Readers and food critics agree the Crookes curry house is worthy award winner
I was on a hiding to nothing.
It’s The Star’s Curry House of The Year and the recent recipient of an informal five-star rating from the Godfather of Sheffield food writers, Martin Dawes.
So to eat at Zara’s in Crookes and give a glowing review will only tell our readers what they already know.
If I’m less than impressed then I’m contradicting the voice of the people and the Don Corleone of critics.
But I can’t resist. We book, with great anticipation, for 7.15pm on Thursday.
Outside, Zara’s has a slightly lop-sided, two-buildings-in-one look, but inside it’s warm and not a little exotic as we are shown to a table for two in the delicious, deep scarlet half-light of the 64-seater restaurant.
A jug of iced water with lemon is instantly on the table, always an impressive start to any meal.
My wife is a poppadom person. For her it’s the best part of any Indian meal so that’s where we start and we witness the legendary eight – that’s EIGHT – pickles on Zara’s pickle tray.
Tamarind, coconut, apricot and mango, apple with coriander dips plus the usual four of onion salad, yogurt and mint, mango chutney and lime pickle. All are terrific – especially the cool coconut one – and the depth of variety a real winner.
It’s what put Zara’s on the city’s curry map.
“It was the pickle tray that first got us our reputation,” said assistant manager Mohammed Saleem Khalil, a 35-year-old father of two, born and raised in Darnall.
“People would come just to try the eight pickles and they loved it. We used to run Ayesha’s on Ecclesall Road for 17 years and then we came here in 2009. It was a bit expensive there and the students had started to go more on West Street.
“It took us about a year to get established through word of mouth from our lovely customers and we haven’t looked back since. We won the Curry Lovers awards in 2009 and 2011 and The Star readers award in 2010 and now we’ve won it again. We can’t thank our customers enough for voting for us.
“The secret I think is that Anamul Hoque is chef and owner and he really puts everything into his cooking because it’s his business.
“He enjoys it and he came up with the four new pickles. He is the secret, he makes the difference.”
Saleem delivers dishes with a ‘there you go love’ or ‘enjoy you meal duck’, delivered in a broad Indian-Sheffield accent.
“We were over the moon when we won The Star Curry House of the Year,” he adds. “I would say our business went up by 25 per cent in the weeks after we won it.”
Along with the poppadoms I had Machli Tikka - chunks of monkfish marinated in ginger and fresh lemon.
Lightly spiced and beautifully cooked, the monkfish was firm, tender and full of flavour.
We also had an onion bhaji which was crisp, light and crunchy and complemented by a cucumber and mint raita.
For my main course I had Zara’s Special – with king prawns, lamb and chicken pieces. Medium spiced, strongly flavoured home style cooking. Stonking, hearty, tasty stuff, good for the sinuses too.
“It has tomatoes, fresh chillies, garlic, ginger and masala mixed spices and a secret touch that the chef won’t even tell me about,” adds Saleem.
“It’s a strong flavour and medium spiced but we can tone it down for people who don’t like it so strong.”
Karen had tandoori chicken which was two pieces - one breast and one thigh - spiced and roasted in a traditional tandoor oven.
Delicate, moist and lovely - and enough for her to take home for the next night’s dinner too. The Peshwari naan was light and soft and beautifully scented with raisins and coconut.
I had a tandoor roti - an unleavened bread a bit like a thick chapati which has more body than the naan and helps mop up some of the sauce and spices in the special, Zara’s most popular dish.
Not that Saleem will be enjoying one any time soon…he has become allergic to chillis.
“I used to eat them like raw carrots but I can’t now. I collapsed and had to be taken to hospital about six years ago. The doctors told me I had developed an allergy to chillis and that they could kill me. If I do eat them I can black out, I get spots and my hair falls out so I stay off them.
“Even if I just dip my finger in to taste it I have all sorts of problems. Luckily there are a lot of other flavours I can have.”
It’s got to be tough, loving chillies and working with them every day and not being able to eat any.
For dessert I had coconut ice cream with coconut pieces served in half coconut shell - an Indian-style bought-in dessert that was actually really lovely - and took all the heat out of the curry that had gone before it.
Karen had Aria - ice cream with caramel sauce and nuts. Again very nice but I think the coconut was the winner.
Is it the best in Sheffield? I don’t know. I’ve not been to all the others. But Zara’s has charm, great service and a food quality that’s hard to beat.
I know, YOU already know that…
For three poppadoms, two starters, two main courses, two ice creams and two beers our meal came £50.80.
Star rating out of five:
* Zaras Restaurant, 216a Crookes, Sheffield, S10 1TH
* Tel: 0114 266 0097
* Zara’s Restaurant * Email: firstname.lastname@example.org