Thali

Thali is the new-ish kid on Park Road by chef-in-chief Liam Tomlin and actual-chef-in-the-kitchen John van Zyl. It’s no secret that we’re big fans of chef Tomlin (who isn’t?), who helms the impossibly delicious Chefs [sic] Warehouse on Bree Street, and who’s also recently godfathered its sister-spot, Chefs Warehouse at Beau Constantia. This one is more of a cousin than a sibling, because it’s fashioned as “Indian tapas”, rather than the more Mediterranean/Asian vibe of both Chefs’.

It’s not the first Indian “tapas” spot in Cape Town — Sundoo in Seapoint could probably claim that maverick call. Why maverick? Because thali evidently refers to “an Indian-style meal, made up of a selection of various dishes, served on a platter. The ‘thali’ style serving is also popular in Nepal and Bangladesh. It simply means a round platter used to serve food”. So why, then, call it tapas, especially if your “roots are deeply founded in Kerala, India — better known as ‘The Land of Spices’”, as chef Seelan Sundoo’s are?

But these are linguistic quibbles that just highlight how Cape Town prefers to gaze at the Mediterranean rather than further east. As much as we care about language, we try not to let this influence our enjoyment of dinner at Thali.

Spoiler alert: We win this challenge.

Firstly, the space (previously Takumi by everyone’s favourite sushi-master Papa San, now on Long Street with Obi, and before that, the short-lived “naughty and nice” lingerie shop Kink) is beautiful.

The menu follows the Chefs’ model of “tapas for two” for R650, with an optional extra of oysters (and a dirty lassi, if you’re that way inclined — nicely played, Irishman-in-chief!)

We have oysters, because we are not here to sample just part of the experience. Plus, the munching men are present, and they may have insisted.

The “Cape Malay” dressing was exactly what these oysters (and we, apparently) were craving. If we were to give it an actual menu description, we may choose words like subtle, spicy, fruity, briny, and fresh, but that would be meaningless on a menu, so let’s just say that that they were rather excellent (and this from lunching lady who isn’t much partial to oysters). Possibly not very “Indian”, but whatever. Off to a good start!

First course of “Potato and Chickpea Papadum Chaat”:

Well, it was there, and then it was gone before we could quite figure out what it was we’d just enjoyed. Enough said. (There was, it should be noted, some fantastic chilli paste and curry salt which we were encouraged to keep on the table for future courses. The curry salt lasted longer than the chilli paste, because some of us are sticklers for added heat, and — kudos to the kitchen — nothing else really needed more sodium, even if curry-flavoured.)

Next up, “Yellow Dhal, Chicken and Lamb Kebabs, Tomato Chilli Jam & Pomegranate Raita, Tandoori Cauliflowers, Coconut & Cashew”:

See the smoke emanating from the Tandoori vessel? That was supposed to be the theatrical part of the dish, but that was just a smokescreen for the real winner(s), which was the cauliflower, and that flaky, buttery, paratha which Banters should clearly stay away from, and frankly shut up about the rest of us eating.

Minus the kebabs on the side (which honestly added little to the experience apart from some smoky theatrics), this thali (remember it’s a round serving platter?) was an excellent example of how unnecessary meat is for flavour and decadence. We could have stopped there, satisfied.

But no, onto “Fried Fish Papadum Taco” and “Line Fish, Curry Dressing”:

Ok, so we tried to put linguistic stuff out of our mind to just enjoy dinner, but let’s not fuck around: what even is a “papadum taco”? And what’s (beautifully) seared tuna doing on an “Indian tapas” menu?

They were good. But they were incongruous, and unnecessary in the stomach department of things. At this point the general sentiment was looking at the menu with slight trepidation about what was still to come, and while we only had a few more sentences to get through, we all felt like we’d already had several paragraphs.

Were we a bit too enthusiastic about the starters and nexts? Perhaps. But the role of a kitchen (chief-chef and actual-chef, we’re looking at you!) is to judge a tasting menu to be delivered at the correct pace and size to not overwhelm your diners.

Because then comes the last “tapa”, listed simply as “Panch Phoran Seafood Curry” and “Spicy Tomato Lamb Curry”, but with sides of fantastic naan, rice with fried onions, and other more-ish stuff. Like we’re going to ignore the stowaways.

It would have been useful to be able to fault something here, but we couldn’t, so we basically nommed it all, and then sat and complained about being too full.

At R650 per couple for this feast, Thali is brilliant value for money, because everything is so delicious that you can’t stop when you should. But as someone in the restaurant-biz pointed out, it’s also genius menu-planning, because most of the things that you fill up on are cheap-as-chips. Sure, there was some beautifully fresh tuna, a brilliant seafood curry with plump prawns, and we all know that lamb ain’t cheap. But dhal, paratha, naan, rice and other excellent (inexpensive) sides are what really make the party worth loosening your belt for.

Does that mean it’s not worth the price?

We’re unusually conflicted here, because to satisfy the balance between our gluttony (let’s call it what it is!) and our desire for deliciousness, we’d maybe say offer the same menu minus the off-key taco/line fish course, at the same price, which we — and other middle-classies — would likely be willing to pay for the pedigree of chef Tomlin’s guardianship. Or simply offer less, for a slimmer price?

But we’re not here as economists — good lord! — so we had some sugar instead:

We chose the “Indian bonbons” (after having been muchly disappointed that the bonbons weren’t available at Chefs Warehouse at Beau Constantia), which is a nifty idea, but in truth a difficult sharing option. I mean, we all like each other, but how many shared mouthfuls can a little choccie really accommodate? My allotment of bonbons flavoured with spiced coconut caramel and stem ginger & fennel seeds were lovely, but they made me feel like I was drifting from what had been a fully communal experience until now.

After that they brought us other free sweeties with the bill, which we thankfully each got one of (someone couldn’t wait before the photograph!), including some of those lovely candied fennel seeds which either do or don’t actually work as a digestif after an Indian feast.

It was a delicious meal which we wouldn’t not recommend. Do go with expansive appetites, though, and maybe go easy on the first few courses. There will be more, and it will be worth the wait.


Originally published at 2ladieswholunchblog.wordpress.com on July 18, 2017.