Bhoj relocated on 22nd July 2016 to 7 Queens Walk, at the back of the Broad Street Mall. This review is of their old premises on the Oxford Road.
If you had to name the best restaurant in Reading, which would you nominate? Mya Lacarte? Forbury’s, perhaps? Or would you go further afield and opt for l’Ortolan, still our only Michelin-starred restaurant? Well, TripAdvisor would say that you’re wrong. According to them Bhoj, a relatively little-known restaurant down the Oxford Road, is currently Reading’s best restaurant (Forbury’s and l’Ortolan don’t even scrape into the Top 20). Is that proof that TripAdvisor can’t be trusted when it comes to restaurants, or a heartwarming tribute to democracy in action? I felt I owed it to myself to find out.
The parade of shops on the Oxford Road where Bhoj sits, after Reading West station but before the mosque, isn’t the most inviting location for a restaurant. With a sex shop and the euphemistically named “Skunkworks” (apparently a “one stop shop for lifestyle choices” – which I’m sure it is, provided you’re Afroman) within 100 yards it’s a very different experience to the little enclave next to Forbury Gardens or the more polished surroundings of the Oracle Riverside. Bhoj is only about ten minutes away from town on the number 17 bus and the mix of shops en route makes for an interesting journey (how do all those barbers survive?) even if I was cursing my bad luck that somebody was already at the front of the top deck, stopping me from driving the bus.
The restaurant itself is fairly small – less than 30 covers – and whilst basic in terms of decor it’s spotlessly clean and neatly laid out (the fairy lights were a particularly nice touch). On the night I went, there were only a couple of other tables occupied although it’s clear that a lot of customers use Bhoj for takeaway as I saw one of the waiters leaving with bags full of goodies several times throughout the evening. Service, though, was excellent from the moment I arrived to the moment I left: our waiter – friendly and cheery in an orange polo shirt – wasn’t just knowledgeable about the dishes but (and you forget how rare this is in Reading until you experience it) enthusiastic too, happy to explain everything in a way that meant I didn’t feel stupid asking.
If anything, the menu is a tad spartan – smaller than many Indian restaurants I’ve been to and particularly strong for vegetarians (I showed it to a vegetarian friend after and she said “you should have taken me along to do this menu justice”, with a tone of genuine envy). As so often in restaurants I go to nowadays, I found this reassuring; it made me feel like each of the dishes might be distinctive rather than another permutation of the same orange liquid with different chunks of protein bobbing around in it.
Both starters arrived on those sizzling platters which inevitably induce envy in neighbouring tables: who doesn’t like a dish that audibly announces its arrival? This was great in theory, although by the end the paper tablecloth was so spattered that it looked like we’d been out for dinner with Roy Hattersley. Saffron paneer tikka was served in large flattish squares, gently spiced with chunks of peppers mixed in. I liked it, although it didn’t blow me away and the spices didn’t come through strongly enough. Ironically, I think I was hoping for a little more sizzle and a bit more caramelisation.
Murgh hariyali tikka – recommended by my waiter as a good contrast – was, well, green. Not pastel green. Not pale pistachio green. I am talking Kermit The Frog green; worryingly green, if I’m honest. It was a huge relief when my knife sliced through to reveal the familiar white flesh beneath. The flavour and colour come from the fresh herb paste that the chicken is marinaded in; I was expecting the mint and coriander (and I think I got a bit of ginger), but there was definitely more than a little garlic in there too. The taste was lovely, but stopping by the newsagent the next day and buying a packet of Extra Strong Mints before heading to work is probably advisable. I did find the chicken a little on the firm side, not as soft and tender as I was expecting from something marinaded before cooking, but even so there was a pitched battle for the fifth piece (do restaurants dish up an odd number just to watch people bicker? I’ve always wondered that.)
There was more of a pitched battle, mind you, for the onions underneath the chicken. Isn’t that silly? Onions are as cheap as can be, so how could they possibly be one of the tastiest things I ate all evening? But it’s true, I promise: sizzling, continuing to cook at the table, soft and sweet, spicy and caramelised, coated in all those juices. They were incredible, and we pounced on them like yummy mummies hitting the Boden website come sale time. It wasn’t dignified, but it was delicious.
You may be wondering why I didn’t mention the poppadoms. There’s a reason for that: I totally forgot to order any. Perhaps that’s the trick to leaving an Indian restaurant without being stuffed to bursting: traditionally I always have poppadoms and by the time the mains arrive dinner is as much a food marathon as it is a treat (I guess your fellow diners are the equivalent of running mates on the other side of the finishing line, cheering you on). I’m glad I forgot on this occasion because the mains were dishes to be enjoyed, not endured.
Dhaba chicken – again, recommended by the waiter – was so gorgeous that I could overlook it being fundamentally meat in an orange sauce. I was expecting it to be hotter than it was, and maybe a little less sweet, but the heat was that clever kind which builds up gradually. Bhoj’s menu, rather unhelpfully, just describes it as a “tangy sauce” so I can’t even bluff and pretend I picked out all the things in there. As always, Indian food shows up how much I struggle with describing such a complex combination of flavours – I got cumin, I got coriander, but beyond that we reach the limits of my powers of description. I can tell you, though, that the chicken wasn’t the star of the show: it was that glorious sauce, mixed in with the jeera rice (speckled with cumin seeds) or heaped onto a scoop of torn, buttery paratha.
Even better was the karahi lamb. This was a drier, hotter curry than the dhaba chicken and easily one of the best things I’ve eaten so far this year. The lamb, in what looked like firm chunks, gave in to the slightest pressure from a fork. The sauce was sticky, rich, intensely savoury: heavenly. I would say that my idea of restaurant hell might well be eating a chicken korma while sitting opposite somebody having Bhoj’s karahi lamb and not being able to try any. Even the bit where I accidentally crunched on a cardamom pod couldn’t dampen my ardour for this dish: I want to have it again, and soon (did I mention that they do takeaway?)
When Bhoj first opened it didn’t have a license so was a BYOB establishment. This has now changed, but the drinks list still feels very much like an afterthought. Generally we stuck to mango lassis and these too were streets ahead of other ones I’ve tried in Reading – fresh and recognisably packed with mango rather than the more generic sweet versions I’ve had elsewhere in Reading. Wine drinkers, though, are faced with a real Hobson’s choice: Blossom Hill by the glass or Jacob’s Creek by the bottle.
I was torn – the snob in me would rather not have gone there, but I really fancied wine with my main. What to do? I might get excommunicated from the Guild Of Food Snobs for saying this, but who cares: reader, I had the Blossom Hill and it wasn’t bad. Easy to drink, uncomplicated, went okay with the curries, nothing to dislike (and who’d have a Burgundy with a biryani anyway?) Perhaps, like restaurants people rate on TripAdvisor, it’s popular for a reason; judge away by all means, but I might well have it again next time.
The bill, for two starters, two mains with rice and paratha, three lassis and that rogue glass of Blossom Hill came to £45. I’m not sure how much £45 buys you at l’Ortolan but it’s not a lot. And I would say that it’s worth coming here even though they do takeaway, because the service is brilliant and without it I probably would have ordered what I always have and not discovered some of the great dishes on Bhoj’s reassuringly compact menu.
So, is Bhoj Reading’s best restaurant? Objectively probably not: the room is basic, the drinks offering is limited, my starters weren’t perfect. But personally, I think the best answer to “what is Reading’s best restaurant?” is probably “who cares?” Bhoj’s chef is never going to appear on Great British Menu or be gushed over by critics. They’re never going to do a tasting menu. But that’s the elitist tip of the iceberg, and the rest of the iceberg is what food should really be about – eating something tasty. Sounds oversimplistic, but it’s true. There are times you want three fiddly, fancy courses, and times when you just want to sit down and eat something you know you’ll adore. There are nights when you want to see a wine list the size of a novella and watch a flunky decant your vintage claret into a carafe shaped like a lab flask. But there are also times when you want to sit in a restaurant two doors down from “Skunkworks”, lit by fairy lights, over a fat spattered paper tablecloth and eat delicious, dark, sticky, flavourful lamb, hoping nobody will come in and spot the miniature bottle of Blossom Hill in front of you. God bless Bhoj.
Bhoj – 8.2
314 Oxford Road, RG30 1AD