Beyond the buffet
Subcontinental cooking is in fine form in the southern suburbs
Thali of India
3259 Winton Road South (Henrietta)
Indian buffets are delights, full-frontal assaults on your senses. The sauces are bright and full of texture—creamy paneers, sienna-hued makhanis, and firehouse red tandoori chicken, which is, thankfully, not as spicy as it looks. Complex flavors, mysterious to the uninitiated palate, can reach a fiery intensity that will make the top of your head break out in a sweat.
But on the way past the steam tables, you spot the restaurant’s full dinner menu. It’s thick with dozens of choices, an intimidating tome of unfamiliar names from places that you’ve only heard of in stories. Indian cuisine is at the apex of centuries of lore combining the sensibilities and ingredients of Europe, Africa, and Asia. It’s at the same time common and exotic. Where to start?
There are a couple of Indian restaurants within the Rochester city limits, but most are clustered in the southern suburbs of Henrietta, Brighton, and Victor—some quite literally within a stone’s throw from one another. They’re in small shopping centers and feature white tablecloth settings with servers decked out in crisp white shirts and black vests. Rather than focus on a specific regional cuisine, all feature eclectic menus that draw from many areas in India and Pakistan.
Thali of India, located in the Win-Jeff Plaza at Winton and Jefferson roads, draws a crowd of first-generation immigrant families, suburban caucasian curry fans, and students from nearby colleges and universities. The dining area is simple and tasteful; square tables surround a sunken bar and buffet. Glowing red track lighting along the bottom of the wainscoting adds a festive touch.
The restaurant is owned by Mandeep Singh and his wife, Jagdish Kaur. Singh began his career as a food inspector in India and developed his kitchen experience at Italian restaurants in Germany and Indian restaurants in New York City and Connecticut. Singh takes pride in hand-choosing meats and vegetables from the Rochester Public Market and in taking the time to improve his methods. For instance, he dry roasts cumin seeds to ward off bitterness. “You have to let them pop. That adds the smoky flavor you want.”
In a city famous for its “garbage plate,” Rochesterians will enjoy learning that “thali” is Hindi for “plate” and is an arrangement of six different kinds of food around a dome of rice. This is a tradition that started in the south and is common throughout India. The idea behind a thali is to serve six different flavors: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, astringent, and spicy. Here, you can order both vegetarian and nonvegetarian thalis. There are also hearty meats stewed in curries or roasted over a cylindrical tandoor grill in the northern style and southern dishes that employ more rice, vegetables, and fish.
Some very specific regional and ethnic varieties are highlighted in a menu that contains more than a hundred items. There’s fish curry and xacuti chicken from Goa, coconut chicken curry from Malabar, Dansak originating in Persia. On the buffet there are often Hakka noodles and chili chicken drawn from the immigrant Chinese that have settled throughout western Asia. There are also dishes made popular during and after the British colonial period—such as vindaloo, tikka masala, or chicken makhani, also known as “butter chicken.” (After all is said and done, it’s hard to say who colonized whom. Great Britain today is a country where varieties of curry are as hotly debated as American chili or barbecue.)
The meal starts with a complimentary platter of paper-thin handmade papadum with two chutneys, one made of tamarind and dates, the other of cilantro. The rest, ordered as an accompaniment to the upcoming meal, is a salsa-like kachumber salad ($2.99) and paneer naan ($3.99), a cheese-and-herb-stuffed flatbread blistered in the 800-degree tandoor.
The long list of baltis sets Thali of India apart. Some historians believe the word “balti” might refer to a wok-like pan used in Baltistan, a region of northern Pakistan where the cooking is heavily influenced by neighboring China and Tibet. It might also come from “balde,” Portuguese for “bucket”—indeed, balti is usually served in a festive copper pail. Whatever its origins, balti really took off in the working-class curry houses of Birmingham and spread to the rest of England and the world beyond. It’s a curious surprise to see twenty-two kinds of balti on a menu in Rochester.
The lamb, shrimp, and mushroom balti ($15.99) is a tall, sharable portion of tart tomato curry prepared with ginger, garlic, and wine. On the side is a pile of steamed jasmine rice, its slender grains a half-inch long. This curry is ordered “medium,” splitting the difference between feeling that addictive burn and allowing the complex interweave of cumin, coriander, cardamom, and mint to present itself. The shrimp is firm, perfectly cooked, and the mushrooms ramp up the umami sensation of the tomato gravy. The rice, along with the naan that was saved from the appetizer course, nicely sops up every drop.
Sips of a cold mango lassi ($3.25), sort of a yogurt smoothie, soothes the burn and cleanses the palate between bites. The dessert finishes the cooling down: guab jamun ($3.25), a deep-fried ball of soft cheese drizzled with honey. You’ll get up from the table with a full belly and a pleasant buzz lingering in your mouth.There’s enough diversity in the menu to suit almost every dietary need. In fact, Indian food is a good refuge for new vegetarians. There are two dozen choices that stem from several cultural traditions where meat has long been eskewed. Indians do love to cook with butter and cream, but the vegetarian dishes can be prepared vegan upon request.
If you’ve always itched to go beyond the buffet at an Indian restaurant, Thali of India is a good place to start. You will find a great depth of native tradition effortlessly blended with European and East Asian traditions through trade, colonization, and diaspora. Every item on the menu has a story, and you’d be well-advised to bring your smartphone and look up the Wikipedia entry on anything you find interesting. When you find a favorite at Thali of India, it’ll be tempting to compare it to versions prepared by its nearby competitor.
Bam! Just like that, you’re hooked. Welcome to the curry club.
Mark Gillespie is the marketing communications manager at the Rochester Institute of Technology College of Science. He loves to explore the food, culture, and outdoors of the Greater Rochester region.