Food: 8/10 Drink: 8/10 Atmosphere: 7/10 Pricing: ££
A beautiful and hidden gem with great, authentic Indian food to match.
With five branches sprawled across the city, and endorsement from queen of Indian cuisine Meera Sodha, it’s easy to see how The Thali Café tops a lot of foodies’ lists when it comes to all things Indian in Bristol. There’s an exciting ethos behind the brand as the only Indian restaurant group in the UK to win sustainable restaurant association status, while simultaneously saving tonnes of unnecessary landfill with their waste free Tiffin take-away scheme. Locally sourced produce with a side of ethical thinking? Don’t mind if we do, and that doesn’t even begin to cover the décor. If great food and a sustainable ethos are your starter and main, let the look of the Montpelier Thali Café be your dessert: an absolute aesthetic treat.
Tucked away in Montpelier, Thali is just off Gloucester Road. If you approach via Picton Street you’ll pass the infamous Bristolian café and Bells Diner on route- don’t let yourself be deterred. Once you stumble across the Thali Café as we did, you’re in for a surprise. Inside, expect a wonderfully chaotic mix of mismatched chairs, colourful murals, fairy lights, flowers, lanterns and black & white Bollywood posters. It’s welcoming, unpretentious and seemingly a hit with all ages. There were families and numerous couples to surround myself and my own date, my mother. Sticking true to my perpetual singlehood, I took my Mum as my date this Valentines season and, while I insisted that this was nothing to do with who’d foot the bill, that is definitely something to bear in mind: as a student, it’s worth persuading a family member/parent/wealthy great-aunt and/or sugar-daddy to take you out here. It might be good value compared to the soaring prices of Clifton, but mains still come in at between £9 and £13. Luckily, Mum was instantly sold by the mention of the acclaimed author and chef Meera Sodha, who acts as a brand ambassador for the Thali Café group. Her inspiration and advice is thus present in the Café’s menu, which was big enough to offer adequate choice, but not so big as to prove daunting. The main Thali menu, for example, boasts one chicken, one lamb, one fish, and two vegetarian options.
For 2pm on a Sunday afternoon, the atmosphere was relaxed but quiet (as the manager explained, Indian seems to be normally an evening meal destination). With only this manager on the floor, the service was somewhat slow considering there were max. four tables seated for our whole stay. Of course, at peak time, service would presumably be a little quicker with more people on the floor.
One of my family’s favourite local Indian digs in London is Shoyona, based in the grounds of BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir, or as it’s more fondly known, Neasdon Temple. With an abundant Indian supermarket attached, my younger brother has been an avid buyer of lassi powder for a while now. Despite slaving away and experimenting with quantities for years, we have never come close to the delicate perfection of Thali’s Alphonso Mango Lassi. Not at all overbearingly sweet, and with a strong balance of yoghurt to mango, this lassi was finished, firstly, with toasted almonds, and secondly, within 60 seconds by yours truly. It was so good I debated a second for desert, but that’s before I found the array of milk-based ice creams.
We tried the Mumbai City Snacks to start, on the manager’s recommendation: potato bonda, red pepper pakora and a pea and potato samosa. The light pastry and soft spice meant the samosa come out on top, especially when paired with the sweet mango chilli chutney. Impressed by our starters, we delved straight into our main Thali courses. We both opted for the Southern Thali, with the subji for the day being potato and spinach. I normally opt for vegetarian, but I’m also always partial to a good fish curry, the kind where white fish is flaked in in light hunks. The sauce of the Southern Thali’s curry was deliciously fragrant, with the coconut milk making for a good consistency. Everything was served piping hot, beautifully presented in traditional Thali fashion and with a solid accompanying dahl (good colour and consistency) and delicious chutney, it was nothing short of a very, very good main course.
I’d like to take a quick minute to discuss the hero of the meal, the naan. If you’re going to order a side at The Thali Café, stick to what you know and go for the classic naan, despite the enticing Aloo Paratha (flatbread stuffed with spicy potato and served with lime pickle and raita) sitting just below on the menu. Thinner than what I would consider to be a traditional naan, but living up to its description as being ‘super light and pillowy’, it pulled apart deliciously softly and had a delicate, toasted crunch on eating. Perfection.
We finished our feast with a couple of hot beverages. There are plenty of places for coffee in Montpelier, and to be frank, our coffee and Taj hot chocolate didn’t stand out at the Thali, especially as the sides and mains had so exceeded our expectations. The house coffee hails from closer to home than India itself, as a Guatemalan roast from Clifton Coffee. Like the hot chocolate, however, it was relatively weak to the taste. The addition of cinnamon and cardamom to Taj added a pleasant kick, but nothing that would have tasted out of place at a high-street coffee chain. I’d recommend going elsewhere if you fancy an after-lunch brew.
I’d recommend the Thali Café for a fun and informal meal with friends and family, or even a date if you can convince someone other than your Mum to join you. Not sold by my choices? Then make the journey solely for the best pun in town, and pick yourself up a Mahatma Brandy - a masala coffee with a shot of brandy. Punchy. There’s also a £5 @ 5pm deal on cocktails, for those who love a bargain as sweet as their chutney: update your classic Moscow Mule with its distant cousin, the Mumbai Mule, your standard vodka and ginger mix, but with a quirky coriander twist.
Montpellier, Clifton, Easton, Southville & Totterdown. http://www.thethalicafe.co.uk/