In a nutshell
Like many Bristolians, I’ve had a longstanding love affair with Thali Café. Its menu is a rare find, in that I’m drawn to it when both I’m on a health kick, and when I’m craving something soul-warming and indulgent (and most of the time in between, too).
Via its five cafes across the city, the team has been serving up vibrant Indian food to locals for 14 years and this summer Meera Sodha (behind the bestselling cookbook, Made In India) has come on board as a guest chef.
For the uninitiated, ‘thali’ is the name given to the stainless steel crockery used all across India, as well as to the meal that traditionally fills it: a, assortment of sides, condiments and mains served together in a huddle of shiny dishes on a circular tray.
We visited Thali Café’s Montpelier branch in the north of the city. This branch was the first permanent home of the independent chain – founder Jim Pizer began by feeding hungry festival goers from a street food truck, after being inspired by the food on his travels around India. These guys don’t just nail it in the kitchen; they’ve won awards for their sustainability, too.
Meera was born in Lincolnshire to Ugandan-Indian parents; family recipes and watching her mother in the kitchen are at the root of her culinary passion and know-how. Jim contacted Meera after reading Made in India, asking her to create a menu to complement the fresh, seasonal and boldly flavoured food already at the cafes.
What are they cooking
Meera’s BBQ Summer Specials are, in her own words: “a rollercoaster of grilled, smoky and lip-smacking flavours straight from the heart of Bombay.” A capsule collection of two grilled mains, each served with her selection of three sides, are inspired by Bademiya, a Bombay food truck beloved by locals.
“In India, people don’t read restaurant critic reviews to find out where to go,” Meera tells us. “You can tell where the good places are as they always have a queue outside. Indians vote with their bellies, and Bademiya is always busy. It’s not a fancy place at all; it’s just a rickety stall on an unremarkable street. But when the smell of spiced meat cooking over charcoal wafts down the street, it’s hard not to be lured in for something to eat.”
What’s the room like?
Thali Café manages to bring Mumbai to Montpellier in a way that feels natural, and, appropriately for the area, decidedly bohemian. The walls are bright with sea blues and hot pinks, while wooden floors and furniture temper this vibrancy with a gentle, rustic warmth. Colourful glass lanterns, flower garlands, retro Bollywood posters, fairy lights and sheets of spangly mirror discs glittering above the entrance culminate in a pleasingly kitsch vibe. The low-key cheeriness lends itself well to relaxed occasions: cosy date nights, family gatherings and friendly catch-ups.
Grab the buttermilk sigri chicken – it’s a twist on Bademiya’s tandoori chicken. The succulent meaty bites have added tang and tenderness, thanks to a buttermilk marinade. It was served up with mixed leaves on a roti, ready to roll up and eat with your hands, street-style. We also loved the depth of flavour brought to the dish by the traditional, lime-pickled onion garnish.
The cauliflower chaat salad – a recipe from Meera’s new cookbook, Fresh India, out on July 7 – was all about the crunch. Cauli, radish, and pomegranate (to name a few) delivered plenty of bite and light, summery flavours in this substantial salad.
Be sure to order the mango lassi (a classic on Thali’s regular menu), a glassful of fresh mango pulp yogurt, topped with toasted almonds.
Guest chef Meera seems to be right at home at Thali Café, delivering authentic, unfussy eats that reflect India proper, rather than succumbing to the sub-par faux curries that abound elsewhere.
Restaurant address: Thali Café, 12 York Road, Bristol, BS6 5QE
Written by Rosie Sharratt, June 2016
Food pics: Jon Lewin
Portraits: Frankie Stone
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