Corona diaries: Week 1

I’ve always stayed away from Deliveroo, partly because I like restaurants – not just the food, but the experience, the welcome, the people-watching and the spectacle. But also, I’ve always distrusted their model. The dishes are usually more expensive than they would be if you dined in, they take a significant cut from the restaurant and your food arrives some time after it was cooked, often lukewarm and sometimes a bit crumpled from transit (I ordered a Franco Manca pizza on Deliveroo once: it was one of the most forlorn things I’ve ever seen). The customer pays more for worse food, the restaurants make less, the riders are hardly handsomely rewarded for thankless work: the only winner seems to be Deliveroo.

Nonetheless I placed an order this week, because Bakery House announced on Twitter that they were about to close their doors until we reach what everyone is calling “the other side”. They’ve soldiered on doing delivery and takeaway ever since this crisis began, offering discounts to NHS workers, plugging away and trying to make the best of it. The response when they made their announcement was the best of Twitter: dozens of people coming out of the woodwork to say how much they loved Bakery House’s food, how keen they were to eat there again once all of this passes. And Bakery House said something which got me, as they say, in the feels: Please don’t forget us.

I’ve been in lockdown for over a fortnight, now, and I think I’m beginning to understand that fight against forgetting. At the moment I can still remember what it’s like to meet friends in the pub, go for a coffee and sit in the Workhouse courtyard with it, to eat in restaurants or go for a walk without having to cross the road every few minutes to keep people that magical two metres away. I can remember what hugs from friends feel like. But we’re all taking part in a behavioural experiment which has never been tried before, and it will change us – and the world – in ways we can’t even begin to imagine yet. What will we have forgotten in four weeks’ time? In eight? In twelve?

And I can see so many restaurants wondering if they will be able to come back, and whether customers will still be there for them if and when they do. Clay’s, for instance, Tweeted recently that they “Woke up from a nightmare that everyone learned to cook and no one came after we opened again”: it sums it up neatly. I hope we all remember how lucky we were before all this started, and that we find ways to help the people and the businesses we love when everybody emerges from this bizarre hibernation.

My Deliveroo rider managed to get lost, and I could tell from the app that he was round the corner trying (unsuccessfully, thank goodness) to give my food to somebody else. But it didn’t matter – who would get cross with a Deliveroo rider at a time like this? – and my boneless baby chicken, freed from the foil container, was every bit as beautiful as I remembered. Tender meat, not-quite-charred skin, a separate dish with their superb golden rice and a well-dressed salad which retained its bite and crunch despite the bicycle ride from London Street.

I guess people write because they want to capture a moment, or because they want to remember. I’m glad I have this recent memory of Bakery House to hold on to. I won’t forget them. I doubt any of their other customers will, either.

* * * * *

In the same Tweet, Clay’s said that the landlord of their house had sent them a message telling them not to worry about the rent until this crisis was over. You really do see the best and the worst of people, which brings us to Sykes Capital, the owners of The Village, the artist formerly known as Kings Walk. There was a story in the Financial Times about commercial landlords threatening their tenants with legal action for unpaid rent, which included Sykes Capital and their tenants Pho and Escape Hunt. It always amazes me how landlords would sooner force out a tenant and get no return on their property than reach some kind of accommodation, let alone to do it when there’s a global pandemic and they are completely unable to trade.

I remember when Sykes gave an interview to Alt Reading in 2016, saying that he aimed to establish Atlantis Village as “the home of fine dining in Reading”. He planned to open a French restaurant there called Baroque, and said he hoped it could be the first restaurant in Reading to get a Michelin star. Four years on, Baroque never materialised, La Courbe, Mix and Dolce Vita closed and now instead of articles in local websites it’s a mention in the Financial Times. Oh well. Maybe the businesses which have been impacted can apply to Sykes’ charitable foundation which provides “support when no other charities or organisations can”. Charity begins at home, after all.

* * * * *

I’m not the best cook in the world, not by a long chalk. I do the cooking in my house, and I have a few recipes that never fail, but otherwise I’ve always relied on a mixture of eating out (why do you think I write a restaurant blog?) and ready meals. I always planned to expand my repertoire one day but I wouldn’t have chosen to do it in these circumstances, especially when access to ingredients can make every day like a particularly crappy episode of Ready, Steady, Cook.

Having been given a whole cauliflower and not wanting it to go to waste, I did a bit of research and decided to make a curry this week. I had all the stuff I needed in my cupboard and decided it was worth using a tin of chopped tomatoes to make it instead of doing the sensible thing and flogging said tin on eBay. A cursory Google suggested a recipe from the Guardian, one of “Angela Hartnett’s midweek suppers”. Two and a half hours later, having spent what felt like a lifetime chopping, grinding spices and using every pan in the house, I sat down to a sort of flavourless mulch with pasty albino triffids bobbing in it as if they were desperate to be rescued. Midweek supper my arse: Angela Hartnett obviously chops faster than me, has bigger pans and a fiercer hob, or alternatively I might just be pants at cooking. I know what my money’s on.

We slogged through it (“at least it’s good for you” said my other half) and half an hour later I began inhaling a packet of cookies. The next day I derived great satisfaction from slowly, lovingly spooning the remainder into the bin: it was far more enjoyable than either cooking it or eating it had been.

By contrast, during lockdown Clay’s has been putting a recipe on Instagram every day. A couple of days ago I made their simplest: a mixture of tinned tuna, diced peppers and onions, smoked paprika, salt, olive oil and lemon juice. What emerged, magically, was a little day trip to the Mediterranean – perfect to be lobbed onto a slice of toast and drizzled with another glug of extra virgin olive oil. Perhaps I just need to pick my culinary gurus more carefully.

* * * * *

There’s a weird back to the future feeling about life in lockdown. It takes me back almost thirty years, to a time when I was at university, technology hadn’t really got much further than the Sony Discman and we made the best of the limited options we had. Going for long walks with music in your headphones was something I used to do back then, and now I’ve embraced it again, albeit constantly looking around me to avoid people and giving hard stares to the offenders who act as if they don’t care whether they catch the virus, or give it to me. My walk generally heads out past Eldon Square and up Alexandra Road towards the university campus, past beautiful houses which are so near and yet so far, the tantalising width of a winning lottery ticket away from me.

Another throwback is the lengthy phone conversation. This week I called an old friend of mine – not a video call where I’m constantly looking for the angle that halves my number of chins, but a good old-fashioned voice call. On my phone, wearing my headphones rather than getting tangled up in the corkscrew cord of the landline, but still a memory of how things were in simpler times. It might catch on. “I’ve never been so in demand” said my friend. “All my friends with jobs and social lives suddenly have loads of time on their hands.” I know this situation is far harder for some people than others, and I know I’m relatively lucky, but in other ways it’s a proper leveller.

A couple of days ago I spoke to my oldest friend Mike, who is holed up in his studio flat in the French Alps. Normally he spends the winter there skiing and then in the summer he runs coach tours across Europe. That work won’t happen now and like some game of musical chairs, he is stuck where he was when the music stopped. He showed me the view out of his window, of pristine slopes begging to be skiied on, except that nobody is allowed to now. The lockdown is more stringent in France, and you have to carry a permit with you saying when you left the house. You’re allowed an hour for walking (“I always put the time as 20 minutes later” he told me, “the police don’t check.”)

Otherwise the monastic experience seems to suit Mike – he says he’s looking forward to having some time to reflect. He gave up drinking before Christmas, and even this crisis hasn’t shaken his resolve. I congratulated him, while simultaneously thinking of all the bounty from Siren Craft, Double-Barrelled, West Berkshire and Pang Valley in the fridge, the kitchen and the basement. I tell myself it’s little and often, and I mostly believe it.

On the call we agree to revive another tradition of days gone by, the mix tape. He follows me on Apple Music, and we agree to put together twenty songs for each other by the end of the week. He gets his done with the kind of brutal efficiency only teetotallers can manage, and the next morning I can see it there waiting to be discovered.

I listen to it while pottering round the kitchen, making myself a coffee with my new Aeropress. I’ve had it a week or so and I think I’ve got the hang of it – I’ve even, in truth, become the kind of coffee wanker who weighs his coffee with scales. I like the mindful, almost meditative process of making coffee, and Mike’s playlist is the perfect accompaniment (my favourite track on it, so far, is Get Out Of Town by Caetano Veloso: Mike has always loved a bit of Latin American music). I spend a happy couple of hours putting together a playlist in return, and wondering if anybody else I know would like one. Maybe I’ll start sending postcards next.

Osaka

I should start out by saying that really, this isn’t a review of Osaka. I went there, and I’ll talk a bit about the food and the service, but the world has changed so much in the fortnight since I had lunch there that no reviews, especially this one, are of any practical use. All of us restaurant bloggers (what’s the collective noun: a smugness?) are scratching our heads, wondering what to write now.

When I went to Osaka, I had an idea that it might be the last review I published for some time, but I didn’t realise that it would be surplus to requirements before I ever typed a word of it. The day after my lunch at Osaka I was meant to have lunch at Wetherspoon’s with Matt Rodda – I know! – until we both wisely decided that it really wasn’t the time. Given how Tim Martin has behaved since the beginning of the COVID-19 saga, it might never be the place either, even once we get through this scary, wobbly, historic period and life returns to something like normal.

Except, of course, we don’t know what that will look like and “normal” gets redefined every day. Last week my mother dropped a little food package at my doorstep and a card for my forthcoming birthday, and waved forlornly from the gate at the bottom of my front yard. I couldn’t hug her, even though I wanted to. In March 2020, that’s now normal. Yesterday at 6pm all the members of the community WhatsApp group I’m in opened their front doors, cup of tea or bottle of beer in hand, and waved to each other. The WhatsApp group buzzed with photos and videos so we could see what’s happening round the corner, or in front of the pub. These days, that’s normal too.

These are the starters I had at Osaka. The takoyaki (octopus balls – and no, I didn’t realise octopus had balls either) were a bit lacking in octopus for me, and mainly felt like stodgy potato. None the less, I quite liked them and I loved the mayonnaise (Kewpie, at a guess) and the tang of fruity sauce playing against the saltiness of the bonito flakes. The Korean fried chicken was much nicer – easily up there with Soju’s example, or the wonders of a bucket of Kokoro sweet chilli chicken. Beautifully presented, too. Of course, this is all academic now.

The following Saturday, the Lyndhurst hosted the final readers’ lunch for the foreseeable future. The tables were appropriately spaced, everybody was liberally washing their hands, sanitising gel was everywhere. The mood was interesting: even though there was no lockdown at this point, no real limit on movement, everybody knew that this was effectively the leaving do for life as we knew it.

The food was unbelievably good, too – a greatest hits performance in places, with chilli nachos here and trio of pork (including a pork wellington with black pudding) there but also plenty of wondrous surprises. Courgette flowers stuffed with ricotta and fried, stuffed squid, a rhubarb and custard dessert topped with a tart, chewy strand of dried rhubarb. I’ve thought about that lunch many times since: it may be a long time before I see anything close to that many people in a room again. Last Sunday, the Lyndhurst hand delivered Sunday roasts for free to vulnerable people who lived locally. Two days later, following the government announcement about lockdown, they had closed. I can’t wait to visit them on the other side of all this.

I expected Osaka’s sushi and sashimi to be better than they were, to be honest. I was surprised that the sashimi, beautifully presented though it was, wasn’t quite up to the standards of Sen Sushi, where I’d had such an iffy meal the previous month. The range of maki at Osaka was quite limited, which pushed us into ordering uramaki instead – and the “Rainbow” was pleasant enough but, at the time, didn’t feel like it had a wow factor for twelve pounds.

This was the privileged life we all led two weeks ago, that I could eat sushi and quibble about whether it was quite what I had hoped for. And now we’re all anxiously eyeing our cupboards and fridges and planning our meals for the week, wondering whether to risk a walk to the supermarket. I logged on to Ocado yesterday, and found myself 15000th in the queue for about two hours before giving up.

My last meal in a restaurant before everything changed, of all the places you could go, was at Carluccio’s. Not my choice, but a favourite of my family’s. My brother was over from Australia, touching down just before Australia announced that everyone returning from overseas would have to quarantine for two weeks. I was so pleased to see him that I couldn’t even bring myself to mock his undercut and his giant white hipster beard, one rogue strand of ginger fighting a rearguard action against the ageing process.

But the truth is that by then I was uncomfortable being out, uncomfortable being in a restaurant. We were one of two tables occupied, and when a pair of women came in at about half-eight to make it a third you could almost see the poor staff giving them evils. They wanted to go home, they wanted the restaurant to close and I can’t say I blamed them. I had arancini and spaghetti carbonara, and both were fine, but I knew this was the last time I would have dinner with my family – my mother, my stepdad, my aunt – for a long time. I didn’t hug them goodbye: another odd thing about the world now is the number of people you can hug has shrunk to almost zero. And even writing that, I know that for some people it is zero, and I feel lucky and ungrateful all at once.

I didn’t especially like my main course at Osaka. I ordered yaki soba, always my go-to dish at Wagamama so a sensible thing to compare. In a previous life I lived pretty close to the Oracle and I used to get a takeaway carton of yaki soba from Wagamama and eat it at home, feeling almost like a New Yorker. But Osaka’s wasn’t quite as good, slightly lacking in pickled ginger, the chicken a little too uniform for me. The sauce, while smoky, was too sweet and the broccoli and pepper were cut far too big, so eating it was a bit too much of a challenge.

Zoë’s beef donburi felt very similar, again with those massive stems of broccoli. I really felt for Osaka by this point – most restaurants get a long time to get things right. And it’s such a beautiful fit out (“the highest quality unit the Oracle has ever seen” said Zoë, who knows about these things). Even the bathrooms were beautiful: I don’t usually comment on bathrooms but unsurprisingly I went several times during this visit, availing myself of their very nice hand soap.

The waitress ushered another couple into the restaurant and invited them to sit at the table next to us. They nicely asked if they could be put at a more socially distant table. Everything was so counter-intuitive: normally restaurants want to sit you close together near a window to draw people in, but on this occasion they needed to dot us across the place, as far from each other as possible. And the staff at Osaka were so nice – too nice, really, asking pretty much every five minutes if we were still having a nice time. They, like so many people working in hospitality – a profession too many people take for granted – deserved better than the world we find ourselves in now.

My brother and I went for long walks last week while he was in the country. One day we strolled down the canal, past the Fisherman’s Cottage and out to the horseshoe bridge. The following day we wandered through Christchurch Meadows and up to Balmore Park. I’ve always thought it was Reading’s answer to Parliament Hill, and from the little bench you can see the Blade, Thames Tower, all of our town spread out in front of us. Everywhere was quieter than it had been but not as quiet as I thought it should be, but I knew that by being out I was part of the problem and not part of the solution. We headed back down Prospect Street and I saw Zezva inside Geo Café, still open and still serving the community, selling bread and eggs and jam.

The way Reading’s food and drink businesses have adapted is extraordinary. Restaurants have moved to takeaway and delivery, breweries have quickly set up web shops. On my birthday I received my Aeropress from Phil at Anonymous Coffee, and after years and years of sitting in cafés with lattes I now make myself a coffee every morning. The ritual of it is strangely calming and mindful, and the coffee tastes magnificent too. We’ve had deliveries from Double Barrelled, from Siren Craft, cider from Pang Valley: I don’t know whether it’s a lockdown or a lock in, half the time.

I’ve done my best to Tweet about all of the changes – just trying to do what I can – but the situation has changed so quickly that every day a business closes, or repurposes, or reopens. I hope that the measures that have been announced allow restaurants to keep staff on, to pay their rent, to stay afloat, but of course at this stage I doubt anybody really knows.

I really wanted to try dessert at Osaka when I saw that they did sesame ice cream. I quite liked it, but ideally I would have wanted it to be smaller and stronger flavoured: it felt like vanilla ice cream with a touch of sesame rather than sesame ice cream. It made me think wistfully about eating the same dish in Paris, which now makes me think wistfully about all the places suffering now and how none of us will get to travel for quite some time. Everyone who has booked holidays is mentally writing them off for the rest of the year. That includes me: Belfast will have to wait and sitting by the pool in Greece, wondering when to head down to town for lunch, is now just the happy place I think about when I’m trying to relax. (Zoë had cheesecake, by the way, which was small but perfectly formed.)

As Australia started to move towards lockdown, my brother desperately tried to move his flight forward and cut short his break so he could return to his wife and children. It wasn’t possible: he had to get a new flight. Then his new flight was cancelled at short notice and he had to get a second new flight, and then it turned out that he couldn’t take that flight because he would need a medical certificate to transit via Bangkok. And so finally he rescheduled his second new flight, at the eleventh hour, so he could get home. I found myself thinking about how upsetting it was to go through this without the people you love most.

Sitting in the airport he sent me a photo and I saw Heathrow as I’d never seen it before: almost deserted, the Pret and the Starbucks shut, people in masks dotted across the waiting areas, couples huddled together for comfort. My mother couldn’t get to sleep that night until she knew for sure that he was up in the air.

Since we went into lockdown, my house has acquired a different rhythm. My other half is working from home, so the living room is filled with the sound of her voice, checking in on her team, laughing and chatting, being authentically herself. I’m in charge of catering, so I’ve been pressed into service chopping and prepping, cooking and freezing, cobbling stuff together from the cupboards and improvising. A couple of days ago I cooked chicken thighs in ajika, my inadequate tribute to the magic of Geo Café’s legendary wraps. They came out better than I feared, and the kitchen had the faint whiff of Tbilisi all evening. Yesterday I cooked a huge chilli on the stove, the kitchen windows open and sunlight seeping in, my other half doing some of her calls in the sunshine on the doorstep.

I know it won’t always be like this, and I know I’m lucky to have a house, a home and a garden, so I’m trying to be grateful at the time rather than just look back later and realise things weren’t so bad. I know Reading, and every other place, has people struggling, cramped flats or houses full of kids who don’t understand why they can’t go outside. Getting to write about restaurants is by its nature a pretty privileged thing to do, but I’m not sure I fully appreciated it until now.

If I had been rating Osaka, which I’m not, I would have said that it was quite good but not amazing. I liked my meal more than Zoë did (often it’s the other way round), and I might have considered going back more quickly than she would. If I’d been rating Osaka this would have been a very different piece, and I would have told you how it was owned by the people who run Coconut. I would have told you how clever the design is, full of different types of tables for different kind of diners. I would have told you more about the lovely staff. And you would have had a mark at the bottom of this – but you’ve already scrolled down and seen that there isn’t one, haven’t you?

But really, this feels more like a review of restaurants in general, and of how we used to live. And the concept of restaurants is one I really would give 10 out of 10 to. Think about it: people giving up their time and their lives to feed us, to work evenings and weekends when most of us wouldn’t consider that. People creating our memories, of meals and evenings and times in our lives: forget Inception, restaurants have been doing this for years. Having someone cook for you feels pretty decadent right now, and I hope when we come out the other side of this that hospitality gets the respect and thanks it deserves. I hope that my favourite restaurants survive and that they come back stronger. I hope I get to play a part in helping that to happen. And yes, I know some people think these are first world problems but for people who run or work in restaurants, it’s a lot more than that. It’s their lives, and their livelihoods.

This morning I woke up to a photo from my brother. It was a plane window photograph showing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, so murky that you couldn’t tell if it was deliberately black and white or just naturally greyscale. He made it home, and they checked his temperature on touchdown. Thirty-six degrees, so he was allowed to go home to his family rather than being quarantined in a hotel for a fortnight. I felt emotional reading the message, but these are strange times; everything is just that little bit closer to the surface.

The last time I took a break from reviewing restaurants was nearly four years ago. My wife and I separated and this blog, which started as a joint project, was no longer appropriate. I didn’t start reviewing again until my life returned to something like normal. I moved into a horrible flat, I hated it, I moved again into a lovely house, my decree absolute came through, I started dating and life, as it tends to, went on. Eventually, my world was in a state where I felt like I could do this again.

Now I’m taking a break for the simple reason that there aren’t any restaurants to review: I feel redundant in the true sense of the word. And I would keep writing, I really would, but I don’t quite know what to write about. All suggestions gratefully received, as long as they’re polite.

In the meantime, all I can sign off with is to thank you for reading, to tell you to stay safe, to remind you to stay in touch with the people that matter to you and to do everything you can to support the small businesses you love. I sincerely hope that on the far side of this we will all be kinder, more connected, less complacent and more aware of what’s really important. And when this is over, if Osaka is trading again, it will be the first place I visit on duty. They deserve a better review than this.

The Hero Of Maida, Maida Vale

Despite the name, over six and a half years I’ve reviewed lots of restaurants which aren’t in Reading. To paraphrase David Brent, my world doesn’t end with these four walls. When I’m finished with Reading, there’s Henley, Windsor, Wokingham. You know. Newbury. Goring. Because I am my own boss.

Bracknell.

But I’ve always steered clear of reviewing London restaurants. I suppose part of that is analysis paralysis: how would you even go about picking which restaurants to visit? There are hundreds of London restaurant bloggers (not to mention influencers) swarming around all the hottest new restaurants, all the must-visit openings, so it’s hard to imagine anybody would be interested in my (provincial) opinion. And how useful would it be to my regular readers? You might be in London from time to time, but how likely would you be to go out of your way to try somewhere on my say-so? That’s why I’ve always stayed in my lane, remaining local with the occasional foray further afield on the train.

So what changed? Well, recently one of the restaurant bloggers I read wrote a review of a little Malaysian restaurant just round the corner from Paddington Station. It did what, in an ideal world, all restaurant reviews would do: it made me feel like checking the place out. After all, I’m in London reasonably often, I nearly always come home via Paddington and having decent food options to explore while I wait for an off peak train would be a very welcome development. I Retweeted the review, plenty of people showed an interest and at that point I decided: there would be no harm in adding the occasional review of venues in and around Paddington, to help out if you are in London and want to try out a good restaurant before coming home.

I picked Maida Vale for my first London review because that area has always been one of my favourite parts of the city. You leave Paddington by the exit that takes you right out onto the Grand Union Canal, turn left and meander past all the boats and the offices of Paddington Basin, the fancy gleaming bars and restaurants that have sprung up to cater for all those workers. Cross one of the pretty bridges you come to and you’re in Little Venice, ten minutes’ walk or a single Tube stop from Paddington but a world away in all important respects.

It’s loveliest in summer, but at any time it’s a house envy-inducing stroll. The Warwick Castle, tucked away on a sidestreet, is a lovely mews pub and not far from there is the equally gorgeous Formosa Street with the Prince Alfred, a cracking public house with little booths where you have to duck under a low door to pass from one to the next. If I didn’t have such a magnificent local already, I might well spend my days wishing it was mine.

The Hero Of Maida is just a little further out, on the border between Little Venice and Maida Vale, and in a previous incarnation it used to be called the Truscott Arms. I had a friend who worked in London and I used to go down after work on a Friday afternoon to meet her for a boozy dinner in that neck of the woods. We’d always stop for one last snifter at the Truscott Arms – it closed later than other establishments – before weaving back to the station and drunkenly going our separate ways, me on the Burger King Express back to Reading and her on a terrifying-sounding night bus to Tooting.

I was sad when the Truscott Arms closed but when I heard it had reopened as the Hero Of Maida under the supervision of Henry Harris (of legendary Knightsbridge restaurant Racine) offering a take on classic French cooking, I made a mental note to visit one day. So on a sunny weekday lunchtime my friend John and I paid it a visit, to finally break my London reviewing duck.

It’s a very handsome, light, airy room that instantly draws you in – tasteful muted tones, an attractive wooden floor, gorgeous tiles and a long, curving zinc bar. There’s a separate restaurant area upstairs (open in the evenings but not at lunchtime) but I didn’t feel I was missing out. Lovely tables, too, with button-backed banquettes looking out. It was quiet when we turned up, with a solitary customer plugged in and tapping away on his computer. We sat at the front by the windows, making the most of the afternoon light, although I did wish after a while that we’d grabbed a banquette. On the plus side it means my photographs are better than usual, but the drawback was that poor John was caught in a direct shaft of sun for some of the meal and had to keep shuffling his chair to one side.

The menu changes regularly and on the day we visited it was compact and appealing – just five starters, four mains and a sharing dish (pie for two, an offer I always find hard to refuse). A blackboard behind the bar offered a few other dishes, and although they were listed as bar food they seemed equally restauranty to me. Crucially, one was the same pie in an individual portion: a great relief, because it meant I didn’t have to implore John to change his mind. On another day I would have gone for another special: crispy lamb breast with salsa verde, six almost unimprovable words. “It’s National Pie Week”, our waiter told me, and in the end that made my decision for me.

There was a good selection of beers and we were slightly early for our booking so we started with a pint. My Notting Helles was pleasant enough, if not the most imaginative choice, but John enthused about his pint of Peckham Rye, a very nice-looking amber ale. Later I wished I’d gone for the coffee stout by Magic Rock, but we’d moved on to wine by then. It was a pretty decent wine list too, with plenty available by the carafe, but we settled on a chardonnay from the Languedoc which came in at just over thirty pounds for a bottle. It sounds odd to praise a wine based on all the things it wasn’t, but at the risk of sounding like Goldilocks it somehow seemed appropriate: not too dry, not too sweet, not too oaky, not too expensive. The list said it was a good alternative to a white Burgundy, and I thought that was spot on.

I’d been sorely tempted by the steak tartare, but with a pie on the way I decided to balance light and shade a bit by choosing a more delicate starter. Ibériko tomatoes with burrata felt more a test of sourcing than cooking, but even so I really enjoyed it.

The tomatoes weren’t as good as ones I’d rhapsodised over in Spain but they were close enough, with plenty of freshness and a judicious spot of salt. The burrata felt more like mozzarella to me – completely firm in the middle without any of the glorious creamy messiness of a good burrata – but that struck me rather than irked me. The salsa verde brought it all together, as did some greenery which wasn’t listed and which I didn’t recognise. It had a slightly vinegary bite but I couldn’t place what it was – not samphire, not salty fingers, not (I think) monk’s beard, but a perfect match in any event. Winning enough to overcome a couple of slight missteps: a dish, in many ways, emblematic of the whole meal.

John had chosen grilled mackerel with ‘nduja which, again, is a combination that sat up and begged to be chosen. I thought it looked fantastic, with a generous whack of the fiery, brick-red good stuff. John liked it, but not without reservations.

“I like the skin to be crispy, and this is a bit, well, flaccid. Flaccid is never a good word, is it?”

“No, it’s like damp. ‘Moist’ can be a good thing, but ‘damp’ never is.”

“There’s always ‘wipe down with a damp cloth’, I suppose” said John, equably. “Something else about this dish isn’t quite right. This stuff.”

That’s how we discovered that John, like me, is not a fan of radicchio – although, as a man who gets a vegetable box weekly, he’s very fortunate to only just be figuring that out. I understood though – again, the radicchio wasn’t mentioned on the menu and it did slightly skew the dish. I didn’t get to taste it, but from the look of the plate, also strewn with wild garlic and capers, I think I would have enjoyed it. John did find a few sizeable bones which had escaped the filleting process, though, another glitch that rankled.

John was properly delighted with his main course, though. Guinea fowl came two ways, with a hefty piece of the breast and a gorgeous-looking thigh complete with crispy skin. It was all on top of some silky celeriac puree, along with a big, coarse wedge of smoked Morteau sausage – we Googled it to make sure it was nothing like andouillette – and, apparently, “tropea onion”.

“This is lovely. I’m usually more of a starters man and main courses can feel like a bit of a let-down, so it’s a real pleasure to get such a good main course. And it’s a really big portion of guinea fowl, I wasn’t expecting that.”

I thought that was a good point – this didn’t feel like a little, cheffy plate assembled with tweezers but a proper, hearty dish put together with the diner firmly in mind. Good value at nineteen pounds, too.

My pie was, as so often, more a casserole wearing a hat and the pastry lacked the indulgence of a good suet crust. But underneath, you hit paydirt: a sticky tangle of slow-cooked lamb shoulder and a rich, savoury sauce, punctuated by coarsely chopped garlic and carrot. The greens that came with it were nice enough taken for a swim in the pie filling, but hardly the feature attraction. The whole thing was delicious but it just didn’t feel as much like a proper pie as I’d hoped; it was best described as high-ceilinged, with plenty of breathing space between the filling and the crust.

Many of these niggles were redeemed by the Hero Of Maida’s chips, which were as good as any I’ve had – huge, ragged-edged things, all crunch and fluff. I was initially dubious because they came skin-on, but even that didn’t detract. They were four pounds a portion, and I was relieved that John and I had the foresight (or greed) to order one each. I used mine to absorb every last molecule of the sauce left in my pie dish.

The dessert menu was also compact – just the four options – but we were on a roll and had no intention of letting that stop us. The list of dessert wines was equally streamlined, but we found a Coteaux de L’Aubance on it which was stunning, the colour of late summer afternoons with a clean, poised sweetness. The first sip was one of those little heavenly moments you want to remember for ages: our food so far had been lovely, the only plans for the rest of the day were a bimble from pub to pub talking about all sorts and, in my mind, I was an honorary resident of Maida Vale already.

Desserts were inconsistent in the same way as the starters, but the kitchen had garnered enough brownie points by then to earn some latitude. So for instance, my lemon posset was all out of kilter: far too big, and too cloying without the sharpness it badly needed to cut through. Instead, it felt like a big bowl of something very close to clotted cream and the crumbled amaretti biscuits all over it didn’t do enough to counteract that. It wasn’t what I ordered, or what I really wanted, but on the other hand there are worse things to do in life than eat a large bowl of clotted cream and, when push came to shove, I found I didn’t mind at all.

John’s rhubarb and custard pavlova sounded terrific on paper but again, wasn’t quite there. The rhubarb, John said, was delicious and he really enjoyed the hazelnut praline which played an equally starring role. “But this meringue”, he said, “I hate to say this but it feels shop-bought.” I saw him struggle to break it up and it seemed to be lacking any of the chewiness which would have made the dish perfect. Even so, I looked at his dessert and thought that I would gladly have ordered it myself.

Service, from one chap who seemed to be doing everything that lunchtime, was friendly without being faux-matey, knowledgeable and happy to talk about the dishes and offer recommendations. Again, it might be that if you came to the Hero Of Maida of an evening or on a busy Sunday lunchtime you might have a different experience, but I thought we were really well looked after. Three courses, a couple of pints, a bottle of white wine and two glasses of dessert wine came to just over a hundred and fifty pounds, including that old chestnut the “optional” twelve and a half per cent service charge. You could eat here for less, but I thought it was decent value.

You’ll have read all of this and you’ll already have an idea about whether the Hero Of Maida is the kind of place for you. You might think it’s ever so slightly too far from Paddington or a little too expensive, but I really enjoyed the place. And to save you the effort of questioning my verdict, I’ve already asked myself: was I being charitable because I was having such a nice afternoon? Was I letting the restaurant off the hook when, closer to home, I might have been harsher?

I don’t know. It’s possible. Maybe I was looking at the world through dessert wine-tinted glasses but if so, all I can say is that I thoroughly recommend doing so. Next time you’re in London and you’re on an off-peak ticket you could do a lot worse than booking the Hero Of Maida, especially when summer comes, and crossing the canal to treat yourself to something different before riding the rails back to Gare du ‘Ding. Make sure you get some chips: you’ll thank me for it.

The Hero Of Maida – 7.5
55 Shirland Road, London, W9 2JD
020 39609109

https://theheromaidavale.co.uk

Sen Sushi

I’ve always, I think, been a contrarian at heart. I really don’t like being told what to do. Few things irk me more than people using that Twitter trope “Retweet if you agree” (often I do agree, but I never Retweet). Or when someone tells you to “drop everything and read this”. I used to have a very opinionated friend who was always telling me what I should listen to or read: weekends away at his house in Kent were a bit like being in the musical equivalent of North Korea, being educated in whatever records 6 Music had told him to like that month.

The contrarian in me is why you get a review of Sen Sushi, the little Japanese restaurant at the Three Tuns end of the Wokingham Road, today. I know everybody wants to read a review of Osaka, the gleaming new Japanese restaurant in the Oracle. I completely understand why – the fit out looks superb, the menu has an impressive range and the buzz so far has been good. But something in me thought: what about Sen Sushi? It’s been there a few years, I had it recommended to me recently, and if not now, when would I go? So I hopped on a number 17 bus with my partner in crime Zoë to see if Reading had an undiscovered gem I hadn’t got round to visiting yet.

It’s a little restaurant that can probably seat less than twenty people. The front room has stools up at the window looking out, and a low table complete with tatami where you can sit cross-legged, provided you take your shoes off first. The back room has about half a dozen seats up at the counter where you can watch your sushi and sashimi being prepared. Behind the counter are a fryer and a gas range with four big weathered-looking woks, shiny with oil. That’s where we decided to sit, close to the action, and we had our pick of seats as we were the first customers that evening.

At this point, I pontificated to Zoë about how in many restaurants, being able to see the kitchen up close was considered a positive selling point. However (as we shall see) as the evening went on I started to wonder if it was such a good thing after all.

The menu was pretty big and covered all bases – hot starters, sushi and sashimi, rice and noodle dishes. We decided to try a bit of everything, but started with sushi and sashimi. Our waitress was lovely and polite but giving her our order was an interesting convoluted affair – she then went into the other room, printed off a ticket and came back to put it on the counter for the two chefs doing the cooking and prep. Admittedly, this made more sense when I realised that Sen Sushi also gets a fair amount of takeaway orders which also join the queue.

It really was fascinating watching as one of the chefs flattened the rice on the mat and cut strips of tuna, rolling the whole thing in front of us. Or seeing a beautiful piece of salmon come out of the fridge and be precisely cut into slices with an ultra-sharp Global knife. The wonderful thing about sitting at the counter is that there’s no hiding place in the kitchen: I found myself quite transported by the whole affair, and could have gawped at it for ages. I was possibly more transfixed than Zoë, who by this point was wondering why they hadn’t switched the heater on and was considering wandering over to the coat rack to retrieve her scarf.

The salmon sashimi was easily the nicest thing I ate at Sen Sushi – a really fine piece of salmon, beautifully marbled, soft and buttery. It was better than any sashimi I’ve had in Reading and probably up there with my favourite Japanese restaurants. The spicy tuna maki and avocado maki were fine but no more than that – initially they forgot that the tuna maki were meant to be spicy so they were whisked away and topped with a blob of sauce and a sprinkling of what I think was togarashi. Zoë thought they were a little ragged and lacking in uniformity, I was inclined to be a bit more charitable. Those reserves of goodwill got used up throughout the rest of the meal.

For our second round, we went for chicken gyoza, karaage (Japanese fried chicken) and, just to break up the chicken motif, some soft shell crab maki. The problem with sitting at the counter is that there’s no hiding place in the kitchen, so we saw a chef retrieve a tupperware container full of dumplings and another full of chicken nuggets – I thought it was from the fridge, Zoë reckoned the freezer – and put them in the fryer. Only the soft shell crab was done there and then, battered and then put in the fryer.

All three dishes were moved between the two fryers at what felt like random intervals, so I’m not sure how Sen Sushi would keep, say, vegetarian gyoza separate from the fried chicken. That’s especially ironic because I’m pretty sure they gave us vegetarian gyoza by mistake. They were oddly claggy, and the filling felt bulked out with something stodgy like potato. Zoë generously said I could have her last one and I said “no, I insist”, a sad inversion of how those discussions are meant to go with good gyoza.

Ignorance is bliss, and I wonder how I would have felt about the fried chicken if I hadn’t seen it being decanted from tupperware in front of my very eyes. I probably would have liked it more – the edges were nicely gnarly and crispy, and the meat was tender enough. But normally karaage comes with mayonnaise on the side, whereas Sen Sushi slathered the whole thing with wasabi mayo and a fruity sauce. Wasabi is strong enough, and enough of an acquired taste, that they should have left that choice to the diner: I found it off-putting. “You should have the extra piece, you’re hungrier than I am” I said to Zoë: a transparent attempt to dress up my lack of enthusiasm as gallantry.

Soft shell crab is one of my favourite things, so I was sorry that Sen Sushi’s maki also fell short. They looked the part, a fairly generous portion, the rice studded with tobiko, but putting both cucumber and avocado in with the crab and then drizzling the whole thing with mayonnaise and fruity sauce crowded out the flavours and felt like overkill. They were poorly rolled, too – half of the rolls weren’t closed off properly and fell apart when we tried to pick them up with chopsticks. I saw the chef struggling with rolling them: he had a couple of attempts and then clearly thought Fuck it and had one last half-hearted stab at massaging the sushi rice into the gap. Again, there’s no hiding place in an open kitchen.

What I was also quickly discovering about sitting next to an open kitchen was that it was impossible to have an honest conversation with your dining companion about whether the food was any good. “What do you think?” said Zoë. “Mmm” I replied, non-committally and in earshot.

Being overheard was even more of a problem when the mains turned up, because they were the low point of the meal. Zoë’s teriyaki udon noodles with char sui came in a high-sided, thick rimmed ceramic bowl. She whispered something to me which I couldn’t make out but which I was later told was “dog bowl”. And it’s true, it did look like a dog’s bowl. “I expected to get through it and see a picture of a bone on the bottom” she told me.

But there was no danger of getting through it, because it wasn’t nice at all. The noodles were thick, slippery and strangely oleaginous, the sauce bland and thin. And the char siu was nothing of the kind. Fidget & Bob’s exemplary char siu is so beautifully cooked that it falls apart when prodded with a spoon, and comes to the table anointed with a stunning sticky-sweet sauce. Sen Sushi’s char siu, by contrast, is three thick slabs of pre-cooked pork taken out of yet another tupperware container and chucked in the wok at the end to warm through. It was hard even to tear apart with your teeth, and not worth the effort.

My dish wasn’t cooked until after Zoë’s had been served up – an odd course of action in a kitchen with multiple woks and indeed multiple chefs. I had a rice bowl with braised Taiwanese pork and again, it was an unsettling thing to eat. Disturbingly uniform little cubes of pork were served in a dark sauce which managed not to be sweet, or spicy, or even savoury, just a sort of dark brown white noise. There were a few bits of spring onion scattered on top, but they just left me wishing for more food without that mushy texture.

I didn’t want to draw the parallel, but although Zoë’s dish had come in what looked like a dog’s bowl mine – chunks of meat in a thick but strangely flavourless gravy – was the one that felt like it belonged there. I ate as much as I could face. We weren’t asked why we’d left so much of our main courses, which meant that I didn’t have to fib about how full we were. That said, something about those last two dishes did make you feel unpleasantly full: they didn’t sit easily, and it wasn’t until much later the following day that I felt like eating again.

It’s a shame the food was so iffy in so many places, because the service – from the waitress and the chefs – was pleasant, friendly and attentive for most of our meal. Nice enough that I feel like a bit of a shit for slating the food, but not so nice that they asked whether we were happy with everything, or so nice that I volunteered that information. Sen Sushi does a few desserts (mostly mochi and a matcha ice cream) but we felt like we’d given them enough money already, so we paid and made our escape.

Dinner for two – all that food, two bottles of Kirin and two cans of San Pellegrino – came to just shy of sixty pounds. Perhaps I’m a traitor to the cause for pointing out the inconvenient truth that chain doesn’t necessarily mean bad and independent doesn’t necessarily mean wonderful, but I’m afraid you would get a far better return on that sixty pounds eating at Wagamama or Yo! Sushi than you would at Sen Sushi. You’d also be better off eating at Sushimania, or Kokoro, or taking the train to Windsor and eating at Misugo. And I don’t know how good a cook you are, but you’d probably also have a better meal at home doing a stir fry.

One of my favourite Japanese restaurants is a little place called Chez Taeko in Paris. It’s part of the Marché des Enfants Rouges in the Marais, and it’s just a few little benches and tables and a small menu, on a chalkboard, of sushi, bento boxes and rice bowls. All the food there is beautiful, and when I went there last winter I sat uncomfortably close to my fellow diners, under a heater, with limited elbow room in a little temporary structure like a gazebo enjoying terrific crispy chicken and rice, maki and then concrete-grey sesame ice cream, like edible Brutalism. I honestly couldn’t have been happier.

At the end when I went round the corner to pay the bill I saw the tiniest kitchen, the staff in it working flat out, serving up terrific dish after terrific dish to the lunching Parisians. I so wanted Sen Sushi to be like Chez Taeko, to have the potential to become a happy place, but it didn’t even come close.

“It really did look like a dog bowl” said Zoë when we were safely ensconced back in our house, the meal an uncomfortably recent memory. “If my mum or dad had been there when they served that up they would have wet themselves.”

“You didn’t like it at all, did you?” I said. My initial thoughts had been that the sushi was pretty good and perhaps mitigated the disappointment of the other dishes, but the more time passed, the more I felt that I was being too kind.

“No, I really didn’t. I wouldn’t go back. And it was so cold in there – they had a heater on the wall, why the fuck didn’t they switch it on? And what about the gloves?”

“The gloves?”

“Sometimes the chef was wearing blue gloves and sometimes no gloves at all. What was that about?”

“Well, he wore gloves when he was handling raw fish though, didn’t he?”

There was a pause: Zoë was clearly deciding whether to break bad news to me.

“Not always. And I didn’t appreciate one of the chefs taking a fag break while we were eating our main meals with the back door open, so I had my dinner with a side of Benson & Hedges.”

Again, I hadn’t noticed that.

“It’s a real shame,” she went on “because I wanted to like them, but that char sui was just… it wasn’t good at all.”

“You’re right, I’m afraid.”

Zoë’s accompanied me on nearly twenty reviews by now: I’m starting to think she deserves some kind of promotion (or time off for good behaviour, at the very least). As for me, I’m sure I should learn something from this whole experience. But I fear I’m far too contrarian for that.

Sen Sushi – 6.0
199 Wokingham Road, RG6 7DT
0118 9664636

https://sen-sushi-japanese-restaurant.business.site

Taco Bell

I know many people scroll to the bottom of my reviews to check the rating and the summary, the tl;dr equivalent of slogging all the way through my deathless prose. I know, too, that some people think my reviews are too long; God knows how many people make it to the end of the middle section where I (finally) get round to telling you what the food tastes like.

Well, this will confuse plenty of those people – let’s start at the end for once. Taco Bell is bloody awful. Truly. Don’t eat there. I can’t think of a single good reason for visiting Taco Bell unless you’ve never been to one before and are genuinely curious about what it’s like. That was me before I did this review, so I tell you what: I’ll satisfy your curiosity and then you can save your money, your calories and your dignity and have a better meal somewhere else. Sound all right to you?

Although I hadn’t been before, both my two dining companions for this visit had eaten at Taco Bell. Dr. Quaff (author of the excellent Quaffable Reading: other pub blogs are available, but they’re not as good) and Graeme had both been while on trips to the States, something I didn’t know until we queued up.

“Did you like it when you had it over there?” I asked.

“No, it was terrible” said Dr. Quaff, and Graeme concurred. Were they being public-spirited or suckers for punishment in choosing to accompany me?

I genuinely was curious, though. I’m not averse to fast food or junk food if done well, and one thing that’s fairly indisputable is that American cuisine does specialise in both those things. And Taco Bell opening in Reading was noteworthy: there aren’t that many of them in the U.K. yet, and there’d been a certain amount of noise in what passes for our local media these days.

So I really did turn up with no axe to grind, which means that all of you can say I told you so in the comments: it is one of life’s great pleasures, after all. Also, I know many of you – lurkers, fans and haters alike – particularly enjoy reading about me having an appalling meal. If that’s you, this one should give you a special thrill.

Taco Bell is along the side of the Broad Street Mall, Reading’s second favourite mall (a title it has achieved through all but two of the malls in Reading closing). Inside it looked like a slightly lower-rent McDonalds, with some tables and chairs and a bar with uncomfortable stools to perch on (fun fact: the following day I was nervous about the prospect of a very different kind of uncomfortable stool).

There are a couple of those big terminals where you can key in your order, like at McDonalds or KFC: on our visit only one was working, which makes them more like the spectacularly useless ticket machines in Reading Station. Failing that you go up to the counter and try and find something on the menu you can feel enthusiastic about. The dishes on offer are broadly similar to the U.S. menu, so it’s a choice of tacos, burritos and quesadillas. We tried to cover all angles, so I had the grilled chicken burrito, Graeme ordered a quesadilla and Dr. Quaff had the fajita burrito. Dr. Quaff also got a bonus taco because he’d signed up for something online. This is typical of him, a man who has one of those whizzy cameras attached to his doorbell so he can watch people delivering pizza to his kids while he’s down the pub.

He’s also a man, for that matter, who spent some time in the pub afterwards explaining how he’d used an API from Reading Buses to measure the average lateness of the number 22 bus. It’s three and a half minutes, in case you’re interested – and I know that because I double checked with Dr. Quaff in the course of writing this review and he told me, although not before saying “let me just fire up my data science workbench”. Dr. Quaff is the kind of man who says “let me fire up my data science workbench”. Graeme, on the other hand, is the kind of man who says “what’s an API?”

I think you can tell, from these diversions, that my companions were both more interesting and palatable than the food. Let’s get this bit out of the way. My burrito was flat with brown marks from the grill which looked more like stains, as if it had been sat on by somebody who hadn’t wiped properly. Inside was a mush of tasteless pap – you could make out the constituent parts by sight and by texture, but not by anything else. Apparently it had a blend of three cheeses, although how they found three cheeses that all tasted of nothing I’ll never know. “There’s just enough cheese that it’s stretchy”, said Dr. Quaff, “but that’s it.”

The chicken was in regularly shaped pieces that made me think it was precooked and came out of a catering pack. It had parallel dark lines on it as if to give the impression of chargrilling, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d been added with a Sharpie. When I placed my order I was told that they didn’t have regular grilled chicken, just Mexican chicken. “It’s more spicy”, the lady told me: God only knows how bland the normal chicken would be.

There was rice, too. At least it looked like rice.

“It reminds me of the microwave rice you get” said Dr. Quaff.

“What, like Uncle Ben?” I said.

“I was thinking Tilda, but same thing” he said kindly: I forgot for a second that he lives in Caversham Heights.

Dr. Quaff’s fajita burrito was equally cruddy but with flavourless peppers instead of flavourless beans. “It doesn’t look like the picture, does it?” he said, showing a masterful flair for understatement. His taco with minced beef looked, if anything, less appealing than the burrito. I would say my photo below does it justice, aesthetically speaking. “It’s okay”, he said, but it’s sort of been piped in.” Piped in, like Muzak. Or sewage.

Hard to believe, but we were the ones who got off lightly. Graeme’s quesadilla was a greasy, sweaty thing in a body bag with a mingy smear of that not-very-Mexican chicken and more of the triple threat cheese. He felt queasy eating it, queasy walking to the pub afterwards, queasy in the pub and, as he later told us, queasy the next day. “Goodness that food was rough” he said. “Thanks for taking one for the team” replied Dr. Quaff, magnanimous as ever.

All the orders come with Mexican fries which were dusted with red seasoning that tasted almost pleasant. The fries, though, were hot and stale to begin with and cold and stale soon after. Dr. Quaff ended up trying to suck the seasoning off the fries and said it tasted like tomato flavoured Cup-A-Soup before you add the hot water, but the whole spectacle was a little too Leslie Grantham webcam, so we had to ask him to stop.

The only way to make the food taste of anything was to use the sachets of sauce available. They came in Mild, Hot and Fire which, translated, mean Bland, Mild and Equally Mild But In A Slightly Different Way. Somewhere on the packaging it also says “You’ve Got This” – I imagine if you eat there a lot they’re probably referring to scurvy. On the plus side, you get bottomless cherry flavoured Pepsi Max, but you could just buy a bottle of the stuff and save yourself roughly four pounds. Our meals came to a total of just over sixteen pounds – cheap, but not good value. Cheap and nasty is closer to the truth.

We beetled off to the Nag’s Head after that where we drank – mostly to forget – and Dr. Quaff bought some Scampi Fries and Mini Cheddars. Both were tastier, and infinitely better value, than the meal we had just endured. Still, at least we had survived – and if it had been an iota worse we might have wound up getting matching tattoos. When I got home from the pub, around midnight, my other half was waiting up for me.

“So is it worse than Mission Burrito?” she said.

“Yes. It’s nowhere near as good as Mission Burrito. Or McDonalds. Or KFC. Or pretty much everywhere.”

You know how this review ends, because I told you at the beginning. But the other thing I got from visiting Taco Bell was a realisation: as long as people still queue round the block to get into Taco Bell in the weeks after it opens, my work here isn’t done. Not that any of those people read my blog, of course, but you’ve got to have faith. And, despite the fact that it was a meal that stayed with me in all the wrong ways, I still don’t regret visiting Taco Bell at all. Sometimes, counterintuitively, you need to go to places like this, just to understand how lucky we really are.

Taco Bell – 3.9
207 Broad Street Mall, RG1 7QH
0118 9597213

https://locations.tacobell.co.uk/reading/207-broad-street-mall.html