When Chefs Warehouse & Canteen first opened, it offered something slightly new: outstanding, fine-dining quality food presented in a thoroughly laid-back way – no reservations; no fussy service. It turned out to work very well for Capetonians. Now maestro Liam Tomlin has recreated that experience with an Indian lilt in Gardens.
Thali, the beautiful result, opened up in the old Takumi space on Park Road, Cape Town, this week. They don’t take bookings, so Eat Out online editor Katharine Jacobs set out in the early evening to ensure she got a table.
Serves: Indian tapas
Parking: Make peace with it and just park in the Lifestyle Centre right next door
Price: Tapas for two features eight dishes for R650, wine by the glass is around the R50 mark, and puddings go for between R70 and R95
Star ratings: Food 4, ambience 5, service 4
The Thali menu is brief: there’s no à la carte option, only tapas for two (R650). We consent, and the show begins.
It kicks off beautifully with chaat, which is designed to replicate the kind of street-food snack served in India. We tuck into a pile of crisp, perfect poppadoms, dipping them into the little cup of spiced potato and chickpeas. My partner – an architect – has complaints about the structural integrity of the poppadoms, but when we do manage to scoop some up, the curry is sweet and delicate.
Next up, a little smoking golden chimney arrives on our table. Inside is tender, succulent tandoori chicken and a skewer wrapped in minced lamb. Right after that arrives a golden platter with little rashers of tempura pork belly, spiced with a dry rub and served on a sweet-and-sour ginger-tamarind sauce, as well as a fish dish with a tangy pickled flavour. There are little bowls of sauces, too: a really great raita, and something else whose details I forget. It’s all a lot to take in – in my excitement, I manage to lose half the tandoori meat off its skewer. It goes tumbling into the mini oven, and I carefully extricate it and dust off some coals. Fortunately the slightly smoky flavour enhances the dish.
The flavours thus far have all been on the mild side of mild. Two little bowls, one of a delicious spice salt and one of a hotter spice paste, remain on our table the whole time, with the idea that you spice to your own taste.
From here, we progress to the vegetarian course, a beautiful black dhal with tender, perfectly cooked lentils, and a glorious tandoori cauliflower dish with smoky seared cauli steaks, sweet cauliflower purée, and a dusting of coconut and cashews for texture and nuance. Very clever.
The last course of the tapas for two is two beautiful curries: a golden lamb curry spiked with turmeric, ginger and strings of saffron, and a chicken version in a beautiful thick, pesto-like coriander-mint sauce. This last is the highlight for me: it’s the only dish to carry any real heat without our intervention, and the richness of the flavour in the sauce is all I’d hoped for.
Before dessert comes another highlight: two little syrup-soaked cardamom doughnut balls, (gulab jamun), which we sprinkle with coconut and those bright, sweet spice balls. They are magnificently sweet and beautifully spiced.
We also try the ginger-roasted pineapple pud, with a tasty spiced piece of the fruit, a powerfully chai-flavoured chocolate mousse, and some coconut ice cream (which is slightly lacking in coconutty flavour.) The winner, however, is the posset – Liam Tomlin’s lemon posset at Chefs Warehouse is a personal favourite – and this version, made with lime and cardamom is silkily irresistible.
All in all, it’s quite a whirlwind meal. I do feel at the end that I’ve somehow missed out on the spice. I find myself forgetting to add the heat from the bowl on the table, and then missing it. (It can be hard to hold up your end of the conversation while spicing four dishes simultaneously, photographing, and taking surreptitious notes – so perhaps that’s my fault!) I do see the value in making the dishes accessible, but can’t help but think the baseline of heat could increase a smidge. Then again, the chilli-fearing architect is perfectly happy. So perhaps there’s something to be said for a choose-your-own-adventure style.
The wine list is quite extensive, with a great range of options by the glass. It’s also helpfully categorised for heat level, so you can pair your own wine for your desired chilli strength – from Alphabetical Red or medium-bodied chenins for milder dishes, to Paul Kluver gewürztraminer and Hartenberg Riesling for hotter dishes. There’s also a great mango lassi on offer.
Considering that we’re here on day two, the service is very good. The food comes out swiftly and, for the most part, staff are well informed.
The old Takumi space has been beautifully remodelled. Exposed brickwork, wooden floors and tables built from parquet keep things tasteful. There are pops of jewel-coloured blue and green – in small details like beautiful lanterns and inlaid tables outside – and stunning menus etched with patterning add some Indian flavour in a tasteful way.
Crockery, from beautiful porcelain bowls to the array of gold trays (there’s even a little golden teapot for tap water), is a feature all of its own, really adding to the experience – and your Instagram photos.
The outdoor area has been opened up a little, and will be beautiful on hot summer evenings.
Have you been to Thali on Park Street yet? Write a quick review to put Thali in the running for the Indian category of next year’s Best Everyday Eateries. Also, for each review posted by a reader, Eat Out pledges a meal for a hungry child through Stop Hunger Now SA. Write a review now.
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5 December 2016: This article was edited to remove the name Sheldon Raju, who is no longer associated with the restaurant.