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

Vegivores

Vegivores was probably the most keenly-anticipated opening of last year, and certainly one of the restaurants I got asked to review most often. Not only that, but it also probably received more buzz online in the last couple of months of 2019 than anywhere else: everywhere I looked, on Twitter and Instagram, I saw people raving about the food, be it brunch or dinner. It’s no-reservations, and I heard frequent reports that it could be difficult to get a table there; the first few months are often incredibly difficult for a new restaurant, but Vegivores clearly got off to a flying start.

The buzz makes perfect sense to me. Vegivores is a proper success story – a journey (so sorry for using that word) from serving street food at Reading’s markets, every Wednesday and Friday in all weathers, to taking on permanent residence in Caversham’s precinct. That they’ve opened their plant-based restaurant next to gammon specialists the Caversham Butcher gives me enormous pleasure, even if I’m not sure whether it’s a happy coincidence or good old-fashioned epic trolling (I always get in trouble for talking about politics or Caversham, so let’s leave it at that).

And then, of course, there’s the meat-free factor: Vegivores is one of Reading’s only entirely meat free restaurants – along with Bhel Puri House and the Global Café – and that’s a sizeable market with very few players in it. It’s entirely a coincidence that I happened to review them in a month when many people are choosing to go vegetarian or vegan, but I’m sure many people doing that would have actively considered a visit to Vegivores.

I can imagine there would be many more natural people to review Vegivores than me. A proper vegetarian or vegan, for a start: I’ve never made a secret of being a meat-loving omnivore, and although I’ve been known to order meat-free starters it’s very rare for me to pick a vegetarian main course. I went through a phase a few years ago of deliberately ordering a vegetarian main course once a month when on duty, and although it definitely exposed the paucity of options for vegetarians and vegans it didn’t leave me itching to make changes to my diet. Nonetheless, I headed over to Caversham on a wet and miserable weekday evening with my other half Zoë to see whether Vegivores would change my mind about plant-based food.

The room was long, thin and nicely done – pretty intimate, with the counter and the open kitchen down one side and the tables along the other. There was plenty of tasteful almost-Scandi bare wood, although the chairs and the wooden banquette weren’t the comfiest. I liked it, even so – it probably had about 30 covers, so I can see it could easily fill up, and even on a truly dismal evening the place was about half-full. It was also nice to have a view of the kitchen, and the pass is under very fetching spotlights which means you can see other people’s food about to to be taken to their tables (and adjust your own order accordingly to have what they’re having).

The evening menu was nicely compact, with a small selection of starters and nibbles (most around the six or seven pound mark) and eight main courses, with an additional special on the night we visited. There was a bit of duplication – a couple of the starters appeared as larger versions in the main courses – but even so I felt like it was a decent range and I easily could have ordered numerous dishes in both sections. If you’re used to being confined to the one token plant-based dish on the menu in restaurants, seeing this might well make you drop to your knees and weep salty tears of gratitude.

The menu doesn’t specifically list items as vegetarian or vegan, and Vegivores’ website doesn’t use either V word, so it wasn’t entirely clear to me whether the yoghurt, mayonnnaise, ice cream and so on were vegan, although I assumed they were. It was a good drinks list, too – wines were all organic, there were some excellent bottled beers and ciders (most either organic or local or both) and a couple of local beers on draft. I had a Santo by Siren Craft – priced at three ninety-five for two thirds of a pint – and Zoë had a bottle of alcohol-free Riedenburger. It didn’t make her feel any happier about being on antibiotics.

Zoë and I both picked starters which could also be ordered as mains, to try and give a better view of the full range of the menu. Mine was the “fishless cakes”, a vegan take on fishcakes with smoked tofu instead of cod or haddock, and some nori to boot. The presentation was attractive, with the three cakes bookended with lemon slices and topped with what was meant to be caper salsa but contained a grand total (I counted: I’m sad like that) of one caper.

As a dish I found it problematic – the taste was pleasant, although the smoke didn’t come through strongly, but the texture let it down. It was so crumbly that it didn’t hold together at all, and that lack of structure meant it didn’t feel like either a fishcake or a potato cake, instead being strangely mealy. I very much liked the dill mayo, which had a sharp taste reminiscent of salad cream, and I would have liked more capers to add acidity.

Zoe’s dish had similar challenges. Tofu skewers came with a ramekin of satay sauce, and although the satay itself was delicious with plenty of depth and complexity the tofu needed more by way of texture, even if it was going to inevitably lack flavour of itself. Interestingly, if you order this as a main course the skewers come covered in the sauce: that might be a better way to serve the starter. Zoë’s favourite bit of the starter was the pickled ginger cabbage which came with it, and I agreed – it suggested the kitchen’s strengths might lie with plants rather than meat substitutes.

I think I would have been disappointed by either of those dishes as a main course, which is why I was so relieved that our main courses, when they arrived, stepped things up considerably.

I had changed my order after seeing the barbecue jackfruit burger up at the pass, and it was a very interesting dish. I’d managed to make it to 2020 without ever eating jackfruit (although I’ve heard it described as the vegan answer to pulled pork many times) and it’s definitely an ingenious substitute. I enjoyed its fibrous texture, married with a slightly-sour barbecue sauce, and it played perfectly against the smashed avocado underneath. But, as with the fishless cake, it didn’t quite hold together as a patty which made for an even messier, sloppier experience than, say, an Honest burger. I liked the creole slaw it came with, dry and mayo-free with a faint hint of something like chipotle, but I wasn’t convinced by the herby potatoes where the texture hinted of being pan-fried without enough oil to properly bring them to life.

Zoë on the other hand adored her main – makhanwala, a vegetable curry with salad, chutney, yoghurt and rice. I only got a forkful but I tended to think she had ordered better than me: it had heat and plenty of depth, the cauliflower was terrific and had a little bite and the decision to use brown rather than white rice made the whole thing substantial, warming and hugely comforting. It was a wonderful thing to eat as the rain lashed the precinct outside and, crucially, it was the only savoury course that didn’t make me slightly miss meat. Zoë also ordered (but didn’t really need) a side order of bread: the four slices felt a little unspecial for £2.50 and I’ll take a lot of convincing that there’s a satisfactory vegan alternative to butter.

The dessert menu was pretty compact, but we both managed to find something on it to order. My melon and prosecco sorbet was a clever idea and beautifully presented with berries, mint and edible flowers, and it tasted fresh and clean. I would have liked the prosecco to come through more, but the real issue was the texture, with big ice crystals in each scoop. I liked it, but I’m not sure I six pounds liked it. Vegivores has a pretty decent selection of dessert wines, so I had my sorbet with a glass of golden passito: it could have been lovely, but it needed to be served chilled. I didn’t mention that at the time because I didn’t think they could have fixed it, and I’d rather have slightly cold dessert wine than no dessert wine at all – in any case, the sorbet was quite cold enough to make up for it.

Zoë was far happier with her brownie with vanilla ice cream. I know there’s some debate about whether brownies belong on a dessert menu (I have a friend who likes to say it’s not a dessert, it’s a cake: it’s a hill he’d gladly die on). That philosophical debate aside, I also thought the brownie was decent but – again – texture was an issue. It tasted good, but was crumblier than a truly great brownie should be. I didn’t know whether the ice cream was vegan or not – that cryptic menu again – but it was possibly a good sign that I couldn’t tell.

Service was excellent all evening – engaged, friendly, interested and clearly passionate about Vegivores. Our server had been working there since it opened in October and she was obviously very proud of what they’d achieved in a short space of time. Our meal for two – three courses and a couple of drinks each – came to seventy-two pounds, not including tip: decent value, overall.

Writing restaurant reviews is a funny thing: the act of mentally digesting your meal can carry on long after you’ve left the place. Sometimes the passage of time makes you appreciate just how good a meal was, sometimes the initial enthusiasm fades away and distance removes enchantment. In the case of Vegivores I thought about it far longer than I normally do, because it involved considering other angles: should I be comparing it with other plant-based food, or with everything I’ve eaten? Did it have to be “good for vegan” or good full stop?

I got assistance from an unlikely source. Vegivores’ co-owner Kevin Farrell was interviewed in November by the excellent Bloody Vegans Podcast (even if you’re not a vegan it’s worth checking out their interview with Tom Bursnall, the owner of Miami Burger: eye-opening doesn’t begin to do it justice) and listening to the interview helped enormously when trying to decide how to approach Vegivores.

In it, Kevin said that not using the V word was a deliberate choice because of the connotations often attached to that word (only last year the Guardian of all places published an article simply entitled “Why do people hate vegans?”). So although everything is suitable for vegans – vegan mayo, vegan yoghurt, vegan ice cream, oat milk as the default in all hot drinks – that explained why the menu didn’t expressly say so. I sort of understand the reasoning, but I still think it wouldn’t do any harm to be clearer.

He also said that he wanted not only to offer an entirely plant-based menu but to show that eating a plant-based diet could be healthy as well as tasty (no doubt with other restaurants like Miami Burger in mind). So, for instance, Vegivores is proud of not deep-frying anything. Again, it makes perfect sense, but it also might explain why my fishless cakes lacked a bit of structure and my herby potatoes were a tad wan.

But the thing that struck home most was Kevin saying that the restaurant gets, and is keen to attract, an omnivore clientele as well – so not just vegans and friends of vegans but presumably people who are considering a vegan lifestyle or simply want to cut down their meat consumption, whether that’s for environmental reasons, health reasons or of course unease about the way animals are treated.

That’s the point where I realised that rating them as a vegan restaurant, rather than a restaurant pure and simple, was missing the point. Patronising, too: I remember many years back when I reviewed Nibsy’s tying myself in knots deciding whether to talk about gluten. I admire Vegivores for wanting to be thought of as a restaurant that happens to be vegan (although they would no doubt use a different term) rather than a vegan restaurant, with the many associations attached to that phrase.

So did Vegivores do enough to convert this omnivore? Not quite, I think. Much of the time they were close on flavour, and I do think it’s impressive to offer a vegan mayonnaise or vegan ice cream which don’t feel like they involve any compromises. But food is also about texture, and that’s where I felt Vegivores fell down somewhat, whether it was crumbly fishcakes, that brownie, or jackfruit that didn’t really hold together. It still felt to me like something was missing and – with the exception of the vegetable curry, probably the most conventional and “authentic” dish we tried – none of it was quite powerful enough to make me feel like constraining my choice by eating there.

You may well disregard this as the preconceptions of an omnivore who is too much of a carnivore to be completely open-minded. Perhaps that’s true, but at least I acknowledge that possibility. Many people whose opinions I respect love Vegivores – Zoë enjoyed her meal far more than I did, for instance – so I may have to accept that this is one occasion where I just don’t quite get it. I love their story, I admire what they’re trying to build but it’s difficult for me to envisage an occasion when Vegivores would be my first choice. Not that it matters: there’s huge integrity to what they’re doing and I’m sure they will do extremely well.

I will say this, though – whether or not I fully appreciated Vegivores, they are one of the most significant restaurants to open in Reading for a very long time. It’s a clear statement of intent to every restaurant – in Caversham and in the rest of Reading – that pays lip service to meat-free food just for the sake of having an item on the menu, or to exploit the vegan pound. Vegivores is coming for those restaurants: if they carry on doing that, Vegivores will take their customers and their business and go from strength to strength. Even though they weren’t quite my cup of tea, they’ll absolutely deserve to.

Vegivores – 7.1
41 Church Street, RG4 8BA
0118 9472181

https://www.wearevegivores.com

Feature: Less than a tenner

Is it me, or did New Year used to be a bit less, well, preachy? Nowadays we’re bombarded with things you ought to do – eat vegan food for a month, or quit drinking, or drink lots of local beer to compensate for everybody who’s quitting drinking. It’s a hard enough month at the best of times – back at work, no longer allowed to eat chocolate whenever you like. Depressed by the scales, depressed by the sales not selling anything you fancy, and it’s so bloody dark all the time. The last thing anybody needs in January, if you ask me, is a sermon.

So I’m not going to do a feature about vegan food in Reading, or where you should go to try beers from our many excellent local breweries, or which tap room is the best. Instead, this piece covers the one truly universal thing about January whoever you are: it’s a long time since the last pay day, a long time until the next and everybody is on a budget. So this feature is about the best food you can get in Reading for not much money, something I hope we can all get behind.

I’ve tried to limit this to genuine stand-alone items. Obviously I could have included plenty of starters, but nobody turns up to a restaurant, orders a starter and leaves. So, ideally, every item on this list could be eaten on its own as the feature attraction, and every one costs less than ten pounds. That does tend to push it more in the direction of lunch than dinner, but there are still at least half a dozen items on this list that you could happily eat for an early evening meal.

Having already decided which dishes I’d include I posed the question on Facebook and got a raft of answers which reminded me just how much good food in Reading didn’t quite make the cut for me. I was sad not to be able to make room for anything from Blue Collar’s Peru Sabor, for anything from Perry’s, Franco Manca, Kings Grill, Bakery House or Sapana Home. That so many good places are excluded, I hope, shows how tricky making this selection was.

Anyway, I hope this comes in handy – all of them have been extensively road-tested by me, and all come highly recommended. Happy budgeting, and good luck if you are forgoing meat, booze or indeed anything else this month. Rather you than me!

1. Chilli beef nachos, the Lyndhurst

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first: no surprises here, especially after I awarded it Starter Of The Year in my end of year awards. But, as I said then, it’s substantial enough to eat in its own right, or to snack on with drinks. Anyway, I’ve said quite enough about these nachos lately, so instead I’ll quote my esteemed colleague Quaffable Reading. After he had them for the first time last month he said “All I can say is now I realise everyone else is doing chilli wrong. And doing nachos wrong too. Fantastic dish!” And he knows what he’s talking about, because he’s the poor sod who had to endure the unique gastronomic experience of the doner meat nachos at German Doner Kebab. I’ll save you the effort of scrolling down: they don’t feature later on in this list. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG)

2. Jerk chicken, rice and peas, Sharian’s Cuisine

I’ve never been a fan of CHOW, the Friday street food market run in conjunction with Reading’s shadowy Business Improvement District. I’ve always thought it was a shame the market isn’t run by the better, more imaginative, more Reading Blue Collar Food who operate on Wednesdays in the same location. But what CHOW does have – which always generates huge queues – is Sharian’s Cuisine, and their jerk chicken, rice and peas is a thing of wonder. The chicken is spiced, charred and smoky, you get tons of it and they tell you, ever so nicely, that you’re being a wuss if you opt for the milder of the two hot sauces on offer. The weather isn’t quite conducive to eating it al fresco right now, but just you wait. (Market Place, RG1 2DE, Friday lunchtimes only)

3. Chilli paneer, Bhel Puri House

One of Reading’s iconic dishes, and one I’ve been raving about for the best part of six years. Caramelised cubes of paneer, crunchy peppers and spring onion and powerful green chillies lurking in there if you feel especially brave. I went through a phase of cheating on the chilli paneer with the saucier, stickier paneer Manchurian, I even went through a particularly depraved phase of ordering both of them at once. I dallied with the vada pav, too, but I always go back to the chilli paneer. It never lets you down. (Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF)

4. Ajika chicken wrap, Geo Cafe

There are many contenders for Reading’s finest sandwich: more than a few of them feature in this list. But, for my money, Geo Café’s chicken wrap is arguably the best. Georgian food tastes like nothing else you’ve ever eaten, and Georgian flavours transform this dish completely. The combination of fiery spice from the ajika and the pungency of baje (a Georgian sauce made from walnuts) is both otherworldly and habit-forming.

Chicken features quite heavily in this list, but this – made with free-range corn-fed chicken thighs from Vicar’s – is stupendous stuff. A wrap will set you back six pounds. Many would argue that Geo Café’s khachapuri, flat soda bread stuffed with an ingenious blend of three cheeses, should be in this list too, to which I can only say that making these decisions is harder than you might think. (10 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG, daytime only)

5. Curry night, The Lyndhurst

The Lyndhurst make this list twice because this is simply too good, in terms of quality and value, not to include in its own right. Every Thursday they offer a choice of three different curries, rice and a naan bread and a pint for nine pounds and ninety-nine pence (as you can see, when I went they threw in an onion bhaji in for good measure). The curries are all interesting and miles from kormas and bhunas, with dishes from Mangalore, Goa, Kerala and Sri Lanka, among others. I loved my visit last year, and it won’t be long before I’m back there – so much better than spending a similar Thursday in Wetherspoons making the tills ring and the microwave ping. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG, Thursday evenings only)

6. Tuna Turner, Shed

Another entry which will surprise nobody, and another dish which will probably make the cut if Reading Museum ever does an exhibition on iconic Reading food, the Tuna Turner is a truly legendary toasted sandwich and one of the very best things you can eat of a lunchtime. Superior tuna mayo, sweet slivers of red onion, plenty of cheese and jalapeños – very much the secret weapon – all conspire to be so much more than the sum of their parts. I think it’s something about the way the cheese melts, somehow seeps through the gaps in the sourdough and then forms a beautiful, glistening, caramelised crust.

If you’re there on a Friday lunchtime, and Shed is doing the Saucy Friday with scotch bonnet chilli chicken, rice and peas, macaroni cheese and coleslaw that dish, also far less than a tenner, runs the Tuna Turner pretty close. (8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT, daytime only)

7. Lamb kothey momo, Namaste Momo

Namaste Momo is in a funny little spot on the border between Woodley and Earley, an area not blessed with its restaurants. Only one bus really runs that way from the town centre, and after a certain time it only ventures out once an hour. But, for all that faff, I highly recommend a pilgrimage there because their momo are worth it.

They are made by hand and in all their forms – in a hot, thickened chilli sauce, steamed or deep fried – they justify the journey. For me, it’s when you pan fry momo that you get that bang-on midpoint of taste and texture, the contrast of char and chew and the gorgeous filling inside. Speaking of fillings, the minced, spiced, seasoned lamb is my favourite – if it was served as a slider you could sell out any hipster gaff in the town centre. But we all know better than hipsters, don’t we, and these momo are perfect just the way they are. (392 London Road, RG6 1BA)

8. Scrambled eggs, Fidget & Bob

I’ve had some truly terrible scrambled eggs in my time. I once stayed over with a then-friend in Chichester and she microwaved eggs into grey pellets – I gamely ate the lot, because I didn’t want to seem rude, but really it could have been polystyrene and I might have had a better meal. I’ve tried to learn to make them myself, with guidance from the sainted Delia, and they come out okay but not great. The truth is that Fidget & Bob have ruined me for all other scrambled eggs. For five pounds you get three golden-yolked Beechwood Farm eggs, scrambled with probably more butter than I’m comfortable knowing about (that’s the great thing about eating in restaurants: ignorance is bliss) and certainly with more skill than I can manage.

They come with plenty of buttered seeded toast although extras – hash browns, nicely crispy back bacon, that legendary slab of sausagemeat loaf – are all available. They shouldn’t push the price over a tenner unless you’re really going loco, either due to gluttony or a hangover. Another great way to spend less than ten pounds in Fidget & Bob, every Tuesday night, is to go for their quite wonderful char siu pork. (The Piazza, Whale Avenue, RG2 0GX, Tuesday to Sunday)

9. Sweet chilli chicken, Kokoro

One of my very favourite things to eat for an early solo dinner or a particularly indulgent lunch, Kokoro’s chilli chicken is a crunchy, sticky, fiery, garlic-studded tub of one hundred per cent fun. A regular sized portion is pretty big and a large portion (which costs a princely additional pound) is absolutely gigantic: both come in comfortably below the ten pound mark.

The quality varies – some batches make your eyes water and your nose run, some are milder. Sometimes you get smaller, crunchier bits of chicken, sometimes they are huge, plump things (but always with that wonderful coating). But even on a relatively bad day, Kokoro’s chilli chicken is a miraculous thing. It comes with rice or noodles – I’ve always found the noodles a bit too much like hard work, but your mileage may vary. Writing this has made me seriously consider having it for lunch today, which I suppose is almost as bad as laughing at your own jokes. (29 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY)

10. Challoumi wrap, Purée/Leymoun

To do the confusing bit first: for reasons I don’t completely understand, sometimes Sam Adaci runs a street food van called Purée, sometimes it’s called Leymoun. Purée operates out of a distinctive green van, Leymoun is more nondescript. I don’t know the rhyme or reason of why there are two different names and two different vans. He is at Blue Collar in the market square every Wednesday and CHOW in the same place on Fridays, and sometimes you can find the Purée van parked on Broad Street at other times. But if you’re ever near either van at lunchtime, join the queue and order a challoumi wrap. They cost six pounds, they are absolutely crammed with wonderful stuff and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

The chicken is spiced and cooked on the griddle before being finely chopped, and the halloumi is salty but not too squeaky (for a while Sam was having his own Brexit-proof halloumi specially made in London: not sure if he still does). Add the pickles, and the chilli sauce, and the garlic sauce and you have an overstuffed messy marvel of a sandwich where every mouthful gives you something ever so slightly different and you always want there to be another mouthful. “Purée/Leymoun” is also a bit of a mouthful, come to think of it, but it remains a must-eat at lunchtime, even if the van can be a tad elusive. They also do freshly-made falafel which are a beautiful meat free alternative. (Market Place, RG1 2EQ, Wednesday and Friday lunchtimes only. Also on Broad Street: times vary)

11. Com chien, Pho

I quite like Pho, even if I’ve never managed to learn to love the eponymous dish: soup plus noodles just isn’t for me. This means I’ve never developed the fervour for it that other restaurant bloggers seem to manage. But they do have an absolute ace up their sleeve in the form of their com chien, a generous fried rice dish with shreds of chicken, chewy little savoury dried shrimp and many, many flecks of chilli. This dish, sort of a Vietnamese nasi goreng, is wonderful for blowing away cobwebs. You can tell it’s hot because when you order it, the staff invariably ask if you’ve had it before – with the same trepidation barbers used to show when they asked if I really wanted a grade two all over. You can top it with an optional fried egg, but I like it just fine as it is. (1 King’s Road, King Street, RG1 2HG)

12. Samosas, Cake & Cream

I was tipped off by Mansoor, a regular reader, about this place that sold the best samosas in Reading. It is called Cake & Cream, and it’s off the Wokingham Road, just after the row of shops and before the Three Tuns. Their main thing is big, impressive-looking cakes, but they also have a little whiteboard near the front detailing the savoury stuff they sell. Samosas are about 75 pence each, and they also sell pakora, paneer pakora and bhajis by weight, almost like a savoury sweetshop.

The samosas really are everything Mansoor promised they would be: full of a rich and surprisingly spicy potato masala, the pastry spot on and the whole thing piping hot and utterly addictive. They come with a sauce which is tangy, sweet and hot in equal measures, although they’re just as magnificent without it. The service is very friendly and the chap always seems thoroughly surprised to see me – oh, and the pakora are also tremendous. There are tables at Cakes & Cream, and I’m sure some people eat there, but I always take my bag and scarper onto the first 17 bus I can find, counting the minutes until I can tuck in back at home. You get jealous looks from your fellow passengers, although that might just be my imagination. (11-13 St Peters Road, RG6 1NT)

Feature: The 2019 Edible Reading Awards

Can you believe it’s that time of year again? Hopefully by now you’ve bought all your Christmas presents (even if, like me, you’ve not necessarily wrapped them yet). Hopefully you’ve sent and received all your cards – if you still do that sort of thing – and reflected on the new names on the list and the people you’ve finally pruned. You’ve probably had your work do, and been out with your friends. You may even be on roast dinner number four or five by now. We all have our festive traditions and one of mine, for the last five years, has been sitting down and writing this, my end of term report on Reading’s restaurant scene. Was it an “exceeds expectations” or a “must try harder”? Hmm. Let’s find out.

I initially thought it had been a quiet year for restaurants in this town but actually, on reflection, there has been a fair bit of movement. No big-name openings like 2018 – no Lido, no Clay’s, no Corn Stores – but instead a steady succession of new places vying to capture your spend and your affection. So 2019 was the year when we said hello to Argentine steakhouse Buenasado and Greek white elephant Lemoni in the Oracle, the Pantry in the Town Hall, Vegivores and the Last Crumb out in Caversham and countless other new kids on the block.

Some existing restaurateurs moved to new premises: Tutu shifted her Ethiopian Table from the Global Café to Palmer Park, and Kamal (of Namaste Kitchen) finally opened new restaurant Namaste Momo on the edge of Earley. And there’s always a new restaurant just around the corner – the first of 2020 may well be Osaka, the new Japanese restaurant due to set up shop in the old Café Rouge site, but I doubt it will be the last. We’re also allegedly getting a Taco Bell, presumably to compensate us in some Newtonian sense, for the forthcoming closure of bigoted poultry purveyor Chick-Fil-A.

Not that we haven’t had enough restaurants close this year. The saddest, for me, was Tuscany, the fantastic independent pizzeria down the Oxford Road. I was also disappointed that Vibes, the Caribbean restaurant on Queens Walk, closed before I paid it a visit. We also lost two Reading institutions in the form of China Palace and Beijing Noodle House – although, to be euphemistic, both had seen better days.

Town centre Vietnamese restaurant Mum Mum and Alona, serving Lebanese food down the Wokingham Road, also closed their doors for the final time. Neither got to celebrate their first birthday. Nor did Bench Rest, which stopped serving in the Tasting House after less than a year: Reading’s original nomad moved on again, and is apparently leaving the country next year.

In terms of reviewing, it’s been a year of highs and lows. I experienced the worst nachos in the world, activated charcoal-flavoured ick, food that came all at once, John Lewis tablemats, albino carbonara and comically laissez faire service. But I’ve also had astonishing sausage rolls, eye-opening pasta, the warmest of welcomes and seen familiar faces in new places. Every now and then I’d have a run of meals so bad, or so bla, that I started to feel discouraged, but the next superb meal was never too far away. Trips abroad made sure I never fell out of love with eating out, especially one holiday where the food just blew me away.

It’s been a fantastic year in terms of the blog – a record-breaking one, with more visitors than ever before. As always, I’m incredibly grateful to all of you who read, like, comment, Retweet, share or just lurk, whether you do so smiling, laughing, tutting or grimacing. I’m grateful to everybody who’s come out on duty with me this year – friends, readers, my terrific family and of course Zoë, my partner in crime and regular dining companion. And I’m also grateful to everybody who has come to one of the five readers’ events I’ve run this year – all at some of Reading’s finest independent restaurants, each of them offering a special one-off menu. I’m not sure 2019 will be topped, but of course I’ll try my best to next year.

With all that said, it just remains for me to hand out the gongs in this, the 2019 Edible Reading Awards. It’s been harder than ever to reduce the long list to a short list, let alone pick the winners, and any of the honourable mentions this year could easily have taken top spot instead of the eventual winners. We’re lucky to live in a town that makes these decisions so difficult, so if you disagree with any or all of the winners I can hardly blame you: on another day, I might have disagreed too. Anyway, that’s quite enough preamble: let’s announce some winners, and you can tell me what I got wrong in the comments.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Chilli nachos, The Lyndhurst

It was pretty much love at first sight when I ordered the Lyndhurst’s chilli nachos for the first time, and none of my subsequent encounters have dimmed my ardour. A wonderful chilli made with slow-cooked, shredded beef (a chilli which doesn’t appear elsewhere on the menu in the mains section), robust hand-made tortilla chips, a healthy helping of well-made guacamole and some cream cheese, a lettuce leaf if you want to pretend to be a better person than you actually are. A perfect starter to share, or to snaffle on your own, or a dish to eat with a few pints just for the sake of it, because it’s so perfect. I’m a huge fan, and I live in constant fear that they’ll either take it off the menu or price it slightly less generously (seven pounds twenty-five pence, would you believe it). Superb stuff.

I know that not picking a starter from Clay’s will be controversial here – one Twitter follower suggested I should have a separate award for the best Clay’s starter (and that too would be an incredibly tough one to call). Clay’s does deserve an honourable mention though for their cut mirchi chaat – a sort of stuffed and battered chilli dish that is difficult to describe and even more difficult to resist (yes, I know: but what about the chicken 65, the kodi chips, the squid pakora, the duck spring rolls, and basically all the other starters. Enough already). Another honourable mention goes to Zest for their triple-cooked pork belly with XO sauce, a dish I’ve thought about on pretty much a daily basis since I had it at the start of the month.

CHAIN OF THE YEAR: Honest Burger

Chains are all about consistency, and in my experience Honest has gone from strength to strength this year, becoming the place to go if you want a quick, enjoyable, reliably superb meal. It helps that they’ve swapped out their local special – the indifferent jerk chicken burger has given way to a gorgeous new option with Waterloo cheese and bearnaise butter – but it’s just that they never put a foot wrong. My stepfather is so impressed with their vegan burger that he picks it over a conventional beefburger, some of the specials this year have been absolutely knockout (especially when they involve fried chicken) but really, it’s just that it’s regularly, unspectacularly excellent. Reading still has far too many burger joints, and I wouldn’t shed a tear if the rest closed down. But Honest is another matter altogether.

The two runners-up in this category also deliver the kind of consistency and comfort you want from a visit to a chain restaurant. Pho continues to offer an excellent range of dishes (I don’t think I’ll ever really see the appeal of the eponymous dish itself, but I’m evangelical about their com chien) and Kokoro has done me a turn on many an early evening when I can’t be bothered to cook and on a few hungover Sunday lunchtimes. Their sweet chilli chicken is a particular favourite of mine, although I know the katsu curry also has its fans.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob

Yes, on this occasion lunch probably means brunch and yes, Fidget & Bob is out of town which means that for most people it’s a weekend lunch option. But nevertheless, most of my happiest lunches this year have been at Fidget & Bob and they invariably involve a variant of their phenomenal brunch menu which they serve all day. You can have a breakfast wrap, or the “hangover” (a sausage, bacon and egg sandwich) but I always seem to go for their golden, gorgeous scrambled eggs, served with crispy back bacon and a slice of their sausage loaf. Other dishes – sandwiches, panini and their home-made noodle pots – are available, but the trick is to save room for cake. I am hooked on the kouign amann – hopelessly indulgent Breton pastries made with plenty of salted butter (they missed a trick not calling them “Breton butter pudding”) but the salted caramel brownies are also phenomenal.

Picking a winner in this category wasn’t easy, limiting the runners-up to just two was equally difficult. An honourable mention goes to Caversham’s Geo Café which has spent 2019 completing its transformation from Nomad Bakery and, along with a beautiful array of cakes, still serves one of Reading’s finest sandwiches in the form of the ajika-spiced corn-fed chicken wrap. Also highly commended is Shed – which is every bit as good as ever and continues to serve Reading’s best golden, cheese-laden, comforting toasties.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Lamb with cumin, Kungfu Kitchen

In a year of wonderful main courses – far too many to list here – KFK’s lamb with cumin was the one I kept coming back to. I had it on my second ever visit, and it’s been a struggle not to order it every time since. The lamb – sliced wafer-thin, as it is for the hot pot – is so deep and rich. It tastes properly of lamb – which might sound like a silly thing to say, but somehow lamb is so often a pale copy of how it ought to taste. “This is how kebabs should be” said my other half the first time she tasted this dish, and I can understand what she meant. The whole thing, flecked with sesame seeds and tumbled with onion and coriander, stalks and all, is the kind of intensely savoury dish you daydream about long after you have eked out one final mouthful. KFK does so many excellent dishes but, in the lamb with cumin, it has one unforgettable one.

It is a tribute to how strong a field it is that many of the dishes on my long list could easily have won this award: Fidget & Bob’s char siu pork, for instance, or Namaste Momo’s spellbinding lamb kothey momo. But there’s only room for two runners-up. First, the chinta chiguru from Clay’s – terrific, tender chicken thigh in a striking, sharply elegant tamarind sauce (very much the unsung hero of the Clay’s menu, in my book). And secondly, Bakery House’s boneless baby chicken with vegetable rice and beautifully dressed salad, possibly Reading’s most complete main course.

OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Mio Fiore, Newbury

I so loved my visit to Mio Fiore this year, and I’m long overdue a return trip. There was just something magical about it – so unprepossessing and yet getting everything right, serving dishes that are so often unspecial in chain Italians and reminding you just how superb they can be in the right hands. It came around the same time as I had a brilliant holiday in Bologna and a bloody horrendous meal in Cozze, and the fact that the standard was so much closer to the former than the latter put a huge smile on my face. If you go, the spaghetti puttanesca (pictured above) is pretty damn close to perfection.

Honourable mentions have to go to Goring’s Miller Of Mansfield, a special occasion restaurant which will leave you wanting to invent more special occasions, and Oxford’s Pompette, a truly spectacular French neighbourhood restaurant which I’d dearly love to pick up and drop somewhere in Reading. In fact, since I can’t do that, I’m literally lunching there again today.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob

I stopped giving an award out for Tweeter of the year this year, because Fidget & Bob won it every year. They may as well keep the trophy. But this year, eating there more often, I discovered that how they were on Twitter probably came so naturally to them because it was just an extension of how they were in real life. Their welcome is always warm but perfectly-judged, not faux-matey, never too much. They seem to know literally everybody who eats in their little café – who they are, what they like, how they’ve been, the comings and goings of their lives. I suppose it must be easier to do when you run a small venue and there are only a couple of you, but that doesn’t stop it being extremely impressive – or bloody hard work, however easy Shu and Breege make it look.

An honourable mention has to go to Mio Fiore, who also have that perfect balance spot on in a far bigger venue, and I also have to single out the inimitable Jo at Kungfu Kitchen. Her service is a constant joy to me – the conversation, the recommendations, the gossip, the way she always seems delighted that you’ve come back. There’s no welcome quite like it in Reading, and once you’ve tried it you’ll know exactly what I mean.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Chocolate custard with sesame tuille, The Miller Of Mansfield

So beautiful, so elegant and so delicious: the Miller’s chocolate custard is a smooth, glossy thing somewhere between the texture of a ganache and a mousse. It looks almost as beautiful as it tastes, with a salted sesame tuille on top perfect to break into little shards, the whole thing artfully dotted with microherbs and little dabs of vivid orange. It was by far the best dessert I’ve had this year: when I went on duty I shared it with my dining companion, but when I managed to engineer a return visit a few weeks later I made sure I got one all to myself.

Honourable mentions go to Zest’s excellent white chocolate and Bailey’s cheesecake – a big old slab of heaven – and the timeless simplicity of Mio Fiore’s tiramisu.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: The Lyndhurst

I was very sad when the Lyndhurst closed in June, the landlord went off to pastures new and at least one of the chefs moved on to the Fisherman’s Cottage. And I had my doubts when it reopened the following month – there was a hesitancy about the whole thing, and on the opening night the team seemed more than a little fazed about what they had taken on.

Well, over the months that followed they have, if anything, surpassed their predecessors with an interesting and exciting menu which constantly changes. I tried a beautiful dish of oxtail there, rich shreds of meat wrapped up in the embrace of a cabbage leaf. Weeks later, it had vanished from the menu like a mirage, never to return. The picture above is of a stunning rabbit dish – stuffed with chicken liver, wrapped in prosciutto, a dish which kept popping back into my mind at random moments, normally when I was eating something nowhere near as good. I think they served that dish for less than a week, and I haven’t seen it on the menu since.

One staple, though, is the curry night on Thursdays – a choice of three curries, all miles from the generic stuff, with rice, a bhaji, a pint and a naan, all for a tenner. The ever-present katsu chicken burger is always worth ordering, too, with some of Reading’s best chips – and then there’s the small matter of their chilli nachos, as I’ve already said.

The tables have got busier, the “reserved” signs more frequent, and I for one am delighted to see them doing so well. And the hesitancy hasn’t exactly vanished: it’s more that it’s morphed into a really charming humility. They don’t ever sing their own praises, which is even more reason why it’s my pleasure to do it for them by awarding them my Newcomer Of The Year award.

Some people would have expected Kungfu Kitchen to win this award, but they opened in October last year so aren’t eligible (and, personally, I was delighted to dodge another incredibly hard decision). I do, however, have to mention the two runners-up in this category. Buenasado really surprised me when I visited it on duty – I had low expectations of a small restaurant popping up in the Oracle in the site vacated by CAU, but they did a really creditable job (and their lunchtime steak frites offer is not to be sniffed at, either). An honourable mention also goes to Namaste Momo, the new outpost from Kamal, the man behind Namaste Kitchen. It’s a little out of the way, and the execution of the menu is still slightly uneven, but the hand-made momo are literally worth the price of admission alone: not only that, but Kamal will absolutely charm the socks off you.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Kungfu Kitchen

This was absolutely the hardest decision of all. Just think, for a second, about how lucky we are to live here. Here are some of the restaurants that didn’t even make my shortlist: Fidget & Bob; Pepe Sale; Geo Café; The Lyndhurst; Namaste Momo.

And then look at my runners-up. Bakery House is a superb, consistent, brilliantly run Reading institution where you can take pretty much anyone you know and guarantee that you’ll have a superb meal. You can go with vegetarians and go crazy with the mezze, or take your carnivorous friends and rejoice in the chicken livers, the little spiced sausages, the shawarma and the chicken fresh from the grill. I can’t remember them ever disappointing me.

And then there’s Clay’s. How could I not give the award to Clay’s, you might quite reasonably ask? If anything, their second year has been stronger than their first: look at all that game on their menu at the start of 2019, the quail, the rabbit and the pheasant. And then, just when you think their food couldn’t get any better, they pivoted again: amazing baby squid, like some hybrid of Hyderabad and Andalusia, a crab fry dish which has left so many diners speechless. They’ve even got me to eat baby corn, something I’d previously thought was impossible. I know full well that not picking them as 2019’s winners will leave many of you questioning my judgment this year (and possibly next).

But this is a decision made with the heart, not the head, and Kungfu Kitchen has been my restaurant of this year. From the very first visit I was wondering when I could go back, and on every visit I’ve faced that agonising tug of war between ordering a dish I know and love or venturing deeper into the menu. It never feels too much like a leap into the unknown, largely because of the magnificent Jo who always acts as a sherpa, taking you just far enough out of your comfort zone without ever leaving you high and dry (with possibly one exception: she once made me order a boiled beef and chilli oil dish which was a challenge, more a dish you survive than finish). She is a force of nature, and a huge part of what makes Kungfu Kitchen so enjoyable and so welcoming.

The food really is marvellous – whether it’s the fried fish in spicy hot pot, the sweet and aromatic wonder of the fish fragrant pork, the piquant kung pao chicken, the glorious pork belly, boiled, sliced super thin and then stir fried with Chinese mushrooms and plenty of heat, the salt and pepper tofu – yes, tofu – or one of my very favourites, the Xinjiang-style shredded chicken which almost literally takes your breath away with the heat before gradually releasing its grip on your larynx. That makes it sound awful but honestly, it’s exhilarating.

The conventional wisdom is to go to a place like Kungfu Kitchen in a big group so you can try more dishes, and that’s partly true. I’ve been at a birthday party there where they effortlessly served about twenty people, they did a bang-up job (complete with karaoke!) at one of my readers’ lunches earlier in the year. But I’ve also been here with smaller groups of friends, on quiet nights with my other half and, on occasion when I’m at a loose end, I’ll walk up the hill on my own and order just the one dish – such a hardship – and a beer and have dinner for one watching the toing and froing, the bustle and the banter. The welcome is never less than perfect, and the food is never less than gorgeous. It truly is a happy place.

It’s been a real joy to watch Kungfu Kitchen spreading its wings on social media, and to see so many ER readers go there and fall in love with the place, as I did. And so it seems appropriate to end 2019 by giving them this award and by wishing them – and all my winners and runners-up, and just as importantly all of you – a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.