Zilla – Son of Zing and Zest – restaurant review

[This venue is now closed]

Anyone who has an appreciation of Indian fine dining in London will take a guess that the aforementioned Zilla is indeed Indian Zilla and the third restaurant in the Vasaikar Empire. Perhaps Indian Zing in Hammersmith and Indian Zest in Sunbury could more accurately be described as culinary siblings rather than parents. Manoj Vasaikar, owner and chef should indeed be a proud father and be passing around the cigars in celebration.

Indian zilla chefManoj is passionate about authentic Indian food. He trained with leading Indian hotel groups such as Oberoi and ITC Sheraton. His move to London gave him the opportunity to work at Chutney Mary as deputy head chef and at Veeraswamy, a restaurant in the same group, as head chef. His travels around India have fired his enthusiasm for regional recipes, and they have also cultivated a love of both refined dishes and celebrated street foods.

Indian Zilla occupies the plot of a former Worrall Thompson establishment which went to the wall a while back. I am confident that this venture will have a much longer presence. It’s an attractive double-fronted building with art nouveau touches to the taupe-painted exterior. That soft palate is used inside to create a bistro-esque vision of wood slats backing comfy cushion-festooned banquettes and acres of crisp linen bathed in sunshine from expansive skylights. There are tasteful Indian accents here – a few wooden carvings and fabrics are subtle hints. The customer already knows this is an Indian restaurant: the clue is in the name, after all.

The atmosphere changes as the daylight from the overhead glass is muted first to a pink-tinged dusk and then to a dark star-spangled backdrop to coloured lanterns, creating a sophisticated night ambiance. Indian Zilla has only been open a brace of weeks but my advice would be to book a table to guarantee your spot. Manoj’s fame has preceded him, so his newest project is enjoying a steady footfall.

Customers from the other IZs will be familiar with the menu. A melange of traditional favourites and specialities to tempt both the regulars and the newcomers. Do order a basket of papadoms and chutneys to munch while perusing the menu. Even these offer something a little unique.

We chose a mixed starter platter which offered Vegetable Bhanavla, Manoj’s signature onion bhaji – first baked then griddled to present a bhaji totally different from any you would have previously experienced. It’s a must-try starter. Green Peppercorn Malai Tikka is free-range chicken breast, marinated with green peppercorns and Indian cheese, and cooked in the tandoor. Lamb Salli is lean minced lamb flavoured with delicate fresh fenugreek and mint, infused with spices and stuffed with cottage cheese. The pièce de resistance was the Jumbo Prawn Kharphatla with aubergine, caramelised onions, tomato and pickle masala. They were a triumph. The seafood retained its fresh flavour and was cooked to a degree of succulent perfection which many a restaurant of any ethnic persuasion would only envy. I have sampled these at Indian Zing and the quality is just as high here. I have “enjoyed” many a rubberised prawn from the hands of chefs who should be banned from association with a fishmongers’ slab.

The main courses at Indian Zilla present a flavourful tapestry to admire. If one is unsure what to order then perhaps either a vegetarian or non-vegetarian Thali might appeal. These are selections of dishes which offer a balanced overview of the restaurant. However, I was eager to taste some particular dishes that were intriguing. Chicken Chettinad is now found on a few menus but here Manoj presents a version with duck.  All the taste notes of the original are respected. A full spicy richness with a black pepper bite that I find so agreeable. This would be my regular order if I lived near enough to be a regular. In fact on reflection I’ll consider moving round the corner.

My guest was indeed a regular and her unquestionable favourite dish here is Khyber Pass Raan which is a glossy shank of lamb braised in a sauce of poppy seeds, onions, ginger and spices. It’s a hearty dish of melt-in-the-mouth tenderness. The meat falls from the bone to be coated by the gravy, which needs only some basmati rice for soaking up, although some naan bread might be an idea as you’ll want to wipe the plate.

Vegetarians are not forgotten and I can definitely recommend the Exotic Mushrooms with Madras shallots and spices (Sukka Mushroom Bhaji). Try also new potatoes in a blend of tomatoes and onion gravy, with mustard seeds (Goda Batata Rassa), and okra, onions, tomatoes, peppers with black salt (this adds a particular savour) and roasted cumin (Bhindi Do Pyaza).

The Raita at India Zilla is unlike anything with a similar name found elsewhere. It’s often a lack-lustre and thin garnish and far from noteworthy, but Manoj has a preparation which is a dish in its own right. Yoghurt, smoked aubergine, onions, tomato and cucumber have substance and texture. It’s an ideal accompaniment to robust meats and it’s a marvellous addition to any purely vegetarian selection.

Many Indian restaurants have had dessert menus which are totally missable. Now we are increasingly finding opportunities to try treats that once were only found in Indian homes or sweetshops. Organic multi-seeded Masala Bread and Butter Pudding is a twist on a British favourite. The subtle spices elevate this dish from something your auntie might make to an exotic comfort pud. Rasmalai, light dumplings poached in saffron and caramelised milk, and Gulab Jamun, caramelised milk dumplings, are two of my traditional favourites but I’ll use my desire to try Poached Pears in Wine and Garam Masala as an excuse to visit again during the winter months.

Zilla is the word for an administrative district in India but it represents the whole of the subcontinent in this small corner of leafy West London. It’s a fine ambassador for the new-generation Indian restaurants which have the more discerning client in mind. Its contemporary and thoughtful design offers a casual yet stylish venue for those looking for Manoj Vasaikar’s celebrated magic. Those guests will not be disappointed.

Indian Zilla
2-3 Rocks Lane, Barnes, London SW13 0DB


Restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018