LIVING in South Somerset, we always have to leave ourselves with plenty of time to get to Bristol, if we are reviewing productions at the Old Vic, the Hippodrome, the Redgrave (up in Clifton) or the Tobacco Factory in Bedminster.
Sometimes we eat first, sometimes we take sandwiches, sometimes we stop at a favourite fish and chip shop (Whitstone’s at Shepton Mallet) and sometimes we decide to take pot luck and try one of the eateries near whichever theatre it is.
So finding ourselves with enough time before Filter’s radical production of the Scottish play at the Tobacco Factory, we decided to try the new (to us – it has been open for 18 months) Indian restaurant, Thali Cafe on the ground floor of the former Wills tobacco factory.
This is a real find – it has a funky, informal atmosphere, the staff are friendly and efficient, there’s a bar serving good beers and some interesting cocktails and the food is absolutely delicious.
A thali – as most lovers of Indian food will know – is an Indian or Nepalese meal made up of a selection of various dishes. The word in Hindi means plate, but as a meal, thali will include dishes from the particular region, usually served in small bowls, called katori, which are placed on a round tray (the actual thali); often a steel tray made with multiple compartments is used. A typical selection could include rice, dal, vegetables, roti, papad, raita, small amounts of chutney or pickle, and a choice of vegetarian or meat-based dishes.
Thali Cafe in Bedminster – one of a Bristol group which includes branches in Montpellier, Easton, Totterdown and Clifton – serves food that mainly comes from northern Indian, but also some popular dishes from Goa or Kerala, so some of the names will be familiar (Punjabi samosa, Lamb kofta, Kashmiri potato bondas, saag paneer and Mogul chicken curry).
The Thali group began about 15 years ago, as a van serving the Northern Thali (still on the menu and the Thali signature dish) at summer festivals. It was so successful that the first restaurant opened in Montpelier, and the menu began to expand.
Thali Tiffins – a takeaway system inspired by the famous dabba-wallah take-away and delivery street food and home-cooking system in India – has proved a hit with Bristol customers. Thali Cafe’s approach to local sourcing and sustainability led to it becoming the first Indian restaurant group to be awarded a Three Star Sustainability Champion rating in 2013 by the Sustainable Restaurant Association.
We shared as a starter the Lamb, Mint and Chickpea Samosa, handmade using locally sourced lamb and herby chickpeas with a sticky mango chutney – all the flavours came through clearly and it was a perfect appetiser.
For main courses we chose the Goan Chicken Shami, on a thali with kala chana chaat, Keralan slaw, pomegranate raita and lemon basmati, and Lamb Kofta Thali with basmati rice, raita, tarka dahl and a deliciously crunchy Keralan salad. The flavours were as clear and distinctive as the presentation was stylish.
We shared a chocolate praline cluster kulfi for pudding (which we really didn’t need, as the portions are generous, but it was quite lovely.)
Including drinks (pink grapefruit lemonade and fiery root ginger zinger) the bill came to £27 – very reasonable for delicious, interesting and beautiful food, promptly and charmingly served. Highly recommended and we will certainly go back.