It seems fitting to begin my series of reviews on Bristolian institutions with one of the city’s most well-known success stories. The Thali Cafe was born out of its owners’ disappointment with Indian restaurants in the UK, and a desire to offer more authentic Indian street food. They began serving out of a street food truck at Glastonbury before their success led them to open their first glitter-adorned site in bohemian Montpelier and, from there, four sister restaurants across Bristol.
The premise is simple: a selection of dishes are served together on a stainless steel plate known as a thali, with the different flavours, textures and colours combining to provide a balanced meal. At the Thali Cafe, accompaniments are served with a main of your choice – perhaps crisp cubes ofpaneer crumbling into a velvety, garlicky spinach sauce, or South Indian-style chicken in a bright, coconut-based sauce.
Side dishes, served in katori bowls, are similarly satisfying: a dahl whose lentils retain just the right amount of bite; a soft, yielding vegetable subji warmed by the ginger and cumin threading through its sumptuous tomato coat; and a sweet-sour mooli and mango salad to refresh the palate. We spooned and stirred each with a little rice and swiped up leftovers with warm chapattis.
On this occasion, the curries fell just shy of the deep, delicate spicing and chilli kick of the Indian restaurants in my previous South London neighbourhood. Yet the ambience of the Thali Cafe is more than a match for any competition. The cafes, in Montpelier and other branches, are a rather lovely mishmash of oversized lightbulbs, glowing lanterns, family portraits, vintage signs and reclaimed wood. Beaming staff complete the cosy feel, ensuring diners feel comfortable to linger.
And linger you must, for there is dessert to be had. Lightly battered banana fritters with gooey centres are elevated by ginger kulfi, whose rich, creamy texture and subtle caramel notes provide the perfect foil for the heat of stem ginger. A dark chocolate and ginger torte and an Eton Mess with mango, passionfruit and meringue were, regretfully, left for the next visit.
I departed on a sugar high and keen to sign up for their tiffin club – an eco-friendly takeaway scheme whereby customers purchase stacked metal ‘lunch boxes’ to be kept and refilled. After an excellent meal out, I would welcome The Thali Cafe’s Indian street food into my own home.