Culture  South street blues

Downtown Thali Cuisine Indienne doesn't live up to its northern counterparts

What does the “taste of Parc Ex” have to offer downtown? Not much it seems. This might sound like a facile observation but 1409 St. Marc really is a long way away from where I and most people I know live. I arrived to find Thali Cuisine Indienne off-puttingly deserted. It was a Sunday night though, so in the interest of fairness one should ignore this.

“Bewildering décor, isn’t it?” my companion asked. That was an understatement. Framed prints of Indian paintings in an 18th century style clashed irreconcilably with dollar store Halloween decorations – spider webs, pumpkins, the lot. The overall effect was a very “Tim Burton meets the Asian sub-continent” vibe; not a look anyone in their right mind would be anxious to create, but, I suppose, unavoidable at this time of year.

There were more members of staff than there were customers, but despite this the ordering process seemed strangely complicated. Surveying the scene, we went to the counter to order and pay, and then confusingly were sent to a different counter to order again. Here we were presented with our food on a metal plate that I can only describe as ‘prison canteen style’. Different sections aimed to keep each element of the meal separate, but inevitably during the course of eating one ends up with an unidentifiable mélange in the centre. I wasn’t too bothered by the unusual crockery situation since combining flavours is something that Indian food lends itself to really appealingly.

I ordered the vegetarian thali, a sample platter of different dishes. Unfortunately, the seasoning in my lentil dhal was maddeningly off the mark; there was no trace of the crucial coriander, and the balance of cardamom, cumin, and chili was spoiled by an upsetting amount of salt. The chickpea masala was dry and lacking a much-needed citrus note. Essentially, the vegetarian platter, which ought always to be the jewel in any Indian restaurant’s crown, seemed to me to be a subtle provocation to give it all up and become a carnivore. This may have been a good idea, as my companion was quite pleased with the meat option.

The brinjal bhaji (spiced eggplant and potatoes) considerably redeemed the situation. Not overly oily, nor too mushy, and with a pleasant nutty flavour, it was the evening’s saving grace. It didn’t exactly send me into a catatonic state, but it was certainly had a drug-like effect, helping me forget the discomfort of the other dishes.

On reflection, my rapturous reception of the eggplant perhaps owed a lot to how it stood out from the other dishes, which I suppose was not a difficult feat. My friend agreed that comparatively it did taste heavenly, but at any rate we were brought swiftly back down to earth by the stale naan bread.

Admittedly, for under $9 Thali doesn’t allow any delusions of grandeur. But I want to refer you to Sarah Musgrave’s recent review in the Montreal Gazette some months ago. Here she writes that in order to keep costs down, Thali “cuts all the right corners”. I could not disagree more. Downtown rents could be the cause of these cut corners, but despite the lower quality that this seems to engender, Thali is almost unique in offering authentic Indian food along Ste. Catherine. However, it still does not quite warrant the effort of the walk from McGill’s campus.

Yes, if you’re downtown and hungry there are a score of pricier and worse places to eat. If, however, you’re committed to finding a thoroughly decent Indian restaurant, you would be better off going to somewhere in Parc Ex. Bombay Mahal at 1001 Jean-Talon, for example, is equally cheap but quite frankly better. Although the naan is still pretty stale.