N.B. As of August 2020 Bhel Puri House has reopened.
Bhel Puri House is one of those places that it would be easy never to spot, let alone visit; it’s tucked down a side street as part of the George Hotel (opposite the Minster Street entrance to the Oracle) with small windows that make it hard to see what’s on offer inside. It has good credentials, though, as an offshoot of the highly regarded Royal Tandoori. It offers what the website describes as “Indian street food”, which translates as a wide range of small dishes, practically all of them costing less than a fiver. Although it’s open until eight o’clock, it feels – from the menu at least – more like a lunch venue and was doing a healthy trade when I visited on a Sunday lunchtime.
The interior is quite basic and a little confusing. It’s a lot better than what was there before (remember Dickens Brasserie? No, I’ll bet that nobody else does either) but the thick black and white striped wallpaper and the basic tables and chairs don’t make it look inviting. Then there are the piles of clear plastic tubs arranged on the counter filled with various dry Indian foods and snacks (I won’t try and guess what they are; I’m far from an expert and I’m keen not to embarrass myself any more than necessary). Were these for diners? To take away? I had no idea, and I didn’t really know if I’d walked into a restaurant or a canteen.
Looking at the menu made me realise just how unfamiliar with Indian street food I am. Some of it was familiar, but much of it wasn’t. What’s kachori? What’s sev and would I like it? What’s chaat when it’s at home? I’m ashamed to say that it was one of those menus where, even after you’ve read the description, you’re still none the wiser about what the eventual dish is going to look like, and as much time was spent on Google as reading the options. The other diners (the majority of them Indian) were having no such difficulty, which I took as a promising sign.
Ordering here is at the counter (which, again, makes it feel less like a restaurant) so I trotted up and recited our pick. Given how difficult I’d found choosing, that was probably the point at which I should have asked the staff to make some recommendations, but somehow it didn’t feel appropriate. The service throughout was kind and polite yet oddly shy, in a way that made asking questions feel awkward. So instead I gave the menu my best guess based on a combination of the blurb and Google and sat back down to see what would turn up. I’d gone for a few gambles and a few safe bets, so I figured the worst that could happen was that there were one or two duffers.
First to arrive were the two most mainstream things I ordered: chilli paneer and Punjabi samosas. Maybe it’s my conventional taste coming out, but these were my two favourites. The paneer was just gorgeous – firm, sticky cubes of spicy, slightly salty cheese, cooked with chilli, garlic and fresh peppers which were almost caramelised. Overall the flavour was terrific – sweet, rich, hot but not overpowering. It was served on a bed of pointless lettuce, but you can’t have everything. It reminded me of that bad habit some cafes have – Picnic, for instance – of putting your napkin under your slice of cake, rendering the napkin completely useless (except of course that an iceberg lettuce garnish is even more useless than a napkin, and rarely any more edible).
The Punjabi samosas were also very good. It you’re used to rather flat triangles, these were a world away from that – big fat pastry pyramids packed with potato, vegetable and spices. The pastry was crispy and indulgent without being heavy, and the filling had just the right amount of heat. I couldn’t even begin to tell you how they are Punjabi, or how Punjabi they are, but I liked them and that’s what matters.
After that we moved into the more unknown reaches of the menu and it became clear that neither the menu nor Google Image Search had quite prepared me for kachori chaat. It’s rather hard to describe, so bear with me. At first sight it seemed that we’d ordered a big plate of yoghurt with very finely shredded bits of Bombay mix on top (this, it turns out, is sev – tiny chickpea noodles). Underneath the yoghurt, I discovered after a bit of claggy exploration with my fork, was a layer of kachori, small round pastries filled with lentils, onions and potatoes. Among all that that I also picked up fresh chopped onions and something crunchy that we couldn’t agree on: was it pomegranate? Was it puffed rice? Neither of us would have put our mortgage on a guess, put it that way. I’m not sure I would even have put my mortgage on knowing whether I liked it or not, because the combination of flavours (simultaneously sweet, tart, tangy and spicy), textures and all that stuff was so different from anything else I’ve eaten in the last year. It was in many ways so alien to what I normally try in restaurants that I felt a little bit as if I’d just eaten the national dish of the Moon.
The final pick was vada pav. The menu describes it as “spicy potato filling deep fried in a gram flour batter”. I was expecting something resembling a pakora, but what arrived instead looked more like a pair of veggie burgers. The potato was in a soft bun (reminiscent somehow of a McDonalds Filet-O-Fish) and served with two sauces, a green one pungent with coriander and a red one rich with chilli. This goes to show how remiss my Googling was, as every image I’ve subsequently found of vada pav looks exactly like the ones that arrived at my table. Once I’d got over that I found myself liking it, although it would have been nice to be able to feel my face afterwards. Everything else had been so subtly flavoured that I hadn’t quite realised any of my choices would be quite so stonkingly hot (there are no helpful chillies for illustration on the menu, another sign that they presume a degree of prior knowledge).
I was glad of the mango lassi I’d ordered by that point – it was delicious but no different, I don’t think, to any mango lassi I’ve had anywhere else. The masala chai was lovely, though I found it odd that it came unsweetened (perhaps this is for the English customers, as it’s normally a rich, sweet and slightly syrupy tea based on past experience). We didn’t stay for dessert – no gulab jamun for me, not this time anyway – but in any case we’d ordered more food than we could comfortably eat (in the name of research, of course). The bill came to twenty-one pounds, but you could easily leave full and spend less.
I’ve managed to get through almost the whole review without saying this, but I probably should: I believe, at the time of writing, that Bhel Puri House is currently Reading’s only entirely vegetarian restaurant. It’s the best kind of vegetarian restaurant, where you don’t feel like you’re making a sacrifice and in truth the real sacrifice would be eating somewhere else. You could easily order delicious things off the menu without even noticing, and not once did I find myself thinking This would be so much nicer if only there was some meat in it. I only mention it for all you vegetarians out there, in case you fancy an embarrassment of riches at lunchtime.
I could see everything wrong with Bhel Puri House without having to even try: unattractive room, sterile furniture, feels a bit like a cafeteria, strange product display on the counter (is it really plastic tubs full of Bombay mix? Damn. I promised myself I wouldn’t guess) and diffident service. And yet I still liked it a lot. It’s an interesting place: there’s nothing in Reading quite like it. Most people have stopped talking about small plates in restaurants, thank goodness, and yet Bhel Puri House – without fanfare – is offering exactly that, without the eye-watering bills usually associated with those kinds of places. It’s independent and imaginative, an lunch option that offers something completely different, perfect for those times when you don’t want the usual sandwich from the usual suspects but also don’t want to tackle a full meal in the middle of the day. I’ll go back, sans Google, and I’ll pluck up the courage to ask for recommendations next time. I’ll still order the chilli paneer though: just try and stop me.
Bhel Puri House – 6.8
Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF