A Kerala houseboat lies docked on the upper floor of Phoenix market-city. Tanya Fonseca strolls in and leaves an hour later with a whole new appreciation for South Indian food.
Idli, wada, dosa, rasam, sambhar and chutney pretty much sums up most people’s go to South Indian food list. Flipping through the Zambar menu, you almost wonder where it has all disappeared. The extensive menu has a selection of South Indian favourites and a few dishes that are indigenous only to the local families in the South.
We happily took our seats at a table in the elephantine house boat at one end of the restaurant. The wooden furniture, the azure blue wall at one end of the restaurant, similarly coloured napkins folded like little boats and leaf green ceramic platters that resemble banana leaves are refreshingly novel. You can almost imagine the ebb and flow of the river beneath you as you ask your happy fisherman/attendant what he’s hauled in for the day.
While the dining area is set up under the boat’s thatched roof, the lounge area still awaits its liquor licence. Lilliputian canoes fitted with pristine white cushioning dot the area around bar.
The head chef is in the restaurant and we are happy to let him recommend a few things. First up, is a hot and cold shot. Hot spiced rasam is topped with a cool buttermilk froth that balances perfectly and makes for a heavenly start to the meal.
There is natty eloquence to the presentation of simple dishes from different parts of the South and we wanted to get our greedy little fingers into as many preparations as we could. We dug into the dal wadas that appeared next, but the dry crumbly insides left us needing big glugs of water to wash it down.
We found some consolation in the seafood platter that followed next; a combination of fried anchovies, crabs, fish fillets, prawns and squid. Starting with the fillets, we were impressed with the contrast of the soft, white flesh on the inside and the crispy fiery red outside. Red heads everywhere paled in comparison to the six delectable heads of prawn positioned by crunchy small anchovies. While the crabs weren’t particularly large, they were perfectly seasoned and fresh. Wish we could say the same for the chewy squid rings, which were overcooked.
Today was decidedly a day dedicated to fish as the ever-polite attendant recommended the King Fish Delight – three juicy fillets in three distinct flavours of the south. While they were served up in all their tri-coloured splendour, the curry leaf seasoned one was a definitely a winner.
Here also the generous slices of fish weren’t the freshest we’ve eaten and they were slightly dry. We put this down to the fact that the restaurant is known to use oil sparingly and depend on the foods natural flavours.
After a few hits and misses through lunch, we decided on the coconut and jaggery pudding and the Litchi payasam for dessert. The pudding also described as a soufflé on the menu is a cold, creamy and as rich as it was light. The litchi loaded payasam or rice pudding had a delicate flavour and was deliciously smooth. Despite the generous portions, these desserts were such a standout, that we vowed to come back for seconds.
Zambar might look like a page out of a South Indian tourist brochure, but there is much to admire about it. It is attempting to serve local communities with what they want, while also introducing them to fresh ways to enjoy this cuisine.
(Meal for two: Approx Rs 1200 + taxes)