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Published:  23 July, 2008

Zahid Kasim,CEO, Cafe Lazeez Group. Interview: Stuart Peskett

What is the basic philosophy of Cafe Lazeez? There are three aspects. First is the ambience: the environment has to be clean and minimalist. Some have considered us to be the pioneers in changing the environment of Indian restaurants. Second, the cuisine: our raison d'tre has been to transpose the domestic style of cooking into a commercial form, so each dish has to be cooked individually. We have a relatively short menu, rather than the very extensive menu that has generally been the case not just with Indian but also Oriental cuisine, where you have the same sauce added to whatever your choice of dish is. And the food has to be healthy. For example saturated fats are not used - from day one we have never used them. Ghee is the traditional oil used in Indian food, but we've always used sunflower oil. The third component is the bar. Indian restaurants have generally tended to have a bar that was really a service point rather than a main thrust of their business. We created a bar so that people could come in for a glass of wine, or an espresso or a cappuccino or whatever, rather than a meal.

Oz Clarke and Keith Floyd have both said that matching wine with Indian food is well-nigh impossible. Where do you stand on that? Keith is one of my heroes of all time. I respect his view, but I don't think that's a valid point. Firstly, it depends on the style of cooking. What is the difference between Indian, Italian and Mediterranean food? The core spicing is very similar: you've got garlic, you've got onion and you've got chilli. So why does Indian cuisine then become incompatible? Beer tends to become an easier option because it's a thirst quencher and, as a result, people have equated that extensive spicing with beer. Our cuisine is not over-spiced, and one has to go back to the subcontinent on this issue. The whole aspect of the degree of chilli is dictated by climatic conditions rather than a desire to eat chilli for the sake of it. If you follow the line north from the equator, temperatures lessen, as does the level of chillis used in the dish. The climatic aspects of the vindaloo, for example, are not prevalent in the UK nor in our cuisine, which is from the north of India.

In wine matching is there a rule depending on the main ingredients and spices? This is where the art of Mediterranean cuisine comes in. There is no science to it. Generally, you are looking at complementing the intensity of the wine and the robustness of the food, so that there's a balance and so that neither wins.

Your Lazeez Collection recommends certain wines with certain dishes. What sort of feedback have you had? The feedback's been fantastic. Customers find it very difficult to select wines. If they're entertaining clients, they don't want the embarrassment of not knowing what to choose, so they often go for the easy option, which is beer. We think wines go very well with our cuisine, in particular ros. That's why we introduced the pairing up of wines with our dishes. We haven't gone for very heavy reds. Some of the reds are full-bodied, like Chteau Musar from Lebanon, but the fruitiness of that complements the food very well.

What was the thinking behind the list? I didn't think there was enough variety. We've increased it but we've kept it at around the 50 mark. Like our food menu, we want to keep it not too big and not too small. It's easy to list 100 wines, but we decided to go for a smaller, quality selection.

And you list a wine from Bangalore... That's a very new addition, actually. It's done by a French winemaker, and the biggest selling point to the customer is that it's got India' on the bottle. It works fantastically well with the food, with light dishes and with onion-based, tomato-based and prawn-based dishes. And it's nice to put something like that on the list. India is still developing and it's catching up quite fast; they're bringing in a lot of expertise from overseas.

What are people who choose beer with an Indian meal missing out on? I think people should experiment, rather than adopt a static approach. People are venturing into wine, and 80-90% of our customers now choose wine. The Lazeez Collection works well because it is a great way for the waiter to suggest wine by the glass. If customers like it, they can order a bottle. If they don't like it, they can stick to their beer. Our biggest seller is the South African Chenin and, on the red side, the Rioja.

And finally, where is the Indian restaurant sector heading? I think it is going to become a lot more developed. The whole process went through that natural evolution, beginning as a mama-and-papa operation. It's much more professional now. I think the quality will increase, because I think the market is a lot more developed, in terms of understanding the consumer, than it was 20 years ago. Today people know about the food they are cooking at home, so when they go out to a restaurant, the normal standards are not acceptable any more.