Prasad Chirnomula has never been one to follow tradition. While his father, himself a physician, wanted Chirnomula to pursue a degree in medicine, he chose instead to operate in the kitchen. From this decision emerges Thali, Executive Chef Chinomula’s upscale restaurant and the latest addition to New Haven’s culinary scene.
Like Chirnomula himself, Thali’s food detours from a more set route, approaching Indian cuisine in an often unconventional manner. Drawing influence from a variety of India’s regional styles, Chirnomula infuses traditional dishes with novel touches, making for a dining experience both familiar and refreshing, if occasionally confusing.
When we arrived at Thali late on a recent Monday night, the restaurant was surprisingly crowded; fortunately, we had no trouble getting a table, even without a reservation. Our server, Bruce, ushered us through one of the three main dining areas in the sprawling space, which includes a bar with a TV as well as a private room. The general decor was a bit of a hodge-podge, a not entirely unpleasant combination of Indian tapestries, retro colored lights and terra-cotta floors (which we suspect are vestiges of the building’s previous tenant, an Italian restaurant). Neither as elaborate as Zaroka nor as kitschy as Tandoor, Thali brings a more hip feel to the local Indian circuit.
Thali offers a drink menu of cocktails, themselves riffs on standard offerings, such as the Thali Mary ($7), the Mumbai Collins ($8) and the Tajmopolitan Martini ($7). While the Hyderabadi Cocktail ($8), a mix of lime vodka, cucumber/honeydew puree and mint, is oddly savory and refreshing, the queen bee is undoubtedly the Mojito ($11), an inexplicably enormous drink large enough to mother several Bubbly Bangalores ($8 each) and Calcutta Coolers ($7 each). When all efforts to lift the monstrous drink for a simple one-handed toast proved futile, Bruce knowingly explained, “We do things in extreme.”
While the drink was indeed excessive, the presentation of the food itself was refined and elegant, utilizing pristine white plates and artful, restrained composition that reflect Thali’s trendy aspirations. The food itself paralleled this forward-thinking approach — while it could not properly be called fusion, the menu drew on surprising ingredients such as cilantro and pomegranate, and incorporated delightfully hip terminology such as “tempered” and “emulsion.”
The small plates (read: appetizers) range in price from $4 for a traditional samosa to $13 for Konkan, a crab dish cooked with ginger, mustard seeds, green chilies and coconut. The Pathar Ka Ghosht ($12), lamb slices grilled on a stone slab, were grilled simply but impeccably for a smoky and tender effect. Among the surprisingly numerous seafood offerings, the Tikki ($11), crab and scallion patties infused with garam masala, were tasty but standard, as the garam masala sauce did little to elevate the Tikki above typical crabcake fare.
For entrees, which ranged in price from $14 to $29, Bruce recommended the “My Mother’s” Hyderabadi Ghosht Banjara ($19), goat on the bone cooked in pounded spices. The meat was moist and flavorful, although the taste relied perhaps too heavily on cinnamon. While this dish was strong, even more successful was a special, Fish Hara Masala ($24), halibut in simmered coconut cilantro sauce. Each element was distinct yet balanced, and the sauce complemented the expertly prepared fish rather than overwhelming it. The menu also has many vegetarian dishes, including the Paneer Sabji Jalfraize ($14), a stir fry of paneer cheese and cut vegetables, which was spicy and hearty.
Thali employs a consulting pastry chef, Surbhi Sahni, which may explain the high quality and range of dessert options available. We tried the Banana Samosa and Chocolate ($7) and the Payasam ($7). The banana samosa had a surprisingly delicate pastry shell, and the payasam — a South Indian-style milk pudding with candied almond brittle — replaced rice with vermicelli noodles to make for a pleasantly intriguing texture.
We paid heavily for the pleasure of dining at Thali, where prices may strain a student budget. Do not be dissuaded from making the trip down Orange Street, however: Thali is well worth a try, particularly its more unusual ventures — that which may not be found at your average Indian restaurant. In addition, the exceptionally attentive and friendly service lessens the pecuniary blow. Also, Thali offers a Sunday brunch from noon to 2:30, where the same tastes may be had for a more reasonable sum.
That Thali’s location is slightly off the beaten track is apropros; the establishment’s unique offerings veer from tradition, and the cultured epicurean would benefit to experience them. The restaurant’s consistently solid menu should ensure Chef Chinomula a place among the Elm City’s more distinguished eateries. So while Tandoor and Zaroka can still satiate the normal Indian cravings, Thali should be reserved as a sporadic, but enjoyable, treat.