Great Places to Eat in Scotland
- Thali Indian Tapas, Albion Street, Glasgow
The Thali Indian restaurant is in the area of Glasgow known these days as the "Merchant City". Historically, this was an area of large mansion houses built in the days when Glasgow was pre-eminent in trade with the British colonies and the shrewd local merchants controlled a large percentage of the imports of tobacco into Europe, building fast ships to cover the shortest sea routes to Virginia and so maximise profits. In recent times, major investments have been made in the area, with many of the older buildings either demolished or converted into modern apartments or retail outlets. Thali is near the southern end of Albion Street, not far from the main thoroughfare of Trongate.
Many of the new retail units in this part of the city have become smart restaurants (the Merchant City's main Web site focuses on these, listing over 70 of them - and that is probably just the tip of the menu). Food styles on offer range from Scottish fare to Italian and Mexican, spiced with a fair number of restaurants with food based on the Indian sub-continent. Indian food is extremely popular in Glasgow, with the city having grown over the last 50 years from the first such restaurant to countless numbers today and competing each year as the "curry capital" of the UK - and being remarkably successful at winning the title on many occasions.
Despite having a modestly-sized frontage, Thali was easy to spot from some distance at 42 Albion Street, with a smart, bright modern facia which shines out even on a dull day, proclaiming "Authentic Indian Tapas" - rather a mix of ethnic terms but all becomes clear later.
The inside of Thali is something else again - long and narrow with subdued lighting and booths on one side and tables on the other (see also the illustration at the top of this page). Long strips of cloth billow across the ceiling. Initially, I wasn't sure about that low level of lighting, partly for the practical reason that I like to take photos of the food for these reviews, without using flash, and also because I subscribe to the idea that it's probably a bad sign if there's not enough light to see the food! But as my eyes grew accustomed to the well-thought-out positioning of lamps above each table, my reservations evaporated - and the camera coped too. We were told that the management, ever responsive to their customers' comments, were thinking of adding some more main lighting. Personally, I thought the present level added greatly to the ambience and went well with the other Indian design features and the ethnic music playing in the background. There are some Indian restaurants that choose not to have a décor that refers to the sub-continent at all. Others, like Thali, give you lashings of Eastern promise, making you feel like a maharajah!
The booths could comfortably accommodate six people and give four customers lots of space. A novel, attractive feature of each of these booths is an electronic picture frame cycling through Indian scenes, people and spices, sometimes accompanied by explanatory notes - plus occasional advertising for Thali, such us their special Christmas menu. Some folk may find it a bit distracting, but if the conversation starts to falter, there is always a ready prompt!
Thali has come up with a new formula to compete in this very competitive market place - by using the Hindi word "Thali" (meaning literally "plate") which is a selection of different main dishes, usually served in small bowls on a round tray. Thali platters and dishes can be made silver (for the rich) or brass, copper or stainless steel - or even washed banana leaves in South India. Thankfully, ours were the stainless steel variety.
While each person chooses their own dishes from the menu, they are encouraged to share what they have with their dining companions, meaning that everyone can try a good number of dishes. Each Thali comes with rice, plain Naan bread, salad and either Daal (spiced lentils) or homemade Raita (yoghurt). A glass of Nimbu pani (a refreshing, still lemon water with ice) also comes with the base Thali. You then choose a minimum of two "Katori" bowls from the huge selection on the menu. Easier said than done, of course, with the helpful, mouth-watering descriptions just making it more difficult to make a decision... It was just as well the attentive waiter provided us with a large plate of poppadoms and dips to eat while making our choice and gave us some helpful hints.
The choice of starter by my lunch companion (Scottish singer and entertainer Moira Kerr) was Aloo Tikka Chana by name - patties of mashed potato blended with herbs and spices, lightly fried and served with tangy sauces - see the illustration. When they said lightly fried, they really meant it, with just a delicate crisp coating before biting into that tasty filling. I can vouch for that as I was offered one to try!
My Hara Hara Kebab wasn't quite what I was expecting, with not a stick in sight (there are surprises galore at Thali). Instead, as per the menu, it was a parcel of spinach and potato smothered in chana daal (pulses stripped of their shells), paneer (a cheese indigenous to the Indian sub-continent), nuts and raisins decorated with spicy sauces. The attractively presented dish proved to be not only a delight to the eye but also to my taste buds which were clearly going to get a thorough work-out, even if my waist-line was going to suffer.
After a few more sips of that refreshing Nimbu pani, it was on to our selection of main courses. You can read the full list available on Thali's menu on their Web site (see link later). My choice was Kadhi (described as a house specialty of a creamy blend of yoghurt and turmeric, sautéed with spicy potato chunks) and prawn Malbari (marinated in coconut and simmered in red chilli and kokum sauce). While there was nothing particularly hot and spicy in any of these dishes, they proved to have plenty of delicate flavours to keep those taste buds still working away merrily. I had opted for yoghurt instead of lentils as part of the base Thali and on reflection that was probably not the best choice as of course it was not a hot dish. As I worked my way through the Kadhi and the prawns, I realised my rice portion was disappearing fast, but I needn't have worried - the waiter knew exactly the right moment to come up and offer another portion, which kept me going to the end. I sometimes wonder whether waiters give extra service because they know I am going to be writing a review, but I could see the same high standard being provided to other customers.
Moira had opted for Chicken Korma (mild and creamy) and Dal Makhani (made with black lentils simmered overnight in the tandoor with tomatoes and cream) all of which she pronounced as "delicious". I was able to confirm that the Chicken Korma was full of flavour and that the chicken was the melt in the mouth variety. While we had only selected two Katori dishes to add to the base, combined with the rice, fresh crunchy salad and the fresh Naan bread, the meal was already fully satisfying on its own. But the guide drawing (which can double as a place mat) with a total of four dishes is surely for those with very large appetites.
But I always like to try out the desserts - for the purposes of being able to comment in the review, you understand... So I persuaded Moira to share a plate of Indian Dessert Thali consisting of a selection of traditional Indian sweets including Jelabi (crunchy saffron and sugar filaments), Rasgula (made from balls of chhena (a crumbly and moist form of Indian cottage cheese) and semolina dough, cooked in sugar syrup). And a number of Burfis (made from condensed milk cooked with sugar). Actually, at first sight it looked almost like a traditional cheese platter, but they were all indeed deliciously sweet, a great contrast to the spicier earlier courses. They all rapidly disappeared - maybe we should have had a plate each!
After all the extravaganza of flavours during the meal it was almost boring to have an "After Eight" mint chocolate with the coffee!
Contact www.thaliglasgow.com for current menu and prices.
Thali is at 42 Albion Street. Telephone reservations can be made on 0141 552 8332. Thali's Web site is at www.thaliglasgow.com. Hours of opening are 5pm to 11pm on Monday (no lunchtime opening that day), 12 noon to 2.30pm and 5pm to 11pm on Tuesday to Thursday; noon to 2am on Friday and Saturday and 2pm to 11pm on Sunday. You can also find Thali's location on Google Maps.
We thoroughly enjoyed the ambience at Thali and the food was a delight to the eye as well as to taste. Service is helpful, informative and attentive. Prices are very reasonable (I hope that doesn't encourage the management to put them up) and the ability to choose individual dishes while at the same time being able to share the selection made by others widens your taste experience. Though not a vegetarian myself, it was nevertheless good to see the wide selection of meat-free dishes (my daughter will be pleased about that). The true test of any restaurant review is to feel that you want to go back and have another meal there and there is no doubt that the answer to that as far as Thali is concerned is a resounding "yes". And the next time I'll make sure to have a plate of Dessert Thali all to myself!
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