My Kitchen

My Kitchen closed in September 2016. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

When Cappuccina Café closed last month I confess that I kicked myself that I hadn’t visited it earlier. Independent places face a huge struggle to open, create a following and survive – something Reading’s many chains will never experience. So I regret the fact that I didn’t shout about Cappuccina Café sooner and visit more often (especially seeing as it turned out to be so good) and this week’s review is an attempt on my part not to make that mistake again.

I’ve been putting off reviewing My Kitchen, even though it’s been open for months, because of a disappointing visit shortly after it opened. But since then I’ve heard lots of accounts that suggest that they’ve found their feet (including rave reviews of some of their cakes), and their website makes all the right noises about local ingredients and freshly prepared food. So I went along desperately hoping that they could live up to all of that promise, and a little worried about the review I might have to write if they didn’t.

My Kitchen has a spot on one of the most beautiful streets in Reading; Queen Victoria Street has those beautiful red brick buildings on both side, wide pavements and a view of the fetching frontage of John Lewis. We loitered outside for long enough to get a table out on the street (quite a challenge in the sunny weather) and wandered in to order some lunch. Inside the cafe is a long counter with sandwiches, salads, soup and lots of cakes and above that a blackboard listing all the options. Along with the muted grey paintwork and mis-matched tables and chairs in the back it makes for an attractive space (although not one to spend time in on a summer’s day – it was punishingly hot in there).

I was impressed by the sheer range of options and I’m afraid, faced with all those choices, I rather froze like a rabbit in the headlights and broke one of the fundamental rules of reviewing: I ordered two things which were very similar indeed. So I should be telling you about the smoked salmon and horseradish baguette (which looked delicious) or the lentil soup, but instead you get to hear all about two toasted sandwiches. Sorry about that.

The goat’s cheese, red onion chutney and baby spinach panini was delicious: generously filled, the ratios all perfect and precise, salty-sweet and far too easy to hoover up. Granted, it’s never going to win any awards for originality, but it’s a classic for a reason. Toasted focaccia with halloumi, peppers and sweet chilli was also gorgeous – a lovely contrast between the soft, pillowy bread, the firm chewy halloumi and the crisp crunch of those peppers. If I was being critical I would have questioned whether it was really focaccia, and I would have said a tad more sweet chilli sauce would have really brought it alive, but I was enjoying it far too much to be critical.

To try and make amends for picking such similar sandwiches we also tried some sausage roll bites. It must be a sign of galloping food inflation that they’re described as “bites” because they looked like decent sized sausage rolls to me. They were terrific – not hot, and I’m quite glad they didn’t make a half-hearted attempt at heating them up. The pastry was spot on, light and buttery with a smattering of sesame seeds for decoration and the sausage meat inside was just wonderful – not suspiciously smooth, not offputtingly bouncy, just coarse and tasty, yielding herby porky perfection.

Drinks were good too, if more difficult to wax lyrical about. Twinings Earl Grey is Twinings Earl Grey, after all – although I did appreciate the attractive enamel teapot, which was a cracking pourer and contained enough for two cups. As regular readers will know, I’m not particularly a coffee fan but I’m told the latte was very nice indeed. (“not quite as good as Lincoln or Workhouse but a lot better than Picnic”, apparently). Actually, I liked the tableware in general – everything comes on those attractive white and blue enamelware plates which are very Labour And Wait, simultaneously very now and really rather timeless. It made me want to track them down and buy some for myself.

My Kitchen

I couldn’t go without trying one of their cakes. Having seen people rave about the gluten free chocolate brownie I felt it was my duty to try one, and it was a smart move. It was probably the best brownie I’ve had in Reading, a wonderful contrast between the crisp, brittle exterior and the soft, slightly gooey inside. The website says they deliberately use less sugar in their cakes and I like to think I noticed that – the flavour was full and rich and didn’t rely on sweetness to get its point across. My only complaint is that I agreed to share it; I won’t make that mistake again.

When I ordered the brownie the lady behind the counter said “ooh, good choice!” before dishing it up. I really liked that: enthusiasm counts for an awful lot. And I got a lot of enthusiasm from My Kitchen – the service was as welcoming as the food. Even with a queue of customers behind me the staff were friendly and chatty, and when they brought my sandwiches out they smiled. A little thing, maybe, but have lunch in some of the other places in town and check out how rarely it happens. All told two sandwiches, two sausage roll bites, a slice of chocolate brownie and two hot drinks came to just under £17. In fairness I went a bit mad and over-ordered so I could try things out, but in general prices are comparable to My Kitchen’s competitors on Coffee Corner.

I’m hugely relieved to be able to say that I really liked My Kitchen. In many ways they are following in the footsteps of Picnic, which celebrated its seventh birthday earlier this month (a mind-boggling fact in itself: I can’t imagine Reading before Picnic came along) but if Reading can have that many Caffe Neros it can definitely accommodate another place in the same mould as Picnic. I think I might even prefer My Kitchen, although it’s probably some form of weird Redingensian heresy to say so.

I’m not sure they are serving food that’s out-of-this-world inventive, but that’s not what they’re about – they’re about doing simple things well, and I’m all for that. It’s nice to have somewhere else to go for a quick sandwich or a slice of rejuvenating cake, and I really hope there’s a market for that because My Kitchen is the kind of place Reading needs, even if Reading doesn’t necessarily realise that. Or perhaps they do know it: when I visited, there was a scrum for the seating and I had to wait to grab a table outside. Fifty yards down Queen Victoria Street, two forlorn people were all that could be seen sitting outside Starbucks. Maybe the tide is turning after all. Just maybe.

My Kitchen – 7.5

29 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG
07403 588399

http://www.mykitchenandcoffee.co.uk/

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Pappadams

Planning which restaurants to review involves considerable deliberation here at ER HQ. Imagine me with a little rake pushing figurines round a map of Reading (and wearing a tricorn hat! I must buy a tricorn hat) and you wouldn’t be far from the truth. Should I review a pub this week? An Indian restaurant? A lunch place? Somewhere cheap, somewhere fancy? Time to go out of town?

This week’s review was meant to be of a pub. First I was going to review the Queen’s Head, but I checked the menu and it was exactly the same as the Moderation’s, which I’ve already reviewed, and I didn’t think a review which said “I went out of my way to have different things to last time but, you know, it’s pretty much the same” would excite anyone. Then I was going to review the Lyndhurst, but the menu didn’t inspire me (there’s something about the word goujon, and the way it’s used by English pubs, that undermines all the gastronomic beauty of the French language) and nor did the rather surly welcome behind the bar. So anyway, it was meant to be a pub this week but no dice: instead you get Pappadams.

Pappadams is a little place down the King’s Road, after the library but before you get to the architectural wonder that is King’s Point. It’s a small room which can’t seat more than thirty people, although there’s another bigger room upstairs (“we’ve got the World Cup on up there if you want to watch”, the waiter told us conspiratorially; it didn’t lure me up there). It’s handsome enough, if basic – square tables, nice comfy chairs, cloth napkins – with the huge glass front covered with a beaded curtain so you don’t feel like you’re eating in a goldfish bowl. When I got there on a Tuesday evening it was about half-full – mostly with Indian couples and friends.

I wouldn’t know a South Indian dish from a North Indian dish from an anglicised Indian dish, but the waiter was excellent at navigating us through the options and offering lots of advice, particularly on some of the Keralan specialities on offer. I found the menu quite endearing, with sections marked “from our fisherman’s net”, “from our vegetable garden” and “from our butcher’s farm” (a butcher and a farmer, I guess that’s one way of cutting out the middle man). The dishes are rated on the time-honoured chilli scale, although eccentrically things are either rated with zero, two, three or four chillies (only one dish, “Lamb Dragon” had four chillies – it sounds more like a masterpiece of genetic engineering than an actual main course, or maybe it’s both).

Starters were delicious although I couldn’t shake the feeling, maybe as a result of reviewing other Indian restaurants, that I’d had the same kind of things ever so slightly better elsewhere. Paneer shashlik was lovely, big squares of cheese, charred and chewy around the edges, sizzling on a plate with peppers and onions. The lamb tikka was less successful: the flavour was perfect, deep and intense, soaking into the sizzling onions underneath, but the texture was more tough than tender, requiring a lot more cutting and a little more chewing than I’d hoped.

Starters

After we finished our starters, something happened which happens very rarely in Reading restaurants. The waiter came back, asked if we’d enjoyed our dishes and asked how long we wanted to wait before the kitchen started cooking our mains. Why don’t more restaurants do this? I’ve lost count of the number of times my main arrives hot on the heels of my starter, leaving me with half a bottle of wine to polish off while telling waiters, with an increasingly rictus grin, that yes, I would like dessert but no, I don’t plan to order it until I’ve the rest of the wine in front of me, wine that was only there because they’d been in such a hurry to feed me. Even if Pappadams didn’t get brownie points from me for anything else, they’d get some for that alone. Service was excellent throughout. Early on I was asked if we’d like to move across to a bigger, better, freshly vacated table – another thing not enough waiters consider. They may not have won me over by inviting me to watch the nil-nil draw in the Mexico-Brazil match, but otherwise they didn’t put a foot wrong.

Mains were, well, divisive. We took advice from the waiter and went for two Keralan specialities. Fish mappas was an anonymous white fish (I’d put my money on tilapia, but not with any great confidence) in a sauce of coconut milk dotted with nigella seeds. I liked the sauce – so different from a Thai sauce, lacking that slightly cloying sweetness they can sometimes have – but the fish wasn’t for me. I like my fish to be firm, to flake, to have a little give but not too much. This was softer and mushier than I personally like it, but that might be a matter of personal taste. It all got finished, but that was more to do with the person opposite me.

The other dish, cochin kozhi curry, was even more divisive because I couldn’t quite decide whether I loved it or just liked it. A chicken dish, this too was made with coconut, although the sauce couldn’t have been much more different to the sauce that came with the fish. It was dark where the other was light, thicker and stickier where the other was more liquid. It had proper smokiness (almost with those notes of leather Jilly Goolden has spent a career trying to kid us into thinking she can spot in a glass of Rioja) and lots of clever aromatic flavours that came through a little further on. But here’s the problem: it was really, really salty. I could just about manage it (although it did cause me to gulp my mango lassi towards the end) but I can imagine other people would be put off by it. The chicken, unlike the fish, had the texture just right: putting up just enough fight and then falling apart under a fork. Both mains felt a little mean on the meat to sauce ratio, with a big bowl of sauce left over at the end after time spent fishing for the meat.

Mains

The side dishes were unremarkable. Rice with cumin was a little bland (although, compared to those sauces, most things would have been) and the paratha was thick and heavy compared to others I’ve devoured in recent months. Like so much of what I had that evening it was good, but I was left remembering that I’ve had better.

Where I’ve not had worse for a while was the wine. The house red was perfectly decent (no notes of leather – even Jilly Goolden would have struggled to locate them, I imagine). The white, on the other hand tasted slightly peculiar and not especially like wine (an achievement, I know). If I’d opened the bottle at home I would have poured it down the sink and I’ve rarely had wine that bad in a restaurant. After that we switched to other drinks – Cobra and mango lassi, more reliable staples. The lassi came with pistachio crumbled on top – a lovely touch, I thought. We didn’t stop for dessert (too full for gulab jamun, this time at least) and the whole thing came to just under £50, not including tip.

I feel for Pappadams. If you picked it up and plonked it in any of a dozen other towns it might well be the best Indian restaurant there. It just has the misfortune to be down the road from House Of Flavours and in the same town as Bhoj, and it strikes me as caught a little between the two. The prices and the décor are more like Bhoj, the location puts it firmly in competition with House Of Flavours. If you made Top Trumps cards of all three restaurants, I’m not sure Pappadams would win in any category (although it would come close on service). But that doesn’t quite do the place justice, because although the best is the enemy of the good the fact remains that Pappadams is a good restaurant. I can see myself going there when I fancy Indian food and don’t want the faff of House Of Flavours or the schlep to Bhoj.

As I left the waiter asked me if I wouldn’t mind putting a review on TripAdvisor if I’d enjoyed my meal, in a way that struck me as well rehearsed. I can understand why: it’s a packed market, and restaurateurs need all the help they can get. I didn’t, but I’m sure other people will. I hope they do, too.

Pappadams – 7.2

74 Kings Road, RG1 3BJ
0118 9585111

http://www.pappadamsreading.co.uk/

Tasting House

As of December 2018, the Tasting House’s decor has changed significantly from that described in the review. It still offers charcuterie and cheese on week nights, but during the day its menu has changed, offering toasted sandwiches. In addition, on Friday night, all day Saturday and daytime Sunday the food is now offered by Bench Rest (reviewed on the blog here). So although Tasting House hasn’t closed, this review is no longer really representative and so should be approached with caution.

The real challenge with Tasting House, as a reviewer, isn’t what you would think. The real challenge is explaining exactly what it is. It works rather differently to all the other places I’ve reviewed because it is, fundamentally, a wine shop. It’s a wine shop that also lets you taste a variety of wines and dishes up platters of charcuterie and cheese should you get hungry (“Sample. Stay. Shop” is how the website sums it up: alliterative, abrupt, accurate). It’s been open since September last year and I’ve been meaning to review it for ages, so I dropped in one drizzly weekend to give it the ER going over, even though I knew this would involve making the ultimate sacrifice: drinking at lunchtime.

The “sample” element of Tasting House is served by the “Enomatic” (a machine described as a “wine vending machine” by the chap behind the counter). It’s a self service system where customers buy a prepaid card, pop it into the slot at the top of the machine, grab a glass and dispense some wine. There are sixteen bottles hooked up to the machine (seven white, eight red and, if you’re feeling especially frivolous, one rosé) and you can pick a tasting measure (25ml), a small glass (125ml) or a large glass (175ml) depending on whether you want to taste or drink. The cost of each measure depends on the bottle in the machine with a taste starting from about 50p. Along the bottom of the machine is a card for each wine giving information about the grapes, the taste and what food they’d pair well with – another indication that this is as much about taking it home as having it with the food on offer.

I won’t go into the wines in any detail because by the time you read this they may well have changed. In total we tried four wines between us (drinking sensibly, honestly) from riesling to shiraz and really enjoyed the whole ceremony of button pressing, glass swirling, sniffing and pretending to know what we were talking about. Actually I really enjoyed most of them but somehow that’s not the point, because you get to try things without committing to a whopping glass and bad choices aren’t so disastrous. The staff were clearly very passionate and knowledgeable and full of recommendations for people who feel unsure about what to pick (though I’m ashamed to say that I pretended to know what I was doing – much like I do writing reviews, in fact).

For the “stay” part of the visit Tasting House does four different boards, either in singles or doubles, with an array of different charcuterie and cheese. I won’t go into the permutations (because there are a lot: I love a list as much as the next person but that would stretch even my patience) but you get some of five different meats on the one hand and six different cheeses on the other. Depending on what you order you also get various other bits and bobs – sundried tomatoes, chutney, cashews, olives and/or cornichons. This means that picking a board involves a bit of horse trading and can seem needlessly complex – it might be easier if they just let you pick a certain number of elements and get on with it. As it was, we ordered two different platters and tried to get as many different ingredients as we could, something which might have been easier with a spreadsheet.

I’m not going to list everything that passed my lips, either. Instead, let’s talk about the big hits and flops. In the first camp: the Waterloo, a gorgeous, creamy, buttery local cheese a lot like a very good brie; the salami which was rich, salty and almost crumbly; the chorizo, soft and lightly piquant; and my favourite, the coppa which was dense and dry with a hint of fennel seeds and black pepper. I also loved the houmous – thick and delicious – and the tomato chutney, which went beautifully with a crumbly chunk of Montgomery cheddar (and hats off to Tasting House for picking such a top-notch cheddar, too).

And the let-downs? The bread, for one: white, fluffy, soft-crusted and unremarkable, served in giant hunks for dipping in the olive oil rather than going with everything else. This was a particular shame for me because I’ve always thought good cheese really needs good bread or a decent cracker. The other big disappointment was the prosciutto which felt flabby, shiny and supermarket-soft. I wasn’t expecting pata negra carved by hand in front of my very eyes – although I wouldn’t turn it down, don’t get me wrong – but I did want something on a par with the salami and this wasn’t it. England does some great hams of its own (Cumbrian air-dried ham, for example) but if Tasting House isn’t going to dish up something of that quality maybe it should stick to the other charcuterie on offer.

Also, if I’m being picky I prefer my cheese to be at room temperature so that the flavours open up more: both cheeses were chilled if not chilly. Maybe this is something to do with health and safety but it did mean they weren’t quite as delicious as they could have been. Still, despite the misses if you wash it all down with a glass of shiraz you have a very pleasant (if not terribly light) lunch.

TH2Service was friendly and laid back without ever committing the cardinal sin of overfamiliarity. A bit too laid back, if I’m honest – the boards took a while to come, although that might be because they seemed a bit short staffed when I went. As it happened I didn’t mind, it fitted in with the feel of the place, it was a weekend and I was in no hurry to go anywhere. They played an interesting range of music, some I’d heard of and some I wanted to Shazam, and we sipped our wine and waited. It felt a bit like visiting a cool friend while they rustled up lunch for you from all the cool things in their cool fridge. (Did I mean “cooler friend”? Does this make me cool or uncool? I’m so confused.)

It’s a shame the furniture doesn’t make you want to linger more – it’s hard and basic, black metal tables and chairs around the room and wooden high tables and stools in the windows. Again, I felt a bit confused by Tasting House – they’ve extended their opening hours recently to 10pm but it doesn’t feel like a bar. I suppose it could work as somewhere to have a quick drink before heading on somewhere else, although you could stay there all evening if you’re suitably upholstered yourself.

I didn’t try out the “shop” part on this visit, though I was quite tempted to pick up a bottle of the riesling. The website states that they have over 200 wines in the shop which range from “everyday drinking” (under £10) to one I saw on the top shelf which clocked in at just under £400 (I suppose that might be everyday drinking too, but only if you’re the Sultan Of Brunei: even John Madejski probably wouldn’t drink that these days).

My bill came to seventeen pounds for two platters and I put twenty pounds on my card for wine – though there was still a fair chunk of that left (honest!). I do think that it’s a little unfair that diners can’t have wine with their lunch without having to make that upfront investment, although it’s canny on the part of Tasting House I suppose: it locks you into going back so you don’t let your money go to waste. So yes, I will go back. I can see myself popping in after work one evening and trying a few tasters or glasses of wine for what feels like no money at all. Maybe that will lead to another charcuterie board, maybe I’ll go on and eat something bigger somewhere else. Maybe next time I’ll stay long enough to figure out if it really is a bar, a restaurant or a shop. Actually I’m not sure I’ll get to the bottom of that, but it might be fun trying.

Tasting House – 6.8
30a Chain Street, RG1 2HX
0118 9571531

http://tastinghouse.co.uk/

Tampopo

N.B. Tampopo closed in June 2015. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

If I’m honest, I wasn’t predisposed to like Tampopo. It always felt like another link in the vast chain of chains on the Oracle Riverside, a bookend at the opposite end of the shelf to Wagamama. I found the concept a bit strange: food from throughout East Asia, a range of dishes from – among others – Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia. Can you imagine a pan-European restaurant, serving boeuf bourguignon alongside pizza, paella, fish and chips, moussaka, schnitzel and herring? If you can imagine it, and I can’t, would you really recommend that anybody go to it?

So I turned up ready to be underwhelmed, and was pleasantly surprised from the moment I walked in. Like Wagamama, Tampopo offers the threat of communal eating – long tables which imply that, if the restaurant is busy, you won’t be eating on your own. Unlike Wagamama, they’ve made some effort to make that seem less stark and unpleasant – tables feel more compact, the seating is made up of (surprisingly comfy) stools rather than large benches and the lighting is warmer and more attractive, giving the room a glow. On a Monday night there was no danger of sharing a table with anyone, but even if I’d had to it wouldn’t have felt like the end of the world.

The culinary first impressions were also good. Edamame were considerably more interesting than their counterparts at the other end of the Riverside, dressed in chilli and sesame oil and coarse flakes of salt. The wine that accompanied them was also very good – a viognier was light and peachy and the Gewürztraminer was delicious, fresh with (at the risk of sounding like something out of the Carry On films) a strong hint of banana. They do glasses in 125ml, too – something I wish more restaurants would sign up to.

Regular readers will be unsurprised to hear that I ordered the “Tampopo sharing platter” to start. I’m beginning to feel less ashamed about this habit, rationalising it as an opportunity to try as many different things from the kitchen as possible (that’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it). And I’m unrepentant, because it was an excellent choice – a big black slate arrived at the table with six different items from the starter menu, neatly laid out in a grid, each with an accompanying dip or garnish.

StarterThe least remarkable were the coconut prawns – butterflied, breadcrumbed and served with sweet chilli sauce, they were the stuff of sharing platters everywhere. Everything else, though, was either a pleasant surprise or a very pleasant surprise. The chicken satay, for instance: so often a pedestrian space filler served up with some warm Sun-Pat, but Tampopo’s was a world away from that. The chicken was soft and tender (I wondered whether it might be minced rather than the fibrous fillet you usually get) and the sauce was deep, rich, chunky and much more savoury than satays in so many other places in Reading. The corn fritters made a pleasant change from the usual fishcake – lighter, taster and without the slightly disturbing sponginess fishcakes can have. The gyoza were plump and soft, full of minced pork, subtle and lighter to eat than they looked on the plate.

The last two were things I’ve not tried before. Goi cuon were cold, soft rice paper rolls packed with vegetables, noodles and coriander – fresh and clean, if almost impossible to eat tidily (whatever you think of a traditional spring roll, it’s at least easy to dunk in a dipping sauce). Bulgogi, Korean grilled beef, was also good, with a smoky char to it. It came served on a lettuce leaf which is meant to serve as an impromptu wrap – a great idea, although it did mean that the beef didn’t stay hot for long. That was fine though, because it didn’t stay uneaten for long. The only letdown was the kimchi that came with the beef – an oddly bland pile of cabbage without the eye-watering, intense taste I’m used to. It was the only place where the menu felt like it lacked the courage of its convictions.

I’m not one for listing the price of dishes in brackets in a restaurant review – there are other places you can go for that – but this one is worth emphasising: that selection of starters, for two, was £13.95. Pretty impressive stuff, and it built up a feeling of goodwill that the rest of the meal would have to go some to ruin. Good starters are like that.

Another nice touch came when the waitress – who was excellent all evening, friendly and helpful without being matey or patronising – took our empty slate (and extra napkins, because it’s messy stuff) away.

“Was that okay for you?”

“Yes, it was gorgeous.”

“I’m glad you liked it, it’s one of my favourites. I had it for lunch, actually.”

She was also full of good advice on which mains to order and came across as genuinely passionate about Tampopo’s food. Another waitress, later in the evening, asked what we made of the menu and showed real interest in feedback. She also told me that Tampopo was only a small chain (five branches, three of them in Manchester), and that Reading was the baby of the family, having only been open for three years. So much for my preconceptions about eating in a faceless chain – and in fact, a subsequent look at the website suggests that the owners either have a genuine passion for this kind of food or are phenomenally good at faking it. Either way I was struck that all of the serving staff felt like ambassadors for the restaurant, also a million miles from the experience in most chains.

Could the mains live up to the start? Well, not quite. Com Hué, a Vietnamese rice dish, was the biggest disappointment of the evening. It was almost like a Vietnamese paella – rice with chicken, squid and king prawns, along with coriander, red onion, spring onion and carrot. Bits of it were beautifully cooked – the squid in particular was more tender than I’d expected – but the overall effect was a bit restrained for my liking. I often worry with subtle food that it’s my fault for not having a refined enough palate, but the good Vietnamese food I’ve had has positively sung with flavour, whether it be mint or lemongrass or coriander. This had none of that, and I don’t think it was my fault. All the other dishes tasted of something, but this was food with the mute button on. I didn’t finish it.

Main2Happily, the other main course was streets ahead. Khao Soi, a Thai dish of chicken and yellow noodles in red curry sauce, was delicious. The sauce was creamy and coconutty with decent sized but perfectly soft pieces of chicken, the noodles were small enough to twirl and there were tasty crispy onion pieces on top. I was apprehensive because of the two chillies next to it on the menu but actually the flavour was well balanced with loads going on – a good whack of garlic and ginger with the creamy sauce taking the edge off the heat. This is the sort of curry I want to eat on a cold, wet night (and I probably will soon, Reading summers being what they are). What it reminded me of, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, was curry sauce from my local chip shop when I was a kid, when the chippie was a treat, all this eating out was a lifetime away and Thai food was still a few years from hitting our shores. I’m not even sure I’m saying it tasted like that, but it took me back to that magical time when foreign foods were new and exciting without being intimidating.

Main1The side dish was nothing to write home about. I went for wok fried greens – you have a choice of broccoli or pak choi in oyster or tamarind sauce. My broccoli was some kind of mutant strain that looked so much like pak choi that it’s almost impossible to tell apart from it, except for the presence of a few tiny florets. Even wilted it was almost impossible to eat with chopsticks and not quite worth the bother of doing so. A pity, really, because the tamarind sauce – like so much of the food at Tampopo – was really tasty, sweet and sharp at once.

I’ve always found desserts a bit of an Achilles’ heel in this kind of restaurant so I was amazed not only to find a few things I fancied ordering but to really enjoy them into the bargain. There isn’t much on the menu from the Philippines (just the one main) but they contribute one dessert – churros and chocolate (popular since Spanish colonial times, if you believe the blurb on the menu). These were some of the better churros I’ve had in this country; thin piped doughnuts with a good balance of crispy and chewy. Better still, the chocolate sauce was thick, intense and tasted of real chocolate, as opposed to the watery, synthetic chocolate flavoured sauce so often dished up with churros on the continent. They were perhaps a little over-zealously dusted with icing sugar but that was soon tapped off (nothing stands between me and fried dough, I can tell you).

ChurrosThe other dessert was another weakness of mine which I always order on the very rare occasions when I see it on a menu. Black sesame ice cream was gorgeous – there’s something about the hit of those sesame seeds in such a surprising context that really works. This wasn’t the best example I’ve had (a chunk of ice in the middle of it was disconcerting) but it was close enough for me. The other flavour I tried, cinnamon, was creamier and blander and mainly left me wishing I’d had two scoops of sesame instead.

Dinner for two – edamame, three courses, a side and a couple of glasses of wine – came to fifty-nine pounds, not including tip. Again, it’s worth mentioning what good value Tampopo is. Aside from those starters, which I’ve already enthused about, the most expensive main was £12. Neither of the desserts cost more than £3. The Oracle can be a punishing place for restaurants to make a living, and I was impressed by the balance between cost and quality here – and the service, which was miles better than at most Oracle restaurants I’ve been to (Browns and Pizza Express, I’m looking at you).

If I was summing up Tampopo in three words I think they’d have to be these: better than Wagamama. They occupy very similar spaces but Tampopo avoids everything that gets on my nerves about the latter: unforgiving lighting, unwelcoming furniture, the rote instruction that your dishes will arrive in a random order whether you like it or not (I can’t tell you how much this irks me) and the feeling that you are meant to eat your food quickly, leave and go to the cinema. Tampopo isn’t necessarily a place to settle in for an evening, and still feels like somewhere you’d eat before going on somewhere else, but it manages to make that feel like an experience in itself rather than a transaction. I will definitely be back, and in future when I go to a restaurant I might try leaving my preconceptions at home.

Tampopo – 7.6
The Riverside, Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9575199

http://www.tampopo.co.uk/