Apologies to any vegetarians reading this, but there are few things in life more joyous than crispy duck pancakes. There’s something about that combination of flavours and textures – crunchy cucumber, soft duck, the particularly prized crispy bits, all salt and skin and the intense, sweet yet savoury hoi sin – all almost visible through the paper thin translucent pancake, rolled up as tightly as your greed will allow and crammed into a hungry mouth. And yet Chinese has to be one of the most under-represented cuisines in Reading. We have Indian restaurants all over the place, we have Italians coming out of our ears, as it were, but where can you go in this little town to overfill on prawn crackers, starters and crispy duck only to be defeated by the main courses?
Nowhere, as far as I can tell. China Palace doesn’t fit the bill, for me at least: possibly because it’s too authentically Chinese and possibly because it’s just not that good. Furama (I have friends who still call it Futurama, which gets annoying after a while) has never impressed me. Reading’s best Chinese restaurant, Chi, closed ages ago after trying three different venues in town. I still miss Wayne Wong’s charming if haphazard service and his delicious food – prawns coated in light, brittle batter with a sticky, sweet chilli sauce, pristine cod smothered in garlic-laden black bean sauce… (I could go on, but I might cry).
So out into Lower Earley, then, where the mini-precinct at Maiden Place has had something of a makeover. Instead of an off licence called simply “Bargain Booze” there is a spanking new WHSmith and some other shops have morphed into a shiny Sainsbury’s Local. On the edge of the precinct sits Kei’s, a restaurant I tried to review once before but left after I was offered a woefully dark and forgotten corner table, despite booking. I’ve got over this now: six months seems long enough to hold that particular grudge. Besides, people do say it’s the best Chinese restaurant in Reading.
Entering a buzzy restaurant on a cold and drizzly midweek night always lifts the spirits, and stepping into Kei’s was no different. The dining room is quite cleverly laid out with the smaller tables grouped together and the bigger, potentially louder, tables at a slight distance. It was so busy that I didn’t even mind waiting for a suitable table to become free (sitting on the squishy three piece suite in reception felt a bit like being back in 1979: I rather liked it). The waiter offered the a la carte or the “eat as much as you like” (which they do Monday to Thursday). At first I picked the former, feeling a little snooty about the latter, but a quick inspection of the all you can eat menu revealed that it had pretty much all of the dishes I’d been salivating over on the website. Plus – and this was the crucial factor – the food is cooked to order rather than sitting on a buffet; Cosmo this ain’t.
The first dilemma was how many starters to order: I didn’t want to take “eat as much as you like” as a personal challenge, but on the other hand I wanted to try as much as possible. How many would you have picked, between two? Well, if you answered “four” you win a gold star. Of them, the dry spare ribs were the first to go; imagine your favourite spare ribs with nicely spiced meat falling easily off the bone but none of that sticky sauce that winds up all over your fingers and face and you’ll have a pretty good idea what these were like. The salt and pepper five spiced squid was less successful. The squid was nice enough – thin strips, tender rather than bouncy – but they were underseasoned and bland, with nowhere near enough salt and more sugary sweetness than five spice.
The Thai style smoked chicken (the menu at Kei’s seems quite happy to wander from China to Thailand and even onwards to Vietnam – it’s almost as if it’s on a gap year) was rather similar to the squid, just a little darker and much sweeter. There was no discernible smoky taste but there was some nicely mashed garlic and spring onion at the bottom of the heap that balanced the sweetness a little. And finally, one of my favourites, the crispy fried seaweed. I know it’s not seaweed and I bet it has more fat than I’d want to know about but I love the crispy, salty, sweet taste of it and I wasn’t disappointed. I know it’s a staple but I loved it.
Only after the plate was taken away did I realise how little variety there was in the starters – largely sweet, crunchy, fried things. Probably not the cleverest idea, but I was starving and I’m afraid I must have been subliminally influenced by the smells wafting from the kitchen; sometimes you order with your belly rather than your head.
Can you guess what came next? Oh yes, the crispy duck. I was surprised this was on the “eat as much as you like menu” but when it turned up I saw how they managed this: perhaps it’s churlish to complain but the duck was a little on the skimpy side, especially compared to the big bamboo steamer of pancakes (I think we counted 12). Have you ever ordered crispy duck and run out of duck before you ran out of pancakes? No, me neither, so Kei’s was very much a first in that respect. What there was, though, was as good as ever – it’s a measure of how good this dish is that it’s impossible to eat it in silence (maybe it was just as well that it didn’t last that long).
Having eaten all that, how many main courses would you have ordered between two? This time, gold stars for those of you who guessed “three”. I was concerned that this would be a greedy mistake but actually, all of them felt like scaled down versions of what you’d have got if you ordered from the a la carte.
Sizzling king prawns in black bean sauce, for instance, were tasty – but you got four prawns. Serving this on a sizzling cast iron platter seemed strange when in reality the dish could probably have fitted in a ramekin. I enjoyed it, but the sauce was a bit thin on the ground (as were the black beans: I didn’t count many). Lamb in satay sauce, another sizzling platter, was a bit more generous. The sauce itself was smooth and shiny, with a texture a bit like egg yolk and not particularly peanutty. Ironically, given how shiny it was, it was distinctly lacklustre – and when it started to cool the gelatinous nature made it slightly gloopy, stringy and reminiscent of things I’d rather not describe. That said, the lamb was lovely and tender – I just wished I’d had it in “Vietnamese plum sauce” (whatever that is) instead. Oh, and if you’re looking at the picture below: yes, it’s a solitary giant piece of tenderstem broccoli, yes it’s as random as it looks and no, I have no idea what it’s doing there either.
The third main, chicken and cashew nuts in yellow bean sauce, had the best flavour and texture but went cold incredibly quickly. I didn’t check the dish when it arrived but I wonder if it was served in a chilled bowl. Maybe I should have tried it before the two sizzling dishes, but either way it shouldn’t have got this cold this quickly. Again, the sauce was tasty but – as with the other two dishes – you didn’t get enough of it to make the rice interesting (the plain steamed rice, also a bit claggy and lukewarm in next to no time, needed all the help it could get).
We had a couple of diet cokes and a colossal 250ml glass of sauvignon blanc, the only white they offer by the glass and the only size glass they serve it in. Often, house wine tastes like it’s punching slightly above its weight – this one tasted very much like a house wine, and 175ml would have been plenty (hark at me, it’s not as if I let any go to waste). Service throughout was pleasant and attentive: staff were friendly, efficient and patient when it took us some time to pick our food.
Having said that all the dishes were on the small side, it’s only fair to say that the quantities I’d ordered worked out well – we were both nicely full without being stuffed which often isn’t the case in a Chinese restaurant. Just as well, though, as I wouldn’t have felt like I’d have been able to go back and ask for more dishes if I’d under-ordered. The all you can eat option is just under twenty pounds per head and our total bill, including a semi-optional service charge of 10%, came to fifty three pounds.
Is Kei’s Reading’s best Chinese restaurant? Yes, it probably is (unless Happy Diner in Caversham turns out to be stellar) but that didn’t make me feel like hopping on a bus to Lower Earley any time soon to pay it a return visit. Instead, it made me wish that Reading had something better that could compete with the delights of Chinatown, or even some of the offerings just down the train tracks in Oxford. If Kei’s was on my doorstep, or if I had a friend visiting who really, really fancied Chinese food then I’d go – it’s a solid, reliable restaurant and those are qualities a lot of people value. But most of all, it made me miss the charismatic chaos of Chi: if you never sat at a table in Chi while someone in a rhinestone jumpsuit who doesn’t look or sound remotely like Elvis serenades you with “Devil In Disguise” you haven’t lived, take it from me. Maybe we’ll see its like again at some point: until then, Kei’s might have to do.
Kei’s – 6.7
Maiden Place Centre, Lower Earley, RG6 3HD