in the Heart of Westport:
Thali Offers Delectable
(Appeared in Nov. issue of Fairfield County Life magazine)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved
Westport, CT – “Thali” is basically a platter of food served at many Indian festivals and special occasions and typically contains several small containers of appetizers, adding up to a complete meal. In much the same way, Thali restaurant at 376 Post Road East in Westport offers diners a broad, highly satisfying palette of taste experiences.
Tagged as a venue providing “regional cuisine of India”, Thali Westport is the latest addition to owner/chef Prasad Chirnomula’s family of restaurants. Opened in March 2010, it is his sixth eatery in operation, with an additional New Haven location in development. Venues include Thali Ridgefield, Thali New Haven (Orange Street), Thali Too (Broadway, New Haven), Thali New Canaan and Chao Chi in Sandy Hook.
Chirnomula, 47, says he has always loved Westport. In fact, back in the early 90s, he opened Bombay Grill, which he since sold. “I like the in-town location, the demographics are great and people here – and in Fairfield County in general -- are well traveled and more cosmopolitan,” he said. “Thali Westport is a destination, not a walk-by… high-energy and with a great to-go business that accommodates the needs of people in the area who like to take home good food. I felt there was a gap between Fairfield and New Haven counties. I was determined to be here.”
Patrons are immediately soothed by the atmosphere of the Post Road location – brick, wood, paisley seatbacks, hues of deep red and burnt orange, dark stone tiles and a hip music soundtrack. Bent glass partitions, with Diwali fabric patterns and twinkling lights imitative of India’s Festival of Lights, create privacy and add warmth. A narrow street-side patio area dressed out with straw mats and trimmed with marigolds in flower boxes offers a sunny lunch perch or romantic sanctuary.
For the afterwork set just seeking thirst-quenching libations, Thali’s Mumbai Bar serves up exotic cocktails like its Tajmopolitan Martini, Bubbly Bangalore and Mumbai Collins, priced at $9 on average. The bar also provides aged ports, cognacs, bourbons/whiskies and single malt scotch, as well as domestic and imported beer like Indian brands Kingfisher and Taj Mahal.
For those wishing to relax and dine, the menu offers entrees that include Sea Bass seared in Hot Tandoor, Date & Walnut Chicken Breast with papaya-pineapple-tomato salsa and Goan Tiger Prawns in tempered garlic and slow-cooked tomatoes, priced at an average of $25. Thali also offers traditional Indian entrees like chicken, shrimp, fish, lamb and vegetables, all prepared with Indian herbs and spices, and Tandoor baked Nan bread complemented by seasoned onions, garlic and potato. Various side dishes include lentils, cucumber & tomato yogurt, cumin & coriander potatoes, and garlic spinach.
The highlight of the menu, however, is the arm’s length of small plate appetizers – no less than 30! – that are available. This is the core of the Thali concept: allowing diners to sample a host of different dishes and tastes that are filling and satisfying at a cost-effective value. In this “Indian food tapas-style” category, Chrinomula’s recommendations include Spicy Chicken Kababs, Multi Pepper-Crusted Breast of Duck, Pan-Seared Sole, Large Tandoori Shrimp, Samosa, and Little Buttons of Steamed Lentil and Rice Cakes. On average, these are priced around $8.
Of course, what meal would be complete without dessert? Thali exceeds expectations with a mouth-watering selection of unique offerings like Cardamom Crème Brulee, Caramel Mango Cheesecake and Indian specialties like Dudhi Jamun (fried milk balls in honey syrup) and Shahi Tukra (bread pudding). As complementary beverages, there’s a perky carousel of Lavazza coffee and Masala chai and organic teas, as well as excellent late harvest/dessert wines ranging from a Riesling “Ice Wine” to a Sauternes Chateau Guiraud.
“I have created hundreds of menus in the past. This is my favorite,” said Chirnomula. He also confesses though, “This is a hard kitchen as there is so much food to manage. One table of four that order eight appetizers times 10 tables could mean 80 appetizers to prepare in an hour’s time. We have a fairly sizable cooking and serving staff to accommodate this and our equipment is ample to handle demand as well.”
“Most of my competition is my own creation,” added Chirnomula, delving into his background and experience. “I’ve been involved with the marketing, development, consulting, management or ownership going back to the late 80s in Connecticut. I love marketing and have self-promoted myself for a long time… you can say I’m self-made.”
Born in Hyderabad, in southern India, Chirnomula had a comfortable start. Dad was a doctor, mom was a homemaker. His father wanted Prasad to follow in his footsteps and be a doctor, but Prasad’s dream was to be in the people and food business. “While my dad was looking for medical colleges for me, I was looking at culinary schools.” Prasad had seen his cousins reading big books and getting ready for medical practice and all the years they invested, and felt like half of one’s life is gone before one starts a medical career.
Chirnomula was inspired by his mother’s cooking – “It’s just amazing! The best food anywhere, anytime!” – and was determined to pursue his dream. He told his parents, “I’m going into the people/food business and far away from here!” He was 18 at the time. Still, they sent him to a medical entrance school, where he placated them, passing his time and having fun. But then it was on to the Food Craft Institute in Pune, about 300 miles from his home, where he participated in a four-year program, earning a chef and management degree.
Chirnomula went out for training during that span and had the opportunity to work at some of India’s finest hotels – onsite education, offsite practical training. He joined a privately owned Ritz Hotel as a management trainee and, at age 23, after just six months, was promoted to Food & Beverage Director. He had a “great young manager” and asked him what he should do with his life. The man suggested he go to America.
“I traveled to New York and my immediate goal was to join a hotel group or chain, at the 5-star level. I got a sponsorship through a restaurant and had big expectations – however, they started me as a busboy. Initially, this was a jolt, but I took the job, feeling that I had to start somewhere. Fortunately, I got very quick promotions and landed in the kitchen within a year.”
In 1988, Chirnomula got a call saying someone wants to open a restaurant, Meera, in Connecticut, from the ground up. “I never left the state since then,” he said. He was involved with the set-up for over a year then called to help with another Indian restaurant, Kismet in Georgetown, which he ultimately bought in 2004 and made a Thali.
In the years 1988-1999, Chirnomula opened eight restaurants – all primary locations from Westchester County to Massachusettes. Then he went on his own and opened his first Thali in 2000, in New Canaan.
“I’m a guy who believes in what he does, pays attention to quality and service and is motivated by a great staff and the greatest clientele.”