Makhan Singh, chef-owner of Thali of India, has traveled an interesting road. Originally a food inspector from Punjab in northern India, he spent time in an Italian restaurant in Germany before coming to New York City. There, he worked in Indian restaurants, eventually winning a prize in a Glastonbury, Connecticut, food competition for his chicken makhani. In 2001, wanting to be closer to relatives in Toronto, he decided to move here.
Much of the food at Indian restaurants in America comes from Punjab. The clay oven called a tandoor is Punjabi, and dishes like seekh kebab and the bread called naan, are cooked in it. These are perfectly fine choices at Thali of India, but what I really enjoyed about the menu was its variety. From Kerala in the South, there is black peppercorn chicken; maacher jhol is a fish dish featuring the strong mustard flavor of Bengal, to the East; tiny, coastal Goa is the source for chicken xacutti; and poori appetizers hail from western metropolis of Mumbai (Bombay). India is dizzyingly diverse, and it's exciting to experience a broader slice of its culinary spectrum.
Among the appetizers, bhel poori is a Mumbai specialty ($2.95). Indians love combinations of crisp and mushy, which this exemplifies, with crisp, puffed rice tossed with onion, tomatoes, herbs, and tamarind and cilantro chutneys. Papdi bhalla chaat is another example, with crunchy wafers and potato in cool yogurt and sweet tamarind chutney ($2.95). Vegetable samosas will be familiar to many, and Singh's are excellent, with light pastry on the outside, delicately-spiced, and not dried out (two for $2.95).
Reshmi kebab is marinated, skewered chicken, miraculously tender and tantalizingly flavored with lime, cream cheese, and saffron ($4.50). Like most dishes at Thali of India, it had great subtlety, inviting much speculation about seasoning. Cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey claims that Indians are exposed to more combinations of flavors than anyone in the world; it's hard to argue.
Tandoori dishes range from simple chicken ($10.95), to the classic, minced-meat seekh kebab ($12.95), or even lamb chops ($16.95). All are marinated "in exotic spices" and then broiled at 800 degrees in the tandoor. The mixed tandoori grill gives you three chicken dishes, seekh kebab, tandoori shrimp, and lamb kebab with a side of curry for $17.95.
Among the chicken dishes, there is that award-winning makhani, which is on all the local Indian buffets, but is different here. Pieces of tender chicken sit in a rich, creamed-tomato sauce, sweetened with honey ($10.95). Chicken dansak is more unusual, a Persian dish with crunchy lentils in yogurt sauce ($10.95). For Ramones fans, there is, of course, the fiery Portuguese-influenced classic, chicken vindaloo ($10.95). And that Goan dish, chicken xacutti, was unbelievable, with a sauce made from roasted coconut, red chilies, curry leaves, cumin, coriander, and peppercorns ($10.95). It reminded me of non-vegetarian fare from the South of India.
Vegetarians will find many choices, most for $9.95: various lentil dishes, mixed vegetables, dishes featuring vegetable dumplings (kofta), and others with fresh farmers cheese (paneer). Aloo gobi, potatoes and onions cooked with onion, ginger, garlic, tomato, and spices, remained dry, with flavors infusing the potatoes in unimaginable ways. Paneer akbari features the farmers cheese in sauce akin to makhani. Don't look for tofu in Indian vegetarian food; you're much more likely to find the mild paneer serving as texture and protein.
Balti dishes, developed by Indians living in the United Kingdom, are cooked in wine with onion, bell pepper, and tomato; spiced with cumin, coriander, clove, garlic, and asafoetida; then served in a V-shaped metal dish called a "balti." We tried the lamb, shrimp, and mushroom version ($14.95), an Indian-spiced version of a Western, wine-and-onion-based stew. Singh is proud to have the only local restaurant serving balti specialties.
Try eating your meal with bread rather than rice. There are unleavened roti cooked on a griddle ($1.50) or in the tandoor ($1.75); layered, whole-wheat paratha ($2.25); and the puffed, deep-fried Punjabi bread called bhature ($3.90). Americans often associate naan, the soft, leavened, white flour bread cooked in the tandoor, with Indian food. In fact, Indians rarely eat naan, but it is delicious and rich ($1.95). Many of the breads also come in stuffed versions like onion kulcha (onion and cilantro in naan, $2.50), or aloo (potato) and cheese paratha ($3.95). If you can't decide, get the assorted basket ($7.95).
Thali of India offers a diverse list of beer and wine, and the usual assortment of Indian drinks: masala tea, mango juice, and sweet or salted lassi (yogurt drink). Try giving your kid a mango lassi ($2.95). For dessert, gulab jamum is a classic --- fried balls made from khoya, a curdled milk concentrate, soaked in aromatic syrup ($2.75). There are also several homemade kulfis (Indian ice cream), including mango and coconut. I was very sad that they were out of gajar ka halwa ($3.50), a sinful confection made with creamy milk, cardamom, nuts, and carrot.
Thali is a South Indian term for a meal with bits of many things that come in a large platter with various compartments. You can get both vegetarian ($11.95) and non-vegetarian ($14.95) thalis, which allow you to try several dishes without breaking the bank. Of course, you can accomplish the same thing by coming with a group and ordering many things.
Like other local Indian joints, Thali of India has a daily lunch buffet ($6.99, $7.99 on weekends). Again, though, there is a bit more variety here than at the competition. Try the Punjabi chana-bhatura, spicy chickpeas served with a deep-fried, leavened bread. Fried, stuffed slices of bitter melon are at the extreme edge of the taste spectrum, but a little is outstanding. And on Sundays, the buffet goes South, with masala dosais (thin, stuffed, rice and lentil pancakes), sambar (spicy soup/dip), iddly (steamed lentil and rice dumplings), and various chutneys. Sometimes, you might get lucky and find pani puri, the wonderful "water balls" of Indian street vendors.
It's not like we're deprived of Indian food here. The Raj Mahal and the India House are both very good. But Thali of India is a fabulous addition. The menu has unique breadth, and Singh's subtle touch is wondrous. The service is simply excellent, friendly, even funny, and water glasses stay full. The restaurant is slightly cramped, but Singh is hoping to expand. I'm guessing he'll need to.
Thali of India, 3259 South Winton Road, 427-8030. Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; lunch buffet 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Checking out interesting restaurants and meeting new people are the priorities for the new Tuesday Night Supper Club. The first dinner will be Tuesday (of course), February 4, at 6:30 p.m. at the Daisy Flour Mill ($30 inclusive). The tentative schedule includes Pearl on February 18, Beale Street on March 4, and more every other Tuesday. Guest passes are available, and membership is $29.92 for individuals, $49.94 for couples. For details, call Kerry Gleason at 785-4600 or visit www.rochesterdiningclub.com/next.htm.
--- Michael Warren Thomas
Tune in Michael on Saturdays for gardening, restaurants, and travel (9 a.m. to noon); and on Sundays for antiques and wine (10 a.m. to noon) on WYSL 1040 AM. Listen live on the web at www.SavorLife.com.