3rd November 2022: Tongi - Cottaging in the Bengals
Another review and another new opening in the south west. But, this time it's Balham, not Tooting, getting a curry upgrade. However, as is often the case, one's gain is another's loss, and this new addition replaces Thali & Pickles, a respectable, yet ultimately unfulfilling Balham tenant.
I am, of course, talking about Tongi, which joins Balham Social, Indian Room and others in what is now a pretty lively food scene.
Being in Balham, it would have been remiss not to visit a couple of boozers around our visit. This time joining me, first at the Hagen & Hyde and after at Firefly, were Alex, Dave, Pudding and Johannes, all with varying levels of blog experience to bring to the table.
Tongi lines up alongside the estate agents and bars on Balham Station Road, opposite the north east exit of the tube. This location is perhaps overlooked, and may explain Thali & Pickles' demise, but doesn't justify the loss of Cattle Grid a few years back (a personal favourite!).
As for Tongi, its street-front style follows the popular greige trend with the neutral grey paintjob continuing inside. This allows the striking floral decorations within to pop as they seemingly float like pink fluffy clouds around the restaurant ceiling. Similarly eyecatching are the wooden stencilled patterns that silhouette against the light from the bar and the tasteful ceiling lamps that equally contribute to a mood-lit atmosphere.
Also notable is the rather ornate glassware and the rather fancy cutlery, only so in contrast to the rather prosaic crockery and table dressing found in other local curry establishments. The exception to this would be nearby Balham Social from which Tongi has seemingly borrowed inspiration for its interior design.
Tongi apparently means cottage in Bengali and it's fair to say it's quite cosy inside. Space is at a premium, particularly for the staff who have to negotiate the narrow gaps between covers whilst at the same time watching they don't catch their heads on the rosey foliage.
On our vist, the place was full which contributed to a lively buzz, but also to a toasty and slightly claustrophobic vibe. More room needed perhaps, but in general it's a smart and tasteful little eatery and scores a 7 as a result.
Sides and Starters
2 x Poppadom Baskets
Black Pepper Prawn
Tandoori Lamb Chops
2 x Kasmiri Naan
3 x Pilau Rice
So, Tongi competes with Balham Social on style, but would the food match its neighbour's high standards? From the look of the menu, and with the same small plate and street food bent, the signs were positive. We chose four starters to follow a pair of poppadom baskets.
The mix of spicy and plain poppadoms were welcome, but the chutney portions were diminuitive to say the least. This was a trend that would continue into later dishes starting with the lamb chops that weren't the most plump nor lean, but still had a nice rub to them. Better were the black pepper prawns - roughly eight in number - juicy and coated in a sharp soy and crushed pepper sauce. However, these didn't quite reach the heights of similar shrimp sharers at Tooting's Hyderabadi Zaiqa and Dosa n Chutney. Likewise, the chole bature was relatively poor, certainly not a patch on the chana batura we tried at Tamil Prince in the summer. The poori bread was thicker, drier and less puffy that the best and the chickpea was undercooked. Disappointing.
The other two starters were the Bengal puchka and the keema pau. The puchka were pani puri style, crunchy sev globes filled with yoghurt, mashed potato, spice, and tamarind water to form a masala fuelled shot. With six included -three of two different flavours - these were a splash of colour and flavour to kick off proceedings properly. The highlight though was the keema pav, a real street food number in the form of buttered white bread rolls served alongside a bowl of delectably spiced lamb mince.
Finally, the naans. Served alongside the curries, these failed to register any real excitement and so don't help to raise the middling performance of the Starters and Sides here above a 6.
The first main to arrive was the rather odd looking dall tarka, served in a slim silver bucket. It was a little gloopy in consistency to add to its presentation woes and failed to excite. The prawn malabar didn't look too apetizing either, but its appearance belied a respectable take on a south Indian classic complete with large succulent king prawns. The bindi masala and lamb bhuna were also decent, the former with a nice caramelized crunch and glaze to the okra and onions within; the latter with all the tomato-richness and tender lamb of this British curry house favourite. All were on the smaller side, but meat portions were generous. The score may have been higher had the dall not let the side down, but it's still a steady 7 for mains here.
The service here was a little frenetic to begin with. Again, the cramped covers didn't help matters, and possibly contributed to our waiters slightly flustered mood and slightly terse conversation. I was also slightly disappointed to have to ask three times if the promised discount offered on the website would be applied, with a feeling of distrust of my word that we had indeed booked in advance.
Nevertheless, the dishes came in good time and the manager had a friendly word to say on our departure, so no hard feelings. Still, given I always give a 7 for uneventful service, it feels only fair to mark down a little on this occasion.
Value for Money
There is no BYOB here as in many places down the road in Tooting, but the £5 pints of Kingfisher on draught offer good value nonetheless. Other prices are competitive, the vegetarian dishes in particular, with starters ranging from £5-8 and mains from £7-14. Yes, some of the portion sizes are below average, but the general quality of food to price ratio is fair. A discount of 25% off food Monday to Thursday added an extra saving for us on this occasion and left us with a bill of around £35 per person including two pints and 10% service. Not bad, not bad at all.
Tongi is definitely worth checking out; not least whilst there is still such a good discount available.
The puchka and keema pav will offer something different for those looking to try something new, whilst solid takes on popular classics will satisfy the less adventurous. However, Tongi, is and will likely remain, in the shadow of Balham Social. Despite this, we enjoyed our visit and the variety of dishes on offer; the curries in particular seem worthy of further exploration.
In total though, it's just 33/50 which is a middling score, but hopefully not one to put you off, even if you go just for the £5 pints!
Address: Balham Station Rd, London SW12 9SG
Cuisine: Indian / Bengali
Alcohol Policy: Licensed
Summary: New restaurant in Balham replacing Thali and Pickles