The culinary muscle flexed by Thali's Chef Prasad Chirnomula has educated and perhaps even defined Connecticut's interest and demand for Indian cuisine. With the fifth Thali opening in Westport, and his thirteenth restaurant overall, Chef Prasad has clearly hit his stride. Mining the traditional and regionally diverse dishes of India with a contemporary interpretation is Thali's niche. Staying true to this, Thali Westport innovates with a small plate approach skewed thoughtfully toward our impatient palates and lighter wallets. Throughout his menus, Chef Prasad uses his homeland as a starting point with each Thali launch continuing to raise the bar for eclectic Indian culinary experiences and Westport is paving the way.
The beauty of the small plate style of eating is two-fold. As a way to explore an interesting menu in greater depth, it offers you smaller proportions and more opportunities to experience different flavor profiles. It also offers a relaxed and steady stream of food, as the kitchen will send out each plate as it is prepared rather than slam you all at once. I much prefer this anyway as I know my shrimp, usually done in a flash will not be overdone or sit waiting for my lamb croquettes to catch up. And if you prefer not to share, you can easily order an entree or make a meal out of your own small plates and hoard them for yourself, you selfish gastronome.
Chef Prasad clearly had fun crafting this tapas style menu, not to mention decorating the festive space. A large white statue of Ganesh greets you as you enter the dining room, and a paper menu (a whimsical take on sushi menus) kicks off with a list of 30 small plates, giving patrons countless ways to explore the full metier of the kitchen. The staff encourages you to order about 1 to 2 small plates per person and share them with your table. I'd second that recommendation and then order an entree to split. Just beyond the small plates listed, a split personality emerges with both "suggested" entrees including Tandoori Chicken and Filet Mignon as well as "traditional" entrees for those who crave the Indian staples they know and love such as Vindaloo and Saag. And make sure you save room for one of their decadent desserts. As if I needed another reason to come back, I discovered they have a full-time pastry chef on the premises. If you're an oenophile, the wine list at Thali is an impressive complement to the menu. Where else can you get Chateauneuf-du-Pape by the glass? According to Raju, the general manager and sommelier of Thali, their whites are just as aggressively sourced and paired with notable selections from the Alsace region of France and Austria.
On a recent Saturday, four of us sat down ready, willing and able to experience the best of what Chef Prasad could throw at us. We were delighted to find him in the kitchen that afternoon, as he probably will be in the coming months. Since this location is his newest creation, I have a hunch you will find him here as they refine the latest addition to the Thali family. Inspired by the menu, we quickly lost track of how much we ordered and at one point we stopped caring. We thoroughly enjoyed the leisurely pacing of each plate and the patient knowledge and excellent recommendations from our seasoned wait staff. From specific spices to questions about regions of India, everyone was happy to impart his or her knowledge.
The first dishes out of the kitchen were a moist tandoor-inspired plate of Sesame Crusted Chicken Skewers finished with a ginger and honey sauce and a plate of warm naan served with mustard oil infused with oven roasted mint. A lovely way to ease into our lunch, they each arrived in neat piles and were quickly deemed crowd pleasers. Then the fun really began. The Lamb Croquettes, cocktail sized pan-seared dollops of aromatic lamb, were worthy of throwing an elbow or two. They were evenly seared on the outside and medium-rare and juicy on the inside with a wonderful perfume. This is a prime example of the conflation of the West and Indian cuisine in Thali's repertoire.
Having been to the other Thali locations, I knew I had to try the Jumbo Lump Blue Crab. This Konkan-inspired dish boasts a silky coconut and ginger sauce, mustard seeds and luscious lumps of blue crab. If Thali had a signature dish, this would be it. To follow, the chef sent out the Large Tandoori Shrimp, tandoor-grilled and marinated in a sour cream saffron sauce. I love shrimp but it's shocking how few restaurants can cook them well. These were grilled to perfection and popped in your mouth just the way a perfectly cooked shrimp should. One of my fellow diners even popped a Benadryl to try them (she's slightly allergic to shrimp).
I would say the pièce de résistance of our small plate extravaganza was the Pepper and Ginger Skirt Steak (seen below) served with mint raita on a "bed" of naan. This was a show-stopper folks. The spice was nuanced and layered and a compelling combination of textures from the meat, raita and naan completed this dish.
One of the more traditional plates we enjoyed was the Dosa, a rice and lentil crepe-like dish served with four chutneys including a coconut, onion, cilantro and lentil stew. The Vegetable Pancake was packed with peas, chilis, tomatoes and cilantro and also accompanied by the chutneys. These two dishes would be excellent to start your meal or eaten on their own as a light lunch.
At this point we had forgotten we had even ordered two entrees for the table but we rallied just long enough to decimate them and tuck into dessert. The Salmon Special, a pleasantly delicate and crisp Alaskan wild sockeye salmon served atop a warm yet crunchy vegetable slaw and crispy onions and Date & Walnut Grilled Chicken Breast will not immediately strike you as Indian. But as their flavors unfold you'll begin todiscover the layered flavors and spice that betray their Indian roots, from the sweet and savory chutney-like salsa accompanying the chicken to the spice dusted exterior of the salmon. And then there was the basmati. Then there is no mistaking the origins of Chef Prasad's basmati, a perfumy and intoxicatingly fluffy bowl of rice. Upon asking the Chef his secret to his perfect basmati, we were able to extract cinnamon and a few other toasted spices as some key ingredients.
If you enjoy ending your meal on a sweet note, Thali employs a full-time pastry chef on premise and we enjoyed sampling three of their house desserts. The Cardamom Creme Brulee, the Lemon Grass Key Lime Pie and Caramel Mango Cheese Cake. You will not go wrong with any of these dishes. I enjoyed the subtlety of the cardamom creme brulee as much as the ample tartness of the lemon grass key lime pie and I've yet to meet a cheese cake I haven't liked. They are perfect to split a number of ways so make sure you save room for dessert.
Hailing from India but planted firmly in Fairfield County, Thali and Chef Prasad continue to challenge our notion of what Indian food can be and often with tantalizing results. I found each dish imbued with a preternatural balance of spice and texture, flaunting its own unique personality.
I believe we are bearing witness to an original voice on the food scene many hungry Connecticut omnivores happily reaping the rewards. Is anyone else doing what Chef Prasad and his team at Thali are doing with Indian cuisine in the region? In the country? Chef Prasad is certainly a unique and passionate culinary presence and Thali Westport his latest and hopefully his most successful venture yet.
Thali 376 Post Road East, Westport (203) 557-4848