Talli Joe (London, June 2018)

Here now, almost nine months after our return to Minnesota, is an account of the last restaurant meal we ate on our trip to London last June. After our very good meal at Tandoor Chop House we were ready for one more good Indian meal in London before returning to the land of interchangeable currry houses. Alas, it turned out to be the least of all the meals we had on the trip. This came as a big surprise because a) Indian restaurants in London are generally pretty good, and b) it has been reviewed very well and is apparently very successful. We found it to be all flash and no substance. The food wasn’t bad but it wasn’t very good either.

Like Tandoor Chop House, Talli Joe is located in Covent Garden and offers meals structured around small plates but there the similarities end. Where Tandoor Chop House is focused entirely on tandoor-based cooking of a more or less classic variety, Talli Joe’s menu hops around the subcontinent, pulling a bunch of dishes from different regions together. Or at least it purports to. In truth this is done only a little more convincingly than their silly cocktail menu which is divided into sections titled “North India”, “South India”, “West India” and “East India” but whose contents could be shuffled randomly without it making any difference. Very little of what we ate was a good example of its purported regional origins; in general, this is the kind of restaurant whose regional markers are in the names of dishes but not always on the plate. The audience, I would imagine, are people who can’t tell the difference.

The restaurant’s decor too is squarely within the the aesthetic that might as well be called the New Indian Exotic, replacing older forms of kitsch with new, more irreverent ones. I’ve gone into this phenomenon in detail before in the context of another Indian restaurant in England so I won’t repeat myself here except to say that Talli Joe is the least witty entry in the genre I’ve yet encountered. This begins with their name: “talli” is North Indian slang for drunk and they’ve clearly embraced alcoholism as a design motif (as you’ll see in the slideshow below). Maybe this is their way of acknowledging that their food is best enjoyed when your judgement is impaired. As is the case with many of these restaurants—from the Chilli Pickle in Brighton to Babu Ji in New York—attention to detail is besides the point: the Hindi speaker does not have to look very far to find a translation error blazoned proudly on a wall.

But all of this could be overlooked to a point if the food were very good; but, unfortunately, it is entirely unremarkable. We were four adults and two kids and this is what we ate:

  • Seafood and okra kempu: Unobjectionable but also uninteresting. Said to be Mangalorean but how exactly I’m not sure.
  • Kolhapuri chaap: Ditto. Just an over-marinated lamb chop cooked in the tandoor; what it has to do with Kolhapur, I also don’t know.
  • Kochi beef fry: This is supposed to be in a Kerala-style but again it’s a pale imitation of the real thing.
  • Konkani seabass curry: Cooking fish in coconut milk with curry leaves is not enough to make it Konkani.
  • Sarson ka saag: Now this Punjabi dish was much better.
  • Dal pakwaan: As was this homestyle North Indian tadka dal.
  • Golbaari kosha mangsho: And against the odds this take on the Bengali classic was decent, and the accompanying luuchis were far better than I’d have expected from the kitchen that sent out most of the other dishes.
  • Butter chicken x2: These were on the kids’ menu, I think. One brat got his with rice and the other with naan and they enjoyed their meals.
  • Black gajar halwa: We ended with an order of their carrot halwa which was apparently named one of Time Out‘s “Top 10 Dishes of 2016” but on the evidence of what we got I can only surmise that Time Out“s reviewers have not eaten very much gajar halwa. Either that or 2016 was a bad year. (I failed to photograph this.)

For a look at the folly of the restaurant’s decor and of the food please launch the slideshow below. Scroll down for thoughts on service, ambience, value etc.

Adding to the experience was loud, throbbing music and indifferent service from not terribly informed servers clad in shirts that proclaimed them our “Dabbawala for the Day”. The design teams for restaurants like this must have people on staff whose main job is to keep track of signifiers of Indianness that can be deployed faux-ironically. I say “faux-ironically” because—as I’ve said before—it’s not that these places are subverting “authenticity” by jettisoning pictures of the elephants and the Taj Mahal and the suchlike that adorn old-school curry houses, it’s that they’re invoking authenticity through a new set of signifiers.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this was still a far better Indian restaurant meal than we could hope to find in our southern Minnesota town and superior as well to most in the Twin Cities. But I’ve come to expect quite a bit better from a ballyhooed Indian restaurant in London. How much did it all cost? Our friends would not let us touch the bill and so I cannot tell you. By looking at the prices on the menu I’d guess it wasn’t very far away from the total at Tandoor Chop House. But I know which one I’d go back to on my next trip to London.

I only have one London report left from June: of the fancy food/farmers market by our AirBnb in Sloane Square. I might put that up this weekend and bid farewell to London. Or maybe I’ll save that for next week and finally write up the long-threatened third installment in my series on Indian American food writing. Let’s see.

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