Opened last year in what used to be Giraffe on George Street, Thali offers a “taste of everyday India” – you won’t find bhajis or madras here. Starting life as a street food truck, there’s now six restaurants with Oxford being the first branch outside their home town of Bristol. Combining the dishes that founder Jim fell in love with on his travels with Meera Sodha’s renowned cookbooks, Thali offers a refreshing take on Indian food that is full of flavour, focuses more on vegetables than meat and is ethically sourced. In fact, they’ve won awards for their tiffins, with 10,000 of the Thali tiffin tins now out in the wild. If you’re buying their food to take away, or have leftovers, you can opt to a reusable, traditional tin instead of the usual plastic or foam containers.
Inside, the restaurant decor recreate the dusty, muted tones of India. Seating comes in booths, individual tables or the now familiar communal table. What isn’t familiar is the large sink and taps in the middle of the room which is there to encourage diners to wash their hands before eating communally with your fingers. Don’t worry though, there’s still cutlery on the tables!
A relatively small menu features just seventeen dishes and an outstanding ten of these are vegetarian! There’s also ten that are gluten free. Sadly for me, very few of them are coconut free and needing to avoid a swollen mouth and tongue I was given a very detailed food allergy list from which I could narrow down my choices.
We started off with poppadums and house chutneys £1 each and £3, two of which were not suitable for me and this was reiterated by our lovely waitress. Also ordered was pani puri £4, crispy puri bowls filled with spiced chickpea and potato that you drizzle pani, a tamarind flavoured water, into before popping into your mouth for a taste explosion.
We didn’t really get the taste explosion we were hoping for. I loved the little bowls but found the filling overly cold, not spiced and the only real flavour coming from the coriander, pomegranate and the water. Something and nothing for us.
Next up was the samosas. Four different fillings were on offer and we selected the mushroom and walnut £5, and the chicken coriander options, also £5. The mushroom came with a more familiar looking samosa pastry but was slightly thicker, resulting in less sharp shards of pastry on your clothes and stabbing your mouth. Crammed full of mushroom and with small chunks of walnut dotted throughout, these were full of meaty, woody flavour.
The chicken samosas had an entirely different coat, much more akin to the pastry on your gran’s homemade sausage rolls. Light and buttery, the chunks of chicken and flecks of coriander filling was delicate and herby. Both samosas came with dipping sauces that also appeared in the chutney tray. I found the mushroom didn’t need a condiment as it was moist and well textured but the chicken definitely benefitted from a good dip.
Somewhat restricted for my main dish choices, I selected the chicken tikka grill £11.50 as all the thalis contained that coconut! Thalis are a selection of dishes comprising of a main (chicken, lamb, fish, paneer and vegetable options available) rice, dal, vegetable subji, salad and yoghurt.
My chicken came accompanied with chapattis, chutney, yoghurt and a red cabbage coleslaw. I found several of the chicken pieces a little dry although they were well spiced and the sauces helped. Chapattis were also a little dry, the option to bend them around fillings as a wrap wasn’t at all possible. Tearing the softer pieces off and loading them with the other dishes worked well but I was more impressed with the samosas than the main dishes.
We also ordered the special dish of banana leaf wrapped and baked aubergine with cashew nuts (with pesky coconut). This was soft, sweet and unctuous aubergine stuffed with ground cashews. It was tasty but somewhat lacking in texture and needed more variety in the form of a crisp or crunchy counterpart. Perhaps the addition of some whole cashews would lift it and break up the softness.
Having dined out the night before, we were both feeling pretty full at this point so opted for a small dessert of gulab jamun, a small doughnut in a saffron and cardamom syrup with a glass of masala chai. The doughnut had a heavier texture compared to our Western versions but the syrup broke it down well and it was just the right size for that kick of sweetness at the end of a meal.
All in all, a good and satisfying meal. Personally, I’d have liked more oomph in the flavours but I understand I’m the exception rather than the norm. I’d definitely go back for those samosas!
We dined as guests of Thali, views remain entirely our own