Rajdhani, Rolla Street, Bur Dubai
What's a thali? Imagine an Indian buffet that comes to you instead of you having to go to it. Think of a broad metal platter that could easily double as a hubcap for a Caterpillar truck, cluttered with curries, dahls, chutneys, pickles, breads, sauces and salads of every imaginable hue. If you can, try to conceive of a self-replenishing plate of vividly tasty morsels that dizzies and delights, beguiles and bedazzles with its many-splendoured charms.
In short, the thali is a meal fit, not just for a king, but for an entire kingdom. And at Rajdhani, it only costs Dhs25 (GBP4.30, USD6.80).
It's amazing to think that this Bur Dubai restaurant offers one of the more expensive thalis available in the city. Part of a successful Indian chain of restaurants, Rajdhani has won a devoted following in the UAE for its staggering quality, variety and value. Which is why I was astounded that, in all my time in Dubai, I hadn't been there. Until now.
I don't think I've ever been so well looked after in a restaurant. Within seconds of entering the place, I was seated in front of a thali platter laden with empty stainless steel ramekins called katori. The food was soon delivered by a succession of waiters, whose job it is to circulate and fill any empty space that might appear on a thali platter.
They do this with such zeal and gusto that if you even attempt to refuse, they look at you as if you've gone dangerously insane. It's difficult then to resist their second attempt at replenishing your thali. What this means is that, no matter how much you eat and as long as you don't put up a fight, your thali remains resplendent with fresh and fantastic Indian food. In theory, if this was a 24-hour restaurant, your meal would never end.
If you've been offered a last meal prior to your execution, this would be the place to have it.
As soon as I whipped the camera out, I had an audience. The waiters and the manager swarmed around my table with huge grins on their faces as I marvelled at the feast before me. The manager kindly explained the component parts of my Gujarati thali. To the right hand side were the papads and chapati or bhakari breads. This was for ease of access, since the thali is traditionally eaten with the right hand. Also to the right was the spicy Rajasthani dahl, which is also strategically positioned as the katori most likely to be dunked with bread. Beyond that was the sweet gur khadi, which was a yoghurt dish sweetened with jaggery, and next to it a portion of pert and lively whole toor lentils.
Moving anti-clockwise around the thali, I found a portion of spicy fried potato chips with sesame seeds, nuts and a hint of tamarind. Next to it was the brinjal (aubergine or eggplant) tomato, a knee-bendingly comforting arrangement of rich and smoky vegetables in a thick, sultry sauce. And then came the sev tomato sabji, coloured as brightly as it was flavoured with red tomatoes and slowly dissolving sev, the crisp, stringy gram flour snack.
Taking centre stage was the ragda pattice (sometimes called ragda patties), a classic chaat or street food. Here it took the form of a samosa stuffed with peas and potato, crushed and covered with curried yellow peas (ragda) and sprinkled with a salad of onion, tomato and coriander.
On the side there was a vibrant mung bean salad, mint raita, lime pickle, tamarind chutney, a scattering of fried chillies and - just in case a little extra spice was required - a fistful of fresh green chillies. Perhaps fittingly, these were on standby in a glass of cold water lest they decided to combust spontaneously. A cooling, thick and gloriously rich tumbler of salty lassi was provided to extinguish any internal fires.
My thali was filled and refilled until I thought I could take no more. But I was wrong. There was still dessert to contend with. I took a meagre mouthful out of a moist and sweet carrot halwa, bejewelled with shards of cracked pistachio and sultanas.
"But, sir," said the manager with a concerned look on his face, "it's carrot halwa." He stretched the words out as if the dessert was some kind of holy sacrament - as if leaving a single shred of dewy carrot would be grounds for getting me sectioned under local mental health legislation. The manager looked like a kind, mild-mannered family-man, but one that might crack and transform into a human-heart eating maniac if somebody didn't polish off his carrot halwa. I duly ate it up.
Rajdhani may be a simple restaurant that looks like a couple of bored decorators had a paint-fight inside it. Its concept may be uncomplicated, unceremonious and - to some - inelegant. But there are few places in the city, from its five-star hotels to its trendy cafes, that offer such a staggering variety of colurful, tasty and freshly cooked food at such a recession-friendly price.
Don't wait 'til it's your last meal.
Rajdhani (04 393 4433).