I have handed the blogging reigns over to James for this post (and quite frankly I’m thinking of doing it more often), to give you a full blown review of our trip to the Thali Cafe. It’s a long one so grab a cuppa, or perhaps a curry as you’ll be craving one after reading it!
Sometimes a good hearty curry is just what the doctor ordered; especially with Summer over and the evenings drawing in. Whether or not you have a high tolerance for spice, there’s a curry for everyone; from the fruity & creamy Korma to the taste bud-busting fiery Phaal.
I love a curry, enjoying fairly weighty 7 or 8 out of 10 on the chilli chart. But much as I do enjoy them, I know from my time working in Asia that on the whole, what we get served in the UK (as delicious as it is) is a long way from the origins of a curry as they know it in India (that is a generalisation and there are doubtless very authentic curry houses all over the country, but I suspect the vast majority serve dishes largely indistinguishable from one curry house to the next).
Most curries in India are very simple and humble dishes. They tend to be based on pulses and vegetables, rather than meat, and they’re rarely as rich or creamy as the Kormas and Massalas we’ve become used to. But the UK has adopted curry and over the last hundred years or so it has become a popular part of our culture, even if we have evolved it to our own tastes. Whatever the differences though, the one thing that both authentic Indian curry, and our own distant relative have in common is the use of a great variety of herbs and spices which make these complex dishes so interesting to our palates.
In Bristol there’s a little chain of restaurants who are doing things a bit differently. 15 years ago, inspired by their travels in India and disappointed with the authenticity of curry in this country, the founders of the Thali Cafe decided to introduce true Indian street food to the UK, starting with ravenous crowds at summer music festivals.
The simple but tasty food was such a hit at the festivals that a year later they decided to open their first permanent Thali Cafe in Bristol’s Montpelier area.
This was the launching pad for their eco-friendly Tiffin take-away scheme (returning customers can get a stack of metal dishes which they can bring back time and again to be refilled). Waste-free and completely sustainable, this brilliantly simple concept is borrowed from the tried and trusted system already used across the whole of India. The Tiffin revolution is now in full swing with over 10,000 Thali Tiffins in homes all over Bristol!
The Thali Cafe has become a bit of a Bristol institution since then, winning awards (including an Observer Food Monthly Award and a BBC Radio 4 Food & Farming Award) and opening four further restaurants including Clifton, Easton, Totterdown and most recently in Southville, in the Tobacco Factory building.
The Southville Thali Cafe is where this adventure begins. The restaurant is a comfortable and informal setting with mix’n’match furniture and an impressive looking bar. The staff are very friendly and welcoming. Crucially they’re also knowledgeable, which becomes key when you look at the menu, because it has little in common with the menu you’d expect to see at a traditional curry house. Thankfully the staff are happy to talk you through it and make suggestions based upon your preferences.
Before we got started on the food though we went for the cocktail menu. This is a mix of completely original cocktails, and twists on some of your more familiar favourites. If you like a gin base with a citrus twist then the ‘Love in Shimala’ is a big hit. For something more fruity and sweet the ‘East India Company’ (gin with rose, Darjeeling and pineapple liqueurs) and ‘Goan Sunrise’ (vodka with passion fruit, mango and lime flovours) are very easy drinking. And the Thali’s take on the Mule (theirs is called the Mumbai Mule) is delicious if you like a gingery warmth. Get there between 5 and 7pm for a BOGOF deal, and if cocktails aren’t your thing then you’ll find a full drinks menu to choose from.
Every curry should start with poppadoms, right?! Well despite doing most things a bit differently, I’m very pleased to report that the Thali Cafe doesn’t stray too far from this well trodden path, and you can still kick things off with these crunchy wonders and a selection of delicious chutneys. The health conscious diner can even opt for a roast poppadom (rather than the normal deep fried version).
The Thali Cafe’s main selection of curries all come with rice, a crunchy fragrant salad, a cooling raita (a yoghurt based sauce), tarka dahl (a traditional lentil dish) and Punjabi Aloo Methi (a chickpea based side dish). Whilst flavoured and fragrant, none of these dishes pack any sort of a hot spice kick. As you can see from these photos, each component is served in a separate bowl. You then choose a curry to go with it, from a selection of vegetable. paneer (a halloumi like cheese), fish, chicken or lamb. Given that all the side dishes are all vegetarian, we didn’t feel too guilty going for the chicken and lamb options; the Lamb Kofta Thali was served in a light flavour-packed sauce, the Chicken Mogul Thali in a thicker, spicier sauce.
If you’re looking for a standard curry then you might be a bit disappointed as the Thali Cafe don’t really do huge plates of rich and and creamy food. But if you fancy trying something a little different and more authentic in a lovely informal setting with great cocktails then the Thali Cafe is definitely worth trying: I walk past on a regular basis and it’s always busy which is a great sign!