There’s been lots of change in the world of Reading restaurants recently. Wolf, offering “Italian street food” – if such a thing exists, and I have to say I’m skeptical – opened not long ago on Broad Street. Not far away, lunchtime sushi and noodle joint Itsu opens soon in the spot at the John Lewis end of Queen Victoria Street; even if you don’t like sushi it’s got to beat the crimes against the English language perpetrated by previous occupant “Fone Bitz”. A short stroll down Chain Street, Argentine chain CAU is now open for business in its innovative split level pitch next to the Holybrook. And if you stroll past CAU and into the Oracle, Manhattan Coffee Company is now trading on the top floor (an independent in the Oracle! I know! How did they pull that off?).
The thing I notice most often about new places is that they’re packed. Every time I go past CAU it’s rammed, often on both floors (it’s not the biggest of restaurants, and seems even smaller when it’s full of people). We like novelty value – we upgrade our phones every couple of years and, it seems, we enjoy upgrading our restaurants too. I like shiny new things as much as the next person, but something about this troubles me: what about all the tried and tested stalwarts? It’s a fine line between classic and dated – not moving with the times is one thing, but being left behind by the sheer rate of change is another.
For many years the mainstays of Reading’s Indian restaurant scene were Bina and Standard Tandoori in Caversham and the Garden Of Gulab on the Wokingham Road (and the much-missed Sardar Palace on Cemetery Junction – mind-boggling décor and bottles of Chateauneuf du Pape for fifteen quid: I loved it there). Annual reviews in the local paper, references to John Madejski hunkering down for dinner, the occasional award – their primacy was undisputed. But recently something else has changed: when GetReading published the shortlist for its inaugural curry awards earlier this year none of them was anywhere to be seen. In their place were the pretenders to the throne: River Spice, Bhoj, House Of Flavours.
House Of Flavours was the eventual winner and it’s hard to deny that it deserves its success; it’s a brilliantly run restaurant, the food’s immaculate and the location is perfect. But I couldn’t help thinking about the old guard. Surely they hadn’t gone bad overnight? I always complain about how people should use it or lose it (a sentiment as true of South Street Arts Centre, incidentally, as it is of I Love Paella) but what if I didn’t go to a place like Garden Of Gulab only to find one day that it wasn’t there any more? So my choice this week was made.
The interior conforms to the classic formula of many Indian restaurants: the bar at the front, with a small waiting area for people collecting takeaway, and the dining rooms beyond. There are three in total and all of them looked clean, presentable and a little dated, although the one at the front was reassuringly busy for a weekday night. It makes much of its awards and certificates, which are all displayed in the waiting area, and in fairness they win them on an annual basis: shortlisted for the British Curry Awards year after year and with a couple of TripAdvisor certificates too. I was determined to give the menu a chance to impress me by moving away from the standards and seeing what the kitchen had dreamed up to supplement them. There was plenty there: a full range of interesting-sounding combinations (some with pictures of the food, which wasn’t as heinous as it might sound) and a couple of very credible vegetarian options.
First though, the traditional poppadoms: light and warm, served with no less than six different dips. Miah’s seems proud of these, although they do charge you a quid for the privilege which feels slightly cheeky. Of them the mango chutney was quite thin and unremarkable, as was the raita. My favourites were the lime pickle – sharp, sour, almost salty – and a beautiful heap of grated coconut and carrot which was sweet and savoury all at once. Things had started well, although that extra quid lodged in the gullet somewhat.
I decided to try a mixture of the traditional and the unconventional for starters and Indian tandoor pool, broccoli and cauliflower grilled in the tandoor, sounded too good to miss. I love the way Indian cooking can bring vegetables like these to life and I was genuinely fascinated to see what turned up. The dish was meant to come with milk cake, pimentos, olives and ginger. Forgive my ignorance, but I have no idea whether it did or not and I’ve eaten the bloody thing. There were slices of what I assumed was paneer, and certainly tasted like paneer. Was that the milk cake? Based on my Googling, I don’t think so. There were also little wedges of what I was pretty certain were potato. Not mentioned anywhere on the menu, but I got a second opinion and my companion thought they were potato too.
I didn’t see any pimento, olive or ginger anywhere. The broccoli and cauliflower had no char or texture to indicate they’d been cooked in a tandoor, if anything they seemed steamed. The whole thing was in a lake of sweetened sauce and topped with a random slice of lemon. It felt like an ill-advised attempt at the Masterchef invention test, or a Bollywood remake of cauliflower cheese. It felt, to be honest, like a mistake.
My other starter was the mixed starter for one, and this is the point where things went awry. My dining companion won’t eat raw coriander; it’s fine cooked, but raw I’m told it tastes like Fairy Liquid (it’s genetic, apparently). So we clearly pointed that out when placing our orders. Now personally, I don’t think this is asking too much: the recipe didn’t need to be changed, the sauce didn’t need to be modified, just no leaves sprinkled on the top as it left the kitchen, thank you. But it seemed like perhaps it was: the dish came out sizzling away but as the scented steam cleared, before the plate even got to our table, it was obvious that the dish was festooned with coriander.
What to do? Well, we did what any self-respecting Brit would do – we apologised for the fact that they hadn’t done what we asked and sent it back. Two minutes later a new plate came out – except it wasn’t, it was the same plate, just with some of the leaves dusted off (or maybe they removed them with tweezers – however they did it, it was only a partial success). Feeling a mixture of embarrassed about our fussiness and determined not to give in, we sent it back again. When the waiter came back to the table I couldn’t tell whether this was a reunion or a new meeting, but the dish that was put in front of me was lukewarm and weirdly oily. There was almost no coriander, but by this point the lack of coriander wasn’t enough of a selling point on its own: it needed to be perfect and it just wasn’t.
The other starter had long been dispatched by this point so, having had enough, we told them we didn’t want the mixed starter any more and they took it off the bill. By this point my companion was on the borderline between exasperation and apoplexy and I was starting to realise that a mistake like this doesn’t just ruin a course: it can ruin an evening, too. The waiters seemed either uncomprehending or annoyed by our ingratitude – not sure I wanted to know which.
The saga has a bizarre postscript: they then brought the mixed starter again. My companion was geared up to explode when they ever so nicely apologised and told us it would be on the house. It was a small sheekh kebab, some chicken tikka and a whopping onion bhaji, dressed with the usual pointless bit of salad and one of those lemon squeezers like my mum had at the back of the kitchen drawer. Was it worth all that palaver? No, not really. The chicken tasted good but the texture was off-putting – unnaturally soft and smooth to the point of feeling (but not tasting or looking) undercooked. The kebab was pleasant but didn’t stand out in any way from those I’ve had at a dozen other Indian restaurants across town. I liked the onion bhaji – coarse and nicely spiced – but not enough to have waited three iterations for it. And although it was nice to get a freebie (makes a change), I’d rather they’d got it right first time, or at least fixed it properly first time.
The mains arrived shortly after my second starter was taken away (although in fairness they did ask if we wanted to wait). Lamb shank was probably the most successful dish of the evening but even this wasn’t without its faults. The good bit: it was a huge hefty shank – nobody’s going to go hungry ordering this – and the sauce was beautiful. Smoky, spicy, hot, earthy and dense, thickened with lentils, packed with cardamom pods and pepper it was everything I was looking for in a sauce. Scooped onto the naan or jumbled up with the rice it was truly delicious.
But the lamb needed ever so slightly longer – you could eat it, and there was lots of it, but that extra time would have added the final touch of softness, made it truly collapse to the point where it too could be mingled with that sauce. The nan bread, too, wasn’t faultless – too small, thick and dense where it needed to be thinner and airier. I barely ate half of it, and once I’d finished the whole thing I just wanted to click my fingers and be at home, in some pyjamas with an elasticated waist, lying in the recovery position and digesting the whole lot like a python.
My other dish was murgh jeera adrath, chicken breast in cumin, ginger and honey sauce. Again the chicken had that jarringly soft texture which made it a little unappetising, and it seemed exactly the same shape as the pieces in the starter. It was unsettlingly homogeneous, in fact, and once I realised this it rather put me off it. The sauce was interesting but, again, a bit sweet and slightly lacking in complexity: honey, cumin and ginger is an intriguing combination but it worked better on the page than on the plate. “It tastes like the kind of curry you’d order if you don’t particularly like curry”, said my companion, not without good reason. The peshwari naan ordered to accompany it, however, was heavenly. Rich and jammed full of sweet sticky coconut, I found it easy to chomp through a lot of this at the expense of the curry. I couldn’t understand the blood-red colour of it; I wondered if the head waiter’s firstborn had been sacrificed in order to appease the coriander gods.
We didn’t have many drinks – a reliable pint of Kingfisher, a mango lassi which felt a little too thin and straightforward to have been truly made fresh and a ginger ale (the last mainly because of its renowned ability to aid digestion) and the whole thing came to just over forty-six pounds, not including service. You’ve probably already got an idea of service from the rest of the review, but the incident over the starters was a turning point: before that they were off-hand and a bit remote, afterwards they were genuinely lovely and couldn’t do enough for us. My companion thought it was a tacit acceptance that they’d taken their eye off the ball. I think it’s because my companion can be pretty terrifying when crossed.
So, what have we learned? Personally, I’ve learned that if they’d brought out some starters without coriander this review would have been half the size and the meal would have been twice as enjoyable. Maybe the review would have been twice as enjoyable, too. I’ve also learned that when a restaurant fixes a problem slowly or badly it can be worse than when they don’t fix a problem at all. But I’m not sure what else I’ve learned about the Garden Of Gulab: I might not have seen them at their best, but the restaurant all those certificates praise in the waiting area didn’t feel like the restaurant I ate at that night. Maybe, after all that, the real difference between the young pretenders and the old-timers is the newcomers have the hunger and the drive to build up a customer base and keep it.
Miah’s Garden Of Gulab – 6.7
130-134 Wokingham Road, RG6 1JL