Thali Indian and Thai: fresh and affordable in South Beach
Indian and Thai cuisines have little in common besides a steadfast reliance on rice and immense popularity with American diners. Most likely, the second similarity provided owner Denis Nazareth, of Mumbai, the impetus for opening Thali Indian & Thai Cuisine. And it looks like the move paid off: The South Beach venue's 48 seats get filled with a frequency that's surprising for a place that just opened in January.
Although the menu is densely populated with items from both namesake countries, most selections are Indian. We shied away from a mix-and-match strategy in favor of sampling one cuisine per visit — with the exception of supplementing our Thai meals with Indian breads. Whole-wheat roti and white nan — the latter plain or slathered with any of five toppings (garlic, onion, and the like) — were nicely blistered from the tandoor.
Samosas started us off in splendid fashion. The two cleanly fried pockets burst with mashed, spiced potatoes flecked with onions, peas, coriander, and tidbits of boiled potatoes. A smidgen of salad, along with two dips (tamarind and mint), decorates the $4.99 dish.
"Manchurian snacks" (a Calcutta byproduct of China's historical footprint) here translate to a grilled or fried rendering of tofu, cauliflower, chicken, fish, or shrimp doused in a mildly spicy soy-tomato-based masala sauce redolent of peppercorns and ginger. We loved the fried tofu treatment, which trotted out about a dozen crisply battered nuggets tossed in glossy brown gravy with onions, peppers, cilantro, and scallions.
The typical tikka masala, makhani, curry, korma, biryani, tandoori, and vindaloo categories of cooking are proffered, each available with protein of choice — chicken, fish, shrimp, or lamb (as well as vegetarian renditions of each). An appetizer portion of chicken tandoori featured a thigh and drumstick red and rife with seasonings, if lacking in sizzle and spark. Cucumber-yogurt raita on the side was typically refreshing, but the chicken wasn't piquant enough to require this traditional coolant.
Tender cubes of Goan lamb vindaloo, with peppers, onions, potato, chilies, and vinegar, are given a surprising cumin-dominant flavor. (An ice-cold beer would pair quite well with the assertive seasonings, but until Thali gets its liquor license, patrons are encouraged to bring their own booze.) The vindaloo too at first seemed excessively mild — until a certain heat crept up the throat like an infant fire-breathing dragon tentatively emerging from a cave. Still, if you like your Indian food spicy, it pays to request it so; the kitchen is glad to comply.
Servers are also an accommodating, well-intended bunch. Some were clearly more experienced and polished than others, but during busy times, even the adept waiters got bogged down from having too many stations to cover. Getting the check was an ordeal.
Service becomes more self-reliant during lunch hours, when a buffet replaces the à la carte menu. Included in the spread are a few each of vegetarian and chicken entrées, nan bread, rice, salad, and dessert. The price is $10.99 weekdays and $13.99 for a slightly more extensive layout Saturdays and Sundays.
The dosa, from southern India, is a fermented pancake made from rice flour and black urad lentils that gets rolled up with any of various fillings. Thali's dosas are so long they extend beyond the perimeter of the round serving tray. There are ten garnishes to choose from, including onion masala, mushroom cheese, and chicken tikka. The last dosa wrapped around slices of tandoor-baked, yogurt-and-spice-marinated chicken breast. It would have been a dry affair without an accompanying dipping sambar of lentil-vegetable dal and chutneys of tomato, mint, and a spellbinding coconut-chili.
Thali is named for a traditional means of small-plate dining found in western, central, and northwestern India. The foods are arranged in little bowls on a round tray and tend to include rice as the central component. Thali's prix fixe thali comes either vegetarian or not. The former ($13.99) delivers a mound of rice ringed by vegetable dishes (aloo jeera, channa masala, vegetable korma, and saag paneer), salad, wispy papadum wafers, nan bread, rice, raita, chutneys, pickles, and dessert. The meat version ($15.99) is set with chicken tikka and curry, lamb korma, vegetable curry, and dal tarka, along with the same side dishes.
The thali introduces many different tastes at an attractive price and thus provides a solid introductory sampling of menu items for guests visiting the restaurant for the first time. That said, if one of the chosen dishes really proves alluring, there probably isn't enough portioned to sate your fancy; two or three full entrée plates might in the long run be a heartier and more satisfying means of dining.
The Thai portion of the menu is in effect Tuesday through Sunday from 5 p.m. to closing. Tom yum soup boasted a hot-and-sour lemongrass-tinged broth brimming with cubes of tofu and bits of vegetables; the flavor gets further perked with lime juice, chili paste, ginger, and cilantro. Pa lo eggs and chicken wings constituted perhaps the most distinctive offering, and it was deliciously imbued with a potent cinnamon-star anise flavor. Alas, it seems I was one of the few to order it, because pa lo is no longer available.
Thai green curry sauce was the spiciest of those sampled. The vegetable version featured carrots, sweet potatoes, baby corn, eggplant, and bamboo shoots (rice gets served alongside these entrées). Strips of beef in massaman curry were thin and tough, but the dish otherwise pleased via a coconut-infused sauce, a sprinkling of chopped peanuts, and fresh sweet potatoes, carrots, peppers, and onions.
Though Thali's kitchen does not execute either cuisine with great panache, fans of Indian and Thai cooking should enjoy the fresh, reliable renditions and affordable prices — the menu tops out at $15. In other words, enjoy choosing between the two types of foods, but don't be too choosy.
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