Thali Cafe's Big Bollywood Party
The Thali Cafe brand is clearly doing well. It feels like a Bristol institution at this point, and the one conjoined with the Tobacco Factory is the biggest, as well as the latest, of their undertakings. Eighteen months in, it looks set to be a stalwart of the Bedminster scene for a long time to come; the capacious seating area is brimming with diners, and the staff have that happy/busy look that comes with knowing you'll have a job for a while. Musicians are warming up on the stage, the walls are plastered with pictures of old friends and comrades; the territory has been clearly marked. Any Bollywoodness tonight is being provided by the band at the other side of the room, but I'm mainly here as part of a group that has the pleasure of sampling the soon-to-be fast approaching Christmas menu. Granted, the Goan Sunrise cocktails floating about aren't suitable for quaffing during midnight mass, but it's still only August, and this menu isn't an Indian/Anglo festive hybrid, anyway; no turkey and cranberry naans here. Instead, its little platters of alluring, traditional looking food, served course by course, as we sip on the Sunrise and fill our separate plates.
A quick poppadom dunk...
Firstly, of course, a quick poppadom dunk through the dips is mandatory: the mango chutney (always my favourite) is helped by a hefty kick of chilli, but the coconut yoghurt is the revelation to me; cooling, complex, and a good way to unburden the taste buds before the main event. While the live tunes are getting the bar area into party mode, I tuck into a samosa. A good specimen- it's delicious. The lamb Shami kebab is super delicate, not grainy and gristly like many a takeaway standard, and before I can even put the Red Pepper Pakora past my lips, the waitress is already bringing out some of their famous Thalis, along with another three mains.
I try the Paneer Thali first and, since the Thali Cafe was originally created to represent other, more culturally accurate, sides of Indian cuisine, it's no surprise that each mouthful is a pleasant experience. Equally well balanced is the dish named Kolkata Baingan Kari, smoky from the dahl, with gorgeous silkyness from slow cooked aubergines. As should always be the case with an Indian menu, you can fill up here without going near meat or fish.
There are certain issues. The mussels in the Cochin Pot, while well flavoured and almost elevated to greatness by the crisp Bombay fries, are a tad dried out. The pakora isn't particularly light or punchy, and I find myself concerned that these imperfections may be a sign that the restaurateurs are skating dangerously close to Stretching-Yourself-Thin-Land. They're only minor errors, however, and nothing a verbal clip around the ear from a head-chef can't sort by December.
A trinity of desserts arrive. I eagerly opt straight for the warming nostalgia of the Banana Fritter, a relic from vintage years that should be preserved as vigilantly as a Warhol painting, made more delicious by sprinklings of cinnamon sugar. Syrupy Gulab Jamon is the second, followed by the curiously French Dark Chocolate torte. The latter is an odd thing to encounter at the end of this meal; it would feel like a reluctant surrender to Western palettes, if it weren't so bloody delicious; lovely, dark and rich, but it does seem like the odd one out. The Gulab Jamon, on the other hand, are sweet, light in the middle, and sticky on the surface. I can't stop nibbling at 'em.
A friend joins me, too late for the tasting, and orders some paneer skewers and a fish thali from the normal menu. The charred peppers on the skewers do everything the paneer can't; it's a great combination, but I can only steal one before I realise I have to stop shovelling this stuff down. The band has finally turned the atmosphere from eatery into music venue, and it's give up the cutlery.
The Thali gang are in good shape. Here's another thriving establishment, with extra space for events- and possibly some lovely amplified revenue. It'll be a good place to spend a festive evening in, too; there's a communal spirit, great food, and an extensive drinks menu. All you need, right?
There are plenty more Bollywood parties coming up at the Southville Thali Cafe: