NORTH LIBERTY– One dish. That’s the secret for many restaurants to succeed. If you get that one dish right, the customers will come.
For Zameer Kahn, owner of the new Zaika Restaurant in North Liberty, that dish is Ghobi Manchurian, which features breaded and fried cauliflower (ghobi) covered in a mildly spicy red sauce.
Kahn said he created his special recipe for the Indochinese dish and others have copied it. Laughing, he said he’s seen it on the menu at other area restaurants.
His signature dish is his, though, perfected with help from his mother, and it’s in the lunch buffet every day. He’s used the special sauce with other dishes, but Ghobi Manchurian is still the centerpiece of his restaurant.
Kahn took a motto for his store, “Taste the difference,” that matches the diversity of spices, dishes and styles of cooking at Zaika.
His menu is largely South Asian with some popular Mediterranean dishes like falafel, gyros and kebabs.
Samosas, springrolls, wraps and bready paratas make up the appetizers and faster snack section of the menu while the featured entrees include lamb and chicken kormas, various curries and paneers (fresh cheese), lamb, goat, or beef biryani, a Thai dish called Java Green Chicken and other South Asian delicacies will tempt visitors to the exotic bistro. Only two dishes are priced over $10 and Zaika has dinner specials for couples and larger parties.
Kahn found the new space last fall and opened the North Liberty site in late January to build on the success of the other Zaika in Iowa City, which has been serving Indochinese and Mediterranean food since 2008.
Kahn has worked at Taj Majal and Taste of India in Cedar Rapids before deciding to cook up an eatery where he didn’t want to limit the menu to just Indian food.
The name, Zaika (pronounced Z-eye-kah), is an Urdu word for flavor, chosen because Kahn wanted to serve cuisine from many countries, not just his homeland.
He said serving a strictly Indian menu would have put him in competition with the other Indian restaurants in the area so he expanded his foods to include kebabs, gyros and falafel.
Kahn is from Hyderabad, in central India, and speaks several languages including Urdu, Hindi, Telegu, Bengali, Spanish and some Punjabi. He studied chemical engineering in Turkey before coming to Iowa where his brother was studying industrial engineering.
They started the restaurant together and then his brother returned to India after receiving his master’s degree.
Since then Kahn has helped others with starting up new restaurants, consulting for friends with the dream of being their own bosses.
The ebb and flow of traffic during the university’s summer and winter breaks in Iowa City was what sent him in search of an additional location.
He knew Iowa City would be an easy demographic and the downtown location takes ready advantage of the university lunch crowds.
North Liberty’s growth and diversity was attractive to Kahn and he knew the city would welcome his Indochinese and exotic fare. But he acknowledged it’s a different clientele and that’s why he added Mexican food to the lunch buffet in North Liberty.
Just six employees make up Zaika’s staff, including a delivery person in North Liberty.
The North Liberty store features an interior design by Signature Santiago– mural artist Santiago Sanchez of Cedar Rapids.
The best part of Kahn’s career as a restaurateur has been planning the menu, but he said keeping a busy restaurant running isn’t just cooking and staying afloat isn’t easy.
Kahn divides his time between the two restaurants and currently lives in Iowa City after over a decade in Cedar Rapids.
He buys goats and lambs in Kalona and talked of starting an organic farm to supply his kitchens.
Both restaurants features a tandoor oven which is a clay-lined box used to cook chicken and naan.
The Indian bread, naan, is freshly-made in his kitchen and he demonstrated the tandoor oven by slapping a circle of dough on the inside wall to cook. After a few minutes, he peeled it off with long metal tongs.
He showed off some burn scars on his forearms from reaching into the oven without protection, but he only laughed about them. Despite these lasting reminders of hard work and toil, Kahn is excited to see where his second kitchen will go.
And this spring, a special partner will join him in Iowa. Zameer has been apart from his bride for months after being married last year in India. His new wife will join him here in May.