Because I have a policy of not reviewing restaurants the very minute they’ve opened, opportunities to be topical are few and far between. I’m not always good at seizing them – I’ve always regretted not visiting Pau Brasil last year while the World Cup was on, for example – so there’s no way I was going to miss out again this week.
I’m not talking about pancakes, by the way. I’m still convinced that pancakes, like cooked breakfasts and roast dinners, are best enjoyed at home; even when a restaurant does them well, it never quite recaptures how good they can be in the comfort of your own kitchen. Something’s always not quite right: the sausage isn’t good enough, the baked beans are claggy and don’t have Worcester sauce in them, the beef’s a tad leathery or (most unforgivably) there aren’t enough roast potatoes. At their best – especially with roast dinners – they can be a high-end reimagining, an enjoyable one even, but it’s just not the same.
That’s never truer than with pancakes. Just writing this I am remembering them – fresh from the pan, sprinkled with sugar and lemon juice, rolled up and scoffed greedily while someone is busy cooking the next one. No restaurant can match that. Plus when you have them in a restaurant you get a pancake, emphasis on the singular. Where’s the fun in that?
No, the other thing that happened this week was the Chinese New Year, only yesterday. It got me thinking again about the disappointing lack of good Chinese restaurants in Reading, and then I remembered one of the recommendations I’d received: Pete, the proprietor of Shed, had suggested I review Beijing Noodle House. He raved about some of the Indonesian specialities and the “mouth watering pork dumplings”. Pete strikes me as a man who knows his food – anyone who’s ever tried Saucy Friday can attest to that – so how could I go anywhere else on this of all weeks?
Actually, my first reaction to the recommendation was “is that place still open?” I used to go to Beijing Noodle House a lot, back in the day (I was especially partial to their duck fried noodles). Then, back in 2008, it was gutted by fire; I can’t remember how long it was closed for, but when it reopened I had moved on elsewhere and it never occurred to me to return. Heading up West Street on a weekday evening and going through the front door felt a little like bumping into an old friend and having to make excuses for not having been in touch.
The first thing that struck me about the room was the pictures on the wall. They are enormous (one pretty much covers an entire wall), an odd mishmash of Oriental and European art. You almost couldn’t take your eyes off them, so huge were they, and I’m no Brian Sewell but I don’t think the proprietors are going to take them to a filming of Antiques Roadshow any time soon. Apart from the mind-boggling art? Well, it’s a bit run-down. The dark wood tables are a little too low so you end up hunched over your food, everything is a little worn and has seen better days. An electronic neon sign in the window flashes “OPEN”. The place mats are thin, plastic and tacky – mine, for no reason I could think of, had a photograph of chips on it. It was just tatty enough that I looked up the health and safety rating from the council, and was hugely reassured to find that they’d given it five stars.
There’s no menu online but there are a lot of noodle options – as ramen, as fried noodle, as udon or vermicelli, in soup or not. More noodle combinations, in fact, than I knew existed. You could probably figure that out for yourself – the clue’s in the name after all – but there was a lot more to the menu than that. I also spotted plenty of rice dishes, a good vegetarian section and, on the back, a range of Thai and Malaysian dishes. I couldn’t see any main courses costing more than seven pounds. As always with a very big menu I felt spoiled for choice, and sadly as usual with a very big menu I also wondered how many choices contained spoilers.
No way to find out except to dive in, so we ordered several of the starters. “Grilled Pork mouthwatering dumplings” (yes, that’s a direct quote from the menu) were every bit as good as Pete had suggested they would be. There’s often an air of the mystery meat about dim sum filling which puts me off, but these – more like gyoza than steamed dumplings or pork buns – were full of coarse, subtle pork. They were beautiful combined with the clean, delicate taste of the ginger vinegar dip. Four felt like a snip at just under four pounds.
The chicken satay was also very good: you could say it’s hard to get satay wrong, and you’d probably be right, but I liked this a lot. The chicken – three decent sized skewers – was maybe slightly cooked into toughness but that just gave me an excuse to heap on lashings of the satay sauce, which was nothing to look at but deceptively impressive, with just enough slow-building chilli. Last of all, crispy seaweed came with cashews on it rather than the traditional grated scallop (did you know that the pink powder was grated scallop? I didn’t) and was also delicious. The nuts added a savoury toasted note which meant it wasn’t artificially sweet the way seaweed can be – not that that ever stops me polishing it off, mind.
I ordered the duck fried noodles partly for old time’s sake and partly because the menu goes out of its way to say that the duck is marinated and freshly cooked and you can have it boneless if you prefer. When it arrived I felt that mixture of nostalgia and anticipation. It looked just how it used to, back when I used to come here, but was it as tasty? After all, your tastes move on, change, develop: could it possibly have been as good as my memories of it?
In a word: yes. Possibly better, in fact. The duck – and you get loads of it – was glorious in big, tender slices. Not crispy, which might put some people off, but not with the thick layer of fat that might deter fussy eaters. The spring onions, peppers and beansprouts still had the right amount of crunch with the soft noodles and the duck, and everything was coated in a beautiful dark sauce which was more than soy but impossible to split out into its component parts. I was smiling from the first mouthful to the last, and wondering why on earth I’d left it so long. It was just over six pounds, and I’d pick it over a yaki soba from Wagamama nine times out of ten.
I also wanted to try something from the less conventional side of the menu, so I went for the nasi goreng. This turned up as a huge heap of rice (indeed, the translation from Indonesian is simply “fried rice”) liberally interspersed with prawns and pieces of chicken breast. The sticky, lightly spiced rice was dotted with peas and on top were a few thin slices of spring onions which felt like not quite enough variety to make every mouthful exciting. That said the meat was generous enough to have a prawn or piece of chicken in every forkful and the flavour was good, if a little bit repetitive (I rarely order risotto for the same reason). Still, five quid for a really tasty plate of rice is incredible value and it made me want to try more of the more unusual dishes (nasi lemak, the national dish of Malaysia, perhaps, or possibly beef rendang).
Someone pointed out my really poor track record of ordering desserts in 2015, and I’m afraid it’s true. I didn’t do any better here: I could have gone for some ice cream, or toffee banana with sesame seeds, but somehow I felt like I’d eaten two courses with no need of a third to complete them. The whole thing – three starters, two mains, a Tsing Tao and a large glass of anonymous, cheap and perfectly drinkable red – came to under thirty pounds. I haven’t mentioned service and that’s deliberate – not because it was bad but because it was almost unobtrusive. It’s just not that kind of restaurant: they ask you nicely what you want, they go away, a little later they bring it and they leave you to get on with enjoying it (actually when I put it that way, it sounds pretty good). Besides, how could they ever compete with the wall art?
I’m delighted that I enjoyed Beijing Noodle House. I can’t think of many places in town that are so cheap and so enjoyable, and when I looked at the menu I had real trouble narrowing it down to two main courses, so it probably won’t be long before I return to fill in the gaps. I really wanted to like it, because of all those happy memories, but as a realist I’m not sure I was expecting to like it as much as I did. It’s also a great example of how good food in an iffy room is always going to beat iffy food in a good room. Maybe one day Reading will have an equivalent of “Where Chefs Eat”: if so, Pete should definitely claim this one for his entry.
Only one thing troubled me: I was one of only two tables the night I went, although someone else did poke their head round the door for takeaway. West Street has felt increasingly like a ghost town recently, with Vicar’s closing just before Christmas and rumours that Primark is considering relocating to Broad Street. I can only hope my curse doesn’t strike and Beijing Noodle House doesn’t close shortly after receiving a glowing review from me. I know I say this a lot but use it or lose it, because otherwise one of these days the question will still be “is that place still open?” but the answer will be no.
Beijing Noodle House – 7.2
13-14 West Street, RG1 1TT