Drummond Street is full of Indian restaurants, but the newest one is Zeen, a basement dining room with a theme of bright orange décor. The dining room has a slate floor, tubular chairs with orange upholstery and orange lamps providing good light to the tables. There is a short selection of wines, such as Benchmark Shiraz 2007 at £14.95 for a wine that costs about £6.50 retail, Montes Cabernet Sauvignon £13.95 for a wine you can buy in the shops for just over £6, and (a good choice for this style of food), a Dr Loosen Riesling 2007 at £19.95 for a wine that will set you back around £7 in the shops if you look carefully. Lassi was very well made here as an alternative.
The owner is Zeenat Harnal, daughter of Sir Gulam Noon (if you buy a supermarket curry in the UK, chances are it is one of his). This is relevant because Zeenat is able to take advantage of the vast buying power of the Noon empire, and although obviously some products are sourced outside the Noon companies. this buying ability is reflected in the keen prices. It is not often you see sea bass on a menu for £10.95, or soft shell crab for £5.95, for example. There is no particular regional theme; the chefs are from assorted parts of India, and the dishes reflect that.
The soft shell crab was deep fried and cooked with a lightly spiced garlic butter sauce, with a little salad of shredded vegetables on the side; the sauce worked well with the pleasant crab (2/10). This was more interesting than a large portion of vegetable pattice (£3.25), a pair of vegetable patties with finely diced vegetables inside, served with a little mint chutney. The outside was crisp but the filling a little bland for me (2/10).
The main courses were a mixed bag. Mangalorean sea bass was a generous fillet of (obviously farmed at these prices) sea bass, served on a bed of lemon rice, with a very nicely judged masala, which was pleasantly spicy without overwhelming the bass, which is a fish that has enough flavour to stand up to spice quite well (3/10). Alongside this was a slip, a prawn karwari (£6.95), prawns in a coconut and tamarind sauce that unfortunately was severely over-salted to the point of it being barely edible (0/10). The staff were gracious in acknowledging the problem, but it does suggest a certain carelessness in the kitchen; odd as other dishes seem quite carefully prepared.
Malagapudi aloo is a southern Indian dish of spiced potatoes; for me the potatoes could be a little firmer, but this is largely a matter of taste – the spicing was fine (1/10). Dal makhani was made with black lentils and kidney beans, topped with a little cream. This was pleasant, avoiding the wateriness that so often can afflict dal; for me some more kidney beans would have been beneficial, but again this is partly a personal taste thing (2/10). A tandoori naan was reasonably light and fluffy, made in the gas-fired tandoor (2/10).
Desserts are bought in from Royal Sweets, part of the Noon empire. Kulfi and halwa were pleasant enough. Service was generally good; unusually in this area, many of the waiters were European rather than India, but the ones we encountered seemed to be getting the hang of the dishes just fine.
I think Zeen will prosper. The atmosphere of the dining room, despite the basement setting, is bright and attractive, the menu zips around India for some less familiar dishes, and above all the pricing is remarkably low, ideally suited to these difficult economic times. It has barely opened (pre publicity) yet on a weekday night it was already almost full. Zeenat Harnal was charming as front-of-house/owner, and Zeen is a very useful addition to the culinary scene of this area.