I’ve been craving Goan food. The recipes of my ancestors, the pickled, fried, masala spiced, Indo-European and downright spectacular stuff I grew up eating. But all the places my dad told me about in London all seem so far out of the way, and going to them would effectively mean sacrificing a dessert or appetiser to get there. So when I came across the menu of a restaurant in Covent Garden that cooked Goan inspired dishes familiar to me, you can be sure it was the next place I was going to visit.
At this juncture, what with the burgeoning list of London restaurants that demand reviewing, I have been predominantly sticking to the ones closest to the route of my commute into Bloomsbury. UCL, the university at which I study, is rather well placed in this area of central London, thus making it only logical, as a matter of convenience, to start there and move outwards.
As a result of this arrangement I haven’t been very present at my seminars lately. I spend classes drifting away into victual reveries, thinking about the places I could visit after and sometimes even getting out menus to prepare my order. It does turn out to be a productive exercise though. If I do not look at the menu beforehand I always tend to order too much when the time comes, utterly overwhelmed with choice, choosing to go ask for more food than I can justifiably afford.
The walk to Talli Joe is mostly linear and takes about twenty minutes to get there from Gower Street. I spent most of that journey thinking about how I felt about the name and what it meant.
According to Urban Dictionary, which is where most of my etymological musings begin, ‘talli’ is either a word in Hindi and Punjabi that refers to someone who is intoxicated – Talli Joe thus named after a drunken man named Joe; another interpretations signifies a woman’s rear end or more specifically her genitalia, which is a definition I find highly suspect; or even one that describes a person who aids another in the process of defecation in European public facilities, a social worker of sorts, but not necessarily the kind you name a restaurant after.
Tally-ho, a popular anachronism used when asked to offer up a stereotypical British accent, one among such phrases as ‘I would like a cup of tea’, and ‘Cheerio, old chap’, could be the basis of this clever restaurant name engaged in wordplay. As we’ve established (or have we?), Talli seems most likely to mean both intoxicated, which makes sense as Talli Joe has a bar (the website corroborates this first part), and an echoing of the North Indian ‘thali’, which is a platter comprised of various small dishes, some rice or bread and sometimes a meat or fish protein. Not sure where Joe fits into all this. The website says he represents a sort of intrepid explorer, a man venturing through spectacular India searching for meaning, love, God, I don’t know, what are the other reasons people like Joe go to India? In any case, it’s not very original.
When I arrived, the place looked closed. The tint of the windows in the tentative London sunshine made it seem as if the lights were off and the absence of people in a decently large restaurant space, observed while peering in with face to glass, seemed to confirm my assessment. But I distinctly remembered that Talli Joe was an all-day restaurant, and decided to try the door to be sure.
It opened and cautiously tip-toed through the threshold. The lights were on as it so happened, just dim and sporadically lit, evidently not enough to be effulgent in the day time from the outside. Jazz lounge music was playing softly in the background, and waiting for the beat, I said into the void, ‘Hello! Are you guys open for lunch?’ and poof, like a genie, a smiling head popped out from around the central column and proceeded to become a full body as he greeted me at the door.
Because I was the only customer in, I would have thought he’d want me somewhere visible so that others would not have any doubts as to the restaurant’s open-ness. But no, I was wrong, he placed me well behind the cash register by stage left, making me wonder if I scrubbed up well enough. Seeing as I was wearing a demure black sweater, well-ironed chinos and neat dress shoes, while he wore a red and black checkered shirt, jeans and converse rip-offs, an outfit screaming, ‘I’m a hipster but can’t grow a beard’, I wondered which of us should have been manning the welcome desk.
At least my table was reasonably well lit, which was more than I could say for some of the others in my row against the wall.
Talli Joe largely conforms to popular décor pastiches prevalent these days. They’ve got the wall art, customary framed photographs, cringeworthy and patronising typography, as well as a pink, yellow and black colour scheme. The season brought to this eclectic mix, the greens of Christmas wreaths which hung in a square over the central section of the restaurant. I’m not quite sure it works but it’s not like they could leave it out, surely?
However, the furniture which was comprised of wooden chairs with beige plastic mesh backs and matching patterned cushions, as well as simple white centre-posted tables, did remind me of some Indian restaurants I’ve visited in the past. The whole look is not as ridiculously garish as it sounds or necessarily unseemly, but that could be because I’m starting to be numbed by the current state of restaurant interiors. Dishoom, I’m afraid, do a much better job in this department.
The food which came quickly and all at once, was ordered after a few minutes of me trying to get the attention of the two-member staff who seemed to forget they had a customer in. Our main man at the door was smiling away at a text, one that perhaps confirmed his new shipment of plaid shirts had arrived, and a waiter who, adorned in black uniform and apron, appeared from some clandestine trapdoor and seemed content to wander around in palpable ennui polishing the odd table he’d sidle absentmindedly past instead of attending to me. Umm, hello-o?
I wish that I could at least say that the food was good. There were, admittedly, elements of what I thought were simply well executed components, but these were sporadically dotted around each dish at Talli Joe without ease of rhythm.
The seafood and okra kempu, a Mangalorian inspired dish, was fresh tasting, sufficiently spiced and crisp, made aromatic with the addition of traditional curry leaves. I did like the kale chaat the most out of all the dishes, simply for the textural bliss of the crackly battered kale, the mild coriander chutney and the softness of the potatoes. Unfortunately, the sweet yoghurt was too sweet by far.
The Goan pork sausage seekh kebab was an outrage, a shockingly offensive dish that I’d violently rip off the menu if it would make a difference. Looking like two symmetrical reddened turds, these kebabs tasted like spicy dry-wall that went down in regrettable lumps; these were dry, barely edible, and you’d do better at your corner kebab shop for much cheaper. They tasted nothing like good Goan sausage, not even close, and I’d know because I’ve tried plenty of different kinds both incredible and abominable at many a gettogether, and have a family who has been ordering Goan chourico from people that have perfected the art over generations. And if you’ve noticed this review has gotten rather scatological then perhaps, same as me, you may be considering the other definitions of Talli.
The side of shredded cob salad, meant to temper the spice, did ease my ire a tad; it was cool, refreshing and I had nothing to complain about. The kebab dish was the worst £8.50 I’ve ever spent; even worse than the eight quid I’d lost earlier in the week because I didn’t swipe out the tube station correctly.
The butter chicken samosas looked like they’d burst open while cooking and had been served anyway and the blue cheese garlic naan was rather forgettable. I didn’t bother with pudding because I’d spent enough money already and did not want to run the risk of being insulted further.
A group of people were looking in as I left, and I was tempted to warn them away from the kebabs. In fact, I wanted to beg them not to order them, if not for their own sakes then for the sake of my Goan pride and integrity. I had a look through Talli Joe’s blog on the way home and found that apparently, Talli Joe fancy themselves in the top five best Indian restaurants in London.
What?! Don’t make me laugh.
152-156 Shaftesbury Ave, London WC2H 8HL
Chakhnas £1.00-£3.00; Small Plates £2.50-£8.50 ; Half Plates £2.50-£11.50; Sides £2.50-£5.00; Sweet Plates £3.75