Especially if that mall is the Madinat Zayed Shopping Center, one of the oldest enclosed shopping malls in the United Arab Emirates. Madinat Zayed feels very long-in-the-tooth for an ultra-modern capital like Abu Dhabi. Aside from its dozens of Indian-run gold shops, the mall offers little for most shoppers. There are a few perfume kiosks and plenty of stores peddling cheap, Chinese-made electronics.
The mall’s second floor food court is home to several American-style burger joints, as well as the uninspiring Biryani Hut and ChicKing, where most of the food is deep-fried.
But Madinat Zayed, perhaps surprisingly, is also home to what is quite possibly the finest Indian restaurant in the entire Middle East.
It’s called De Thali. Go there and you can expect to find delicious tandoor-cooked meats, spicy curries and other dishes inspired both by street food and the culinary traditions of northern and southern India.
Thali means “tray” or “platter” in Hindi. In India, thali is food served on a large silver tray that contains several compartments for small portions of items like dhal, rice, curries, meats and salad. The restaurant’s name, therefore, means “from the tray,” which is represented in De Thali’s circular logo of a large platter containing smaller bowls.
But the word combination has a second meaning too.
“De Thali is also ‘let me give you a hand’,” said Jibien Sebastian, the restaurant’s supervisor, who comes from Kerala. “We see that to mean that we are connecting people, literally.”
De Thali’s culinary concept is simple: serve authentic Indian street food in a clean restaurant with a contemporary look and feel, and ensure top-notch service, from kitchen to table.
De Thali’s curries come as either “full gravy” or a light glaze on the grilled meat – fish, chicken or mutton. Kozhi milagu pirattal is a wonderful dish of roasted chicken chunks coated in a thick brown curry cooked with black pepper, cinammon, and curry leaf masala. It’s topped with fresh cilantro and served on a banana leaf. With diced green chills added to the mix, it’s spicy, richly-flavored, and should probably win an award for being Abu Dhabi’s best curry.
Both dishes are extra spicy, but the freshly-baked Malabar parathra, a layered golden flatbread from southern Indian, comes out warm, flaky and tastes of butter and soft dough. It’s a delicious, if calorie-rich, way to keep the green peppers at bay.
Everything about De Thali evokes dhaba, or the street, from the menu graphics to the Indian pewter cup waiters send to tables with the receipt. Posters on the wall – all hand-drawn by a cartoonist in India – were designed to resemble Mumbai-style street food stall signs, some intentionally spelled incorrectly. The same goes for the graphics on the seat-backs of the restaurant’s tall chairs. Even the music – all Bollywood hits from the 1980’s – is purposefully played with the scratches and distortion commonly heard outside food stalls on the streets of India’s largest cities.
“We’re all about dhaba here,” says Sebastian. “That’s our concept. Indian street food at its finest.”
The result is simply amazing. De Thali’s well-seasoned food comes out quick, hot, and extraordinarily delicious. The backdrop is clean and the service is extremely efficient. It feels like you’re tossing back a couple of gourmet pani puris on a crowded street in Mumbai.
Or in an empty shopping mall dining area in downtown Abu Dhabi.
De Thali opened in Madinat Zayed Shopping Center in late 2012. The restaurant’s owners, who also manage Peppermill, are hoping to eventually expand their Indian street food concept to Europe, according to Sebastian.