166 Old Brompton Road www.thali.uk.com
As a young boy, little got me more excited than a Friday night trip to our local Indian restaurant. I always ordered chicken tikka, which came with ribbons of iceberg lettuce and a little raita. My mum had rogan josh and we shared some rice. I left looking forward to going back.
It’s difficult to muster the same enthusiasm for curry these days. I take big swigs of lager, I eat too many poppadoms, and then the main course arrives; meat bobs and swims in pools of liquid ghee, and a forkful reminds me of all the other curries I’ve ever eaten. My stomach layers up with different fats and lager like one of those geography diagrams illustrating sedimentary rock formation.
Thali in West London promises a different experience. It sits a few hundred yards further down Old Brompton Road from what is officially’the best Ferrari dealership in the world’.
This leads me to suspect there won’t be a man outside hawking free bottles of Jacob’s Creek to generate custom or homogeneous garlic gloop emerging from the kitchen. Sure enough, the menus placed on starched white tablecloths speak of Indian cuisine done in’fine dining’ style.
J travelled too extensively in India last year for my liking. She came back talking wistfully and effusively of dosas, idli and gulab jamun Ã¢â‚¬â€œ things I’d only vaguely heard of, let alone actually eaten, and I’m concerned for two reasons. The first is that she’ll find every curry an anticlimax after her trip, and the second is that at some point I’ll get the look you get from people who’ve eaten in India that says Ã¢â‚¬Å“oh poor you, eating this muck thinking it’s anything like the real dealÃ¢â‚¬Â.
For that reason, I read the words’north Indian restaurant’ written at the top of the menu with mild relief. Broadly speaking, it should ensure the food is far enough away from the vegetable, fish and coconut driven style of cooking in southern India, and specifically Kerala, to avoid both unfavourable comparisons and pitying glances.
We’re brought a selection of small plates to start, including some unusual dishes. Palak chaat is arguably the best, consisting of crispy, fried pieces of spinach dressed in sweetened yoghurt and the tang of several chutneys. A dish of lightly spiced scallops in a mild, creamy tomato sauce seems bravely ambitious, but their delicate flavour is discernible provided you’re frugal with the emulsion, and they’re well cooked too.
Those used to the brutally spicy thump of the marinated lamb chops at Tayyabs in Whitechapel may find those at Thali rather sedate by comparison but I expect that’s the point; this is a place trying to push ideas of subtlety and refinement. Thali’s chops are pretty good taken in this spirit, and come with another excellent chutney.
Along with the palak chaat starter, a main course of chukander gosht is something of a specialty at Thali. J is happy to try it, and is served a plate of lamb cooked with beetroot and spices. A soft, warm naan to help with mopping it up is delivered at the same time as my chicken kahari.
A silver balti dish of naturally, deeply red curry indicates the heavy use of tomato, as the first taste confirms. Coriander and onion are present in muted terms but the hit of chilli could and ought to be much harder. The kahari is so rich in tomato that it feels a little one-dimensional after a few mouthfuls, and I find myself looking dolefully over at J’s lamb.
It was definitely the better choice; the earthy beetroot and spices are an interesting and surprisingly good match for the meat. The unusual combination hadn’t fully convinced either of us before the dish arrived but our waiter was right to recommend it.
Thali is not your average curry house, nor is it on a par with truly high-end Indian restaurants like Benares. Its more sophisticated approach to high-street Indian food has perhaps, inadvertently, dampened the fire and vibrancy that draws some people to Indian cuisine. For others, it will have softened and refined what they find too raw and overpowering about it.
Whatever your preference, it’s refreshing to go to an Indian restaurant offering something different from the norm. There is adventure, innovation and some great flavours in the food at Thali. Ultimately, it’s the quality of the food that matters and Thali is spot on in that regard. If I were ever looking for a square meal in this part of town, I would happily stop at Thali. I can’t say that about many Indian restaurants anymore.