(London is full of casinos if you’re looking for them. But, if like me, the idea of gambling sends you nervy and prone to stay away, walking into somewhere like The Sportsman Casino can feel like stepping into a whole new world.
I was invited to the Sportsman Casino in Marble Arch to review their fusion restaurant, Zaman.
As I said, it’s not really the kind of West End venue I’d normally frequent. In the words of Mr OhSo, a trip to the casino is what he’d do with the boys while on a drink-fuelled stag do. But when I heard the food described as ‘East meets West’ and that head chef Mahmud Zaman offered a rarely-seen brand new international menu of Middle Eastern, Asian and European flavours, it alerted my foodie ears. I was also egged on by memories of an epic 2006 trip to Vegas.
Here we go, I said as we walked in through the casino’s glass doors.
The good news is, you can walk into Zaman without actually walking through the main casino doors. Down a staircase in the main foyer, you’re taken down to an area of art-deco chandeliers and edgy lines, with mirrored walls and a warm, laid back vibe.
My eyes were instantly drawn to the endearing bonsai trees that sit on each perfectly laid table – a nod to the restaurant’s emblem and the head chef’s Bangladeshi surname ‘Zaman’, which literally means ‘little tree’.
But escape the casino you will not. Because if you’re dining here, you have to be prepared to feel like you could be in Vegas.
As a couple of elderly women tapped away at fruit machine games a few yards away, in our immediate view was a giant TV screen displaying the live action of a roulette table below. It all felt a bit strange at first, but I gradually became curious about this way of dining. And as we settled into the casino vibe, we soon averted our focus on Zaman’s impressively varied menu.
Do we go for Zaman’s ‘Asian, Middle Eastern or European cuisine?’ That was the question.
I succeeded in ordering a cross-section, with a king prawn Tom Yum soup to start with and a chargrilled chicken breast with risotto for my main.
Mr OhSo went for a bit of Chinese flavour to start with in the form of crispy duck pancakes and by the waiter’s recommendation, a traditional lamb Biryani with Lebanese salad for mains.
After top notch Thai and Malaysian Tom Yum soups in the past, I expected Zaman’s soup to be creamy and full of coconut flavours. Instead, it was more tomatoey and clear with more European vegetables than Eastern. But with so many flavours of lemongrass, chilli and spices, I was pleasantly surprised.
As for Mr OhSo’s duck pancakes, the meat was a little drier than he’d hoped, but hey, it’s crispy duck and that’s what he got. And with a delicious plum sauce and fresh tasting pancakes and obligatory cucumber and spring onion slices, what it lacked in moisture, it certainly made up for in flavour.
I wavered between the Singapore noodles and the chargrilled marinated chicken breast for mains. But the chicken breast won on the delicious sounding asparagus and spring onion petit pois risotto.
Delicious it was. And how great to do as I’d hoped – go from Eastern to Western cuisine in one night. The chicken was deliciously moist and was presented amazing in two halves across a gooey and flavoursome risotto accented with brilliantly al dente asparagus. Although the parmesan could have been taken down a notch, it did bring all the flavours together in one big indulgent plate. Impressed by the cross section of textures I ate (almost) the whole generously portioned plate.
Our enthusiasm didn’t stop there as Mr OhSo’s Biryani was ‘the best he’d ever tasted’ (and he’s tried a few). It was rich, flavoursome and the Biryani sauce packed a punch. It was nice to see this served separately in a side plate too with the contrasting cool flavours of a little pot of raitha. Happy customers all round.
By now, Zaman was filling up, I’d had a cosmopolitan and a wonderful glass of Sauvignon Blanc, and we were beginning to get into the ‘vibe’ of this unusual place.
The waiters at Zaman were miraculously quick to replace my napkin after returning from the ladies’ room and were amazingly attentive with wine and making sure everything was running smoothly. I’d have liked to see it bustling on a Saturday night but we reveled in our top-notch waiter service.
So before we chanced our luck on the Black Jack we had to do one more thing – test out Mr Zaman’s very interesting dessert menu.
I’ve never seen a menu like it and quite frankly, wasn’t sure what some of the ingredients were. Some were very traditional (sticky toffee pudding, sorbet) but others, we’d never heard of.
So, by the waiter’s recommendation we went for the ‘Passionata’ and Mr OhSo went for a favourite – the creme brulee.
The Passionata wasn’t to my normal taste, but it was a really pleasant change. It was a coconut ‘dacquoise’ with fruity passion fruit meringue and ‘passion cream’.
The other was everything you want in a creme caramel – a deliciously crunchy and sweet topping with a smooth and creamy filling. The only downer was the lemon sorbet did nothing to compliment it. But both desserts did well in the style stakes.
After a warming pot of jasmine tea and brilliant chat with Mr Mahmoud Zaman himself, we left the ladies tapping on their slot machines and we braved the casino with a couple of £10 vouchers.
Apprehensively, I went for the roulette table and felt like a rabbit in the headlights – Under Mr OhSo’s directions I placed some bets, going for odds, then black, then red, then……
Yep, I was getting into the swing of it!
Did we win? Absolutely! We walked away with £50 in our hands and completely satisfied from a great meal.
If you’re like me, it’s maybe time to put aside the reservations of casino dining. Admittedly, the atmosphere at Zaman was a bit lacking and I’d have liked to see this casino restaurant with a bit more liveliness and ambience. But Mr Zaman’s food was worth the visit. And it was a great way to experience Eastern and Western Dining (and a few bets) under one roof. Who needs Vegas hey?
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