Monday, 13 June 2016
Talli Joe, Covent Garden
There are good restaurants, and there are great restaurants, and there are influential restaurants. Restaurants whose style and individuality, and bold or unique take on a particular cuisine sets them leagues ahead of the pack, and whose identity and attitude becomes a template for countless others. I'm thinking about places like Polpo, who reinvented the wine bar with food for a generation that suddenly discovered sophisticated dining wasn't all about tablecloths and silver service and was for them, after all. Or MeatLiquor, who did for restaurants what punk did for music, matching a counter-cultural aesthetic with irresistable comfort food classics hitherto unseen at this standard in the UK. These places changed the way we eat - and not just in London; poke your head into any town in the country and see how many "burger & cocktail" shacks there are, or ciccheti joints serving Aperol Spritz.
If you've been keeping your foodie eyes and ears open you'll have noticed a number of Indian restaurants opening recently with certain features in common. There's Kricket in Brixton, which I honestly will get around to doing a proper review of as soon as possible because their food is seriously impressive. And Gunpowder in Brick Lane, another tiny, friendly space that's made a fan of anyone lucky enough to have eaten there. Both serve a selection of idiosyncratic Indian flavoured small dishes for not very much money, alongside craft beer and cocktails and served by warmly informal staff, and it's really not too difficult to spot their spiritual ancestor - Dishoom, which moved Indian food away from the High Street curry house, made it funky and fun and is now (quite understandably) spreading across London. There are now four of them, and they're all brilliant.
So who cares if the menu, and décor, and attitude at Talli Joe, on Shaftesbury Avenue, feels a little familiar? If you're going to be inspired by anyone you may as well start with one of the great London restaurant success stories, and as you'll hopefully see, Talli Joe are still offering a menu of remarkable inventiveness and variety, and a few things I've never seen anywhere else in town. For example, the idea of putting a fresh tomato/chilli mixture inside mini baked papadum cones, which look pretty and taste great (fresh and with a bright chilli kick); perhaps it's not the most revolutionary idea on the planet, but I've never had them before.
These were also new to me - "wafers" made out of raw Kerala banana, seasoned with citrus salt. A great snack, and though the banana itself didn't have a huge amount of flavour, the citrus salt was incredibly addictive.
"Rasam Shrimp Shot" was a shot glass of powerful tomato-chilli soup, and with a single large prawn on a cocktail stick. It was very nice, although perhaps £3 is quite a bit to pay for one prawn and 70ml of tomato juice, a theme that was to resurface...
I'm afraid I didn't much like the Talli Joe house pickles - they were too heavy on the vinegar and not sweet enough, and maybe a bit of colour variety would have been nice instead of just a small bowl of pink cauliflower topped with a single (and seemingly hardly pickled at all, just raw) green chilli.
The Talli Joe lamb chop is, unquestionably, a prime example of its kind. Soft pink flesh inside, encased in complex spicing and a good char from the tandoor, it was everything you'd hope for in a lamb chop. But is £5.50 too much to pay for what is barely more than a single mouthful of food? At Dishoom, £11.90 gets you three. Just sayin'.
The tandoori guinea fowl ("Junglee-Murhi Poha") was also excellent, and better value - a decent-sized bowl for £6.75 containing huge chunks of moist poultry. It's always good to see curries made from something other than the usual ingredients; the influence here is perhaps more Gymkhana (with their occasional game dishes) than Dishoom. Still, there's worse places to be influenced by than Gymkhana as well.
And maybe this bone marrow dish has another Sethi family restaurant - Hoppers - in mind? The bones themselves were expertly roasted and the marrow fell out in satisfying buttery chunks, but I'm afraid in comparison to the wonderful roti at Hoppers this rather dry bit of bread, resembling scrunched up paper and not tasting too dissimilar, suffered. Still, the little pot of curry that came with it was nice, and it's at least something that's still rather unusual to find on an Indian menu in London. So points for that.
Chicken 21 was superb; tender cubes of meat that had been cleverly fried to a crunchy casing, in a rich and rewarding spice. I loved every bit of it.
The only dud note - in fact the only main dish I didn't much enjoy out of everything I tried - was this Nepalese prawn salad, a daily special which contained too many very bitter leaves of radicchio for my liking. Still, one dish out of ten I wouldn't order again isn't a bad hit-rate is it?
And so, as you can hopefully tell, I liked Talli Joe. Yes, it wears its influences on its sleeve somewhat, but those influences are themselves so positive that the end result of cherry picking bits and pieces from Dishoom, Gymkhana, Hoppers and the like could only ever have turned out to be a success. Perhaps the prices are £1 or £2 more per dish than you'd ideally want but this is, after all, a large, modern restaurant in the middle of Covent Garden and in stark contrast to a lot of the other rubbish in that area at least you can see they're trying. And for that reason, and so many others (not least the fact it's 10 minutes walk from the office), I can see myself being a bit of a regular.
I doubt Talli Joe has done quite enough to make it into my 2017 top 100, but see where else did for 2016.