Happy Diner

Happy Diner closed, by all accounts, over the summer of 2017. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I’ve always felt that when I go to a Chinese restaurant I am missing something important about how to order. I don’t speak Mandarin so the special menu (or the beautiful back pages of a menu) for real Chinese people to order from are lost on me. Instead it seems like every Chinese restaurant is selling the same dishes and with a few notable exceptions – cue my inevitable mention of sadly-departed Reading institution Chi – the experience is always the same; great starters, more crispy duck than is strictly wise and then adequate mains, all served by incredibly polite staff who somehow make the experience feel a little like I’m eating in a library.

Since I started this blog I don’t think I’ve made any progress with Chinese food at all. And it’s not like I don’t know that Chinese food can be wonderful – I still have vivid food daydreams about a sizzling chicken dish I had in Chinatown, rich with a slick savoury sauce, bubbling in a stone pot also containing seemingly a hundred pungent garlic cloves – but here in the provinces we don’t seem to get anything like that. I know it might be my fault, watching food arrive at other tables and wondering “what have they ordered? Have they picked better than me?” before returning to my prawn toasts, satay, disappointment.

Stepping into Happy Diner on a school night didn’t give me the sense that this review was going to be the one to change all that. If anything, the large, chevron-shaped room felt more like a conference centre than a restaurant. There were the obligatory sofas at the front for folk collecting takeaways, there was a fish tank filled with beautiful shimmering koi and then there was a large, long room with Chinese murals (of varying quality) on the walls. The tables were heavily draped and the chairs were the padded metal-framed ones which always – along with excitable uncles and Come On bloody Eileen – remind me of wedding receptions. And yes, it was like eating in a library: only two or three other tables were occupied, all spread out in that big space. Presumably this was done to give people privacy, but it felt a little isolating to me.

After polishing off the mandatory polystyrene prawn crackers with sweet chilli sauce I was even less convinced this was going to be The One. We started with a couple of dishes that, in retrospect, weren’t the most well-balanced. The “smoke dry spicy chicken happy diner style” resembled Chinese chicken nuggets; slivers of chicken, about the size of whitebait, that had been lightly dusted then fried. It was hard to detect any smokiness and they certainly weren’t dry – the paper doily (yes, a doily! How long is it since you’ve seen one of those?) they were served on was sheer with the amount of oil it had soaked up. So if they weren’t smoky and they weren’t dry, what were they? Mainly sugary: even the finely chopped green chilli on top tasted candied and sweet rather than adding the jolt it so badly needed. Oh, and huge – a pile so gigantic that we left close to half. Even then that meant we ate quite a lot. They were curiously addictive, but in the same way that Percy Pigs are.

HappyStarters

The other starter, salt and chilli squid, was similarly problematic. Done well this is one of the best things in the world, but Happy Diner’s version didn’t quite get there. The squid was nicely soft, the batter was light and again, the pile of squid was massive but, again, blandness was the order of the day. What didn’t help was that the pieces of squid themselves were equally gigantic – so big that I either had to pick up a bit and try to bite it (not the most delicate of operations) or pop a whole piece in and try not to choke or burn my tongue. Smaller, crispier bits of squid would have been lovely, but this was just a big fluffy cloud of frustration. The best bit was the mixture of the little crunchy salty bits of batter and the (hotter this time) chillies. It made me glad my companion had opted for cutlery, because I was never going to scoop up that delicious goodness with my amateurish chopstick skills.

The next course – no surprises here – was the crispy duck. I knew this would be too much food, but I’m biologically programmed not to turn crispy duck down. I had a sinking feeling from the moment it turned up. You know that wonderful moment when the waiter crushes the duck under a spoon and starts to shred it? That beautiful cracking noise as the skin gives way and breaks? This was more of a dull squelch, and at that point I knew that this would be duck but it wouldn’t be crispy. Normally when the crispy duck arrives, I’m like a kid in a sweet shop (I want that bit! No, that bit! Oh, and that bit!) but here it was more of an effort to find pieces that would perfect my pancake. First world problems I know, but the whole thing about crispy duck is that it’s never, ever like this. There was definite eking required, in fact, to stretch this out to six pancakes, and the last one I had was just spring onions, cucumber and hoi sin (in the immortal words of Roy Walker, good but not right). The rest of the trimmings were much the same as in any Chinese restaurant but at the end of the course, instead of scooping up the delicious fragments with our fingers we were left with a sad and flabby pile of skin.

HappyDuck

The main courses arrived similarly swiftly and didn’t lift things; again, it felt like perhaps we’d ordered the wrong things rather than the dishes we picked being actively bad. King prawns in black bean sauce was probably the best (least worst?) of the evening, with plenty of fat prawns in a watery sauce which tasted better than it looked with discernible black bean, a decent hit of garlic and lots of crisp squares of red and green pepper and big pieces of onion. If I’d had it on a Saturday night in front of Take Me Out I’d probably have been satisfied, but somehow here it still felt like it wasn’t quite good enough.

HappyMains

I was hoping the other main would either take me back to my teenage years or show me exactly how a good Chinese restaurant really does sweet and sour chicken. It wasn’t quite the battered balls of my youth (and yes, I know how wrong that sounds) but it wasn’t much of an improvement on that either. The batter the chicken came in was soggy rather than crispy, the sauce was again thin and watery rather than coating the chicken (it wasn’t that indistinct, to be honest, from the stuff we were dipping our prawn crackers in not that long before). The vegetables in the sauce gave me a strong sense of déjà vu, too; crisp squares of red and green pepper and big pieces of onion (did a black cat just walk by?). Oh, and some pineapple, obviously. It made me miss Orient Express, which used to be next to Keegan’s bookshop, which used to be opposite what Shed used to be, and even writing that sentence makes me feel very old indeed and makes me realise how long it is since I’ve had lovely Chinese food in Reading.

On the side we had plain noodles which, not beating about the bush here, tasted a bit odd. Sort of salty but not NaCl salty. I can’t even explain how they were wrong, but they just weren’t good. My fault, perhaps, for not going with the more traditional rice, but I’m just not a fan of plain white rice and it felt like overkill to order egg fried rice as well. We left a lot of the main courses – this is of course traditional in Chinese restaurants, but it would have been nice to feel even a little regret at doing so.

Drinks were a glass of house red wine (described simply as “Italian”) which was decent enough and a couple of bottles of Tsingtao. Service throughout was very polite, friendly, efficient and ever so slightly distant, much as I expected it to be. We were far too full for the dentist-bothering delights of dessert (toffee apple, anybody?) so we munched on the mint imperials that came with the bill – crumbly rather than hard, which made me irrationally happy – instead. The total was fifty-four pounds excluding service. We wished them a Happy New Year as we left and, not for the first time, I felt like a fraud being polite to someone when I hadn’t much enjoyed eating in their restaurant.

So am I any the wiser? Probably not. I still feel like I don’t know what to order, I still don’t have the courage to venture into the more esoteric reaches of the menu (perhaps I’d take more risks if I hadn’t read David Sedaris’ entertaining essay on the perils of eating in China: I’d quote some, but a single sentence of his would show all of this up). Is it my fault that I didn’t like Happy Diner? Quite possibly; you can probably make your own mind up about that. But be that as it may, there’s one question it all comes down to, the main question really when you review a restaurant: would I go back? I stepped out of the door with Mya Lacarte on my right, I strolled down Prospect Street past Kyrenia with its lights glowing, a laughing table of eight in the window and Ihor leaning on the bar and I thought no, I can’t see when I ever would.

Happy Diner – 6.2
3 Prospect Street, RG4 8JB
0118 9483488

http://happydiner-reading.webs.com/

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Bluegrass BBQ

As regular readers may remember I have a long-standing policy of not reviewing restaurants in their first month, of giving them time to bed in and settle down. Bluegrass tested my resolve more than most, being that rare thing, a new independent restaurant in the town centre. Unable to stay away, I did try to visit before Christmas only to be told – on a weekday lunchtime, no less – that the waiting time was forty-five minutes. To be honest, I just laughed and left: no-reservations restaurants are a bad enough habit to import from London, but once people are queuing round the block for American barbecue we’ve surely got everything bad about dining in the capital without any of the redeeming features.

So I’ve been sitting on my hands for a month, dying to visit on duty and having to wait while the other reviews came in. They were a mixed bag; people seemed to like the food, but a lot of people really didn’t like the experience of eating at Bluegrass. In particular, their policy of making you order at the bar came in for a lot of criticism. I was a bit surprised by this – I’d have thought eating in pubs and, for that matter, Nando’s would have got people used to this, but it seemed not. Despite that, it was voted Reading’s new restaurant of the year despite having only been open for three weeks of 2015 (on a shortlist, to be fair, which didn’t include Bakery House). So I wasn’t at all sure what to expect when I went there one evening hoping it would be quiet and looking forward to making up my own mind.

They’ve done a good job of renovating the old Gurkha Square site (which I never really liked – there was always a smell wafting from it when I went past which was somehow more Pedigree Chum than haute cuisine) and inside it’s made up of lots of different little rooms across about three floors, as well as the terrace out back overlooking the Holybrook which I can imagine will be lovely come summer.

Despite this, I’m afraid I struggled to warm to the interior. The wood panelling and bar made from reclaimed planks and the old school chairs all feel a bit done before – perhaps if I’d been sat at one of the banquettes I’d have felt more kindly disposed, but the whole thing felt a bit clinical. Instead I was at a table with four chairs and four placemats but which felt like realistically it could only have seated two people with elbows. I wondered how much the floor plan had been influenced by margins.

The menu is all very familiar to anyone who’s been to Blue’s Smokehouse, or RYND for that matter – ribs, brisket, pulled pork and smoked chicken, along with a range of burgers and sandwiches (in fairness they also have what looks like a very interesting breakfast menu – itself probably worth a separate visit). Prices are very reasonable: the mains all hover around the ten pound mark and, the menu being what it is, it’s all about mains and sides rather than starters and mains.

I’d heard apocalyptic stories about waiting at the bar, and perhaps on a busier night it would have been horrendous, but when I went it wasn’t too bad. It’s not really set up for queuing though, as you basically have to form a line heading down into one of the dining areas, impeding passing waiting staff and customers. They also only have one till, which feels like a rather devil-may-care decision (perhaps their brisk trade will persuade them to reconsider). Service was pleasant enough but a bit on the gormless side – I had to explain to them what one of the drinks on their cocktail menu was, and they then told me the lager I’d ordered had to be changed and they’d bring my drink over. Five minutes later I went up, jogged their memory and went back to the table with a pint. Everyone was friendly but a bit aimless, as if they’d never expected the restaurant to be this popular and weren’t sure how to cope with it (which may not be a million miles from the truth).

Food came out very quickly – within ten minutes or so. Again, some people have complained about this but I think they just misunderstand what kind of restaurant Bluegrass is. Most things are already smoked and slow-cooked and are just waiting to be dished up (if anything, if it took any longer to arrive you’d be justifiably concerned). And although the meals came on the standard-issue trays I didn’t find this as annoying as usual, possibly because the trays seemed slightly bigger or probably because the paper they were lined with put up more resistance to cutlery than they sometimes can.

So, on to the food: pulled pork was really good. Very soft, cooked to the point of complete surrender, juicy and with a lightly smoked taste that was enhanced by adding a sauce. There are four different sauces on the table but we did need to ask one of the members of staff what they were because there was no description on the label or on the wipe clean placemat-menus. The Tennessee was my favourite – a sweet barbecue sauce with a Dr Pepper base that was nice to dunk a forkful of pork in.

BluegrassPork

Brisket I wasn’t so sure about – four thinnish slices which tasted better than they looked, but the bottom slice had taken marbling to the stage where the bits of recognisable meat stood out like an archipelago of flesh in a sea of fat. It might have tasted lovely all the same, but squeamishly I left some of it. The burnt ends were the pick of the bunch for me, cubes of beef cooked longer still, sticky with sauce and much more tender and appetising: I had one towards the end with some little crunchy fragments of chip and it was the best mouthful of the entire meal.

Most of the dishes come with fries and coleslaw. The fries were lovely: skin-on with some real crispiness and texture, not wan and flaccid like they can be at many places doing this kind of food. The coleslaw, though, was disappointing; I actually quite like mayo-free coleslaw but this added nothing but contrast. I wonder how many people actually finish theirs.

BluegrassBrisket

We shared two other sides. Barbecue pit beans – a portion I’d say was on the small side – had shreds of meat in there but overall had picked sweetness over heat, the wrong choice in my opinion. Corn on the cob, one of my favourite things in the world, was a little underwhelming – a touch overcooked, so that the individual niblets didn’t pop the way I anticipated and the advertised cinnamon in the butter was undetectable. Nice enough but (dare I say it?) Nando’s does better.

I’m sorry to say that the drinks weren’t really worth the trouble they took to order. The lager was quite nice, clean and crisp, but by the time it arrived the food was nearly upon us. The “cherry cola cooler” was a small Amaretto and coke in a jam jar. For four pounds fifty. I watched them pour some of a 330ml bottle of Coca-Cola into the jam jar and then, presumably, throw the rest away.

The general haplessness of the service continued when someone came to ask how the food was. I said it was quite good, which it was, and she put a magnetic bottle cap on the end of the table to show that we had been processed. And you do feel, in an establishment like this, like you’ve been processed rather than served. She also asked whether we wanted any water and I said we’d love a jug of tap water. She returned with a solitary glass of tap water (still, it’s the thought that counts). Actually, if it hadn’t been for the model of ordering at the bar I’d have had a glass of Malbec by then, but I guess Bluegrass has decided it’s happy to run the risk that people will order less drinks: an odd decision for somewhere which prides itself on its range of craft beers. As it was, we left – the advantage of paying up front is that you can do this quickly – and dinner for two came to thirty-five pounds, not including tip.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I wasn’t absolutely bowled over by Bluegrass. But in its defence, many of the criticisms of it are fundamentally missing the point: it’s a restaurant, Jim, but not as we know it. It is not intended to be a place where you settle in for an evening. Bluegrass is set up to have all its food ready to serve almost immediately and everything it does to channel customers is intended to guarantee a speedy turnaround. It’s a different kind of casual dining, and perhaps the shape of things to come – get people in, feed them, send them away and turn the table as many times as you can. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, not an awful lot wrong with the food and nothing wrong with going there, if that’s the kind of meal you want. But, for that reason if no other, it felt like a restaurant many may like but few will love. I still think that restaurants are all about the experience: the service, the comfort, that feeling of taking time away from your troubles (and the washing up!) while someone else looks after you and feeds you. For me, anything else is just one step up from Deliveroo.

Bluegrass BBQ – 7.1
15 Gun Street, RG1 2JR
0118 9599112

http://bluegrass-bbq.com/

Pachangas, Henley

There are times when I think I’ve almost got the hang of this reviewing thing. In particular I think I’ve got to the stage where I have a reasonably good idea, from looking at a menu, of whether a restaurant is going to be good. Pachangas, a Mexican restaurant in Henley, scored so well on that front that I’d been looking forward to visiting it for some time. The menu made all the right noises: Oaxaca cheese, grilled cactus, slow-cooked pork marinated with chili, orange and tequila, sweet spicy mole (the chocolate and chilli sauce, not the short-sighted animal from Wind In The Willows). So different from Maracas in Reading, where the menu doesn’t really convince me that the owners have had a Damascene conversion from cooking Italian to Mexican food.

I was so excited about going that not even a miserable day in January put me off my trip to Henley. Besides, I reasoned, even if it turned out to be a disappointment there were always consolations – the gorgeous chocolate in Gorvett and Stone for one, the delights of Machin’s (ostensibly a butcher but also selling fantastic cheese, smoked fish, terrific jamon iberico and countless other wonders – if only Reading had somewhere like this) for another. But mainly I was going for Pachangas: I re-read the menu on the bus, feeling like I was about to take a little gastronomic holiday.

Stepping out of the rain, half-mist, half-drizzle (is “mizzle” a word?) and into the restaurant I immediately felt like I’d made an excellent choice. This restaurant used to be the site of a pub called the Beer Tree which had Kozel on draft and a bewildering array of Belgian beers in the fridge; I used to love it back then but it was a bit crude and functional inside. Pachangas was a lot more inviting, all bright-coloured walls and cheery music. I got a warm welcome and was shown to a nice table: on my left I had a view of the rest of the dining room and on my right I could see the grey street outside, the rain intensifying. It felt like I might have been in the only sunshiny part of Henley that day.

The menu presented a couple of challenges. One was not hitting the cocktails in a big way – a wide range were available, not to mention numerous tequilas and several Mexican beers, along with something rather frightening called a michelada which seems to be a mixture of beer, lime juice and hot sauce (another time, perhaps). The other one, as I said, was narrowing it down when nearly everything looked worth a punt. Even the burger – in a tortilla wrap rather than a bun – appealed, bringing back happy memories of sadly departed Oracle restaurant Santa Fe (the unforgettable, dimly-remembered evenings I’ve had there!). The other thing that struck me about the menu was just how much of it was available gluten free – well worth knowing if you’re eating out with someone who doesn’t eat gluten.

After all the horse trading was complete, the orders had been placed and the wine was ordered we sat back in anticipation. I had high hopes, which if anything were justified by a little freebie to start with – two little gluten free rolls, still warm and filled with rich, elastic cheese. Just beautiful. But then, I smugly told myself, I knew it would be good because I knew a good menu when I saw it.

The first of the starters was further corroborative evidence. Calamares picantes were dusted with flour rather than battered and apparently shallow rather than deep fried and came sprinkled with chilli, coriander and beautifully whiffy slivers of fried garlic. The squid was among the best I can remember – so tender, free from any bounce or twang and clearly very fresh indeed. It was so good that I didn’t really mind that the coating didn’t entirely stick to it. All it meant was that at the end I had loads of little pieces of it to eat, fun-sized explosions of chilli, garlic and (I think) lime. Funny how sometimes, like the powder at the bottom of a packet of dry roasted peanuts, or the vinegary shards left when you’ve nearly finished your Chipsticks, the best bit comes at the last. There was also some kind of spiced dip like a mayonnaise, not mentioned on the menu, which didn’t add much and probably wasn’t really needed. I left most of it, but I didn’t feel like I’d missed out.

PachangaCalamares

The other starter was where the problems began; the tamal pachangas were described as “handmade corn masa parcels filled with spiced pork and steamed in plantain leaf served with mole negro and fried plantain” which sounded delicious. Sadly the corn parcel (singular) was quite cakelike – thick, sweet and rather claggy. The pork inside wasn’t particularly spicy but then there was so little of it that it struggled to overcome the exterior. The mole sauce was also sweet but it did have a kick of chilli so that it wasn’t completely dull. The best bit, by far, was the fried plantain which came on the side, a bit like eating banana fritter without the batter – sweet and a little bit naughty – and it was really lovely with the mole sauce. But even so, the whole plate felt like I had ordered dessert by mistake, and not a terribly good dessert at that.

PachangaTamal

The starters had been so Jekyll and Hyde that I wondered quite what the mains would be like. I’d had my eye on the fish tacos since I first looked at the menu and when they turned up they seriously looked the part – three tacos, piled high, served in some kind of zigzag contraption intended to make them easier to eat. And you couldn’t argue with the volume – two big strips of fish in each one, a heap of spiced mayonnaise on top and some salad and guacamole underneath. The problem was that they were so very bland: the fish was described on the menu as halibut tempura and I can’t give the menu the benefit of the doubt without criticising the kitchen because they felt like standard goujons of an unremarkable white fish to me. The spiced mayonnaise, which might have been the same one that came with the squid, was not particularly spiced. If anything it felt like Thousand Island Dressing’s zany friend, the one who’s never invited to parties. It came with a relatively pleasant bowl of rice – I’m not sure why as there was nothing to eat the rice with – and didn’t come with black beans, despite the promise of the menu. The whole thing was piping hot and difficult to eat: nothing wrong with that when a dish is delicious and you want to devour every last mouthful, but when it’s all a bit blah it soon becomes a chore. The thing that disappointed me most, though, was how thoroughly this dish punctured my expectations.

PachangaTaco

Then came the enchilada mole poblano. I was expecting to see two fat corn tortillas, filled with chicken and sauce and, most importantly, flavour. After all, that’s what the menu led me to expect. What arrived instead was the Mexican version of a chicken and cheese toasted sandwich; rather than two big fat cylinders I got three sad, flat little tortillas with shredded chicken and melted cheese inside and a swoosh of mole across the top. That was it. No flavour or spice in the chicken at all. This time round even the mole – a complex, intense mix of seventeen ingredients according to the menu – didn’t seem to have any chilli in it, let alone anything else other than chocolate. The tortillas, sadly, were just boring – sub-Old El Paso, in fact. It came with more of the rice (which tasted mostly of garlic) and refried beans (which tasted mostly of mashed bean). My guest was a member of the Anti-Coriander Brigade – I hear there are more of them than you might think – so had asked them to leave it out, but I couldn’t help wondering if they’d left everything out just to be safe. Including the flavour.

PachangaEnchilada

I did like the sweet potato fries (“Pachanga fries”) we ordered as a side: sweet potato can be a tricky vegetable, but they’d managed to get the fries perfectly crispy. But let’s face it, if the fries are the high point you’ve either had amazing fries or a pretty iffy meal, and these fries weren’t amazing.

We had a glass of red wine each. The Chilean merlot was nicely smooth and smoky and the Mexican syrah – Mexican wine does exist, believe it or not – was drinkable but unremarkable. Both were about a fiver a glass (in hindsight, maybe I should have had a “Bloody Pirate”, a Bloody Mary made with rum rather than vodka, instead). The best bit of the experience was undoubtedly the service which was lovely throughout: both the waiters that looked after us were friendly, knowledgeable and checked up on us just often enough without it feeling over the top. I’m no expert but their accents sounded South American at least and very possibly Mexican which gave me confidence (the second best bit of the experience, incidentally, was that you have to go through a saloon door to get to the loo – what’s not to like about that?)

I nearly gave Pachangas a chance to redeem itself through dessert (I had my eye on the churros) but a combination of fullness and disappointment made me rule it out. The total bill for two courses and a glass of wine each was fifty-nine pounds, excluding service.

Something magical has happened several times while writing Edible Reading where I’ve gone to an unprepossessing restaurant with no real expectations and gone away thoroughly delighted and surprised. Pachangas is a rare example of the opposite phenomenon – and I suppose it had to happen eventually – where everything looks good on paper but it just didn’t come together. The food didn’t quite live up to the menu: sometimes literally, in that what you ordered and what you got weren’t quite the same thing. But more generally the menu made wonderful promises about flavour which the kitchen just didn’t keep. Whether they’re playing it safe because they’re in Henley, or whether they just have a gift for writing which isn’t matched by their cooking I don’t know. Either way, it’s a salutary lesson for me at the start of the year that I’m not quite as good a judge of menus as I thought I was. But after all, if you could tell how good a restaurant was just by looking at the menu, who’d need restaurant reviews?

Pachangas – 6.6
30 Duke Street, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 1UP
01491 413000

http://www.pachangas.co.uk/