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After the gruelling experience of working in a Michelin-star kitchen in Mayfair, one can’t blame Sameer Taneja for seeking a new venture of reduced intensity. This is what the former chef at Benares has done: he is now the executive chef of his own restaurant in Shaftesbury Avenue, which puts as much onus on the drinks as it does the food, in an overall more laid-back affair.
Escaping the discipline of straight-up dining, Talli Joe has created an atmosphere where food and drinks complement the social experience, as opposed to creating it. It gives off the impression of a cocktail bar with snacks, but snacks that exceed the usual careless finger food, transgressing into a realm of finger food that commands diners’ attention. The tag-line of “half plates and full drinks” hangs over the restaurant’s entrance, underneath the the Talli Joe logo that depicts a lion with wings; the “Talli” part of the name is Hindi for “tipsy and happy. At the back of the spacious 96-cover room reads a large quote: “Too fly to drunk… roared the lion”. Various other alcohol-related quotes adorn the pillars and walls of the room, hammering home a focus that flirts with overkill, only an Oliver Reed quote away from a tactfully marketed craft-beer-pushing gastro pub. But at least you know where you stand. On the plus side, each cocktail is served not only with a smile, but a passionately delivered backstory.
Aside from the wall quotes, the decor is refreshingly mellow. It’s inspired by the dive bars of India – or at least as close as a venue can get in Shaftesbury Avenue, which is rapidly becoming the nucleus of London’s food scene. There is a conflicting element to the authentic Indian feel, homely wicker and natural wood diluted somewhat by cliched hanging lamps and a wall-length lime-green sofa. This is a minor compromise in an ideology entirely welcome amidst a surrounding surplus of formal dining.
As promised, the plates are “half plates”, an important semantic distinction from “small plates”, which suggests an unsatisfied shortfall. Instead, the prices encourage a broad tapas-style selection, and what the result lacks in size it makes up for in taste. Devilled Quails Eggs erupt with rounded flavours, and are served with a rich tadka mayo. The truffle-glazed cottage cheese naan packs a razor-sharp kick, soothed by a delicate mint sauce, and the Stuffed Karela Melon (filled with a lentil and fennel salad) is a feast of bitter and sour, condensed into a single bite. Best of all is the Kale Chaat, where the earthiness of crispy kale and potato are brought to life by the velvety sweetness of yogurt and pomegranate seeds.It’s heartening to discover that Taneja hasn’t dumbed down the food from his former restaurant, but has instead focused the flavours into smaller dishes, incorporating more alternative cooking styles from the less explored corners of the subcontinent. And with newfound freedom he has also broadened these ideas into a mixologist mindset, bringing food and drink together thoughtfully. On the cocktail side, the medicinally-reared Madras Gimlet combines turmeric-infused gin, lime and sugar syrup for an acidic finish – originally a combination used to treat scurvy. The Baba Budan is a hearty mixture of aged rum, Kaapi (coffee), palm sugar and aromatic bitters, but the pick of the bunch is the Badnam Milk Punch. Served in a receptacle that resembles an ancient holy vase, the Badnam is a creamy fusion of whisky, almond and cashew nut puree, saffron syrup and milk.
Don’t go to Talli Joe hoping to be stuffed to the brim. Go instead to explore the museum of flavours on offer. Think of it as the house party of your most culinarily charitable friend, excitedly entertaining their guests with affection and finesse. Although there may be some fine-tuning to be done in relation to Talli Joe’s overall essence, it is a promising nod to casual dining, which has the potential for greatness. If anything you will almost certainly leave “tipsy and happy”, enforced by the most iron-fisted devotion to the cause of happiness via the medium of cocktail consumption.
Photos: Oksana Dotsenko
To book a table at Talli Joe, 152-156 Shaftesbury Avenue London WC2H 8HL, call 020 7836 5400 or visit here.