I was looking for somewhere to have dinner close to Gatwick airport on a recent trip. Obviously, not wanting to leave it to chance and with a heavy heart that I’d find anywhere half decent so close to the airport, I turned to the internet to do some research.
After trawling through a lot of dross, an article from the local paper caught my eye about an Indian restaurant aiming to gain a Michelin star for their food, based in the backwaters of glamorous Crawley. Ambitious indeed, I thought to myself, but their website and menu did promise something different to the usual Indian restaurant fare we expect and their efficient online reservation system soon had me booked in.
A drive through the roundabouts of Crawley is quite an adventure and I arrived at Zari, located in a parade of shops in a suburb of Crawley. I think the ambition of the place does come through right from the outside of the restaurant with a gentle purple neon sign inviting diners in for ‘adventures in real Indian dining’
My waiter Anthony was excellent, full of knowledge and advice about the menu and happy to advise me that I had ordered enough food rather than trying to up sell me. The service was friendly and attentive throughout, a key component of what Michelin are looking for.
The menu had the usual suspects on it but also some interesting specials unique to Zari. It was also nice to read little sections at the side of the menu about Hydrabadi, Lucknawi, Rajasthani, Panjabi, Bengali and South Indian cuisine and their specific characteristics.
Another little nod to Michelin was the ‘gift from the kitchen’ when I sat down – a bite sized canapé of a cracker containing a sauce which Anthony was unsure about its contents. My tip to the restaurant – nice touch but really make classy by serving it maybe on a bed of black rice in a wooden box and be sure your waiting staff know what’s in it!
I munched happily on a popaddom while waiting. The condiments with the popaddom showed the ambition of the kitchen. Not the usual day-glo coloured, over sweet or super powerful concoctions, the ones served at Zari are flecked with little mustard seeds and interesting enough on the palate to get those tastebuds awake and anticipating the food to come
My drink of choice (being the only non boozy member of the Boozy Bunch) at Indian restaurants is mango lassi. I liked the one here though I wouldn’t have complained at a touch more mango.
The menu is packed full of intriguing choices and I finally settled on Spiced Crab as my starter – the delicate, sweet crab flavour is easily overwhelmed and a true test of the chef’s ability to balance flavour, using the accompanying coconut, avocado salsa and curry leaf oil to enhance but not drown out the main ingredient. The dish arrived with some flair in presentation. The dish had nice flavours but could have done with perhaps an extra half turn of salt, a squeeze of lemon and some crispy bread on the side to pile the crab onto.
On the main course menu, the Famous Red Mutton Curry caught my eye. It’s a bold claim to be famous and with reassuring words from Anthony, I plumped for this Zari speciality. I’m glad to report that the title is well deserved. Firstly, there was a generous amount of mutton and unlike lamb, which is sweet and more delicate, mutton (sheep which is more than 2 years old) is more earthy and robust and can handle stronger flavours. The red sauce was amazing, spicy rather than just chilli hot, with many layers of complexity.
My pilau rice was nice and aromatic without any of those suspiciously artificially coloured components you see in a lot of pilau rice in ordinary Indian restaurants. I also tried the roomali roti, a thin, soft bread, which was less filling than a naan.
A little chocolate bite arrived with my bill, another little nod to Michelin.
So, how about those Michelin ambitions? With cooking of this calibre, it’s not an over-indulgent ambition and the trick is how to balance catering to your core local customers while trying to make your restaurant a foodie travel destination. I wish them luck and hope that Michelin can see beyond the location to the underlying qualities of Zari
Food: ★★★★☆ Service: ★★★★★ Ambiance: ★★★★☆ VFM: ★★★★☆ Overall: ★★★★★
Price: I paid just over £20 for a lovely meal
212-214, Ifield Drive, Crawley, W Sussex RH11 0DQ