The rain lashed out at us with force and as we scrambled into Chai Thali, almost soaked to the bone, we were pleased to have a warm shelter to call our own. The rain began to subside and we were shown to our seats in a booth at the furthest corner of the restaurant, where the waiters smiled upon us with genuine happiness in their eyes. Despite the time of night, Chai Thali was only half full, which is in part due to its hidden location away from Camden High Street, but nevertheless me and G were grateful for the tranquil silence that reached our ears.
The decor was surprisingly bright and vivid, with lime green and yellow walls, creating a stark contrast to the rich jewel tones of Indian restaurants that I was accustomed to but nevertheless it was a welcome change that I admired. Bearing resemblance to the vivid street art that I coveted in the pinnacle of East London -‘Shoreditch’-, it almost occurred to me that Camden’s growing street art and graffiti scene could have quite easily influenced the interior design of this North London Indian Street Food Restaurant. Voted Best Indian Restaurant by Resident Magazine 2017 and with a host of other accolades to its name, we had high expectations for Chai Thali and believe me, we were not disappointed. Food was glistening with aromatic spices and vivid in flavour, while drinks were by no means meager and laced with enough alcohol to keep us ‘merry’.
The menu while ‘based on Indian Street Food’ was far better than the stalls I had seen in the nearby market. Citing three main influences- crowded streets in Old Delhi, the bustling metropolis of Mumbai and the glittering seashores of Kerala- as its main sources of inspiration, Chai Thali had steered away from the traditional Indo-British fare of ‘Tikka Masala’s and naan bread’ and instead had more original offerings like ‘Samosa Chaat’ and ‘Masala Wedges’ alongside house favourite mains like paneer makhni and Lamb Ki Chaampe. As a vegetarian, who had a meat eating guest, I was pleased to note that alongside traditional meat dishes like Saag Gosht (lamb marinated in Saag) there was a whole variety of vegetarian options including starters like Paani Poori ( wheat puffs filled with masala potatoes and served with sweet and sour tamarind shots).
To start we ordered the traditional ‘house poppadoms’ which were served with an array of chutneys including a ‘sweet mango’ , a cooling cucumber and mint raita that coated the poppadoms wonderfully, alongside a spicy mystery chutney, that had undertones of garam masala, chili and tomato. The chutneys were well flavoured, but it was the ‘real starters’ that truly whet our appetites. Wanting starters that were different to the ‘vegetable samosas’ we were used to ordering, we ordered starters that wouldn’t be seen amiss in Authentic Indian cuisine.
The ‘Bhaaji Pao Foundue was a welcome surprise; laced with undeniable flavour and served with extra spice as I had requested, inviting pieces of potato, green beans and croutons swam in a thick -but not cloying- spice sauce, while the masala wedges were the highlight of the night. Fried and tossed in chili masala, we bit into our wedges with pleasure, almost overcome with ecstasy. The skin of the wedges was crispy yet soft and the masala spice mix contrasted against the ‘softer starters’ of ‘Aloo Corn Tikka Chaat’ (potato and sweetcorn patties) and the Paapdi Chaat (crispy pastries with potato and chickpea) both of which were served with a generous helping of yogurt. But it was the chili paneer that had become a joint highlight with the masala wedges, although given my fondness for spice it was hardly a surprise.
For those who are new to Indian cuisine, paneer is at the core of many vegetarian dishes, as it is a fresh pressed cheese curd, with mild flavour, meaning that like quinoa -but far tastier- the humble paneer takes on the taste of the humble sauce that it procures. In this case the paneer -like the masala wedges- had been fried in chili masala and the end result was simply glorious. With the amount of spice that we had during our starters, it seemed only fair to tuck into our much milder ‘chaats’ ; although tinged with spice, the yogurt was cooling and proved a welcome respite to the spice of the other starters, while the pastries much to my delight were not coated in oil. Instead the samosa chaats were light, fluffy and had substantial samosa texture with the inclusion of fillings like sweetcorn and potato or potato and chickpea.
As the starters had set the tone for the rest of the evening, although almost stuffed, we were determined to plough through our mains. Much to my dismay, my favourite Indian main of a ‘Chickpea and Potato Curry’ was no longer available on the menu, so this gave me a chance to try something new which happened to be ‘jeera aloo’, a potato dish cooked with cumin, paired with the classic Pualo Rice cooked in saffron and tumeric. Not being a fan of ‘dry curries’ I had asked for extra sauce, although when the jeera had arrived it did not have as much sauce as I would have liked but nevertheless was a delicious main meal, while G chose Bhai’s lamb, a Punjabi ‘spring’ lamb dish cooked in a spicy gravy sauce, which she said was tender and almost melted in her mouth, although the spice was a bit too intense for her palette.
The starters was undoubtedly a stronger menu section than the mains, but nevertheless the mains were still well cooked, vivid in colour and beautifully presented like the other dishes we had been brought out. I would have probably changed my main to Paneer Makhini or Malaai Kofta (vegetable balls slow cooked in a creamy gravy) in hindsight, but the jeera aloo was still a great menu option for a vegetarian.
By this point we were ready to roll down the hill, we were so full but I was determined to sample one of the desserts to demonstrate the well rounded nature of Chai Thali’s menu. Indian ‘sweets’ often have a reputation for being ‘very sweet’ which in part is true for those who have tried Gulab Jamun (deep fried dough balls swimming in sugar syrup) but there are much more flavoursome options at Chali Thali, like the refreshing Kulfi (traditional Indian Ice Cream) or my favourite Rass Malaai (sugary white cream, or yellow-coloured (flattened) balls of chhana – cheese curd-soaked in malai and flavoured with cardamom). In this instance I settled for Mango Kulfi, which surprisingly was the best kulfi I had tasted, enriched with tropical mango flavour, while the balance between ‘creaminess’ and ‘juiciness’ was just right, creating the perfect dessert to end our beautiful night at Chai Thali. If I came again I would definitely try out the other desserts which had caught my eye which included the Gaajar Halwa (grated carrots slow cooked in sweet milk, served with vanilla ice cream and pistachios) and of course the infamous Mango Mousse Rass Malaai (Mango mousse flavoured with saffron & cardamom rass malaai served in a martini glass).
While I wasn’t keen on the alcoholic drink that I had sampled which was the ‘Incredible India’, I did fall in love with the pistachio lassi, which was almost as delicious as the mango lassi I would normally have with my Indian meal. The Incredible India was a gamble for me as I would normally choose a mojito but since I wanted to try something different I was intrigued by Incredible India’s Blue Curacao and fruit juice pairing. Made with Captain Morgan dark rum, Bacardi and Malibu, lychee, orange and pineapple juice were added to the cocktail mix, while coconut and pineapple garnish turned this cocktail into a summer drink. Despite its attractive ingredients I was not keen on the drink, although G’s Star Chaitini was much more to my taste with passionfruit liqueur and juice, Belvedere vodka and pineapple juice. However it was the Cardamom & Pistachio flavoured Lassi that won my heart. As someone who is somewhat of a connoisseur of ‘lassi’s’ I was pleased that it was not too thick, yet at the same time still had enough flavour to compliment the food. The pinch of cardamom laced with pistachio was rather delicious and whilst not as ‘sweet’ as a mango lassi, was a much better fit for the food that we had been munching on.
From the moment that we stepped into Chai Thali, to when we left, the service throughout our stay was impeccable. The manager welcomed us personally into the restaurant and even took the liberty of informing our waiters that I was a vegetarian. Not only were they kind and polite but the waiters and waitresses answered any questions that we had about the menu and even pointed out personal favourites that they thought we might like including the ‘masala wedges’ and the pistachio lassi, which they had got spot on.
Food Rating 8.5/10
Would I Come Again?
I am already planning my next visit!
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Please note me and G were invited as guests to have complimentary food and drinks at Chai Thali but all thoughts are my own and are not affected by complimentary services.