We’re not one’s to usually choose to dine on or anywhere near Shaftesbury Avenue. The closest in proximity we like to get is Old Compton Street and ideally nowhere closer. But word started to creep out about a place specialising in Half Plates, Full Glasses and it got us wondering – would we live to regret it…
Talli Joe opened just four weeks ago and claims to be an all day dining and drinking destination of discovery through modern India as experienced by “Joe”, a British traveller with an eye for the unusual. Executive Chef Sameer Taneja (formerly of the Michelin-starred Benares) heads up the kitchen, so we were expecting everything to be a little more polished that the usual ‘street food’ concept that’s inhabiting London right now.
On arrival people are greeted with a sample of one of their cocktails – a very nice touch that goes a long way, especially in central London. We decided on one of the favourites from the dive bars – Masala Papad (£2) which brought some serious spice to the table.
The space is difficult to get your head around as there’s some key pylons in the centre of the room. The decor is kitch with bright floor colours ibnhabiting spaces and frames and a desk for the ‘door bitch’ (sorry, that’s just what we call them in Australia – they’re usually very nice). Though it was a bit disconcerting having a seat in the front window and always catching the person on the door standing and staring at you. But if you can look past that then all is well. Touted as an Indian dive bar – I’m not sure what a dive bar looks like on the continent but I was expecting something less clean and a little more gritty.
The cocktail menu is where this place starts to set itself apart. Created after months of travel across the length and breadth of India, the cocktail list is split into North, South, East and West India, using influences from each corner of the country to liven up the classic cocktails we love to imbibe. The Rose Hip with vodka, rose sherbet, lime and egg white really came alive in the glass and had the zing of flowers that are constantly being threaded around temples in India.
I went off book with a Day in Deli. Think an Old Fashioned but with aged rum, lentil & rice syrup, biryani oil, lime and salt. I thought it could have being one of those cocktails that just didn’t work (yes I’m looking at you and your entire cocktail menu GONG at The Shard). But instead this worked perfectly with the biryani oil coming to the fore towards the end of each mouthful, glazing my tongue with a tasty slick.
It was suggested we order two to three half plates each. There’s a decent selection of around twenty two to choose from, ranging from £3 – £9.5 – so nothing that will break the bank if you don’t like a dish. We started with the classic Delhi street food kale chaat (£4.50). This version was crispy kale, potato, pomegranate and sweet yogurt and was like a new take on a pakora crossed with some of the ingredients we’ve come to expect from Berber and Q.
The truffle ghee kulcha (£3.75) is named in tribute to a street-food haven in Amritsa – naan stuffed with cottage cheese, brushed with truffle ghee. Though this sounded amazing, the flavour didn’t inspire anything in me. It’s often difficult to get excitement from cottage cheese, though not expecting much truffle flavour at all for the price – I got nothing from this dish.
A serving of Kochi beef fry (£9.50) was beautiful and tender sitting pretty on a bed of paratha. The one thing that I started to find by this point in the meal, was that while they were willing to push the boat out on the cocktail front and add interesting elements like cashew nut puree, masala tea shrub and gonhoraj, the food was playing it very safe in the spice department.
This carried through to the Gol Baari Kosha Mangsho – lamb roast on the bone and luchi that was inspired by Gol Baari of Kolkata. A dry lamb dish, this was perfectly nice but didn’t blow me away as I hope to from a chef with decent credentials and who’s traveled around India to get these recipes.
We finished off with the Konkani seafood curry (£9.50) – a coastal seafood curry full of fresh seafood and tender coconut served with a ‘water pancake’ aka neer dosa. Similar to Hopper’s Lamb Kothu Roti, Talli Joe recommends you tear up what pancake and submerge it in the curry to eat in mouthful with the seafood. While this dish was decent , again it didn’t blow me out of the water like I want to when taking a big mouthful of curry sauce.
It could be that they started out strong but needed to temper the spice mix for the Shaftesbury Avenue crowd. But Talli Joe is has to know it’s going to be heal along side Dishoom for comparison. While Talli Joe dumbs down the spice mix while it’s trying to make a name for itself in the early days, Dishoom has masses of lines outside each of its branches every lunch and dinner while keeping the spices at a level that makes me raise a healthy sweat.
With some amazing dishes from that region of the world coming out of the kitchens of places like Kricket (Review) and Hoppers (Review), those coming into the marketplace need to step up their game. The same will eventually happen once restaurateurs get this Poke fad out of their system – there’ll be places that stand on the shoulders of all the others due to the choices they make.
The question I ask myself walking out of everywhere I eat is will I be back.. Talli Joe is a difficult one. With close proximity to everything in Soho (which includes a few Dishooms nearby) I’m not yet booking my next visit. While the food is a step above what the Big D does, when I go Asian I want to be tantalised by something spicy and if you can’t give it to me then like a crack addict I’ll look for that high elsewhere. And if the choice you make is to head along to Talli Joe – we’d love to hear what you think.