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Davis, California

Friday, February 23, 2024

Dining in Davis: Zindagi Indian Bistro

In Review: Zindagi Indian Bistro
213 E St.
Hours: Monday to Wednesday and Sunday 11:30 a.m to 10 p.m.,  Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Food: ***
Ambiance: *
Cost: $$

Food and ambiance quality
**** I’m dining here every day
*** Almost like eating at home
** Better than my roommate’s cooking
* Only if I’m starving

$$$$ chancellor $20+
$$$ professor $15-20
$$ graduate student/alum $10-15
$ undergraduate $5-10

For someone who usually enjoys Indian food either at home, compliments of my roommate’s mother or binging at a lunch buffet, dining this past week at Zindagi was a break from the usual.

My friend and I decided to stop by the new E Street location for an early dinner at 5 p.m. on a Wednesday. It seems that businesses in this area have yet to last; in the past few months, De Vere’s Irish Pub has taken over what used to be a tequila bar, and Luigi’s has moved into what I swear was an antique store just last week. Zindagi Indian Bistro is the new(est) kid on the block, so I was marginally intrigued to see what sort of eatery had moved in to show up Queen of Sheba.

At first glance, the interior of the restaurant seemed uncharacteristically posh for a Davis establishment. The small space was done in a black, white and red theme, a bold deviation away from the usual tapestries and dim lighting that generally adorn most Indian restaurants. The drapes cascading from the ceiling, geometric table settings, and hanging black lights gave it an upscale feel.

That said, I was a little thrown off when a multi-tasking hostess/server greeted us informally, wearing a casual purple sweatshirt and jeans. I found myself wondering what was out of place: the decor, or her? She seemed to be the only one working; apparently nobody had heeded the “now hiring” notice outside, as after over a month of being open it still appeared to be a one-woman show.

She seated us and brought us water, but appeared again at our table after giving us only about 45 seconds to look at our menus… attentive, but pushy.

To start, we ordered samosas ($4 for two), pastry-like appetizers with vegetable filling. We decided on two entrées that were personal favorites: chicken tikka masala ($10), a dish of cubed chicken in a creamy, spicy, tomato-ey sauce, and saag paneer ($9), a spinach-based dish with chunks of Indian cheese. To accompany the food we ordered mango lassis (like smoothies, but tangier), white rice, and paneer naan (bread with cheese).

The food took only about 10 minutes to come out, and turned out to be delicious. The samosas came with a great mint dipping sauce, the chicken was bathed in sauce that was definitely up to par, and the saag paneer had a surprising amount of flavor. As someone with an innate appreciation for saucy, savory foods paired with carbs, devouring it all together with the basmati rice and naan made for an enjoyably hearty dinner.

So, my compliments go to the kitchen. If the success of a restaurant was purely based on food, Zindagi’s might be a more permanent addition to E St. However, for the purposes of a review and an assessment of whether or not the restaurant has what it takes to last in Davis, we must look at other things.

I never got to try the paneer naan ($3) that I ordered, because for some reason the waitress just started negotiating my request incomprehensibly and ultimately served us a $6 basket of mixed bread. Still good, but not what I asked for. At the time, I was not in the mood to complain nor about to turn down bread, so I asked to see a drink menu. She responded that the restaurant did not have its liquor license yet.

Maybe it was the hard week, or the fact that we came during standard happy hour and any other downtown establishment would have offered us beer upon entry, that made this denial almost offensive. Okay, your restaurant has this fairly grandiose bar, beautifully done in what looks like bamboo, and stocked with dozens of glasses. Your space is just about half bar. Why no liquor license?

I was informed that the restaurant was under a “soft opening” phase which I had never heard of nor expected when walking in. Which makes sense, but still didn’t really explain why they still hadn’t attained a liquor license or hired more than one disgruntled employee.

Then, I had hardly finished my first helping when the waitress came back to offer us to-go boxes. It seemed beyond her that we had come to a restaurant to relax and enjoy a meal without being pressured to first order quickly and then to leave.

I must add that she did all of this without the slightest hint of a smile. Everyone knows that a) smiling is the basic foundation of good customer service, and b) people of Davis are pleasant by definition. You need to smile.

When a new business is able to make it in Davis, it’s because it is able to contribute to the Davis tradition. Students and community members alike all have their favorite place for lunch, dinner and drinks. A business that attempts to break into this tradition needs to cater to the existing lifestyle, and hastily shuffling people in and out unceremoniously is not the hospitality consistent with this lifestyle.

As far as culinary excellence goes, Zindagi has the competitive edge. Unfortunately, great food and exceptional aesthetic cannot make up for service that is more appropriate for a mall food court. Hopefully, the place will get its act together before the date of its “real” opening.

LANI CHAN can be reached at features@theaggie.org.


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