thali

Chilli Pickle, Brighton

I’ve eaten quite a few thali in my time. Some in India, several in this country, and one in Magaluf when I was nineteen which resulted in me having sex behind the restaurant with a girl from an adjoining table. They have always interested me: the solar system of silver tins that make up the meal; the curries and the side dishes; the breads, the carbs, and the sweet. Whether sat on plastic chairs in an un-air conditioned room in Agonda or a room with broken air conditioning in Hall Green it’s always an occasion, even when they disappoint, which they mostly do. You see, getting a thali right is a skill that eludes pretty every Indian restaurant I have ever been to.

But I had high hopes for Chilli Pickle. Maybe it was the various titles they’ve picked up over the years, maybe it’s the bib from Michelin that recognises good quality cooking at fair prices, or likely it was the strong recommendation from Birmingham’s grumpiest chef (thanks Paul). Either way it seemed the right place for a late lunch.

Before we get on to that thali there are other dishes to first get through. I liked the masala poppad, though it is ultimately a very clever way of charging £2.60 for a pre-assembled poppadum with the tomato and onion salads. And then the tandoori chicken on supple naan bread that packs wave after wave of flavour. The chicken is cooked with skill, the marinade just catching in parts, all the sweetness leveled out by a salad that has been long thought out. The masala fries on the side are undercooked. It’s the only slip of the meal.

We make the upgrade to king thali and are rewarded with the best thali I have eaten outside of India. The railway chicken is packed with the heady notes of cardamon, cinnamon and garam masala, with slices of potato that have absorbed the best bits whilst slightly thickening the sauce. A tarka dhaal is restrained in spice with ideal texture. There are poppadoms and chapatis, a bright lime pickle, pickled red cabbage, sweet pear chutney, deceptively spicy beetroot chutney, the lightest of onion bhajis, too much rice, a savoury chickpea flour cake that Claire enjoyed more than I did, and gulab jaman properly soaked in maple syrup. Honestly if this was three hours closer in a car I’d gladly pay the sixteen quid to eat this once a week.

Dessert cocktails are my favourite type of dessert and here they range from a very successful cherry sour to a less than so old fashioned with dates, with a gin martini somewhere inbetween. The bill was about £70 (I was a bit pissed), a bargain given that we order too much to drink and far too much to eat, leaving us to saunter down to L’Atelier du Vin for more cocktails. Brighton is a wonderful city and our weekend had many other great highlights, though none as good as the thali here. I’d have no problem recommending Chilli Pickle to anyone. The place is a joy.

8/10

Raja Monkey, Hall Green

I’ll keep this post nice and short, just like Paul, my dining companion on this evening. Just last week, Michelin starred chef and fellow Moseleyite, Brad Carter, was interviewed by the Good Food Guide about his favourite places to eat in Birmingham, whereupon he stated that Raja Monkey was his ‘best place for dinner’. I’m going to stop there and call it quits. Brad has the palate of a fine artist, making mine look like etch-a-sketch in comparison. I’ll be honest, given the choice of Brad’s recommendation or reading my badly put together, slightly angry, and marginally tainted opinion, you should 100% switch off this crap, Google the piece I’m talking about and take his word about going. Do as he says. The End. It was a pleasure knowing you.

Still there? WHY?! Can you not take instruction? You are worse than my hamster. Should you want my opinion, I am going to echo that of Mr Moseley Michelin Man. Raja Monkey is a brilliant little place in a spot worth travelling to, occupying a little crevice in the Indian dining scene quite unlike anywhere else. They do curries and dosa, and all encompassing thali. It’s the spirit of roadside India, those cheap dinner stop-off joints filled with locals and stale, humid air. Here we are in Hall Green, opposite Waitrose, sat in deep leather booths whilst others wait for spaces to come available in a packed dining room. I’d much rather be here, if only for the air conditioning.

I was in love from the first mouthful. It was the lime pickle which got me, blood red and aggressive. It has acidity at the front, lingering heat at the back. It takes considerable effort and skill to make pickle this good, not buy it in a jar like ever other Indian restaurant in the city. The mango chutney, too, with a back note of clove and onion seed, was impressive. I use this to spoon into a dosa filled with potato, mustard seed and curry leaf. The savoury pancake is delicate, the filling generous. I really like the punchy tomato chutney, less so the coconut one. It is as good a dosa as I have eaten anywhere, India included. Opposite me Paul is destroying a mixed fish starter. I don’t try it so we’ll have to take his past career as Birmingham Mail’s food critic as word that it is good. If you’ve read his previous work I’ll leave that decision up to you.

I do get to try his Chicken Bhuna and when I say ‘try’ I really mean finish off the third that he has left and work the last of the sauce out of the crevices with a roti. The curry is drier in style than I expect, fragrant with garam masala, and rich with the base of onions took well past the point of colouring. It is special but nothing compared to my thali. Thali, for those who have fell upon this blog by mistake and still order chicken tikka masala, is a complete meal on a tray. The components within the little pots is changeable, but this has paratha for bread, rice, an onion and tomato salad that zings with light pickling liquor, a dhal, vegetable dish, and curry. My curry is a chicken korma, a dish that Brits have destroyed by labelling it as the not spicy option in the post-pub curry houses. This is how it should be; a gravy base not destroyed by coconut, comforting and perfumed by cardamom. The meat has taken on the curry flavour, a hard boiled egg adding further richness. I like it, but it is the vegetable dish that amazes me. Whoever can take red kidney beans and elevate them to a rich, smoky dish is a magician. I bet they have beanstalks in their back garden. I’d gladly sell my cow to get my hands on them.

We skip dessert because there is no room at the inn for any more. Paul picks up the bill and we finish off our beers and idle gossip. My dining companion is clearly a huge fan, but let’s be real about it, he has skin in the game. Me, I owe it nothing other than more frequent visits to eat all of the menu. And I will. Raja Monkey is but three miles from our home, conveniently over the road from where we like to shop. It’s too good to ignore, a true taste of the no-frills dining in India. It shakes its thang better than any of its kind in Birmingham. That bloke from Carters is right, but then I did tell you that right at the beginning.

9/10

I did not see the bill on this occasion.

Transport was provided by A2B Radio Cars. Download the app here; http://www.a2bradiocars.com