Continuing the gastronomic tour of Bristol with my lovely daughter, we had a splendid day in the genteel surroundings of Clifton, enjoyed magnificent views of its famous suspension bridge, and finished the day eating at a perky little cafe specialising in the cuisine of the southern Indian state of Kerala, most particularly thalis – silver trays of assorted curries and accompaniments – hence the name Thali Café.
At face value, Thali Café, one of another small chain centred on the Bristol area (there seem to be plenty of these, not least SouKitchen, as recently reviewed), is fresh and unassuming in its pleasant corner spot on the high street, but unlike any other India restaurant – and deliberately so.
The decor feels like it has evolved over a period by adding pieces from auctions, jumble sales and private homes, set against the backdrop of pink walls. These include a grandfather clock sitting in the corner, a sepia photograph of some Indian gentleman with the remnants of Christmas tinsel adorning the frame, and an odd assortment of other knick-knacks and foliage. There is something cute or at least cutesy about it, done in a knowing way but undeniably appealing in the same way that old country pubs are way more attractive than brewery makeovers.
The menu – this being one of several variants for different purposes – highlights as its centrepiece five thali variants (chicken, veg, fish, lamb and dairy-free), with a separate green box for the kebabs and a smaller orange one for the masala dosa, while assorted street snacks, curries, sides and desserts make up the numbers. It’s not an unattractive menu, kept relatively cheap in order to appeal to the students of Bristol and in-keeping with the café moniker.
That said, the inclusion of adjectives applied direct from the marketing industry don’t help. For example, if a dish is “sumptuous” is best left to the customer to decide and has no meaning in this context, other than to sound impressive on a menu. This is marketing vocabulary, put in for effect.
Back to the food: go to India and the key to good street snacks are their freshness and zingingly vibrant flavours, a skill rarely mastered in the UK, given the predominance of the food processing and commoditisation industry – against which I campaign with fervour. The two examples we chose were good but not great: two samosas filled with lamb, mint and chickpeas, three red pepper pakoras, each served with a sweet mango chutney. I don’t doubt that these snacks were home made and did at least make for original fillings, though the execution was slightly underwhelming in flavours and spicing. Pity, because they certainly looked the part. Want a great pakora? The chicken ones at Sanam in Manchester were truly divine!
However, our thali trays soon replaced the snacks and looked the real deal, to which we added slightly anaemic looking chapatis on the side. Full marks for the inclusion of a “crunchy Keralan” salad, replete with nuts and seeds, plus a tangy dressing, to contrast from the various curries. Essentially, both were the same but for the chosen centrepiece. Each included some tarka dahl and “summer subjhi” – a vegetable curry which seemed to daughter and I most like a sag aloo through the inclusion of plenty of spinach and potato.
Lindsey struggled with the latter but ate most of her main bowl, a chicken curry with coconut; mine was a red curry based on lamb kofta (aka meatballs.) Both were perfectly adequate and serviceable without ever giving an impression that they stood out from the crowd – and let’s face it, the competition in curries is pretty steep everywhere in the UK nowadays, Bristol being no exception. There was nothing wrong with the food, but no explosion of flavours from fresh spices in skilled hands. I suspect some of the food was prepared centrally and heated on site – and that is one area where you can tell the difference between the best and those that flatter to deceive.
If I’m being honest, this proved a consistent theme with the Thali Café – it looked bright and lively, sounded fun, offered warm and friendly service throughout… but in the final analysis was more superficial than the foodie paradise it could so easily have been. TC did not quite deliver the goods in terms of flavours or diner satisfaction; I wish it did, but on this visit I did not come away feeling this was good home-cooked food prepared with love and devotion, which is where SouKitchen did earn kudos.
I hope they will take this criticism to heart, but I wish they had spent more time on optimising the last sensations and less on the marketing blurbs. It would greatly improve the final results. With a little effort directed to making the food exceptional this could be a really excellent little chain.