Read my take on the culinary offerings of Camden’s newest street food joint, Chai Thali.
AA Gill once wrote that food tastes better when you queue in the rain for it. I may not have queued for a table at Chai Thali – in fact my table was the only full one in the restaurant – but I did run through near-torrential rain to reach it. Were it situated just five minutes west of the yuppie-haven in which it resides, it would be smack bang in the middle of Camden High Street, and much better for it. A restaurant of this size (spacious), price (mid-range) and décor (explosive Indian colours by way of Shoreditch) would do well with the legions of tourists and locals that tread the high street every day looking for a place to rest their bums and fill their mouths. Our waiter assured me that it is normally full to bursting, especially at lunchtime when the workers come out to play, but somehow I remain doubtful.
That said, the location is the main downside. Once I stepped inside, the rain could have been miles away, as the friendly hospitality warmed my hungry soul. The waiting staff were attentive and chatty, happy to make recommendations and proud to show us the Maharaja Private Dining Room and the cosy booths named after Indian cities.
Chai Thali, which opened a mere fortnight ago, has an expansive and at times exquisite menu. You can whet your palette with the mini papad basket, before moving on to small plates. A nod to the food world’s on-going fetish for serving every cuisine in tapas form, the small plates offer a casual start to the meal and would be ideal for groups of three or four. A firm favourite was the Paapdi Chaat, a much-needed palette cleanser after the slow-burning heat of the chutneys served with the papad. The Maharaja prawns also went down well: one of the more extravagant dishes on the menu but a hearty serving packed full of flavour – the crown jewel of this street food feast.
Moving on to the main dishes, there was one that stood out by a mile. Whilst the generous biryani and succulent tandoor meats were solid choices, the star was easily the Maa Ki Daal. Black gram lentils, chana daal and kidney beans combine to give a rich, earthy flavour. I would happily have taken this home in a doggie bag (and was tempted to ask).
The generosity of portions carried over to the bar, as the signature cocktails were by no means watered down. The ‘Himalayan Sharbat’ – a cherry and brandy concoction – is enough to make you shiver, and the ‘Mumbai Madness’ sounded so dauntingly strong that I couldn’t bring myself to try one. For those seeking a quieter meal, the ‘Chai Thali Mary’ packs a punch with spice instead of strength, and would make a lovely after-dinner tipple in place of dessert. If you’re looking for a cocktail to carry you through the meal, give the ‘Goan Bay’ a go. The watermelon base makes this a refreshing palette-cleanser for between courses.
Chai Thali has serious potential as an alternative to chains like Wagamama and Pizza Express that dominate the mid-range restaurant scene. Certain dishes – particularly the white chocolate samosa and the bulk of the lunch menu – are perhaps overly anglicised. I’m all for making a menu more marketable, but the authenticity of Subway-style parantha rolls and breaded prawns with chilli mayo dip is questionable at best. But overall, the food is good without detracting from the conversation and the atmosphere (even when empty) is a pleasant one. Price-wise, you could easily enjoy a meal for two with cocktails for £40, but if you wanted to go all-out, the opportunity is there. Even better? Their lunches, however westernised, come in at around the £5 mark, making this a perfect quick fix for that midday hunger. And, who knows, maybe the lunchtime rush really is where the hubbub hits.