Hello readers. I’m no expert critic and I don’t have a taste for puns, but I agreed to take over this review because I don’t have much confidence in the editors’ taste for South Indian food. Recently, they embarrassed me by suggesting I take a friend to lunch at Dakshinayan (disappointing - do they even know how to use a sevai nazhi?). Just last night, I realised that one of them, my own daughter, has no idea how to debone the nangi or mandeli fish in a meen vattichattu (pinch the tailbone and peel the flesh upwards). With this in mind, I thought my opinions might be of some use.
Keep Calm & Payasam
I laughed when I heard the name of this restaurant. My daughter didn’t know ‘Thangabali’ is a character in Chennai Express, and made a face when she heard. I’m more tolerant - in Bombay food is at its best when it’s unpretentious, especially in these parts, where most restaurants are generations old. As a twenty-year-old employee of Hawkins Pressure Cookers, my husband ate every other day at Thangabali’s neighbour, the Udipi restaurant Shobha, which looks the same as it did in 1972.
So a bit of experimentation is welcome. Thangabali’s nice dining room with light, air and a clean restroom is nothing to be scoffed at. A large menu that covers most of the peninsular coasts and a mural tracing a sea route to the South-Eastern kingdoms of medieval Asia indicate healthy ambition, too.
But we should talk about the food. Although I want to be encouraging, I’ll start by pointing out that this sol kadi falls well short of neighbourhood standards. For real tang and savour, it needs a crush of garlic and more kokum. Next, a hot, sour liquid passes for rasam. It’s bracing, but there’s barely a hint of the complex spices and textures that go into home-made rasams - without even a dash of tomato or curry leaf, this drink tastes more like a strained version of molaku varutha puli, a quick-fix red chilly tamarind soup that we make for comfort food in Palakkad kitchens. By contrast, the buttermilk is creamy and cold and flavoured just lightly - a pleasure.
The vegetable stew is an interesting variation on my own, tempered with pepper and mustard-seed, with no fresh spices such as ginger or green chilly. We all get a surprise on finding cubes of paneer in the stew. It’s like a mistake a nervous Kerala family might make when welcoming a North Indian son-in-law. The appams are thick like carelessly made dosas, but quite satisfying, in their way.
We all get a surprise on finding cubes of paneer in the stew. It’s like a mistake a nervous Kerala family might make when welcoming a North Indian son-in-law.
It’s exciting to see a Dindigul-style “mutton rice” on the menu, as Dindigul biriyani is one of the South’s most famous variants of the dish. Unlike Lucknow or Calcutta, no one in these regions judges biryani by its subtlety. Biriyani is supposed to captivate you at first sight and smell with ghee, spices, meat and fragrant, short-grained ‘kaima’ rice (‘jeerakasamba’ in Tamil Nadu).
Another surprise: this mutton rice is made with par-boiled unpolished rice - what my family in Kerala still eats every day. It’s beautiful, very fresh and much lighter than white rice, but maybe not the best choice for “variety rice,” as they say back home. The masalas don’t cling to the grains as they should, which is a pity since there is a nice, complex mix of flavours at work in this dish. This rice goes much better as a side with prawn theeyal, which is also very light, strikingly low on tamarind, and very “summer-fresh” as the editor at table would say.
It would be unfair to compare Thangabali to deeply individualistic standards of home cooking, so please bear in mind that these opinions are quite personal. The restaurant is run by such obliging staff that I can’t bring myself to criticise it too much. Perhaps a more exciting choice of pickles and chutneys on the table might please more fussy eaters, allowing them to pick and choose how much salt and flavour they want in their meal. At any rate, I’m sure readers will find something to enjoy on this big, multi-regional menu, especially if you don’t belong to the South and are just looking for a fresh, filling meal.
Whether Thangabali will be around for years to come, like the Malabari restaurants just down the block, with names like ‘Sneha’ and ‘Madina’ and simple, sophisticated food that tastes the same, meal after meal, I can’t say. That depends on your standards, not mine.
Getting there: Thangabali, Manmohan Bhavan, Kataria Road (in the Hotel Shobha lane). A meal for three costs approximately Rs 1500.
Accessibility: No ramps and two high stairs to entry. Bathroom is spacious but also requires climbing one small step.
bpb reviews anonymously and pays for its own meals.
Image credit: Instagram / @jithin_zavier_sanz
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