Entering Indian restaurant Thali Too, the fragrance is fresh and pleasant, as if there are live cumin and turmeric plants just under your nose. And when you’re at a vegetarian restaurant, plants are what you’re there for.
With two big Thali locations downtown, it’s easy to assume that New Haven is the birthplace of the enterprise. Actually, New Canaan holds that distinction. Owner and chef Prasad Chirnomula opened the first Thali establishment there in 2001. Three years later, he expanded to Ridgefield and, in 2006, added a third spot—in New Haven, on the corner of Orange and Crown Streets. Thali Too followed in 2008, emerging from Chef Prasad’s vision to “change how America thinks of Indian food,” by presenting the vegetarian (and often vegan) facet of a cuisine that’s still gaining traction with American palates.
With Too, Chef Prasad also wanted to offer a less expensive alternative to the other Thalis, and its location on the leafy path between the Yale Bookstore and the Apple Store agrees reasonably well with the budgets of the students walking past on a daily basis. Kaul, the general manager at Thali Too, illustrated the price difference: at the first New Haven location, “a dinner for two can cost $50.” At Thali Too, a pair of satisfying entrees comes in at about half that before tax and tip, with a typical dish priced at $12 and dosas ranging from about $10 to $13.
Like its sisters, Thali Too is elegant; it just gets there in a different way. New Haven’s first Thali wends and winds, with more traditional touches and a certain formality to the service. In contrast, the sequel has an open, single-room layout, with high ceilings and modern accents. Coiffed, t-shirt-clad servers move about to a soundtrack of pop and electronic music.
In a further show of modernity, there are creative liquid enticements here that seem rare on Indian menus generally. A list of specialty cocktails made at the full bar includes the Faithfully Ginger, a fragrant concoction of gin, elderflower syrup, ginger, lime and turmeric that won first prize in a WNPR martini contest in 2011. Similarly genre-bending is the Mumbai Margarita, made with tequila, lime, orange liqueur and some spicy lemon chili-infused rum. Over twenty wines are sold by the glass and the bottle, with four beers on tap and obligatory 22 oz. bottles of Taj Mahal available.
Saturdays and Sundays are notable for their well-attended and -appointed brunches, active from noon to 2:30. It’s $16 and all-you-can-eat, so hungry diners can easily come away feeling their money has been well-spent.
The brunch is like a full-service buffet: waiters bring the food to you, and almost every item on the regular menu is available as a tiffin—in a snack-sized portion, that is. It’s a great way to sample across the menu without spending extravagantly or lining up at a trough. If you can’t get enough of something specific like the spinach-potato Pakoras or splendid Cauliflower Parathas, just order up some more.
By all means, try the Bhel Poori. You may hesitate to cut into it because of its resemblance to a pretty sparrow’s nest, but take a forkful. It’s light and, flavored with tamarind lentil noodles and mint chutney-ed rice, you’ll probably want another. Thali’s Vegetarian Uthappam is a warm, chewy flapjack containing peas, spinach, tomatoes, and a dusting of cilantro.
It’s customary to start off with chaat (a generic term referring to different snacks served by Indian street vendors), typically fritters and dumplings and other fried things (like the ones pictured first above). The Red Onion Bhajia is especially good and satisfyingly crisp. The potato-and-pea Samosa, typically a good barometer of the rest of the food at an Indian restaurant, is among the best I’ve had, especially topped with tomato/onion or roasted coconut chutney.
Thali Too passes another important litmus test with its potato dosas—thin and delicate “rice crepes” wrapped loosely around an inner core of soft spiced potato (pictured third above). With batter made from rice and lentil flour, the regular-menu dosas here range from big to enormous (the Dean’s Dosa, nodding to Yale, is around 3 feet long), and can be punched up as you like with a trio of sauces served on the side—lentil gravy, spiced oil and the aforementioned coconut chutney.
Did I forget to mention that unlimited fruit lassis—thick, yogurt-based drinks offered salty or sweet, your choice—are included with brunch? Referred to as an “Indian mimosa” by a server, the Mango option was refreshing, fruity and pulpy, a good way to cut the spice and keep your taste buds coming back for more.