Image © and courtesy of Thali restaurant
For most Londoners, a curry night out falls into one of two distinct categories. First, there is the rarified world of high-end sub-continent dining, personified by the likes of Benares, Chutney Mary and Moti Mahal. Best enjoyed on somebody else’s credit card, these are all fabulous dining experiences packed with a mixture of the traditional and the adventurous, where each beautifully plated dish comprises a distinctive and delicious combination of flavours and textures. And then there is the far more common experience of a Brick Lane night out where the restaurants are packed in cheek by jowl, each with a pavement tout offering you free poppadoms or a free beer if you choose their restaurant over their neighbour’s. On the plus side, the food is inexpensive and many of the restaurants have a BYO liquor policy. But on the downside, the menus are near-indistinguishable and the food is almost always mediocre and worryingly similar. My theory is that there is an industrial catering facility hidden in a warehouse somewhere nearby churning out vats of generic tikka masala, madras and korma sauce that is piped directly to a dozen different restaurants, to be liberally poured over chunks of chicken.
So then how does one enjoy a good Indian meal in London without breaking the bank? OK, so I may have simplified the problem somewhat – there are outliers like Tayyabs and the Lahore Kebab House (cheap, cheerful and reliably good) or Woodlands (sublime South Indian vegetarian) and doubtless many more hidden in corners of suburban London. But I recently found another answer to my foodie prayers in the most unexpected of places: Old Brompton Road in Kensington. Given the surroundings, you would imagine North Indian restaurant Thali might be rather blinged up and optimistically priced – but it is neither of those things. The long, narrow room is airy and high-ceilinged with a bar area at the back and exposed brickwork along one wall. Said wall is also adorned with a full-size rickshaw, complete with colourful canopy, while the plastered wall features vintage Bollywood movie posters. It’s all rather pleasantly understated and on the night we visited the crowd was wonderfully international and eclectic – the kind of tables that make you want to devise backstories for each group. The menu is compact (by Brick Lane standards!) and if you are looking for chicken madras, extra hot, you are in the wrong place. There is a good selection of hot and cold starters and it seems that the emphasis is on sharing a number of grazing plates. But there is also a solid selection of larger dishes (both modern and traditional), the eponymous thalis, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a game section. Chef Dila Ram trained with the Taj group and his menu combines the more traditional with some modern and individual twists.
We shared three starters: snow crab patties coated in mint, coriander and spices (£7.45); venison Bhukhara kebab, smoked with saffron ginger & garlic (£6.50); and palak chaat (£6.95). These were three very divergent dishes but all delicious. The crab cakes were dense with crab meat, not mashed potato as is so often the case, and the spices in the coating had a spicy kick to them. The venison kebabs were fabulous – coarsely ground excellent venison retained its gamey flavour and was well matched with the subtle saffron and ginger, and the smokiness of the charcoal grill. But it was the palak chaat that proved to be the unexpected standout dish. This north Indian classic consists of lightly battered and flash-fried spinach, drizzled with tamarind chutney, spiced yogurt, chopped onion, tomatoes and chaat masala. Each mouthful is an explosion of crispy, soft, cooling, spicy, sweet and salty – it’s hard to believe that the basis of this delicacy is the humble spinach leaf! Next time, I might just order a bucket of this for dinner.
For our mains we chose the lamb karahi (£12.95) for Nick and the prawn paithya (Royal Bengal prawns infused in a tomato & onion sauce – £15.95) for me. Nick loved his lamb – the tender chunks of meat were was hot and spicy but with a lovely clean flavour rather than tongue-numbing heat. The sauce was also astonishingly non-oily – usually restaurant curries leave behind a slick of oil when the dish is empty, but not this one. With less of a taste for heat, my prawns suited me perfectly. The size of the prawns was deeply impressive – fat, juicy tails cut in half and served in a delicately spiced, slightly creamy tomato sauce. I was sucking on the shells to get the very last drops of this fantastic dish – definitely a winner. Our sides were a huge hit too: aloo gobi (£5.00) and lemon rice with cashew nuts, curry leaves & lemon juice (£4.50). With aloo gobi, all to often you get the feeling that the sauce and the vegetables are merely on a blind date, having spent very little time in each other’ company. Not so here – the flavour of the sauce had penetrated deep into the vegetables making for a robust and satisfying dish. The rice was also fabulous with a delicate lemon flavour and the occasional crunch of a cashew.
For those who have not overindulged in the savouries like we did, there is much to like on the dessert menu, including some of my favourite Indian desserts like gulab jamun and carrot halwa. But sadly, we were pretty full by this stage and so we elected to share some pistachio kulfi (£4.95). I have been to other restaurants where the “kulfi” was indistinguishable from ice-cream but here, you got not only a good pistachio flavour but also got the distinct textural and flavour characteristics (less aerated; more creamy)that distinguish proper kulfi from ice-cream
Service was professional and deferential without being obsequious, and our server was able to answer all my menu/ingredient questions. I liked the fact that the atmosphere was far more relaxed and serene than the usual bustle of London curry restaurants – but the best surprise was the prices. Considering the quality of the food and that you are literally in the same street as Harrods, the fact that you can get away with a 3-course meal plus a bottle of house wine for a shade under £40 per head is nothing short of a miracle. Go now, before word gets out and queues form!
Cost per head: approx. £40 for 3 courses and a bottle of wine
Nearest station: Gloucester Road
166 Old Brompton Rd
Tel: 020 7373 2626
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this meal as a guest of Thali but received no further remuneration to write this post. I was not expected to write a positive review – all views are my own and I retain full editorial control.
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