Address: 19 Mandela Street, London, NW1 0DU
Cuisine: Indian small plates
Alcohol Policy: Licensed
Summary: Modern, small plate Indian restaurant with a good range of tasty dishes.
This was the tenth meal together for the old work crew and the first since March. With a disappointing last outing at the hands of the Famous Curry Bazaar in Brick Lane, it was time to up the game.
On this occasion, Spellins was instrumental in bringing us back to Camden after a previous visit to the Camden Tandoori in 2018. Camden's convenience for him getting home has been noted, but not chastised...yet. In any case, selectors are judged on the food and so far only Pete has dramatically let us down in that respect with his choice of Gandhi's in Kennington (lest we forget).
This time it was a strong turnout with only Dan not making it along. Would the choice of Chai Thali on Mandela Street emancipate us from the shackles of our Brick Lane experience or be more hard labour? After a few jars at the Draft House it was time to find out.
Chai Thali is tucked away from the bustle of busy central Camden. It's found on the rather quiet, Mandela Street, renamed from Selous Street in 1985 after the exiled Anti-Apartheid Movement had its headquarters here during the 1960s. The restaurant itself is similarly low key from outside, situated in an old warehouse-style building. Despite colourful signs you'd be hard pressed to notice the entrance amidst the high, old-brick exterior from further down the street.
Once inside, the industrial vibe continues albeit with modern touches. High ceilings, exposed ducting and edison bulbs hanging from long orange and green wires are complemented by colourful borders and cushions. Likewise, the spacious dining area is dominated by a large orange and green Union Jack on one wall whilst various tables and booths offer an ample range of seating. Further textures are added by wooden and patterned-tile floors, Bollywood-style posters and ceiling high murals. All told it's a clean, contemporary restaurant space that has room for large groups and smaller parties alike. A little off the beaten track, a little functional, but certainly pleasant and stylish it's worthy of a 7 out of 10.
Starters and sides
Papad Basket x 2
Mixed Pakoras x 2
Punjabi Samosa x 2
Lamb Ki Chammpe x 2
Murg Tirange Tikka x 2
The menu at Chai Thali has a great selection of chaat and tandoor small plates from which we chose a good few. No sooner had we ordered them when a swarm of waiters delivered them all at lightning pace. The service was so aggressive it made sampling and making notes a challenge; I was more frantic than a fact checker at a Boris Johnson press conference. I didn't even get a look in on the samosa but managed to get a taste of the rest.
Opening proceedings were the papad baskets that were met by much chagrin from Charlie on account of their risible, £2 coin size. At least these poppadom mini-discs had great flavour, but it took Charlie a good week to get over them (if in fact he is). Fortunately many of the other starters came in more sizeable, sharing portions, most notably the chili paneer, calamari and mixed pakora. All three were cooked perfectly and come highly recommended. The paneer was some of the best we've had with lovely chilli and garlic flavours while the vegetable pakora - a mix of deep fried potato, onion and spinach weren't too greasy. The calamari batter was similarly light with a delicious lemon zing, however, the kurkuri bhindi (fried okra) was over done and didn't compare with other similar offerings from the likes of Soho Wala or Little Kolkata. The further lamb chops (lamb ki chaampe) were tasty, but not the best while the chicken tikka (murg tiranga tikka) that came in three flavours were colourful in appearance only.
Alongside our mains we had a number of breads that came served in strange frying baskets that seem to be on trend if a little unnecessary. All four breads - the laccha paratha, buttered naan, garlic naan and kulcha - were nicely done, offering a range of textures from the onion topped kulcha to the doughy buttery-ness of the paratha and buttered naan.
All in all, there are definitely some top starters to be found at Chai Thali and the choice available is commendable, but it's fair to say that others are underwhelming. For a mixed bag, it's a 7 out of 10.
Subzi Aur Paneer Ki Biryani
Kerala Fish Curry
For mains it was another good spread but, once again, Charlie was left reeling by the curry sizes. In fairness they were on the smaller side, but not pathetic. More than likely, he was still fuming about the poppadoms which had clearly upset some of the others too. After all, who dares deny Wakey his chance to shine with some poppadom artwork or Jack his usual poppadom pleasure - there's a limit to what can be achieved with 3-inches; a real tragedy.
Despite their diminutive size a couple of the curries really punched above their weight. The aubergine, baingan bharta was a lovely babaganoush-style dish - mushy, but light and with a healthy infusion of garlic. The Kerala fish curry was equally excellent with a really rich and authentic, tomato, onion, coconut, mustard seed, curry leaf and tamarind blend. The other two meat curries, the Bhai's lamb and dhaaba murg were a little more nondescript whilst the potato, jeera aloo stood out from the rather consistent aesthetic of the other curries with whole new potatoes coated in a cumin and coriander sauce. The sauce for the biryani was also noteworthy, but ultimately masked the rather average and overpriced rice dishes it accompanied.
With some real crowd pleasers amongst another assortment of plates of varying quality it's a 7 out of 10 for Curry.
Things didn't get off to a good start with one waiter spilling a beer and the Cobra being quite flat and warmish anyway. This lager lament was soon compounded by the absence of any decent napkins and then we had the aforementioned lightning quick starter service that was more manic than Paul O'Connell in a British Lions drink off. Fortunately a lovely smiley waitress picked up the pieces with some very friendly service, but the damage had been done early. With a couple of incidents it's a point off the usual 7 for standard service.
Value for money
As with most small plates venues the value equation is a little weak. With seven lads there were some economies of scale, but we weren't exactly left full either. As highlighted, many of the dishes are well worth paying for, but others leave a little to be desired for their price. With a relatively high price overall and a few elements letting the side down it's only a 6 out of 10 for VFM.
Whilst we had a lot of fun, the overall experience at Chai Thali was a little shy of others had elsewhere. Chai Thali is still worth a visit both on account of a few stand out dishes, most notably the fish curry and chilli paneer, and as other local options don't quite pass muster. It also compares favourably to other similar small plate restaurants like Soho Wala and Little Kolkata. However, as with those, things are a little hit and miss meaning prices can seem relatively high. In summary, it's a mid-table score of 34 out of 50.