Chai Thali, Camden | Indian Street Food, Bar & Cafe Restaurant

When I was a kid Indian restaurants in the UK were either local neighbourhood ‘curry houses’ serving a standard set of semi-Anglicised Northern Indian dishes to a mostly-evening trade, or a few rather more formal places with prices to match. Fast forward three to four decades and the Indian food scene (in London at least) is an altogether different beast. Not only can you find a wide range of restaurants specialising in the many regional cuisines of India and its sub-continental neighbours, it’s also the era of an entirely more casual style of Indian cafe restaurant, as popularised by Dishoom over the last several years.

Joining this category is Chai Thali, a colourful and relaxed “street food bar and restaurant” situated in a converted row of warehouses on a quiet street in Camden.

Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Chai Thali isn’t quite an all day cafe – it’s closed for an hour between breakfast and lunch and for another two hours between lunch and dinner. The neighbourhood is a mix of residential and business, and the Centro buildings themselves offer modern office space to small businesses, many of whom I’m sure will already be regulars in the colourful and funky new cafe restaurant in their midst.

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Inside, 120 covers are divided between tables and booths, including a few that are suitable for larger groups. There’s also a cool private dining room for up to 16.

For breakfast and lunch, customers can order food and drinks at the bar for takeaway or eating in. In the evenings table service is offered and you can order from the extensive menu.

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The menu meanders around India, though I’d say that there’s still more I recognise from Northern regions than anywhere else. It’s a great menu though, with plenty to tempt quite a few different palates.

Both of us started with a Flavoured Lassi (£4.50) intending to switch to beer for Pete and perhaps a cocktail for me but the sweet lassis were so delicious we ordered the same again. Good quality natural yoghurt with plenty of flavour, sugar, a restrained splash of rosewater and enough water to make it a refreshing drink – as opposed to the thick and cloying version that is far too heavy to be a good match for food but which I have been served all too often.

We were also treated to a Mini papad basket (£2.50) of tiny popadoms served with four delicious chutneys.

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Chai Thali’s menu is perfect for those who love to share lots of small dishes rather than the classic main course each. You could certainly have a very satisfying meal from just the chaat and tandoor small plate sections alone. We went for a mix, with a few small plates to start followed by a couple of mains to share.

A mix up (on my part) meant we ordered two chaat dishes, which was a little repetitive.

The first to come was this delicious plate of Aloo corn tikki chaat (£5) – a platter of potato and sweet corn patties served with curried chickpeas, yoghurt, mint sauce and tamarind chutney. Sprinkled on the top were the essential crunchy sev (deep fried threads of chickpea paste) and a few ruby red pomegranate seeds for sweetness and colour. A classic chaat dish, this was excellent.

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The second was Lamb samosa chaat (£5) in which simple lamb samosas are topped in the same way as the potato and sweet corn patties. The menu does offer plain Lamb samosa (£4.50) as well as the chaat version.

Bhaaji pao fondue (£5.50) was a wonderfully innovative take on a Mumbai classic. Usually a thick fried vegetable curry served with a bread bun, here the vegetable curry is served in a small fondue pot with the bun cut into pieces to be dipped – using the fondue forks provided.

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The favourite small plate for me was definitely Lamb ki chaampe (£9) – lamb chops marinated overnight and cooked in Chai Thali’s tandoor oven. The spicing was delicious, strong and punchy but still letting the lamb shine through and the cooking was spot on – meat still soft and juicy but with a perfect blackened char to the surface, and the layer of fat left on the chops to blacken nicely.

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Our first choice from the Curries section was Dhaaba murg (£8) cooked on the bone and incredibly like my mum’s chicken curry – one of my all time favourites and one I’m thus very fussy about. The balance of flavours was very good, the right level of heat, the perfect consistency of sauce (not thick and gloopy à la curry house, but not so thin you can’t scoop it up with the bread) and the chicken cooked to just the right texture.

Perhaps my gleeful reaction to this was driven by how closely it resembled my mum’s version – certainly it’s not an unusual style of chicken curry, indeed it’s a staple of roadside dhabas across North India). If you try it, let me know what you think!

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Another mix up (but this time on the part of the restaurant) meant we were served a bowl of Lamb shank nihari (£10) instead of the biryani we ordered. In a nice display of customer service, the restaurant encouraged us to enjoy the extra dish and brought out the missing biryani as quickly as they could.

Again, this typically North Indian dish reminded me of my mothers cooking and thus I enjoyed it very much indeed. Fantastic flavours. and good quality lamb helped enormously here – so nice not to be wrestling with bits of gristle or tendon.

On the other hand, this was the only dish where I felt the portion was a little small for the price tag.

From the Accompaniments section of the menu we chose a Roomali roti (£3.50) and (I think) a Kulcha (£2.50). Both were soft and fresh and good.

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We didn’t have too long to wait for the Hyderabadi dum biryani (£9.50, also available in a chicken version for £9) and it was a tasty dish with very punchy spicing and a generous portion of lamb within.

I didn’t love it quite as much as the fantastic biryani we enjoyed at Daawat a few weeks previously, mainly because it didn’t provide the layering of rice and meat (and the flavours of each) that I personally adore in a biryani – instead the spicing was mixed throughout meat and rice, an equally valid way of making biryani even if I’m not quite so keen on it. But it was still delicious and I’d happily eat it again. The only black mark for us was that, even though we’re both used to picking out the whole spices as we eat Indian dishes, there were so many whole peppercorns and cloves through the rice that it was distracting to pick them all out and unpleasant to bite down on them when missed.

Overall, the authenticity and deliciousness of flavours in Chai Thali’s food was far better than I expected on first glance at the very trendy and colourful interior – I’m always wary of those places that are more style than substance but I needn’t have worried here.

I learned that owner Ajay has a very strong background in the Indian restaurant industry, having previously run several Indian restaurants in other locations. This is his first venture in Central London, and the first in this more modern cafe restaurant style. Judging by our visit within the first few weeks of opening, he’s created a very strong offering and I’m more than a little envious of the office workers and residents in the area.

Kavey Eats dined as guests to review Chai Thali.

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35 Comments to "Chai Thali, Camden | Indian Street Food, Bar & Cafe Restaurant"

  1. Jane Willis

    You had me at Thali – one of my problems with Indian restaurants is wanting some of everything on the menu and the small plates mean a chance to go some way towards that. It all looks lovely and I think I would have quite deliberately ordered those two chaat dishes. I still have fond dreams of the chickpea chaat last time I ate at Benares which must be 3 years ago now.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    You’d definitely enjoy this menu then, Jane, so many small plates to choose from, you can have a veritable feast of small dishes even for only two or three diners. Usually it needs a larger group to be able to have so much variety in an Indian restaurant…

    Reply
  2. Kip

    Ooooh this looks great, and like there could be plenty of vegan (or easily made vegan) options too. Thanks for the review!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Yes, I think Indian food lends itself well to vegetarians and, to an extent, to vegans. The team would likely be willing to adapt dishes for you by leaving off a dairy-based sauce for example. Definitely worth a visit.

    Reply
  3. Lisa Feinson

    This sounds lovely. I think that the amount of whole spices that you mentioned would put me off ordering the biryani (plus I want to try Dawaat’s first), but everything else sounds so good.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Yes, it was a bit tricky that one. The flavour was decent but the sheer number of peppercorns and cloves was offputting. More peppercorns than cloves, so the flavour wasn’t skewed but more than biting down on something hard thing. I think you’d enjoy the food here generally, and the space is nice too.

    Reply
  4. Mamta Gupta

    This place looks really lovely. All too often, the portions are too large for two people, which limits the number of dishes one can order.
    Kav and Lisa, you can’t really get a decent flavour in a Biryani without using a decent amount of whole spices. That is part and parcel of a biryani. I made a new biryani, well new for me, Salmon Biryani a couple of days ago. Even though I don’t use a lot of whole spices in Indian fish dishes generally, I did here, because it was a biryani and it wouldn’t have the right flavour without them. Do what most Indians do, pick them off with your fingers or push them aside with your fork/spoon 🙂

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Yeah, but mum, I’ve had hundreds of biryanis, yours included (obviously) and none have had THIS many peppercorns in them. Too many to pick out, too small to spot easily and too hard when you crunch down on them. Everyone else has managed to get good flavour in their biryani without this level of whole spices so it’s not about biryani in general.

    Reply
    Lisa Feinson

    I don’t mind a *few*, but sometimes…sometimes it’s just too much. I love the idea of a spice ‘tea’ bag that all the whole spices sit in, so they add flavour but not the bits.

    Reply
  5. Emily Leary

    It all looks really delicious. Picking out lots of spice bits is a bit of a bug bear of mine so that would’ve spoiled that dish for me a little too, but overall sounds amazing.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Yes, indeed. But it was the only real niggle in an otherwise excellent meal. Keen to go back and try more!

    Reply
  6. Raia Todd

    Wow! Those all do look delicious, especially the lamb ki chaampe! The restaurant looks pretty cute, too. 😉 Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  7. Katie Bryson

    Oh wow, just the kind of food I crave with an ice cold beer… looks divine Kavey and well worth a visit next time i’m down in London.

    Reply
  8. Revathi

    Wow, each and every dish looks fabulous and mouth watering. Nothing can beat a well made Indian dish. Yummy looking biryani and breads. Absolutely love your pics 🙂

    Reply
  9. Erren

    Wow, this place not only looks stunning but looks like it serves some amazing dishes that i’d love to try, thank you for sharing this with me! 🙂

    Reply
  10. Camilla Hawkins

    All these dishes look and sound totally delicious and quite reasonably priced but i’m with you on the peppercorns, I’d be worried about losing a crown, never come across them whole in a rice dish before.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    It’s fairly normal for whole spices (including cloves, black peppercorns, cardamom pods, cinnammon or cassia bark and bay leaves) to be left in the finished dish in many Indian recipes. It’s expected that you look out for these as you eat, and people are used to doing that… but in this case, there were just a lot more than usual!

    Reply
  11. Heidi Roberts

    I love the look of the food at this restaurant! I must seek it out next time I am in Camden area.

    Reply
  12. kaveyeats

    I was fortunate to be invited to review this one, so I can’t claim any super sleuthing skills but it’s a location in London that I really like, I used to work near there many moons ago so I was keen to visit!

    Reply
  13. kaveyeats

    Yes, it’s a great menu, lots of choice so perfect for those who, like me, love to try lots of different things!

    Reply
  14. Ayngelina Brogan

    Agree with Jane – you had me at Thali!
    I love this modern version of decor. I think it’s a new generation of people bringing food to cities that is showing us food from other cultures can be modern in decor and presentation. I love the idea of this place.

    Reply
  15. Michelle @ Greedy Gourmet

    Everything looks good! As for the street food revolution in London, do you think Dishoom in particular started the trend Indian-wise? That’s the first time I became aware of it anyway.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Not street food, no but certainly I credit them for bringing the concept of the Indian all-day cafe-restaurant-bar to London, and indeed that trend for all-day places has spread in non-Indian restaurants too.

    Reply

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