This week, instead of a review, we have a bit of a Q&A session! Thanks to everybody who sent in questions on Twitter and Facebook – I’ve tried to answer most of them. I hope you find something faintly interesting in here and if not, don’t worry. I’ll be back next Friday with another brand-new impartial restaurant review. And a vegetarian main course. Perhaps it will be a good one this time, stranger things have happened…
What is the funniest request, comment or other reader-related event that you’ve experienced since starting the blog? (Ben Briscoe)
Without a doubt, it has to be Café Yolk-gate. This happened back in November 2013 when ER hadn’t been going for very long and, to be honest, really didn’t have many readers. Most of my reviews came out to a ripple of ambivalence, the sound of one hand in two minds about whether to clap or not. And when I went to Café Yolk and thought it was a bit pants I thought there might be some response – it’s very popular on Twitter and it was (and remains) very good at mobilising huge amounts of support on TripAdvisor.
What I couldn’t have expected, though, was Jeff.
Jeff pitched in shortly afterwards to tell me what utter nonsense I was talking. He’d moved to Reading recently and, after extensive research, had stumbled on exactly what he was looking for – Café Yolk! It was his Mecca – second to none on the quality of its breakfasts, sourcing its fantastic sausages from the same people as Selfridges and Liberty’s (the latter being a place which doesn’t actually sell food, although Jeff didn’t seem to know that), the paean of praise went on and on.
I just said that Yolk was very lucky to have such a devoted customer and that they should give Jeff a job. But something about it didn’t add up, so I checked the email address that was attached to the comment. And then I put it into Facebook. Lo and behold, it turned out that Jeff really did know a lot about Café Yolk… mainly because he was working there. As a chef. What are the chances? A few other people also wrote glowing defences of Yolk in the comments and I guess we’ll never know if they too were on the payroll.
Anyway, it sort of went viral on Twitter – maybe not viral, maybe just mildly contagious – and, for the first time ever, I had Actual Readers. So not only is it the funniest reader-related thing to happen to me (although I do have a soft spot for the couple of times when I’ve had conversations with people about Edible Reading speculating on who the mystery author might be), but I also owe Jeff a big debt of thanks. Without his intervention, you might not be reading this now.
Where’s the best curry in Reading? (Martin)
The best Indian restaurant in Reading, that I’ve found, is House Of Flavours. But the best curry I’ve had in Reading is Bhoj’s karahi lamb. Go to Bhoj if you’re a creature of habit, and House Of Flavours if you’re a fan of variety.
Are there any restaurants you’ve reviewed which you have since changed your mind about? (Niall Norbury)
In terms of a 180 degree turn, no. I think you can visit a restaurant on a bad night or a good night but, ultimately, it’s still generally either a bad restaurant or a good restaurant. But one of the vagaries of visiting just the once, writing a review and giving a mark is that over time, restaurants can reveal themselves as better, worse or just different to how you originally saw them.
So for instance, Bhel Puri House is definitely better than I thought it was when I first visited. Each subsequent visit has made me feel a little bit luckier that Reading has it as an option (and even more so now it’s taking advantage of the sunlit courtyard outside the George Hotel, perfect for a summer weekend lunch). Similarly, I wish I hadn’t been quite so hard on Sapana Home – granted, the momo were about the only thing I liked there but repeated visits have made me realise just how corking they are, and I’ve since found another couple of dishes worth ordering.
That also sometimes happens further up the price bracket. A second visit to Ruchetta made me feel like I’d been a little unfortunate when I went there on duty – a lazy weekend lunch there was delicious, particularly the perfectly cooked tuna with caponata.
The converse applies, too. I had a great meal when I went to Sushimania, on a week night. If I’d been on a busy Friday night and got increasingly drunk waiting for some – any – sushi to turn up, as I have a couple of times since, it would have been a very different story. My Kitchen was lovely when I paid it a visit on duty, but a couple of poorly toasted sandwiches, still cold cheese in the middle, have slightly changed my opinion since.
I’ve thought many times about whether I should mention subsequent visits at the end of the review, when I go back. But I’ve decided against it. They’re snapshots, not a definitive chronicle, and the further back in the past the review is, the more caution you need to exercise. Anyway, paying them a visit every year would make me like a Michelin inspector, and I couldn’t be a lot less like one of those.
How do you feel about Marmite – love or hate? (Simon Hoade)
I absolutely adore the stuff. Spread nice and thick on a slice of buttered toast, it’s what makes Sunday mornings a gastronomic highlight of the week regardless of anything I’ve eaten in the previous six days. My favourite bread for this is M&S’ “Super Seeded” bread – an inappropriate name, as I doubt it ever will be.
Has your time doing mandatory vegetarian reviews changed your perceptions at all on restaurant offerings etc.? (Kate Cook)
It absolutely has. It’s depressing how badly thought out (or not thought out at all) vegetarian offerings are on menus. You get one, two at most and they usually revolve around pasta, risotto and cheese. That’s it. What always strikes me is how few of them involve doing intelligent, interesting things with vegetables, when vegetables can be as delicious as any meat. Only a couple of weekends ago I had a big plate of tenderstem broccoli, heaped with intense, nutty romesco sauce and with a huge slow-cooked duck yolk on top of it. Mouthwateringly gorgeous, totally vegetarian but – and this probably goes without saying – not ordered anywhere near Reading. Reading’s restaurants need to get better at this, because vegetarians have just as high standards as the rest of us (even higher, you could argue) and they are badly short changed right now.
The only place I can think of to exempt from criticism is Mya Lacarte, which usually has two top quality vegetarian starters and main courses on the a la carte menu. But apart from that, it must be pretty bleak for vegetarians much of the time. I almost never pick a restaurant for a vegetarian review without checking the menu first and being almost certain what I’m going to order, and it makes me realise how lucky I am the rest of the time that I can rock up and find several things I could gladly eat.
What would you say are good signs and warning signs that help indicate whether a restaurant is good, before you go in? (The Reading Barberettes)
There’s no sure-fire sign, but I like to think in the last couple of years I’ve got better at having a decent idea before I ever go through the front door. So for instance I would say that a website is a good indicator (I still remember The Lobster Room’s website, with its “sweet chilly sauce”), but the truth is many Reading restaurants have appalling websites or decent websites they never update and a limited understanding of how Twitter can help them inform potential customers.
I also think menus are key – some menus just read well. They show that a kitchen knows how to put both flavours and words together (not those really annoying ones that are just lists of ingredients, like Chicken. Asparagus. Morels. Lemon Thyme. Cillit Bang, that sort of thing). Other menus look like a slog, and if the menu looks like a slog the food is likely to be as well. That’s before we get on to the real affectations, like stating the patently obvious (hand-cut chips, pan fried salmon) or Dickensian capitalisation (Hand Cut Chips, Pan Fried Salmon).
You get used to deciphering a menu, but nothing is 100% reliable. Look at Papa Gee: it looks a bit grim from the outside, the website is a horror show and the menu feels as long and meandering as a walking tour of Tuscany. Everything about it should be disastrous, and yet it was one of the nicest meals I’ve had this year – and (to answer a separate question from Alison Swaddle) probably the best pizza in Reading.
Who does the best milkshakes in Reading? (P Curd)
This is a close-run thing. In the red corner, there’s Tutti Frutti. In the blue corner (literally just round the corner from Tutti Frutti), you have Shed. Now, on paper Tutti Frutti should win: they have the best ice cream and the best milk, and part of the battle is your raw materials. But TF’s milkshakes often feel like a way of getting less ice cream for more money – and some of their ice creams, delicious though they are, are just too hard to make a decent milkshake. For me, Shed edges it because they’re just better at making milkshakes: they get that it all has to be blended, they get the proportions right and they get the presentation right (in a milk bottle, provided you aren’t taking it away). Two straws – one for me, and one for me.
Which closed restaurant do you miss the most? (Ben Briscoe)
When I think of all the restaurants Reading has lost over the years, it’s a bit like that bit in the BAFTAs where they play the doleful piano music and you see a black and white montage of recently deceased thespians. It’s a sad old parade – from recent closures like Cappuccina Café with its delicious banh mi, replaced with a(nother) nail bar to old-timers like Platters, which in its time was a smoke wreathed pleather seated retro wonder where you could drink milky coffee from a plastic beaker and eat the best double egg on toast in town. And, of course, the most recent closure – Tampopo, going at the end of this month so the Oracle can realise its insatiable desire for more rent and raise the tone of the neighbourhood by lobbing in another branch of TGI Fridays. Lucky, lucky Reading!
I was tempted to say that my favourite closed restaurant was LSQ2. It had so much going for it – some beautiful dishes that could almost have given fusion cuisine a good name (I still daydream about the sashimi grade tuna on a rich, sticky pool of sesame-infused sauce) and, in its day, the best breakfast in Reading. But it wasn’t quite right: the space was too big, some of the food was inconsistent, the live acoustic music while you were eating the aforementioned breakfast was just a tad bizarre.
So no, the place I miss most – and I’ve rhapsodised about this before – is Chi. Back when it used to occupy the spot opposite TGI Friday it was the perfect example of a restaurant you would go out of your way to visit. Wayne was one of the most charismatic owners you could hope to come across, and he’d created such a brilliant buzzy place that you quite forgot you were on a roundabout next to the sorting office at the less fashionable end of town. And the food! Salty-sweet crispy smoked chicken and salad. Big slabs of pristine cod topped with the most intense black bean sauce you could imagine. Plump firm prawns coated in the lightest batter and glazed with chilli sauce.
That was the heyday – later, he moved to a spot on the parade of shops opposite Bhoj, and after that to the old converted pub next to Central Swimming Pool. And you always sensed that the glory days were past – and it felt a bit sad seeing people traipse in and pick up bags of takeaway, because Chi’s food deserved to be eaten there and then, on porcelain, at a table, with a crisp white napkin on your lap waiting to get spattered. Then one day Chi wasn’t there any more: I heard Wayne packed up and moved back to Wales, taking a little bit of my heart with him. But even at the end, the food – terrific as ever – was always big. It’s just the rooms that got small.
What is the worst thing you have eaten off of? (Andrew Grover)
I’d rather not name names: let’s just say that those Häagen-Dazs adverts back in the 90s have a lot to answer for.