So last month everything was plodding along nicely, all work, work, pub, pub, pub, taxi, take-away, bottle of red, quick whisky, sleep, aspirin, coffee, coffee, work, work, pint just to take the edge off, etcetera, etcetera, which was working out just fine. Sort of.
Then one day I woke up to a familiar feeling of nameless dread and thought: My god, this has to stop, and since then it’s been all gym, gym, gym, squat, lift, protein shake, “Yeah bro, 80kg”, testosterone, eggs, more eggs, work, work, work, work, tube, read a bit, cook something with fennel in it, bed.
It’s been a bit like watching a caterpillar emerge from a chrysalis as a slightly bigger, more boring caterpillar. It’s not just exercise, either – I’ve turned into the kind of person who says things like: “You realise most people are mildly gluten intolerant” and other stuff that I’m aware makes me sound incredibly smug and deeply annoying to be around.
The problem is, I’m also a restaurant critic. I’m paid to gorge myself on saturated fats and sugar, to ply myself with expensive booze, all for your entertainment. Nobody wants to read about me eating half a dozen eggs, even if they are delicious ones that I picked up at the farmers’ market because that’s the kind of thing I do at weekends now that I’m not lying in bed all day wishing the pain behind my eyes would stop.
The last few places I’ve reviewed I’ve cheated a bit and gone for lobster or crab or steak (which is fine, apparently), but there are only so many ways to write about how lobster is, you know, quite nice. So this time I entered the lion’s den and got a massive curry.
Actually, the idea that curries are inherently unhealthy is rubbish. If you’re trying to lose weight, you probably don’t want to order a korma because of all the cream, but beyond that they’re generally pretty good for you. Cumin can help prevent prostate cancer; cardamom is an antiseptic; ginger is good for your joints and has antibacterial properties (although you’d need to consume obscene amounts of them to see any tangible benefit).
Anyway, Indian food – especially the thick, dairy-packed dishes from the North – is delicious, and I’m sick of lobster (yeah, I know, cry me a river). So Indian it was, specifically Thali on Old Brompton Road, which I’d been meaning to go to for ages but had forgotten about in all the clamour surrounding Karam Sethi’s Gymkhana – which has been deemed the best Indian restaurant in the known universe by just about everyone who knows about these things – and the re-opening of Sethi’s other venture Trishna.
It’s a fair old trek to get to Thali – a good 15 minute walk from Gloucester Road underground, which reminded me just what a Disneyfied, spotless, soulless place that part of London is. Thali itself is located on a pleasant enough bank of bars and restaurants, with a few seats outside that would be nice if they weren’t next to a bus stop.
Inside it’s minimalist without being clinical – a narrow corridor with whitewashed or exposed brick walls, only interrupted by the odd Bollywood movie poster. It’s comfortable, the service attentive but unobtrusive, the mandatory Bangra music quiet enough to blend into a general melange of modern Indianness.
“Thali” actually refers to something specific – a single meal made up of small bowls, usually served in a moulded metal tin – but people now use it to mean the Indian equivalent of tapas. Thali does serve three varieties of proper thali, none of which I ordered. To start we went for tiger prawns served in a delicious, thick, earthy Goan masala; three pieces of dakshini tika masala, excellently flavoured but cooked for ever so slightly too long, making the meat just a little too chewy; two perfect lamb chops cooked in a lime, yoghurt and cardamom gravy so dry it was more of a veneer than a sauce – very good indeed; three hefty, salty crab patties rolled in what I would have sworn was seaweed but was in fact crispy mint and coriander leaves; and grilled scallops in a creamy tomato sauce, which were very nice but whose taste was lost amid the other bolder flavours on the table.
We also had a plate of chaat, which was sublime. Chaat comes in a multitude of forms, varying, depending on where in South Asia you are, from big doughy balls to puck-shaped potato cakes to a kind of yoghurty, salady mulch. They’re usually sold on the street and are popular during vamkukshi (Indian siesta), when restaurants tend to close. Thali head chef Dila Ram makes it with a dry, crispy spinach, sweet yoghurt and chutney – his ability to make spinach assume the consistency of fried kale is a minor culinary miracle. It’s the best thing I’ve eaten this year, good enough to sit alongside anything on the menu at Gymkhana.
My prawn paithya main was a thick, aromatic tomato-based sauce topped with three big Royal Bengal prawns – it would have worked better had I not asked for it without the rice. The chicken tika makhani was unfussy, buttery comfort food, a high-quality equivalent of your standard British-Indian fare.
Without booze (for me, at least), the bill came to a shade over £100, which is more than reasonable for food and service this good. And I walked out without that bloated, post-curry waddle that comes from hoovering up rice and lager all night, thereby earning me yet more smug points.
It wasn’t long ago that I wrote a column bemoaning the dearth of decent Indian food within the M25. Now it’s undergoing something of a renaissance: one that Thali can rightly consider itself to be a small but important part of.
First published in City A.M.