Takeaway review: VIP Very Italian Pizza

The world of Deliveroo can be a strange one, if you fire it up on an average night trying to pick something to have for your dinner. You’ll find all sorts – exactly the sort of restaurants you’d expect to be on Deliveroo, restaurants you’d never go for in a million years, random shops (Lloyds Pharmacy, anybody?) restaurants you probably thought were “too good” for Deliveroo and the occasional complete curveball. It’s a bit like Tinder, that other great digital gratifier, in that respect: a real mixed bag.

You’ll also find restaurants that don’t really exist, but happen to be the Deliveroo-only name for a restaurant you do know. So for instance Madras Flavours, a vegetarian South Indian restaurant, opened recently in the spot where Chennai Dosa used to be, across from the library. They’re on Deliveroo, as you might expect. What you might not expect is that also on Deliveroo, and operating from exactly the same address, are restaurants called Epic Momos, Soul Chutney, Indie Wok, Hyderabadi Biryani Club and (my personal favourite), “Fatt Monk”.

And that’s literally not even the half of it: at the time of writing there are no less than twenty-nine different Indian restaurants, all with virtually identical menus, operating on Deliveroo from the same premises on Kings Road. What’s that all about? Why split all your positive feedback between twenty-nine different restaurants – unless you don’t expect it to be positive, of course. 

It’s not just Madras Flavours at it, though: I’ve heard good things about a place called Maverick Burger which definitely has no physical premises under that name. Deliveroo says it operates from Gun Street, so is it Bluegrass BBQ by another name, or Smash trying to keep busy in lockdown? To complicate things further, if you put “Maverick Burger Reading” into Google, it seems to think it’s another name for 7Bone, which makes no sense at all. Another restaurant, called Coco Di Mama, sells pots of pasta and garlic bread. That might tempt you – but would you order from it I told you that it was just Zizzi under another name?

It’s not a phenomenon unique to Deliveroo, either – you can order Japanese food on JustEat from Oishi, down the Oxford Road. Or you can go on the same app and order the same food from Taberu Express, from the same address. Oishi was originally meant to be a second branch of Taberu, the excellent Japanese restaurant on Oxford’s Cowley Road. Why use the name for some, but not all, of Oishi’s deliveries? The mind boggles. And Uber Eats isn’t immune to this either. It has fourteen different Indian restaurants operating out of – yes, you’ve guessed – a single site on Kings Road.

What is unique to Deliveroo, however, is Deliveroo Editions. This is an arrangement where businesses can rent kitchen space from Deliveroo, and use their delivery capability, while offering whatever menu they like. Deliveroo bill these as a way for restaurants to test the water in a particular area without having to shell out considerable startup costs, and Reading is one of only a handful of locations outside London to have Deliveroo Editions.

The most notable restaurants using Deliveroo Editions in Reading are well-known chains largely based in London – Shake Shack, Rosa’s Thai, Chillango, The Athenian and Burger & Lobster. There’s another restaurant doing lobster rolls under the name of Smack, but I saw an order from Smack on Instagram recently which turned up in Burger & Lobster packaging: smoke and mirrors again. Beyond that it’s mostly companies selling cheesecake and ice cream (perhaps they’re another example of the same company operating under two different names: you hardly need to rent a kitchen to sell Ben & Jerry’s). 

The proverbial sore thumb is the subject of this week’s review, the clumsily named VIP Very Italian Pizza. It only has two branches, both in the Brighton area, although their website says their story goes back to Naples in 1845, and that all their ingredients come from their farm there. I couldn’t find out much more about them from my research; there are restaurants with the same name in Rome and Monaco, though I don’t know if they’re linked, and a chain called Very Italian Pizza in the Netherlands, which I assume is a completely separate business. 

Even so, it struck me as an interesting step to take. The pandemic hits, your restaurants struggle to trade and you decide to strike out across the country without a reputation or a brand name to make it easier. You have to admit, that’s a bold move, and it does suggest a certain degree of confidence in their food. It reminded me a little bit, in fact, of the pluckiness of Clay’s when they bought their vacuum-packing and blast-chilling equipment and decided, from a little restaurant on London Street, to try and conquer the world.

Anyway, I’m not reviewing VIP Very Italian Pizza this week because of their backstory, or because they’re my first experience of Deliveroo Editions. I’m reviewing them for the best reason of all, because somebody told me that they were good.  After my disappointing meal at Firezza a couple of months back, one of my readers, Daniel, told me I should have tried VIP Very Italian Pizza (I’ll just call them VIP from now on: typing all that out would grate across a whole review). “They’re real, they are surprisingly fantastic and very authentic” he said. Daniel’s family are Italian and he knows his food, so following up on this one was a no-brainer. 

VIP’s menu is slimmed down from the one they offer in their Brighton restaurants, but still involves an almost bewildering range of pizzas. That does make sense, given that they’re all variations on a theme, but do expect to do a lot of scrolling and narrowing down before you settle on one. They range from eight to fifteen pounds, although you also have the option to build your own. Alternatively, you can order a panuozzo, a giant woodfired sourdough sandwich: I made a mental note to try one of those next time. There is a small range of starters, too, along with a charcuterie selection for one or two people, a handful of pasta and salad dishes and a few tempting desserts. 

The other thing worth mentioning is that VIP’s menu also has a deli section, so along with your dinner you can pick up some Italian biscuits, some mozzarella or any of the charcuterie used on the pizzas. I really liked this touch and, again, it suggested pride in their ingredients: lots of restaurants talk about this, but they don’t always put their money where their mouths are in this way. I ordered a couple of pizzas, a selection of charcuterie and a couple of desserts, which came to forty-eight pounds, not including tip.

Deliveroo Editions’ kitchen isn’t far from the Moderation, ideally suited to serve both the town centre and Caversham, and my delivery experience was fuss and complication free. I ordered at five past seven, my order was on its way twenty minutes later and within half an hour of ordering a black cab was at my door with the food. Everything was in recyclable cardboard, and their packaging also tells you a bit about their ingredients and sourdough base – a nice touch.

In normal times – in a restaurant, people watching, with a cold beer on the go – I’d have had my charcuterie selection first and my pizza second. I do miss those times. Instead, we went for the pizzas first, reasoning that they would go cold and the charcuterie wouldn’t. I had picked probably my favourite pizza, thinking it would make a good benchmark – a Napoletana, which happens to include olives, capers, anchovies and chilli, many of my favourite things. I’m not sure whether things had moved around in transit, but my pizza had a strange bald spot in the middle and, on further investigation, one corner of the thing was completely devoid of olives, capers or anchovies. Never mind – pizza goes cold so quickly, and at least I knew which bit to eat last.

Having got that whinge out of the way, it really was delicious stuff. It wasn’t stingy with olives and capers the way, say, a Franco Manca pizza would be, and all of the ingredients were really good quality. The intense saltiness of the anchovies, the almost fragrant plump purple olives and the acetic tang of the capers added up to something wonderful: I’ve always thought that this was the pizza for people who love salt and vinegar. 

But more than that, the tomato base was beautifully done, the cheese was top-notch and the base, nicely spotted around the rim, held up superbly.   Zoë’s pizza, the Fiocco di Neve (it translates as snowflake) was every bit as good. It was a simple combination of flavours – sweet thin slivers of onion, salty, punchy gorgonzola and nuggets of coarse, tasty sausagemeat. Sometimes less is more, and this was a good example of that – and the toppings felt generous although, again, the photo suggests there might have been a bit of drift in transit going on in the back of that black cab. VIP’s menu also has a pizza bianca on it which is just fior di latte, potato and sausage, and I can well imagine trying that next time.

We’d also ordered a charcuterie selection for one, and although it didn’t really go after we’d finished the pizza (especially as we’d started to fill up by then) it was still a useful way of checking out the rest of VIP’s produce. It came with some decent toasted sourdough – which would have been even better if we’d eaten it hot, I imagine – and a few bocconcini, but the feature attraction was the meat.  You got a little taster of all the different cured meats they use on their pizzas, all of which you can also buy from the deli to eat at home. 

These broadly fell into three different categories. First, “not bad”: this included the Parma ham and bresaola, both good but unremarkable, a fine Milano salami and a coppa that needed a little more fat and marbling. Second, “really not bad”. This category was comprised of a thoroughly decent coarse speck, some excellent spiniata, a coarse Napoli salami and, my pick of the bunch, some beautiful pancetta with herbal notes and smoky fat almost like lardo. The third category was the mortadella, which I left: I’ve tried it in Bologna and my understanding is that if you don’t like it there, you probably won’t like it anywhere. 

My excuse is that I was saving myself for dessert. I’ve never had a cannolo, and I’ve heard friends rave about them on holidays in Sicily. I can’t tell you whether VIP’s version was authentic or not, but it didn’t quite hit the spot for me – I was hoping the rolled tube of dough would be airier, crisper and bit less like cardboard, and the ricotta inside a little lighter, fresher and more speckled with chocolate chips. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, just that I expected even more – but perhaps it’s unfair to compare this with the snaffling the real deal in a café in Noto.

It’s fairer, perhaps, to compare it with Zoë’s choice of dessert, which came out on top. Scialatelli alla Nutella consisted of fried, sugared strips of pizza dough liberally covered in Nutella. I imagine that sentence either made you hungry or left you cold, but for what it’s worth I loved this dish. It had next to no nutritional value and, like so many things with next to no nutritional value, it was extremely good for the soul. Even lukewarm, having cooled down while we waded through our pizza and charcuterie, it was a superb dessert, like an Italian take on churros with the saturation cranked up. I was allowed to try some, and it made me sad that I hadn’t ordered it while secretly relieved that I had dodged quite that many calories. Zoë didn’t want any of my cannolo in return, which suggests I sold it to her roughly as well as I’ve sold it to you.

So, all in all a very enjoyable meal – Daniel’s summary of “surprisingly fantastic” is both accurate and exceptionally concise. And yet I still felt conflicted at the end of it, because a part of me felt like I’d done the dirty on Papa Gee to have a one night stand with VIP – new in town but, potentially, with no intention of putting down roots. This is where it starts to get complicated to be a consumer, especially a consumer with an interest in building a community. Was I helping a very good pizza restaurant to try Reading out in the hope that they might open a branch here, or was I supporting Brighton’s local economy when I should be helping our local hero on Prospect Street? Was I part of the solution, or part of the problem?

I imagine everybody will have a different answer to that. To some people it won’t even be a question: they just want the best pizza, or the cheapest, or to buy from whoever has a deal on that day. And to some people it’s unthinkable heresy to order from an outsider, or from Deliveroo Editions, or even from Deliveroo in general. I understand all of that, or at least I like to think I do. Modern life is rife with difficult choices. Sometimes choice is a luxury we don’t really need and sometimes – if, for instance, you want to buy some vegetarian dosa from a restaurant on Kings Road – it’s just an illusion. 

I still tend to think of delivery apps in general as a necessary evil, and I don’t know what I make of Deliveroo Editions as a concept, but I came away from my meal with a certain respect for VIP. Even if their stay in Reading is a fleeting one, I wish them every success with it and I think their pizza is pretty damn good. But I’ll make sure I order a takeaway from Papa Gee in the not too distant future – from Deliveroo, again, regrettably – if only by way of penance. It turns out that they do versions of both of the desserts I tried from VIP, so maybe they’ll stop me daydreaming about that pizza dough, slathered in Nutella. Perhaps you have your cannolo and eat it, after all.

VIP Very Italian Pizza

https://deliveroo.co.uk/menu/reading/reading-editions/vip-very-italian-pizza-editions-rea
Order via: Deliveroo only

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Takeaway review: Rizouq

I don’t think I realised, back in January when I started reviewing takeaways, just how it could widen the scope of my blog. Initially, I focused on reviewing restaurants that had opened since we all went into our first lockdown a year ago, which is why I’ve looked into the likes of Banarasi Kitchen, La’De Kitchen and O Português. But now that I’ve been doing this for a few months, and the number of shiny new restaurants on my to do list begins to diminish, I can see that reviewing meals at home opens up all sorts of establishments that I simply couldn’t review before. 

Some are places that don’t have physical premises here like Rosa’s Thai or Burger & Lobster, London restaurants testing the water by running dark kitchens in Reading and partnering with Deliveroo. Others are chefs who deliver in a specific area – these can often be hyperlocal and specialised, like Caversham’s Pielicious or West Berkshire’s The Iberian (which sadly doesn’t deliver to my address: I’ve already checked).

Then of course there are heat at home options offered by established, high profile restaurants – frequently more expensive but aiming to offer a restaurant experience in the comfort of your own home. The most famous of these, locally, is of course our very own Clay’s, but plenty of well-known restaurants offer something like this, for now at least, either through their own website or via a third party like Dishpatch (a company surely named by a Sean Connery fan). 

Whether restaurants continue to offer heat at home options beyond April or May is a fascinating question, and one I suspect many restaurants are wrestling with right now. Is it a useful additional revenue stream, or an exhausting side hustle that will be dropped when restaurants can open again? Most likely nobody really knows the answer to that, just as nobody knows what the shape of hospitality, our social lives, the world of work and, more broadly, life itself will be like over the rest of this year and beyond. 

Will we still want to eat out, or will we just be delighted that the quality of TV dinners has improved a thousandfold? Will we still want to go to pubs in large groups only to get stuck in a conversation with that person who bangs on non-stop about their job, or your one friend who never buys a round, or will we decide we’d just rather stay home drinking better beer, wine and spirits in our comfies?

Your guess is as good as mine. But either way, the overwhelming feedback from readers of the blog has been that you don’t want takeaway reviews to come to an end next Friday, so it may well be that you see more of these kinds of meals in the weeks ahead. And, as always, if there’s somewhere you’re particularly interested in (or somewhere you especially recommend) you should let me know.

The other type of restaurants I can review now that I couldn’t back at the start of 2020 are those that are almost exclusively takeaway. Firezza, which I sampled in January, falls into this category and so, pretty much, does Rizouq, the subject of this week’s review. 

Rizouq bill themselves as a family-run Pakistani takeaway, and pre-Covid their site on the Wokingham Road had the grand total of one table in the window: you could technically eat in, it implied, but nobody did. One table is almost as discouraging as no tables at all, I tend to think, with the notable exception of Harput Kebab, just round the corner from the Nag’s Head. There’s a certain magic, if you ask me, about sitting next to a fogged up window, a warm glow behind you, Edward Hopperesque on the Oxford Road, half-cut and devouring a chicken shish.

Rizouq has been on my radar for the best part of four years, though, because of my regular reader Mansoor (last seen tipping me off about La’De Kitchen). He’s been telling me for as long as I can remember that I needed to give Rizouq a try and even gave me a list of the best dishes to try. “The chicken samosa is up there with the chilli paneer from Bhel Puri for loveliness”, he told me once. On another occasion he said that I should try the snacks in general and the shami kebab in particular (“we have a regular order of frozen shami kebabs for quick meals during the week”). 

More recently, he told me to try the curries and the chicken tikka sizzler (“that’s my wife’s favourite”, he said), and I thought that I’d gone quite long enough without taking Mansoor’s expert advice. So I went back through his Tweets to me, I made notes and, on Wednesday night, I sat down with my phone to put as many of Mansoor’s recommendations as I could into action. 

This turned out to be trickier than I expected, and I’m afraid it means you now have to sit through some of the dullest paragraphs I’ve written in a long time – dull but sadly, probably necessary. So here goes: I managed to find Rizouq on Deliveroo and Uber Eats. Most of the dishes are nearly a pound cheaper on Uber Eats, and the delivery charge is a pound less too, so if you’ve had good experiences with them then knock yourself out. I am not using Uber Eats, because they’re shite, so I stuck to Deliveroo. 

However, while researching this review I found that Rizouq are also on JustEat – on desktop but not, it seems, on the app. Go figure. The dishes are cheaper on JustEat than on Deliveroo, too. And, it turns out, you can also order on Rizouq’s website, although the website isn’t easy to find – it’s fairly low down in the Google search results. It is listed on Rizouq’s Facebook page, but if you try and access it that way it’s blocked because it apparently goes against Facebook’s community standards. Given all the offensive dross Facebook refuses to take down, all the hatemongering and anti-vaxxing, that’s even more baffling. 

What’s also baffling – sorry, we’re not done yet – is that the menu is subtly different across all of the platforms. I’m boring myself writing this, but in for a penny, in for a pound: if you order via JustEat, for example, you have a choice of a “vegetable curry” or a “non-vegetable curry”. If you order on Deliveroo you can choose lentil, vegetable, chicken or lamb curry. And if you order on Rizouq’s website they have five different curries, which come in two different sizes. Confused? Me too. So if Rizouq is a well-kept secret, it might be because they make it more complicated than it needs to be. Just a thought.

For those of you who are still awake, the menu is so wide that you could easily struggle to work out what to order if you didn’t have a sherpa like Mansoor to guide you. It covers a lot of bases, so there are starters and snacks, curries and biryani (I think the biryani used to be a weekend only thing, but it seems they now sell it every day). But there are also burgers and wraps, many of which feel much more conventional in nature. So a seekh kebab wrap sits alongside a Southern fried chicken wrap, a tikka sizzler burger is in the same section as a minted lamb burger. There are samosas, but also mozzarella sticks and garlic mushrooms. It’s clearly a modern menu designed to cover all bases in the community it serves, with a few adjustments made for that purpose – no beefburgers, turkey bacon instead of regular bacon and so on. 

Even at Deliveroo prices, nearly everything is either reasonably priced or plain cheap. You’ll struggle to find a dish costing over ten pounds, starters are all less than a fiver and the burgers range between five and eight pounds. We ordered two starters and two mains with sides and our meal came to thirty pounds, not including tip. Everything was very efficient, too. We placed our order at six o’clock, and half an hour later our rider was on his way. He got to us in less than five minutes – an impressive feat – so in next to no time we were taking everything out of the carrier bag and dishing it up. It came in a mixture of recyclable plastic and foil and more problematic polystyrene, but everything was perfectly hot.

Mansoor’s tip about Rizouq’s starters was a good one, as these were definitely the best things I ate. You got three chicken samosas, each one bigger than my hand, for four pounds fifty (or even less if you order through someone else) and they were magnificent things. The pastry was maybe harder, oilier and more brittle than it is at Cake&Cream up the road, but the filling was beautiful – nothing but shredded chicken, potato, spice and a slowly building heat. I loved these, although I have failed to sum them up as succinctly as my other half Zoë. “It’s fried, it’s fresh as fuck and it’s full of meat” she said. All the Fs. “What’s not to like?”

I also loved the shami kebab. I wouldn’t have ordered this without the recommendation from Mansoor – I’d have been far more likely to stay in my comfort zone and have seekh kebab instead – but these were a real revelation, fiery yet comforting patties with shedloads of strands of mutton. I expected them to keep their shape a little better and have a bit of a crust, but in reality they were so soft they fell apart dishing them up from their foil container. Whether they’re meant to be quite that soft is for someone better informed to say, but the taste was so good that I really couldn’t have cared less. Again, all this just cost four pounds fifty.

If the mains were less successful, it’s possibly because the snacks had set a high standard. My chicken tikka sizzler was perfectly enjoyable but a little unremarkable – a nicely spiced fillet in the sort of soft floury bap you don’t see too often these days, with some mayo and iceberg lettuce. That was it: done pretty well, but on the basic side. I think I’ve been ruined by the Lyndhurst’s katsu chicken burger, the size of which made Rizouq’s burger look a bit anaemic by comparison. On the other hand, Rizouq’s costs five pounds fifty. 

I don’t know why I thought having a side of hash browns was a good idea, but I did anyway. They were shop-bought and perfectly enjoyable, if a little limp and floppy. Next time I’ll have fries or, most likely, order something different, although I still polished them off with my new gastronomic obsession, Johnny Hot Stuff’s “Hot Date” sauce, picked up from Geo Café. It was only after the meal that I realised I’d neglected to take a picture of my main but trust me – even if I had, I don’t think it would have sent you running to order one.

Zoë had gone for the daily lamb curry which was in a relatively dry sauce and served on the bone. She really enjoyed it, despite usually being a little suspicious of meat on the bone. I wasn’t quite so sure – the meat I tried was delicious and tender, but with rice thrown in this dish came to eleven pounds, and I couldn’t help thinking that better options were available, from Banarasi Kitchen, from Clay’s or from Kobeeda Palace. That’s the curse of reviewing, as I said to someone on Twitter recently: you are always comparing, whether you’re comparing to your expectations, to your hopes, or to a similar dish you’ve tried elsewhere.

So, that’s Rizouq: a menu, hidden in a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, strewn across four different websites. But if you look beyond that, it happens to be a great example of a restaurant that knows exactly what it wants to be, understands its customer base and serves it admirably. Mansoor aside, I expect a fair amount of ER readers either haven’t heard of Rizouq or wouldn’t consider giving it a try. Did my meal put it on my radar, and would I recommend it to you? 

It’s a cautious yes from me on that score. I do think that the experience – the menus and the myriad of delivery options – is needlessly confusing, but at the core of it, when you strip away the distraction, there’s a good, authentic and crazily reasonably priced menu in there waiting to be discovered. When I go back, which I definitely will, it will be to try more of the snacks, and maybe a seekh kebab wrap, or I’ll have a crack at Rizouq’s biryani to see how it compares. 

Or, better still, perhaps I’ll follow up on another recommendation from my insider. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, Rizouq offers a desi breakfast, and looking at the menu, I can just imagine myself tucking into a Lahori chickpea curry, spiced potatoes, halwa and buttery puri. Mansoor speaks very highly of it, and that’s good enough for me. After all, he hasn’t steered me wrong so far.

Rizouq
117 Wokingham Road, Reading, RG6 1LH
0118 9668899

https://rizouqtakeaway.co.uk/order-now
Order via: Rizouq’s website, Deliveroo, JustEat or Uber Eats

Takeaway review: O Português

Many years ago, in another life, I was spending a long weekend in Lisbon (remember when we used to have those?) and I had the good fortune to go on a food tour hosted by the journalist and writer Celia Pedroso. Every city – every country too, for that matter – should have an advocate like Pedroso, and anybody who went to Lisbon thinking that Portugal was all peri-peri chicken and egg custard tarts would have had their mind absolutely blown by a few hours in her expert company. 

It turned out that Portugal had cheese and ham that could rival anything from Spain, had not only port but also wonderful rich red wines and fresh, almost effervescent vinho verde. We sat in a restaurant called Tagide, looking out over the city, trying petiscos, Portugal’s take on small sharing plates, which were every bit as delicious as any tapas I’d eaten in Andalusia. Then there was ginjinha, a cherry liqueur sometimes served in – just imagine this – an edible chocolate shot glass. Throw the aforementioned chicken and pasteis de nata into the mix, and you have the makings of a wonderful, unsung cuisine.

I came away from that afternoon thinking that Portugal, so often overshadowed by its Iberian cousin, might be the best-kept food secret in Europe. It’s well-kept enough, for some reason, that Portuguese food has never quite made it to these shores; London has never had a Portuguese invasion the way as, say, Peruvian food some years ago and, closer to home, in nearly eight years of writing this blog I’ve only ever reviewed two Portuguese restaurants. Both of them left me a bit baffled, to put it lightly: was it just that the food didn’t travel well?

All of this made me very curious indeed when the old Bart’s Steakhouse site next to Palmer Park, which was Colley’s Supper Rooms for many years, reopened as O Português. All the early signs pointed to a hearty, authentic Portuguese restaurant, and the restaurant’s social media output – all bilingual – suggested a wide and interesting menu, ever-changing daily specials and huge amounts of support from the local Portuguese community. With the exception of Deliveroo-only London imports like Burger & Lobster and Rosa’s Thai, O Português is probably the restaurant most readers have told me they want me to check out. They’re on JustEat, so on a quiet weekday lunchtime I sat down to pore over their menu and decide what to order for dinner.

Researching the menu was an awful lot of fun and involved having JustEat open in one browser tab, Google in another. It was both an education in Portuguese food and a reminder of how little I knew about it. The menu had a selection of just under ten starters, most of them hovering around the seven pound mark, and a wide range of main courses ranging from ten to twenty pounds. Some had descriptions, some didn’t, but I hadn’t heard of much of it and the more I researched the hungrier I got. Did I fancy arroz de marisco, seafood rice that might rival a paella, or bacalhau a bráz, a sort of salt cod scrambled egg dish with matchstick potatoes? 

Everywhere I looked a different genre of gastronomic temptation was waving from the menu, shouting “pick me!”. And of course, the problem with looking up all these different Portuguese specialities was that Google always seemed to throw up the platonic ideal of each dish, a picture of every single one as its absolute best self. It partly wanted to make me order from O Português, it very much made me want to hop on the next plane to Porto and, perhaps most of all, it made me hope that ordering from O Português would make me feel less sad about the fact that I couldn’t so much get on the RailAir, let alone fly to Portugal at the drop of a hat. 

I deliberated, I horse-traded with my other half Zoë and we placed an order for that evening – two starters and two mains, coming to just over thirty-six pounds, including delivery and service charge. Then we got on with our day, but every now and again, on our afternoon walk, I would remember that I had this takeaway to look forward to and I thought what I always think with these review meals: I hope it’s good.

We’d ordered our food to arrive at seven pm, and the JustEat experience was pretty efficient, painless and slightly early. We were told at just before twenty to seven that our rider was on his way, and he pulled up outside the house barely five minutes later. Most of our food was in foil containers with cardboard lids, all recyclable, and one dish we’d ordered was in polystyrene. At the time I thought nothing of it, but later Zoë said “considering it’s less than ten minutes down the road it’s just not hot enough” and, on reflection, I tended to agree.

O Português’ starters mostly read like unpretentious bar food and I was excited about trying them. The first of them, pica pau, was thinly cut pork or beef in a spicy, beery gravy with pickled vegetables: the name translates as woodpecker, and the idea is that you pick away at it with a cocktail stick while drinking a cold Super Bock (or, in my case that evening, a beautiful bottle of Alhambra 1925, a birthday present from a friend). 

That sounds fantastic in theory, but O Português’ version was a bit challenging in practice. There was plenty of beef, most of it reasonably tender, but I didn’t detect any spice and next to nothing you could describe as gravy. Instead, there was a lot of pickled cauliflower and carrot, so much so that the sharp tang of vinegar was the main detectable flavour of the whole lot. I was inclined to give O Português the benefit of the doubt: I suspect this dish was reasonably authentic and probably just not for me. But I love pickles and I still found this a bit acrid; Zoë, who despises vinegar in all its forms, couldn’t cope with even a forkful of this dish. Strangest of all, it was a lot of food for six pounds fifty: if you liked it, you’d describe it as amazing value. If you didn’t, it was just cheap.

Fantastic in theory probably also sums up the other starter we had, another iconic Portuguese dish and again, meant to be robust rather than fancy. I had been tempted by the prego no pau, a “nailed” steak sandwich with garlic – apparently – literally hammered into it, but instead I went for bifana, which is probably the national sandwich of Portugal. And again, some of the problems with it may have derived from the disconnect between reading all about how amazing these could be in theory and then eating O Português’ in practice. 

In the wonderful theoretical world of the internet, the pork loin used in a bifana is thin and marinated, soused in flavour. In the real world of the polystyrene container in my living room, the pork was thicker, drier and, it seemed to me, ever so slightly overcooked. There was a good pungent waft of garlic underneath the pork, but it felt like it had been added afterwards rather than cooked alongside it. Perhaps if I’d had this in a tasca somewhere in the Bairro Alto, I’d have loved it, but on my sofa it lacked that power to transport.

Zoë liked it more than me – “thank god for bread and pork” were her exact words, but that might be because she had so little time for her main course. She had gone for the frango grelhado, grilled chicken, thinking that it was a classic Portuguese dish and relatively easy to get right. Now, ordinarily in these takeaway reviews Zoë plays a relatively minor role. On this occasion, however, I’ll have to quote her extensively, because she disliked her dinner so much that I ended up resorting to grabbing my phone, opening the Notes app and taking dictation at numerous points throughout the rest of the evening.

“It’s a mirage” she started. “It looks like it’s going to be a delicious baby chicken, like the ones from Bakery House, but actually it’s just a carcass covered in tasty skin.”

The forkful Zoë had let me have taste indeed have a tasty coating and I’d rather liked it. I wasn’t sure it was better than Nando’s, and it definitely wasn’t better than the best roast chicken I’d had in Lisbon, but it wasn’t terrible.

“You know that bit of chicken I let you try? That was most of the meat there was on the whole thing. It had more bones than Cemetery Junction. And another thing: it tastes to me like it’s been reheated. It feels like a quarter of chicken you’d get from a chicken shop.”

I supposed it was possible. I knew, for instance, that Nando’s precooked its chicken before finishing it on the grill: perhaps O Português did likewise. As if to prove her point, she lifted the whole scrawny thing up. It dangled uselessly from her fork, as if from a gibbet.

“It’s tough in places. I think it’s been reheated. It’s the chicken I feel sorry for. If it’s going to die, it should at least give somebody some pleasure. And the chips are just cold and hard.”

They’d looked pretty decent and home made on the plate, but apparently not.

“What about the rice?”

“It’s okay, but it’s rice. How wrong can you go with rice?” 

She had a point.

I’d picked my main having scrolled through O Português’ social media and when it turned up, it definitely looked the part. Arroz con pato, or duck with rice, sounded really promising. And again, it was a huge portion – tons of rice with what looked like shredded duck leg tumbled through it, and crispy slices of chourico and what looked like smoked pork on top. I mean, on paper, how good does that sound? And even looking at the picture below – well, it does look the part.

And yes, in theory, this dish should have been a standout. But there’s that word, theory, again: in reality it somehow managed to be less than the sum of its parts. The chourico was lovely and smoky (you smelled it the instant the lid came off the foil container), there was plenty of duck and even the smoked pork – which I’d normally approach with caution – was salty and tasty. But somehow, none of that flavour had made it into the rice and so the whole thing was heavy going. 

And again, portion size and cost made for a confusing combination – this dish was eleven pounds, was far more food than I could physically eat and wasn’t tasty enough that I was remotely disappointed about having to leave some. If you liked it, it would be phenomenal value. It seemed especially odd compared to the chicken dish, which was also eleven pounds but, even by comparison, poor value. Poor value compared to Bakery House’s wonderful boneless baby chicken too, come to think of it.

Later, when we were emptying quite a lot of our dinner into one of Reading Council’s exciting new food recycling caddies, she pointed to a clump of something beige in the foil dish. “See that? That’s where I spat a chip out.” I’ve had some iffy chips in my time, often bad enough that I’ve not bothered finishing the portion, but spitting one out isn’t something I’ve ever had to do. The meal left a disappointment which lingered for the rest of the evening, only slightly redeemed by eating some phenomenal chocolate brownies (another birthday gift, as it happens).

I’ve really not looked forward to writing this review, and I’ve rarely taken less pleasure in saying that somewhere wasn’t my cup of tea. I so wanted to like O Português, and I very much wanted to be reminded of everything I love about Portugal. And I find myself in a difficult position because, despite having visited that country several times, I couldn’t even begin to tell you whether the dishes we ate were authentic. It might be that they were, and that I like Portuguese food less than I thought I did, or that they weren’t. 

Or it could just be that the restaurant just had an off day. I don’t even know, really, which is the best case scenario, out of those possible outcomes. I’m sure that O Português has enough of a customer base that this is no skin off their nose, but I still feel sad that I can’t recommend them. I wished that everything I had eaten had been smaller, better and more expensive – and wanting all three of those things from a restaurant, all at once, is just not how it should be.

All I really know is that a small independent restaurant, pretty much the only one of its kind in Reading, cooked a meal I very much struggled to enjoy, and a large part of me dearly wishes this week’s review had reported different news. We still have no tapas restaurant since the sad departure of I Love Paella, and I’m yet to find a Portuguese restaurant in this country that feels like it does their food justice. If you want chicken perfected on a grill, Bakery House remains the place to beat. And if you want the closest thing to Portuguese food here, I’m afraid you’ll have to head to Nando’s. Nando’s isn’t Portuguese either – it’s South African, as a matter of fact – but you probably knew that already, didn’t you?

O Português
21 Wokingham Road, Reading, RG6 1LE
0118 9268949

https://www.facebook.com/OPortuguesInTown
Order via: JustEat

Takeaway review: Thai Table

Can you believe it’s two months since I announced that I was going to start reviewing takeaways? January properly dragged – even more than most Januaries, and that’s saying a lot – but the weeks feel like they’ve whipped by since I settled into my regular routine of research, ordering, eating, digesting and writing. As we sit on the cusp of the next phase of whatever this year will turn out to be, I realise I’m running out of time to review takeaways before restaurants (or, at least, those restaurants lucky enough to have sufficient outside space to be vaguely profitable) open again. And after that, you might be off eating in those, or you might still want to read about takeaways. Who knows? The future has never felt harder to predict.

My original plan was to try and check out places that had opened since I stopped writing reviews last March, and places that I’d never had a chance to review because they only did takeaway. And it’s been a real journey of discovery since then – square pizzas from the Shinfield Road, beautiful dal from West Reading, stunning grilled meats from suburban Woodley, not to mention woeful burgers from a hotel that ought to know better. And, because they deserve to be shouted about, I also found time to sample delicious and imaginative food from the pub just round the corner from my house

But I realise there’s one category of takeaway I’ve not managed to cover so far, and that’s places that have always done takeaway but that, for whatever reason, just never occur to people as an option. Under the radar restaurants.

This time last year, when the restaurants had just been told to close, because I really wanted to do something to help, I started a Twitter thread listing local businesses and how they were adapting. It took off, and I was constantly updating it: this business was doing free delivery, that business had moved to call and collect. Things changed on a daily basis as restaurants, cafés, pubs and breweries were forced to adapt and fight for survival. I bet they all look back, reflect on the fact that was a year ago, and feel incredibly tired.

When I did the thread, I got a reply from Thai Table, the Thai restaurant in Caversham just down from the Griffin. They delivered to a wide range of Reading postcodes, they said. Thai Table does takeaway, I thought. Who knew? So I added them to the thread and they very politely thanked me. They’ve only ever written four Tweets, and half of them were either asking me for help or thanking me for it. 

They stuck out like a sore thumb in the thread – everybody else was pivoting here and there, setting up webshops, looking at new ways of doing business. By contrast, the mention of Thai Table wasn’t about innovation, it was just a quiet reminder. We’re still here, it said. Don’t forget about us. So Thai Table crossed my mind last weekend when I was deciding what to eat and review this week. I’d always enjoyed their food when I ate in the restaurant, and I remembered their awfully nice Tweet from a year ago. 

The other thing that occurred to me is that, with takeaways, geography is key. When I reviewed restaurants where I’d eaten in, the chances are you could probably get to them, but with deliveries it all hinges on whether you’re in the catchment area. And so far I’ve covered central Reading, and south east and west, but I hadn’t reviewed anywhere north of the river. So it was high time I got a delivery from Caversham: it felt like the very least I could do for my many avid readers there.

Thai Table’s menu is a classic Thai menu with few surprises and lots of old favourites, and although a handful of dishes are marked as specialities I didn’t see anything on there I haven’t seen on menus elsewhere. There is a star rating for heat where one star means mild, three stars means hot and so on: a fair few have zero stars, and it wasn’t clear whether that meant extra mild or bland. I suspected it wouldn’t be the kind of scorchingly hot authentic Thai food you might get at Oli’s Thai in Oxford, Som Saa in Spitalfields or The Heron in Paddington, but that didn’t bother me – sometimes menus like this are about comfort and familiarity, rather than trailblazing and sinus razing. There’s also a gluten free and vegetarian menu, which I assume means they omit fish sauce for the latter.

Thai Table handles deliveries itself, covering a relatively wide range of RG postcodes, and isn’t on any delivery apps, so you can either order on their website or go fully old school and ring them up. I decided to phone, mainly because my browser told me that their website wasn’t secure, and because their website warned of potentially long waiting times on Friday and Saturday nights I put my call in just after six o’clock. It was clearly a well-oiled machine, and after I had placed my order I was told someone would call me back in a few minutes to take my payment – no doubt freeing up the hotline for the next takeaway order. 

We ordered two mains, two portions of rice and three starters and the whole thing came to just over fifty pounds, which included a delivery charge. Our food would be about fifty minutes, they said, and everything about the process made me feel like I was in safe hands.

It’s no coincidence that every time I’ve ordered direct from the restaurant delivery has worked like a charm, and this was no exception. Around forty minutes after placing my order, there was a ring on the doorbell and a friendly driver handed over my branded carrier bag. Everything was perfectly hot, and everything came in recyclable plastic tubs. Another sign that Thai Table know what they’re doing with this stuff: they had put clingfilm over the tubs before snapping on the lids, just an extra precaution to prevent any disasters. It sounds like a small thing, but I appreciated the thoughtfulness, just as I loved the little slip in my bag detailing, with little infographics, all the extra steps the restaurant had taken to ensure the safety of its employees and its customers.

I reviewed Thai Table back in 2015, but one of its dishes, the massaman beef, made such an impression on me that three years later, when I published a list of Reading’s 10 must-try dishes, it made the cut. I felt it was incumbent on me to try it again, so I made a beeline for it when I placed my order. It was a ridiculously generous portion of beef, wavy-cut chunks of waxy potato and sweet onion in a glossy sauce, so much that it almost spilled over the high sides of my bowl. 

It had stuck in my memory as an indulgent, cossetting dish but actually, if anything, it was more interesting than I remembered. So of course every forkful of fragrant coconut rice soaked in that silky sauce was gorgeous, but the whole thing was shot through with star anise, giving it an extra dimension that stopped it being cloying. I thought it could do with ever so slightly more chilli heat, but it was so luxurious (and faintly soporific) that I couldn’t complain. I’d been concerned that the colossal hunks of beef bobbing in the sauce might be too tough, but every single one passed the two forks test with flying colours. And I’d forgotten how much I love coconut rice, too, right up until the moment when I took the lid off the container and that wonderful aroma rapidly came into focus.

Zoë had stayed traditional with a green chicken curry, and I was allowed a forkful (“but that’s all, I’m not sharing”). It had considerably more punch from the chilli and crunch from the bamboo shoots, and the chicken was tender, but I didn’t feel like I was missing out by sticking with my choice. It was a decent effort, and probably healthier by virtue of containing more veg (the courgettes had the same crenellations as the potato in my curry), but I would have liked it to have a little more richness and oomph. I was graciously permitted to approach the bowl again with my fork to try some of the rice and sauce – for me, always the best bit of eating Thai food – and that was enjoyable enough to make me think I might have judged it harshly.

The problem with takeaways, as I’ve said before, is that it isn’t that practical to eat two separate courses – you’re bound to have one of them past its best, or kept warm when it should have been eaten there and then – so often starters find themselves promoted to side dishes, as happened here. The first of the starters was ribs, which came in a deep, dark sauce without much chilli heat but with a hint of peanut and what felt like braised lettuce swimming around at the bottom. The meat fell cleanly off the bone with three of the ribs, while the fourth was a distinctly more cartilaginous affair. 

“The ribs definitely win the starters”, said Zoë: I, saddled with that slightly gristly fourth one, was less certain. The ribs were definitely better, though, than the fish cakes. I know their slightly squeaky, rubbery texture isn’t for everyone but they really do need to be eaten piping hot for it not to be disconcerting. I like fishcakes, or at least I seem to remember that I always have, but these didn’t really do it for me.

My pick of the starters was probably the Northern Thai sausage, which was a single sausage (homemade, apparently) cut into diagonal slices. It was more fragrant than hot, with a good whack of lemongrass. I enjoyed it, although three starters definitely turned out to be a starter too many, especially with such generous mains. 

But I couldn’t help comparing it to the Thai sausage cooked up by street food traders Porco at the Blue Collar-hosted final of the UK Street Food Awards last year. That – so aromatic, coarse and perfectly spiced – was one of the most magnificent things I’d ever tasted, whereas this was slightly diminished even by its memory. But that’s Blue Collar for you: they excel at gradually making conventional restaurant food suffer by comparison, cuisine by cuisine and dish by dish. It would be easy to hold it against them, if they weren’t so good.

This week’s meal, as much as any takeaway I’ve had, has been truly educational when it comes to the difference between eating in and eating at home. Because if I had eaten this food on duty in a restaurant, in some parallel world where the pandemic never happened, I might have spent my time looking at what was missing. I might have said that the food wasn’t particularly inventive or revolutionary, or that it didn’t bowl me over. I might say, as I’ve said reviewing many Thai restaurants in and around Reading over the last seven years, that it all felt somewhat much of a muchness. 

But here’s the thing: in this world, in March 2021, I found it all really quite lovely. It’s nice, sometimes, to play it safe. It’s fun to enjoy a meal without surprises, good or bad, and to know exactly what you’re getting. In a world where so much has changed, some of it beyond recognition, it can be hugely reassuring to be reminded that not everything has. And on that Saturday night, I felt grateful that Thai Table were there, still doing what they’d always done, working their socks off (and taking all those extra precautions) so I could sit there in my comfies and be transported by the alchemy of coconut, beef and star anise. 

So there you have it – they’re not on Deliveroo or Uber Eats, they’re not gurning away on Instagram Stories, they’re not doing anything but cooking very pleasant food and driving it round to your house. If you live in their catchment area, and you fancy taking a night off juggling what’s in the fridge and the cupboards, checking your best before dates, you could do an awful lot worse than giving them a call. They probably won’t ever see this review, and they may never Tweet again, but I’m strangely delighted that they contacted me a year ago with that simple message: We’re still here. Please don’t forget about us. I’m glad, too, that I didn’t.

Thai Table
8 Church Road, Reading, RG4 7AD
0118 9471500

https://www.thaitable.co.uk
Order via: Direct with the restaurant, online or by phone

Takeaway review: Osaka

The sort-of roadmap back to normality was announced last month and you could almost hear, online and among friends, a cautious but relieved exhalation. Pubs and restaurants announced their plans, the days got longer, my parents were both vaccinated, my barber booked me in for a haircut on a date some months away. There were some sunny days, at long last, and when I walked through Forbury Gardens I could see people sitting on the grass, as if you could wish summer into existence by force of will alone.

And yet now we’re in March I see a lot of people looking back; the earth has completed its orbit around the sun, and everybody seems in a reflective mood. So we remember the last time we went to a pub with friends, the last time we hugged our loved ones, the last time we took a train to London or a bus to Kennet Island; someone I follow on Twitter posted recently that it was the anniversary of the date on which he is pretty confident that he contracted Covid-19.

We’ve had a year largely in stasis and it gives all the little historic moments, all those Facebook memories, enormous power. This weekend a year ago I held my last pre-Covid readers’ lunch at the Lyndhurst. Even at the time, it was an event that felt slightly more of a gamble than I might have liked – but we knew so little, back then. In any event the tables were spread out, there was hand sanitiser at every table and everybody had a pretty good idea that this was probably the last big social event they would attend for the foreseeable future. 

I am hugely fortunate: if I had to pick a day to recall over and over across twelve relatively barren months, I couldn’t have chosen a better one. My birthday is in the not too distant future, and it will probably be even more of a non-event than the last one. At least I had some kind of party last year, even if I didn’t understand that at the time.

That delicious lunch at the Lyndhurst, nearly a year ago, was my first encounter with what I’ve since termed the clock of terror: that anxious seven day wait after you do something that involves an element of risk. Seven days of scanning and anxiety: is it a sore throat, or just allergies, or the arrival of the Big Bad? My own personal clock of terror has been reset dozens of times this year, and it never gets much easier. The prospect of a humdrum, quotidian life absent of risk or fear (or, at least, with a lot less risk and fear) can’t arrive soon enough.

The last meal I had on duty before the restaurants closed, a year ago today, was at Osaka, the Japanese restaurant in the Oracle that took over the spot that used to be Café Rouge. I liked a lot of my food, and I loved the way they’d made over a tired and unloved site. When I went, I thought I can fit in one more review on the blog without fully grasping, at the time, just how pointless that would be. I should have known, really: lockdowns aside, when you’re looking at a restaurant hoping it won’t get busy, when you find yourself in a hurry to pay up and leave instead of enjoying a leisurely midweek lunch, you aren’t in the right frame of mind to review it. 

The week of lockdown I wrote a piece about it, but you couldn’t really call it a review. It was more of a diary piece, and it started an enjoyable few months of writing posts on the blog that weren’t just about restaurants, to keep myself occupied and give people something to read. People were very kind about them, and I kept going until just after the first big lockdown came to an end. Then I took a break, then in our third national lockdown I said I’d have a go at reviewing takeaway restaurants, and here we are.

I also said that when I went back to eating in restaurants, Osaka would be the first restaurant I reviewed. But a year has passed and we aren’t quite there yet, so to mark the occasion I thought I would review their takeaway this week instead. And flicking through the menu on a Monday night, I found myself wishing I hadn’t left it so long; I adore sushi and sashimi, and I couldn’t quite believe I haven’t eaten it for a year. I guess the problem is that the list of things we all haven’t done for a year is so long you forget half of what’s on it.

You can only order via Deliveroo, and the range is slimmed down compared to the restaurant menu – a handful of starters, just over half a dozen maki, the same for nigiri and only two types of sashimi. There’s no tempura, no temaki, no platters or bigger selections, either, so the selection is considerably more limited than at Sushimania, Osaka’s closest competitor. The pricing is comparable, but all over the place: some items are more expensive at Osaka, others at Sushimania with little rhyme or reason behind it. 

Osaka also has main courses on its menu, ramen, rice and noodle dishes, all priced around the twelve pound mark. I decided to steer clear of them, partly because I figured sushi and sashimi would travel better – with no danger of going cold – and partly because once I started looking at all that sushi and sashimi I pretty much wanted to eat that and nothing else. Moreover, Deliveroo was running an offer that gave you twenty per cent off provided you spent over twenty pounds: not difficult at the best of times, but easy as pie when you’re scratching a year-old sushi itch. 

Delivery was free of drama and in very good time – I placed my order just after seven o’clock, and about half an hour later the man was at my door with a couple of bags. Plonking them all on a couple of little tables in the living room, I was struck that although sushi was convenient to have delivered, it probably loses out more than most food when you compare it to eating in the restaurant. Japanese food is all about precise arrangement and beautiful presentation, and that’s something you can’t really replicate when you package food for delivery. So instead everything was crammed into black plastic trays with a clear lid – and I did find myself thinking that the black plastic might not be recyclable. 

There felt like an awful lot of packaging, too: I wasn’t sure, for instance, whether a separate plastic sachet of ginger, wasabi and soy sauce with every single item was strictly necessary. It felt odd, too, that they supplied all these condiments but no chopsticks – there was probably a tick box for these when ordering but I wasn’t used to asking for asking for cutlery for a delivery order (for obvious reasons) so I didn’t spot it. Fortunately, it turned out that we had a couple of pairs of in the house: the ones pictured below, which I thought were adorable, were commandeered by my public transport-loving partner in crime.

We kicked off with the one hot dish we’d ordered – crispy chicken karaage – a portion each because we were too peckish to share. I loved this: it’s a reference dish I often order in Japanese restaurants and I think Osaka’s rendition is up there with any I’ve tried (with the possible exception of Gurt Wings’ “JFC” at Blue Collar on Fridays, which is Death Row stuff). 

Good tori karaage is trickier to do than you might think, and many versions either feature breast meat which is a little too dry or thigh which is just a tad too bouncy. Perhaps it’s all in the marinade, but the texture of Osaka’s was bang on, the coating light and crispy with no grease or oiliness at all. I squeezed my lemon over the generous helping of fried chicken, dipped it in the thick mayonnaise, sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds, and ate in rapt contentment. 

One way of offsetting having a whole portion of fried chicken to yourself is to eat something as clean as sashimi, so we each had a portion of salmon sashimi to ourselves, too. You got three expertly cut slabs of fish for your money – just under five pounds – and they really were terrific, marbled, almost buttery things. If only everything that was good for you tasted as marvellous (or contained as few calories as) sashimi, the planet would be a very different place. And even if it wasn’t, I might be a lot slimmer. The sashimi came, as it always does, with a big pile of spiralised mooli, and I wondered, as I always do, who actually eats that bit: slim people, probably.

I’m not generally a fan of nigiri, but I always make an exception for unagi, or grilled eel. There’s something about this especially meaty, muscular fish, strapped with seaweed to a lozenge of sushi rice, that makes for a perfect mouthful. Osaka’s were decent – and pretty good value at four pounds forty – and the eel had plenty of oily flavour, but I would have liked a little more of the savoury sauce on top.

The rest of our dishes were all variations on sushi rolls and, like the rest of the food, they were impeccably done, tasteful and a model of restraint. Avocado maki are another of those reference dishes – done well, there’s nothing quite like that gorgeous creamy avocado hugged by rice, all dabbed in a tiny pool of soy. These were very well assembled – no looseness, no nori not quite meeting in the middle – and the avocado was wonderfully ripe with no browning. 

It seemed a little strange that each maki was made up of several smaller slivers of avocado rather than one big strip, but it made no difference to how enjoyable they were. Spicy tuna maki were also extremely good, with the fiery tuna perched on top of the sushi rice rather than encased by it – these were definitely the punchiest thing I ate, and a dish I’ll make a beeline for when I order again.

Finally, we had ordered an uramaki roll – these are bigger, longer affairs, all of which hover around the twelve pound mark. The selection through Deliveroo was very limited – just the five on offer, as opposed to the twelve on the restaurant menu – and the purist in me ruled out the two featuring crushed tortilla as a fusion bridge too far. Fortunately the one we ended up going for, the green dragon, turned out to be an excellent choice. This had katsu prawn, a baton of avocado and thin strips of cucumber in the middle of the rice with avocado daubed on top, the whole thing then crowned with Japanese mayonnaise (Kewpie, at a guess), a drizzle of dark unagi sauce and, last but not least, a little cluster of tobiko, or fish roe. 

Typing that all out makes it sound incredibly busy, and I was worried approaching it that it would taste too muddled, but it really was a masterful dish. The many flavours and textures could have jostled for supremacy, or tried to shout each other down, but in reality the whole thing was harmonious and superb. I especially liked the fact that the cucumber was so finely cut – so often you get a big watery ingot in the middle of your sushi – and the crunch largely came from the katsu prawn instead, with everything else almost symphonically arranged. 

Again, I imagine this dish is quite a looker in the restaurant but distinctly jolie laide when delivered. Not that that bothered me in the slightest: I’ve taken more than enough pictures of the university’s Lego Building to prove that I have a soft spot for the unconventionally attractive.

Our meal for two, including a 20% discount, came to just under forty-five pounds, not including tip. And although I feared at the start of my meal that I’d still be hungry at the end of it I found myself nicely sated: all those small bits of rice here and there add up, and you find yourself full almost by stealth. Some people will think that’s pricey, and I understand that you could get a lot more food for far less money, but to some extent I feel that runs the risk of missing the point.

I’ve found Osaka’s food far more difficult to sum up than usual: it’s technically very competent, and much of it is delicious, but because it’s so polite and precise, so well done and well behaved, the danger is to damn it with faint praise. It does feel like the menu is less suited to sharing than the likes of Sushimania, and more limited too, so I can see that if you wanted a sushi feast you might spend your money elsewhere. But if you compare individual dishes I’d say that Osaka is better, in terms of its attention to detail and quality of execution (a more interesting comparison might be with Oishi down the Oxford Road which, confusingly, offers delivery both under that name and the nom de plume Taberu Express).

Also, more than with most restaurants, I sense that Osaka offering its menu for delivery involves a number of compromises. Those kind of compromises wouldn’t trouble, say, a burger joint, but for sushi and sashimi it must be frustrating to present your food in a format so far from the ideal. Personally, I’m delighted that they made those compromises so I could spend some of my Monday evening enjoying their immaculate food. Resetting the clock of terror is one thing, but resetting the clock of sushi is a far happier experience. 

For all of the time I’ve spent looking back, I do wonder what the world will be like in March 2022. Perhaps we’ll look back on all our Timehops and Facebook memories and we’ll struggle to remember what it was like to feel and behave the way we once did. Maybe it will be like seeing Bobby coming out of the shower in Dallas, feeling like we’ve had the strangest dream, the kind that fades quicker than we can tell it to somebody or write it down. In any event I’m looking forward to that future, when the restaurants we love are thriving again and the people we love are sitting at our table. When it comes – and it will come – Osaka will be one of the places I go to celebrate.

Osaka
The Oracle, Unit R16, Reading, RG1 2AG
0118 957 3200

https://www.osakarestaurants.co.uk
Order via: Deliveroo