Round-up: November and December

Edible Reading is taking Christmas off. Many restaurants aren’t attractive places to visit over the festive season – full of work dos paying inflated amounts for a set menu you have to order weeks in advance. Besides, for many Christmas is all about the pleasures of eating at home – roasts, smoked salmon breakfasts, insanely huge cheeseboards – and I’m no different. So here’s a round-up of what you may have missed over the last couple of months, along with all the local food news I’ve been able to uncover.

The Lobster Room, 3.3 – A good cellar restaurant can feel like a well-kept, exclusive secret. This place, on the other hand, deserves to be more widely known for different reasons. Check out ER’s worst rating so far, and the review, here.

Sushimania, 7.4 – Reading’s replacement for the much-lamented Thai Nine offers all you can eat sushi and a range of Japanese noodle and rice dishes. But is the complicated pricing structure worth navigating? Click here to find out.

Forbury’s, 7.1 – One of the mainstays among Reading’s high-end restaurants, Forbury’s has a new chef who is determined to make waves. I went expecting great things, but was I disappointed? The review is here.

Café Yolk, 5.2 – Everyone loves Café Yolk, from Twitter to TripAdvisor. Is it a masterpiece of marketing or do they really do the best breakfast in Reading? The most controversial review so far can be found here, and don’t forget to check out the comments where the chef defends himself – admittedly under an assumed name, and pretending to be a customer, but I guess it’s something.

The Plowden Arms, 8.7 – Things had to improve after Café Yolk, and fortunately my first trip out of central Reading uncovered a hidden gem on the road to Henley. Sophisticated food, hearty pub classics and gorgeous vintage crockery, all under one roof? I loved the Plowden – go here to see why I was so impressed.

The Moderation, 6.6 – Spirit House has recently opened The Queen’s Head, up on Christchurch Green, but is The Moderation the original and best? I checked out the closest thing central Reading has to a gastropub, and found a decidedly mixed bag, here.

House Of Flavours, 8.3 – It had to happen eventually – Edible Reading reviews an Indian restaurant. But House Of Flavours might be a really good restaurant that happens to do Indian food, rather than a curry house. The review, here, explains why.

The last couple of months have been slow in terms of restaurant news. La Courbe in King’s Walk still shows no signs of opening, although they’ve now added a Twitter feed to their website (it said they were opening in September, then got changed to December 16th, so we can safely assume they’re a bit behind schedule). There are a couple of interesting openings in Reading, but both are cafés rather than full-blown restaurants.

Lincoln Coffee House opened a couple of weeks ago at 60 Kings Road, and looks interesting. The owners buy their coffee from Nude and are clearly influenced by the coffee scene in Hackney and Shoreditch; the interior looks quite handsome, if stark, and they offer coffee, an interesting looking range of tea (very welcome, as tea drinkers get rather a raw deal in Reading) and a variety of bagels and cakes. It will be interesting to see how they settle in – it’s a challenging location, and they’ll need a lot of lunchtime custom from the big offices nearby. The website is still being built (http://www.lincolncoffeehouse.co.uk/) and they don’t Tweet, but a Facebook page is here.

Also new, at 16 West Street, is Cappuccina Café, which is an even more curious beast. A mixture of Vietnamese and Portuguese food means that it will offer both bánh mì (the distinctive pork sandwich so popular in London a few years back) and pastéis de nata (that’s egg custard tarts to me and you). I’ve not been in yet, but a wander past suggests it’s doing a good trade so far and the sign on the door, suggesting their pastéis may be from Portuguese chain Café Nicola, is also a good sign. No website, no Facebook page and no Twitter presence, so you’ll just have to stop by and check them out if that floats your boat.

Neither a restaurant nor a café, but still good news for cheese lovers and ale fans, The Grumpy Goat, in Harris Arcade, opened on 14th December and plans to stock a full range of local cheeses. This is great news, whether you prefer the creamy delights of Waterloo, the hard nutty temptations of Spenwood (named after Spencer’s Wood, don’t you know) or of course Barkham Blue, possibly the best blue cheese in the world. It’s nice that Reading folk will no longer have to trek to Pangbourne, Henley or Wokingham to satisfy their cheese cravings. Again, no website yet but they’re on Facebook here and they also tweet.

Of course, Edible Reading isn’t the only source of local restaurant reviews. The Reading Post recently reviewed Bart’s Grill, here, giving it an impressive four stars out of five. They must really like Bart’s, because they also reviewed it barely four months before that, here. Not to forget the time that they reviewed it in August 2012, also a glowing review, here. That’s three reviews in – count them – fifteen months. Not to be outdone, the Reading Chronicle also reviewed it in November, here – although theirs was an “advertising feature”, so Bart’s paid the paper for the privilege (not sure why they bothered, when they get so much coverage from the Post for free). It must be quite a restaurant – perhaps I’ll check it out in 2014 and see what all the fuss is about.

Last of all, it’s worth pointing out the new pages on Edible Reading. If you want to see a list of all the places I’ve reviewed, in alphabetical order, you can find it here. You’d rather see it in order of ER ratings? No problem, that’s here! And if you want to see the list of restaurants in the pile to review, and even to suggest one yourself, you can find that here. Nearly every restaurant I review comes from a tip-off, suggestion or request from you, so please keep them coming.

Right, that’s all. Have a magnificent Christmas full of turkey, brandy butter, red wine, cheese and port (and devoid of hangovers, Lambrini, coffee creams and acid reflux) and see you on Friday 10th January when I publish the first review of 2014. Not sure where it will be yet, but I hear there’s this great place called Bart’s on the Wokingham Road…

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House Of Flavours

I’d always told myself that I wouldn’t review curry houses, for lots of reasons. Reading has a lot of them, all over the place, for one. For another thing, the local papers cover them extensively and frequently. I’m not sure how they do it, after all it must be difficult to review an Indian restaurant every month. I mean, it’s all just different meats in different orange sauces most of the time, isn’t it? And who really cares which place does the best korma/bhuna/biryani anyway, especially when people tend to have a curry house that they go to out of habit and comfort.

So why is this week’s review of House Of Flavours? Well, people kept recommending it. It got mentioned on Twitter a lot. A few people asked me to go review it, and more than one said “you really should go”. So the contrarian in me thought “why not?” and that same contrarian quite liked the idea of going in December, when most people’s thoughts are turning to slightly more traditional warming food.

House Of Flavours is a little bit out of the centre, not far from the library, in a spot that has seen mixed fortunes over the years. It used to be Ha! Ha! (which I still miss, believe it or not), and then it was some tapas restaurant whose name escapes me, then an ill-fated pub that closed on Sunday afternoons, and then Mangal, the Turkish place which has gone up in the world and relocated to St Mary’s Butts.

Despite that, when I visited on a Saturday lunchtime (the December diary being what it is) I was impressed to see that the front room of this admittedly sizeable restaurant was pretty much full, almost exclusively with Indian families. I nearly left again when I thought this might be due to the all you can eat buffet they were offering (and nobody needs a review of one of those, in my opinion), but to my relief they were also offering their full menu so the very polished waiters talked me into staying. I’m glad they did.

The House Of Flavours’ menu is an intimidating tome. If you look at it on their website you get some idea of this; twenty-four pages long, and you don’t get to the a la carte menu until page fourteen. Before that it’s all drinks – a lot of drinks – and the set menus (at the moment a “Christmas menu”, though god knows how different that is to their usual set menu – I didn’t see any stuffing bhajis or turkey jalfrezi, thank goodness). The set menu featured a lot of the familiar dishes you could get anywhere else, but wading through to the a la carte things started to get a lot more interesting – a wide range of regional specialities, very well described, along with a range of vegetarian dishes so impressive I even considered ordering some of them.

We got the clichéd poppadoms while waiting for our starters and even these made me begin to feel like I was in a restaurant that happened to serve Indian food rather than an Indian restaurant. Two of the poppadoms were plain and delicate but the third was studded with nigella seeds and the taste and texture were something else. The raita was thick and fresh, not the insipid liquid you usually get. The mango chutney was also speckled with cumin and nigella, probably the best I can remember eating, and the onions (offered instead of the usual lime pickle) were finely diced and spiced, as tasty as they were antisocial. So often this is just a way to eat something, anything, while you’re waiting for your starters to arrive but these felt like they had a purpose all their own. It was a promising beginning.

The starters, by and large, lived up to that. The lahsooni chicken tikka was just gorgeous – three sensibly sized pieces of chicken, marinated in yoghurt and spices and cooked beautifully. Everything about the flavour and texture of these worked perfectly – the spicing came through with the right intensity at the right speed and the meat was so tender. I was simultaneously sorry they were over so quickly and delighted that they were perfect – always the way with a truly great starter.

Lahsooni Chicken Tikka

The other starter was maave ki seekh, which is described on the menu as “root vegetables and cottage cheese flavoured with ginger and cooked in a clay oven”, and it was delicious if not entirely what I was expecting. The texture was rather like partially cooked gingerbread, cooked on a skewer; the outside was slightly firm and the inside was a delicious warming paste. If it had any vegetables in it I couldn’t truly tell but it was still very tasty, especially with a squirt of lemon juice and a few sprigs of – properly dressed – salad on the side. I keep thinking about what I can compare it to and falling short. Was it like falafel? Not really. Like a bhaji? No, that’s not right either. Maybe this is another reason why I shy away from reviewing Indian restaurants, because I don’t have the vocabulary to do them justice.

Maave Ki Seekh By this stage I thought I was probably onto a winner, although I’ve been disappointed at that stage many times (how many restaurants have you been to where you’ve thought I wish I’d stopped at the starters? For me it’s hundreds). But the mains didn’t let the standard drop. Shahi chicken tak-a-tak (named, according to the very informative menu, after the noise it makes popping away on the skillet) is one of those sizzling griddled dishes you always get jealous of when someone else at your table orders it. This one was no exception: so much more than just a pile of meat and onions, it came with a rich hot tomatoey sauce. How hot? Well, I didn’t lose all feeling in my mouth but tissues had to come out at the table – I hope that’s not too much information, but until someone comes up with a Richter Scale of food heat it’s the best I can do. I loved it.

Shahi Chicken Tak-a-TakAgain the heat was really clever; it built up slowly, in layers, rather than pulverising you from the start. I’m not going to say “oh, it was genuine Indian food” because I’m not Indian and I wouldn’t know, but I’ve been to India once and it reminded me of the food I had when I went – that intelligent, calculated use of spice. Again, the chicken was soft and tender, not firm and unyielding, although after the starters I wouldn’t have expected anything less.

Having said all of that, the other dish was indeed chunks of meat in an orange sauce. Well, almost anyway – the mahi dum anari was sizeable chunks of fish, soft to the point of falling apart, in a silky sauce. This sauce was much more delicate, almost sweet but again the spice worked brilliantly. I wish I could do it justice by describing it better, but I might try and improve my skills in this area by going back to House Of Flavours. The other delight in this dish was the pomegranate on top – I was sceptical about this but its sweet pop under the teeth went superbly with the dish. According to the menu, this dish was served to Barack Obama on his last state visit to India; I wasn’t moved to take a selfie, but I did take a picture of the dish (it doesn’t do it justice any better than this paragraph does).

Mahi Dum AnariNormally in a curry house this would be accompanied with some pilau rice and a big fluffy naan but again, I was moved to try different things. The mutter pulao was rice rich with peas and with just the right amount of cumin, another revelation in a meal packed with revelations. The paratha was even better, buttery, chewy and soft at the same time and layered in a way which somehow reminded me – I don’t know why – of the pastry on the bottom of a tarte tatin.

ParathaNobody goes to an Indian restaurant for the drink, but I feel I should mention it because the wine list has three Indian wines on it. I tried two: the sauvignon blanc was decent if slightly thin on flavour but the cabernet sauvignon was spot on – properly hearty and feisty enough to stand up to the spices in my meal (I might have had a bottle, but it was all Kingfisher on the opposite side of the table to me, which is fair enough I guess). They also have two pretty creditable dessert wines – a Sauternes and a Californian red muscat – at very reasonable prices, albeit not for a full glass.

The reason I know about the dessert wines is that I couldn’t stay away from the desserts. I have a real penchant for gulab jamun so I was thrilled to see them on the menu. If you have a sweet tooth and you’ve never tried them, you’re missing out; they’re doughy balls – made from curdled milk, but don’t let that put you off – deep fried and then served soaked in a sugar syrup tinged with cardamom and rose water. The portion here is only small (two balls – no jokes, please) but that turned out to be plenty, especially if you don’t share them with anyone, as I didn’t.

The total bill for two people, for three-ish courses with a couple of drinks each came to £65. You could eat more cheaply than that if you stuck to one of their set menus but even so I felt this was very good value. I mentioned the service in passing at the beginning of the review but it is worth another mention too – very polished, very smooth and only there when you needed it. The whole experience felt very different to most Indian restaurants I’ve visited in Reading.

How to sum this place up? Well, how about doing it like this: I remember when I first found out that this place was opening, and I remember walking past the sign and reading the name. House Of Flavours? I thought. That’s a ridiculous name. It’s just going to be an Indian restaurant, and Reading needs another one of those like it needs another Italian. Now I’ve been, I know how wrong I was; it’s the perfect name for the restaurant and it sums up exactly what they offer – more than anything, the flavours are what I remember. I can’t think of many higher compliments for a restaurant than this, but even before I’d left I was already planning my return. Thinking about what flavours I’d like to sample next.

House of Flavours – 8.3
32 – 36 Kings Road, RG1 3AA
0118 950 3500

http://house-of-flavours.co.uk/

The Moderation

One thing restaurant bloggers often get criticised for is their obsession with the new. You especially see this in London, where new restaurants open all the time. It’s partly because some bloggers get invited to soft openings (a phrase which sounds wrong – wrong on paper, wrong in my head) and partly because it’s too difficult not to in a city where there is always a new trend to embrace or a new cuisine to explore. I can understand how seductive that must be, and here in Reading I can’t help but feel a pang of envy. Reading gets a handful of new restaurants every year. Edible Reading publishes a weekly review, and if I only visited places that had just opened I’d run out of material before you’d finished your leftover turkey and broken your first resolution of 2014.

But also, I don’t believe in it. I like to give places a chance to settle down and bed in, to iron out inconsistencies, for the kitchen and the front of house to gel. I wasn’t always like that – I remember going to Brown’s just after it opened and sitting upstairs, with no natural light while the waiter stumbled over his words and my feet and my forgettable food arrived, was eaten and forgotten. It might be brilliant now, but I’ve never gone back.

On paper, this week’s review should be of the Queen’s Head, the revamped pub on Christchurch Green. It used to be called the Nob, was full of students and was skanky, scruffy and the home to a few of my disgraceful Saturday nights a long time ago. It’s just been done up by Spirit House, who also own the Warwick and the Moderation and have realised that students don’t buy food whereas the people in the gorgeous roads around Christchurch Green (I personally daydream about living on New Road) probably will. I went, and I quite enjoyed my meal, but when push came to shove, I couldn’t review it. So instead, I went to its daddy (or perhaps uncle), the Moderation, this week with a couple of friends.

The Moderation also used to be a grim boozer but you wouldn’t know that now. Refurbished, it’s a handsome building from the outside, slightly incongruous so close to the curry houses, kebab joints, little hotels and undertakers of the Caversham Road (not to mention “Papa Gee”, a strange little Italian restaurant I’ve walked past dozens of times without spotting a single diner). Inside, it was buzzing and all sorts of groups were there, from raucous parties to small gatherings of friends to what looked suspiciously like dates. We were lucky to get a table, which on a school night in a location out of town is no mean feat.

The Moderation’s menu is a funny mix of food. Indonesian, Malaysian and Thai food rubs shoulders with classic pub food, pork belly and black pudding juxtaposed with nasi goreng. I like that range, but it raises a bit of a concern too: could it be equally good at both, or was one what they truly loved and the other something they put on to attract a wider range of punters? I resolved to find out, or get uncomfortably full in the attempt.

We began with the time-honoured sharing platter of mixed starters: I know, so unimaginative. We should have picked three different dishes, and if I went again I would, but the variety was too hard to resist (looking back I’m ashamed to remember that when I reviewed the Warwick, the Moderation’s sister pub, I also went for the mixed starters; I think I’ve let you down.)

It was, in fairness, a good choice and also gave a reasonable idea that the kitchen could handle both east and west. The spring rolls were delicately spiced and eminently dippable, subtly different from those at the Warwick but equally good. The salt and pepper squid, though not quite up to the standard of somewhere like London Street Brasserie, was tasty and avoided the worst fate of all, that of rubberiness (though I’d have liked more crispiness). The prawn crackers were inoffensive and probably not worth the sentence I’ve just given them. The chicken satay was, again, better than the Warwick I thought – a skewer of tender flesh and a gorgeous chunky satay sauce to slather over it.

The most interesting of the starters was the kedgeree arancini – balls of smoked haddock risotto breaded and fried with half a hard-boiled quail’s egg pinned to them, a little dab of curried mayonnaise on top. I loved this; sophisticated party food, and cleverer than all the other staples (no doubt next year Jason Donovan will be wandering past with a tray full of them in the ad breaks on I’m A Celebrity).

Starter

The wine list, though not enormous, had enough to keep us occupied. The sauvignon blanc was decently fresh and easy to drink and the chianti was fruity without being inoffensive and peppery without being brutish. The advantage of having dinner in a pub is that if you go out for a meal with someone who likes beer there’s something for them too; I’m told the Black Sheep was very nice, although my friend had it in a shandy, and even I know that means she probably wasn’t qualified to judge.

Initially I tried to order a 125ml glass of wine, but the waiter turned up with what looked suspiciously like 175ml. I was about to quibble when he said “It’s the same price for 125ml, so I brought you a bigger glass. Leave some if you like”. I liked that; I’ve been to places where they would have brought the smaller glass and trousered the cash, so it was nice to be told. Service was like that in general – a tad brusque (they were busy all night, in their defence) but helpful and prompt. Considering how much they had going on, and the size of some of the other tables, I was impressed to get served at all.

For the mains we decided to give both halves of the Moderation’s menu a chance. In the red corner, representing pub food, was a mutton and onion suet pudding with mashed potato and roast root veg. It was nowhere near perfect, but just close enough to it that I could have wept. The jus that came with it was rich, the soft sticky roasted carrots and parsnips were delicious, and the sauce inside the pudding was a cracking jumble of slightly sweet onion and tangy tomato. But the errors were glaring. The mash had big chunks of what felt like uncooked spud lurking in it. The suet pastry didn’t have the slightly soggy, gooey feel I was looking for and, if anything, was more like a pie in pudding’s clothing.

Most unforgivably, the mutton was undercooked and unappealing – bouncy in places, sinewy in others. None of it fell apart under the fork the way it should have done, and most of it resisted a knife in a way it really shouldn’t have. The moment the first chunk twanged under my molars I knew the rest of the meal would be spent prodding and chopping, when a meal dish this should be about scoffing with carefree, reckless abandon. The gulf between what you think you’re getting and what you end up with has rarely felt so cruel, or so huge.

Mutton

The beef rendang, in the blue corner, suggested that I’d have been better off sticking to the eastern half of the menu. This was a bowl of beef in a rich, spicy coconut sauce with enough of a kick to balance out the creaminess but not so much that your lips tingled. On the side was a dome of white rice and a couple of those decent enough prawn crackers which have now taken up an undeserved sentence and a half of this review. All good, you might think, and it almost was, but for one thing: the beef had the same problem as the mutton. The first few mouthfuls were properly boast-to-your-friends-good, but then followed a piece of beef the consistency of jelly that made me swallow quickly to avoid having to come to terms with the texture. Such a shame that such a great dish can be ruined by only a few chunks of beef, but there you have it: if only the kitchen had been a little pickier about the pieces of meat that went in the dish versus what went in the bin (or cooked it for longer, or both).

Rendang

We skipped dessert and dinner for three people, including three drinks each, came to a fairly reasonable £83.

Another reason to envy bloggers who only go to restaurants just after they’ve opened is that it’s easier to review those places because you have no preconceptions. You can compare them to other, similar restaurants but that’s as far as you can go because ultimately, you’ve only visited that restaurant once. I on the other hand have been to the Moderation many times before and always really enjoyed it. And I so wanted them to have a good night the night I visited on duty, because what they do in Reading isn’t quite like any other independent and it’s admirable that they are expanding, albeit slowly, and rolling out a set of attractive pubs across Reading where you can drink nice wine or (I’m told) good beer and eat interesting, inexpensive food.

I want to rate them well for that, and for being brave enough to try something different, and I’d like people to go there and order the nasi goreng, which I happen to know they do really well. But, on another level, I can only review the meal I had on the night I went and, on that basis, it just wasn’t up to scratch. So it gets the rating it gets, and a suggestion from me to approach with caution. I know that might seem a bit harsh, but that’s the way the meat bounces.

The Moderation – 6.6
213 Caversham Road, Reading, RG1 8BB
0118 3750767

http://www.spirit-house.co.uk/moderation/