, bhunas and vindaloos.
Fish dishes always catch my eye when a Bangladeshi chef is in the kitchen, so I tried the mixed machli tikka, while Linda went for the vegetable samosas.
Our waiter apologised for the delay when he delivered them but we weren’t in a hurry and it didnt seem too long.
My fish, which was beautifully presented on a white dish with a glamorous-looking salad centrepiece, consisted of two pieces of marinated monkfish, two pieces of fried basa and a tandoori king prawn.
The yellow-coloured monkfish, which had been marinated in ginger and lemon juice and presumably turmeric, had a delicately pleasant taste.
The very thin fried coating on the basa, a type of catfish, gave it a good little edge of crunch and the prawn benefited from its slight charring in the tandoori oven.
A perfectly good starter, accompanied by a minty yoghurt sauce.
However, Linda’s simple samosas won hands down on taste as they had a fantastic, complex explosion of spices without being overwhelmed by heat.
We’d chosen a lamb dish and a chicken dish for our main courses.
Linda went for the shatkora manso and I opted for the chicken Zara’s special.
We also ordered two chapatis and a portion of lemon rice.
The menu says the lamb is cooked in yoghurt, cinnamon, bay leaves and garam masala and flavoured with shatkora, a tangy citrus fruit.
The meat, served on the bone, was tasty but disappointingly chewy and the mild sauce wasn’t tangy as advertised.
The Zara’s special is advertised as the chef’s favourite dish and it’s cooked with medium heat home-style spices.
The chicken was cut into really tiny pieces and the sauce didn’t really have the promised strong taste.
We were sharing and the two dishes tasted far too much alike.
I was hoping for better-defined flavours. Also, the chapatis were a little on the dry side and the well-cooked rice suffered from overly sour pieces of fresh lemon, which was unfortunate but not really the kitchen’s fault.
On the plus side, portion sizes are generous and everything looks lovely in its gleaming white dishes. We finished our meals with very good coffees and chocolate mints.
Two courses, two bottled Tiger beers and coffees came to £49.70. In all, a very pleasant meal served in comfortable, relaxed surroundings with great, friendly service but only the samosa was outstanding taste-wise.