I'm from the Midlands. Leicester to be specific. And I've grown up eating really good curry. It's one of my favourite cuisines and with Leicester being home to the third largest Hindu population in the UK its no surprise that there is some incredible food to be had all over the county.
The Thali Cafe is a bit of an institution in Bristol and with five locations around the city each with a distinctive bright and colourful look. The company has a great back story - starting life working the festival food scene before setting up in Bristol. Double ticks from me - not only do they use sustainable and locally sourced produce, they also work hard alongside local charity Frank Water to raise money to supply safe drinking water to the people who need it most in India.
We visited their original site up in Montpelier (a stone's throw from where we live) and as we walked towards it, the building almost glowed with the last few rays of the spring sun. It really did look welcoming. Inside, it's full of quirky character - ugh my apologies for using the word quirky - with old school Bollywood adverts on brightly coloured walls and rustic but comfortable seating split across two areas.
To start we went for a round of the Thali Gin & Tonic - Bombay Dry gin with homemade tonic and grapefruit and cucumber garnish. Slightly bitter, different a usual G&T but totally delicious. Standard procedure - we ordered poppadoms and pickles to snack on whilst we waited for our mains. I was really pleased to see some refreshingly different pickles in there - coriander coconut, tomato tamarind, mango chilli, coconut and ginger. No raw onion and coriander in sight!
As the name suggests - these guys specialises in thali - a selection of dishes served together on one place. Although thali differs across each region in India, it is usually served in these stainless steel dishes. Between us we ordered the Southern Thali (Goan fish curry with pollack in a coconut and hokum sauce), the Northern Thali (paneer in a creamy spinach sauce) and, from the grill section; Paneer Shish Kebab (unsalted white cheese chargrilled in a sticky mango marinade).
The thali dishes come with basmati rice, mooli salad, dhal and chutney. The grill dishes come with Keralan thoran (a basic vegetable curry), naan, pomegranate raita, mooli and a leaf salad. This means (in theory) you don't need to order any sides. That said, we also ordered a Masala Dosa (rice pancake filled with pea and potato served with tangy sambar lentils and coconut chutney).
Moving onto the main event - I had the fish and it was delicious. I was thinking I'd compare it to the excellent fish thali I ate at Raja Monkey in Birmingham but actually it was completely different. This was done in a light batter, big meaty chunks covered in lightly spiced curry and lashings of coriander. The fish at Raja Monkey was equally delicious but done in a different drier style. And oh wow, that paneer from the grill was incredible. I'm relatively new to paneer and this was by far the best I've tried. Creamy but with a crust from the grill. Delicious. Sadly, Patrick didn't share much though. We need to talk about that.
Dave went for the northern thali - with a creamy paneer spinach curry. It was quite mild on the spice scale and he usually likes something with some heat but it was honestly delicious just as it was. We all loved the dhal which accompanied the thalis too - but then I'm a sucker for dhal. I like how it can vary from place to place, from very thin and soup-like to a thick and chunky meal in its own right.
I think it's pretty clear that I enjoyed The Thali Cafe.
Hell, I loved it - the service was friendly and unobtrusive, the decor was cool and the food was delicious. The last thing I need to talk to you about is the tiffin takeaway service. Maybe it's something unique to Bristol but I was flabbergasted (yes, flabbergasted) to see, on a Tuesday night, 7 to 8 people walking in to collect takeaways in their Thali tiffin tins! We'll be purchasing one for sure - at £27.50 the tins come with the curry and after that, you bring your own tins and they fill them for you from their tiffin menu. Genius.
Find them on instagram and twitter.
Or visit in person: 12 York Road, Montpelier, Bristol. BS6 5QE (map)