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.
The 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.
Happily, 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.
The 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).
The 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