The Flowing Spring, Playhatch

I’ve noticed The Flowing Spring many times on my travels, but always when I’ve been going somewhere else, usually Henley. It’s on a stretch of road just past Playhatch, in an oddly solitary location as the road slopes up towards Shiplake. I’ve always been struck me by the sign on the side of the pub, underneath the name, saying Fresh, home-made food including gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian, a big block of white with an incongruous, regular font as if it’s been cut out of a Word document, enlarged and stuck on to the building with Blu-Tac.

Well, having done my homework this week I took the next right, pulled into the car park and went inside instead. Why? Well, it turns out that The Flowing Spring is an interesting beast; that sign on the side is a pretty modest summary, but The Flowing Spring takes catering to all kinds of diets very seriously indeed. Apart from all sorts of plaudits for the beer – CAMRA awards, Cask Marques, I’m sure this stuff means more to most of you than it does to me – they were also given an award by PETA last year for being one of the top ten vegan-friendly pubs in the whole of the UK (and yes, if you were a cynic you might find yourself wondering how big a field there was). I haven’t forgotten my resolution to try and eat meat-free mains once a month, and I figured I wouldn’t get a better opportunity to put it to the test.

Charmingly ramshackle doesn’t even begin to do the Flowing Spring justice, an experience that begins when you pull into the car park and realise that it’s at a completely different level to the front of the pub on the main road. The split-level feeling of climbing the stairs to go in is continued by the slightly haphazard nature of the interior. Their website proudly boasts that the whole pub is on a slant, and indeed nothing feels quite like a straight line. There’s a main dining room upstairs, then a sort of L-shaped section downstairs which is more like a traditional pub, open fires and all, and then an area called the “Quirky Corner” into which I did not venture except on my way to the loos (I wasn’t sure I’d be quirky enough).

Initially they sat us in the dining room, all big square tables and handsome conventional furniture, the laminated walls full of copies of the pub’s newsletter and a chalkboard section with enthusiastic quotes on it (“better than the London Street Brasserie” said one, which made me smile). The woman behind the bar also warned us that only one table was unbooked and that there would be a cribbage match going on up there. And I would have stayed up there, but it was absolutely Baltic and I soon realised that cribbage geeks, in their amiable, peg-pushing way, can produce just as many decibels as a crowd watching a much less interesting leisure pursuit with balls and goals. So we moved down to the bar room and had a slightly more laid-back evening – still Baltic, mind, although I did notice that one of the open fires hadn’t been lit.

The menu, like the pub, looks like a big old mess at first. It’s only when I stepped back and had a proper look that I appreciated just how much thought had gone into it. Three of the five starters are not only vegetarian but vegan. They offer two different vegetarian burgers, one of which is vegan, and about half of the mains are either vegetarian or vegan – without a sodding risotto in sight, I might add. Huge sections of the menu can be offered gluten-free, and the menu also assiduously lists potential allergens (I never realised, for instance, that Marmite contains a small amount of gluten: I’ve never felt more sympathy for my friends who have a gluten-free existence). All promising, but I’ve lost count of the number of times a good menu got lost in translation from the kitchen to my table, so I sipped a pint of Aspall’s and listened to the hubbub of the cribbage match getting animated as I waited for the starters to arrive.

Smoked mushrooms in cider batter sounded so perfect that I really wanted to try it. And when it arrived it got so close to really good that I was almost prepared to overlook the flaws. The mushrooms were so smoky that I could nearly forget how small they were, the cider batter so crunchy that I only just remembered that they maybe could have done with being served hotter. The sweet chilli sauce was so thick and tangy that it took my mind off the incongruous bowl of dried coconut flakes on the side which didn’t go, or the undressed salad which was mainly iceberg lettuce. For seven pounds I think I expected slightly more, but on the other hand I was in a lovely pub trying smoked mushrooms, and that doesn’t happen very often.

FlowingMushrooms

My indecision wasn’t helped by the Thai fishcake. It was itself an indecisive thing, with a touch of Thailand but also the powerful influence of Captain Birdseye, a single giant breadcrumbed puck cut in half and served with more of the sweet chilli sauce and more undressed salad (this one with capers and roasted spiced corn, itself an incongruous mix). But here’s the surprise – despite all that it was delicious. It was nicely crumbed, full of fish rather than reliant on claggy spud with a lovely texture. I shared it with my companion, who isn’t a fan of the sponginess of most Thai fishcakes, and we agreed between us that The Flowing Spring had pulled off a rather surprising triumph of fusion cuisine. I even liked the little ribbons of crispy seaweed, also very nice dipped in the chilli sauce, even if they felt like they were on the run from another dish (or possibly even another restaurant).

FlowingFishcake

I watched dishes turning up at other tables – veggie burgers with a big heap of orangey sweet potato fries on the side, home-made chilli served in, of all things, a Yorkshire pudding – and I found myself oddly charmed by the whole experience, if still not quite quirky enough to explore the Quirky Corner. Mains had been ordered at the recommendation of the woman behind the bar. “You want me to narrow it down to two?” she had said, smiling but perplexed, as if I had asked her to solve one of the riddles on “3-2-1” (a show, in fairness, she was far too young to remember). In the end she suggested the “famous” Flowing Spring Kebab – the menu’s words, not mine – and a veggie burger and we went for those. Again, I was impressed that a pub so determined to court vegetarian diners was also prepared to offer a dish to potentially appease their meat-eating companions.

I was warned that the kebab would be big and it certainly was. The menu claimed that it was the Flowing Spring’s take on a doner kebab, which if anything undersold it because instead it was more like a gigantic roast lamb sandwich. So you got lots of thick slices of lamb, none of them pink but none of them the worse for that, sitting on top of some salad in a huge pitta. I loved the lamb – again, I possibly could have stood it being a tad hotter, but it was so good that I didn’t mind, another example of The Flowing Spring charming me into relaxing my critical faculties somewhat. I spent much of the dish wondering if the lamb was better dipped into the fresh, minty raita or the chilli sauce, a thick gloopy jammy pool of redness that looked like it would be sweet but then delivered an acrid, sinus-clearing punch. I also couldn’t decide whether to team it with a pickled chilli, a slice of crinkle-cut gherkin, some salad (which also contained little pieces of diced gherkin, creditable attention to detail) or a torn piece of pitta. Deciding how I liked the dish the best took me very nicely from the first mouthful to the last, by which point I had decided that I rather loved it all.

FlowingLamb

Photography isn’t my strong point at the best of times, but my veggie burger was far more interesting than it looked. The patty was butternut squash, goats cheese and beetroot and had a lot going on compared to the usual “bean burger” veggie alternative. Beetroot and goat’s cheese, that earthy combination of sweet and salt, is a well-worn combo but putting it in a burger, with the squash as a sort of base note that held it all together, was a surprisingly inspired move. It was crumbed and oaty on the outside which gave it a bit of texture, and that worked with the floury bap (no faddy brioche here) and a small smattering of salad. For a nice, simple burger it was spot on – nothing out of this world but a good, tasty veggie main. Even the chips were an excellent example of pub chips – regular shaped (which made me assume they were out of the freezer, though I could be wrong) but crispy on the outside, fluffy in the middle and, unlike so often, they actually tasted of potato. They almost made up for the fact that the nice looking sweet potato fries I’d seen at other tables had run out. Almost. The only other slight downside was the price: just under twelve pounds (the same as the kebab) felt a little on the steep side, but perhaps you’re paying a premium to have all that choice.

FlowingBurger

Dinner for two – two courses each, a pint and a half of cider and a couple of soft drinks – came to fifty pounds not including tip. The service was lovely throughout, from the woman behind the bar who took our orders and recommended dishes to the landlord, who brought out our dishes and seemed to genuinely care whether we liked them. And that was the kind of place The Flowing Spring was, because although it was the first time I had ever been I rather felt that everybody else there had been in on the secret for some time.

By the end of the meal we’d moved tables to be nearer to the fire and you could see all sorts of photos up on the walls of events and gigs, be it jazz concerts, outdoor carnivals or classic car events. And I was struck by how remarkable it was that a pub seemingly in the middle of nowhere could have such a community feel. A little piece of folded card on my table went into more detail about where The Flowing Spring gets its ingredients from, and it was another example of the kind of touches that make you trust a place: meat from a family butcher in Devon, eggs (also for sale behind the bar) from just down the road, mushrooms foraged in the autumn. The Flowing Spring really needed to work on its heating, but I still had a warm glow from somewhere. Maybe it was the fire, maybe my slightly jaded heart thawing. Who can say? As we left, having paid up, we talked to one of the cribbage players, an amiable twinkly cardsharp who was at the bar getting another drink.

“We didn’t drive you into the other room, did we?” he said.

“No, not at all. It was just getting a bit hectic up there.”

“You should give it a try some time! We play every fortnight and we’re always looking for new recruits.”

I might have to learn cribbage, you know. Just in case.

The Flowing Spring – 7.3

Henley Road, Playhatch, RG4 9RB
0118 9699878

http://theflowingspringpub.co.uk/

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Jessy’s, Wokingham

Jessy’s closed in August 2016. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

Do you remember back in the day, when Bill’s opened in Reading? Everyone was dead excited, me not least; I remember visiting the one in Brighton back when there were only two of them and I loved it, the laid back style, the old-school chairs, the great food. I said a little prayer that Reading would see something like that one day. Well, you should be careful what you wish for: what we got instead was the version that has now been rolled out to just about every major town and city, a beautiful building with a vague sense of being like the original Bill’s only less authentic, less meaningful, like the copy paper wasn’t pressed quite hard enough.

Jessy’s has popped up in my feed a few times lately – glowing reviews of the brunches, pictures of some of the dishes – and something about it made me remember how much I’d loved that first visit to Bill’s. Not just the name, but the use of a lovely old space, the independence, the locally sourced food and the relaxed friendliness. I planned a visit, hoping to find the kind of restaurant I’d always hoped would open in Reading. But then, a couple of days beforehand, I found myself talking about Jessy’s with a food-loving colleague of mine. She enthused about the room, the real fires and the comfy, cosy space. But she also said that, across a couple visits, the food had never been quite right. Either there were little mistakes, or the portions were too small, or her friend had ordered better. I went hoping to prove her wrong, but slightly worried that I wouldn’t.

Wokingham isn’t somewhere I go very often, truth be told, but getting off the train on a dark and rainy night and walking up the hill into the town centre made me feel like maybe it should be somewhere to visit properly. Some really pretty houses and the smell of woodsmoke made me wonder if this was one of those little places which would trigger fantasies of buying a cottage and opening a little café doing charcuterie, good bread and cheeses by day, pizza and carafes of wine by night, chansons playing on the speakers (it’s a pipe dream, I know) or one of those frou-frou shops that sells lots of distressed furniture painted white and really expensive candles. I was buoyed up by this (well, that and the glass of half decent shiraz I had in a pub while waiting for my companion to arrive) and ready for some good food.

Jessy’s is down one of the slightly quieter streets, a beautiful double cottage with wonky windows and beams. The front room as you go in looks like it’s mainly for daytime coffee, tea and a slice of cake, with a couple of leather sofas and an open fireplace. Beyond that is a big room split into two by an original wall where the window had been taken out to allow the space to feel sort of, but sort of not, joined together. The back section, nearer to the bar and the kitchen, feels bright but somehow less hospitable, but the front section where we sat, with the wood burner glowing in the hearth, is much cosier. The tables – most of which were occupied when I went – almost all seemed to seat four people, although some were laid for two, and the white tablecloths and napkins weren’t ironed (which gave everything a slightly rustic air I hope was intentional).

The dinner menu, which is offered on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, read very well; just enough courses, plenty of variety and the kind of little touches that raise your hopes. For instance, practically every dish on the menu can be done gluten free – a lovely feature, but possibly lovelier still was that the menu didn’t shout about it. And a lot of menus give you the blah about sustainability and sourcing locally, but it was nice to see Jessy’s tell you which butcher they bought from and which farm supplies the butcher. Many restaurants print all this guff without meaning it, some are anal enough to list every supplier at the end of the menu; this felt like a nice compromise.

First up was a starter of goats cheese bonbons, surely three of the loveliest words you can find on a menu. This might sound finicky (it probably does) but I sort of expect a bonbon to be spherical and these weren’t – instead I got half a dozen small triangular wedges of goats cheese, lightly breaded and fried, on a bed of salad with the occasional walnut. There were also some tiny circles of crispy onion that added a nice extra crunch and the chef’s zig zag of beetroot syrup which gave some much-needed sweetness. If I’m listing the ingredients in a plodding, prosaic way I’m afraid it’s because eating it was a bit like that too – it was nice but it wasn’t wow or out of the ordinary, even with the ubiquitous heap of micro-herbs (why are they there? What are they for?) on top. It was a bit on the small side for eight pounds, and I finished it quickly. Looking at the empty plate, I didn’t even find myself wishing it had lasted longer.

JessyGoat

The other starter, braised oxtail with garlic mash, sounded magnificent on paper, but maybe that’s where it should have stayed. For a start, the mash was overwhelmingly the main ingredient: a big pile of it, not very garlicky and in some places more crushed than mashed. Oxtail is a cheap cut and I was expecting it to have been taken off the bone. That might have been unreasonable of me, but if not I’d have expected it to fall off said bone. Oh, and I’d have expected there to be a fair amount of it. Alas, none of this was to be, so I ended up tugging little chunks of beef off a huge cartilaginous throwing star and trying to eke them out among the massive heap of mash. The lighting conditions, which prioritised atmosphere over, you know, being able to see anything, didn’t help. It wasn’t all bad – what little meat I had was tasty, as was the glossy sauce studded with finely diced celery and carrot, but it felt out of whack. The best starters are little marvels that work entirely on their own terms, this felt like a disappointing main course that had been miniaturised.

JessyOxtail

If the theme of the starters was that the menu slightly missold the dishes, it came to fruition when the mains turned up. The first of them, “pan fried whole Cornish plaice” had either been over-mongered (is monger a verb? Here’s hoping) when the head was removed or simply wasn’t a whole fish. I’m used to plaice which fills a plate, but this was such a small specimen that I wondered if I’d just got the tail. I know fish is often a healthy option but there’s something magical about getting a whole plaice smothered in beurre noisette, speckled with capers, all white flesh and zing. Having got that complaint out of the way the meat was easy to separate from the bone and the browned butter, capers and shrimps on top were delicious – savoury, generously buttery, well worth chasing round the plate with the cut side of a roasted new potato. The tenderstem broccoli (not steamed greens, as promised by the menu) underneath was just cooked, so nice and firm with a lovely green sweetness to it. A good main makes you think “I wish I could make this”, or “I’d like to try this at home”. This one made me think “I can do this just as well myself”, not really how it should be.

JessyFish

Slow braised lamb shoulder was recommended by the waitress when I asked her to steer me between that and the halibut (“we’ve had lots of good feedback on the lamb” she said “but I don’t really like lamb or fish”). It was a frustrating near miss; I was expecting a single piece of slow-cooked meat that pulled into strands, so I was surprised to find instead chunks of lamb in among the cassoulet. That made me worry, but actually the lamb was good – no wobbly fat, no suspicious pieces (just as well because the slightly Stygian lighting made it impossible to avoid pitfalls). The cassoulet was pleasant, so were the onions. As before, the whole thing had been festooned with microherbs, possibly to conceal how brown the dish would otherwise have been. But the whole thing was too dry and sticky – the tiniest splash of something which may or may not have been the advertised “lamb sauce”, whatever that was – and just a little too bland. The cassoulet was meant to be spiced, but if it was I didn’t detect anything. Again, it was closer to decent home cooking than restaurant food.

JessyLamb

Better than the mains themselves were the Brixham crab fries we had on the side – I’d heard much about them during my research, so I wanted to try them myself. I’d say from the shape that they were hand cut, and they came shaken in parsley butter and aioli along with more white crab meat than most places put in their risotto. Even these weren’t flawless – overcooked, more David Dickinson than Gisele – but even so they were gorgeous: nutty, decadent, beautifully dressed. They weren’t strictly needed, and they couldn’t save the mains, but they did distract us from them nicely. Worth seven pounds? Probably, oddly enough.

The plaice wasn’t exactly Moby Dick, so I decided I had room for dessert. As with the rest of the menu, the dessert section is nicely small and everything on it sounds like it has been creatively tweaked (the crème bruleé has brandy poached raspberries, the poached pear is with saffron). I gravitated towards the chocolate fondant, as I so often do, with its fancy promises of Cointreau, yoghurt sorbet and figs, but like everything else it was all mouth and no culinary trousers. If there was any orange in that dish I couldn’t taste it. The inside of the fondant wasn’t particularly runny. The fig – which I foolishly hoped would be roasted – was simply halved into decorative wedges and the sorbet was strawberry, not yoghurt. It wasn’t even strawberry yoghurt. I think I’d rather have just had a bloody strawberry yoghurt by that point. There were more cheffy zig zags of chocolate on top but was it “chocolate syrup” or just caterer’s chocolate sauce? Your guess is as good as mine, and I ate it.

JessyChoc

The wine list wasn’t bad, and I enjoyed the Bordeaux I had which managed a good balance between fruit and complexity – completely wrong for the plaice, of course, but I’ve never let that stand in my way in the past and I don’t intend to start now. Only later did I notice that they also do Kung Fu Girl Riesling, one of my favourite whites, at thirty quid a bottle (if I’d known I’d have had Nando’s first and then camped out on the sofa with a couple of bottles of that). There were no dessert wines per se, but we also had a couple of glasses of Moscato from the sparkling section of the list. They were nice and sweet, but about as sparkling as me at 8am on a Monday morning. The very sweet waiter accidentally managed to throw the best part of a glass of the stuff over my companion, which I found a lot funnier than he did.

Apart from that service throughout was charming and friendly, if rather haphazard. There was one waiter who appeared to do nothing at all and when asked for the bill he had to ask someone else – it turned out it was his first day, but it seemed like he didn’t have a clue what waiting entailed (perhaps he was taking the job description a little too literally). When we left, for a moment I honestly thought he was going to stand there and watch us get our own coats. I wanted to like them, heaven knows I wanted to like Jessy’s in general, but charm only gets you so far when the bill comes to just a touch under a hundred pounds, for two and a half courses and a bottle of wine.

It’s funny how people can have double standards about restaurants. We want to be spoiled, and treated like customers, but we also want to feel like friends. We want the experience to feel genuine and casual, but we don’t like overfamiliarity. We want it to feel special, but we don’t want it to be stuffy. The dream restaurant walks that tightrope perfectly – you feel like you are round a friend’s house (because what is cooking, if not an act of love?) but eating something you couldn’t or wouldn’t possibly make at home. The thing about Jessy’s that makes me saddest is that its heart is so obviously in the right place; it’s a lovely, cosy room and more than once I found myself gazing over at the glowing logs in the wood burner and thinking “how I wish this was perfect”. Close but no cigar, I’m afraid, and on the walk back to the station the only consolation I could find was that I’d dodged doing the washing up. I’ll tell my colleague when I’m back in the office: let’s hope she’s not the sort to say I told you so.

Jessy’s – 6.4
37 Denmark Street, Wokingham, RG40 2AY
0118 3484379

http://www.jessys.co.uk/

Kobeda Palace

Should you decide to go to Kobeda Palace my first piece of advice would be this: don’t use Google Maps to get there. Rather than suggesting the right route, down the Oxford Road and just past Workhouse Coffee, it inexplicably directs you to Wilmslow in Manchester, a drive of over three hours (and very few restaurants justify that kind of round trip). I later discovered why: looking at the front of the laminated menu while waiting to pay the bill, I discovered that Reading’s is the second branch in a tiny chain of two – although, just to make it more difficult, the Wilmslow one is actually called Kobeda Place. Confused? Me too.

Anyway I’ve been going to this Afghan grill house for ages and I’ve always wanted to review it, but one thing stopped me – for a long time, it had a one star health and safety rating. And then, just before Christmas, I went to Kobeda Palace to grab a quick pre-Nag’s Head bite to eat with some friends and there it was on the door, glowing with an unearthly light: a new Scores On The Doors sticker with a four-star rating awarded a few weeks previously. Could I hear angels singing, or did I just imagine that part? Either way it felt like my first present of the festive season, and I made a mental note to go back early in 2016.

I also made a mental note to make sure I took one of my friends who is quite possibly the biggest carnivore I know – put it this way, it’s no coincidence that Kobeda Palace has opened where Gilberts Meat Market, with its mildly terrifying statue, used to be. You smell the charcoal even as you approach the building, and it doesn’t take long to realise that this is not somewhere to go with the vegetarian in your life; the menu does say “VEGETABLE DISHES AVAILABLE – Please ask for details”, but it’s hard to imagine what they would be. So a date went in the diary, and three of us turned up there on a Friday night (before going on to the Nag’s Head funnily enough. Predictable I know).

It’s quite an odd room to eat in. It’s very plain and functional, with the grill and the counter facing you as you go in. The rest of the room is made up of tables and high-backed brown banquettes which seem to have been placed almost at random. The overall effect is a little incongruous – it should divide the room into little booths but instead it just looks strange (I remember when it was just tables and stark, rigid chairs, and this manages to be an upgrade without necessarily being an improvement). That said, it was packed: all around me were families with nicely-behaved kids and little clusters of gesticulating friends. The waitress kept wandering past bearing plates and making me crane and scan the menu, wondering what they had ordered. The table next to us had a couple of gentlemen at it, each eating a whole chargrilled chicken, tearing the skin and flesh off the bone with their hands and dipping it in a bowl of houmous; just watching them made me hungry and envious.

Kobeda Palace really isn’t a starters, mains and desserts place: it’s all about grilled meat in a range of combinations and permutations, served with naan or rice (which makes me wonder, again, what those vegetable dishes could possibly be). We tried as many of them between us as we could, which turned out to be quite a lot of the menu. Lamb chops, which turned up that hyper-real shade of brick red which almost looks Photoshopped, were judged the pick of the bunch, tender if not pink, with a level of heat closer to lip-tingling than tongue-scorching. The lamb tikka, a similarly freakish colour, were almost as good, each cube scored almost in half so they could check it was done.

KobedaMeat1

Chicken tikka I struggled to like quite so much – you got more of the smoke and char than of any flavour beneath, and the texture of a couple of pieces was not quite right. And then there was the eponymous kobeda itself, a long cylinder of lamb kofte. It was splendid; I’ve had it before and found it a bit offputtingly soft, perhaps too reliant on rusk, but this was truly magnificent, if impossible to describe well without flirting with innuendo. Also wonderful were the huge, chargrilled halves of onion – soft, sweet and blackened. All of this came on the naan, the other big draw here. Stretched and made on the premises, these were almost edible plates, long and rectangular, just asking to be torn up, wrapped around hunks of meat and crammed into greedy mouths.

KobedaMeat2

I know, rationally, that there were also a couple of plates of some sort of salad: lettuce, some cucumber, a couple of pitted olives, various other vegetation. I also know that there were some sauces – something like a raita, a punchy hot red sauce and a herby green sauce. But truth be told they didn’t really feel like the kind of thing to hold my attention for very long, under the circumstances.

The best dish of the evening, though, was something we picked out of curiosity. Kobeda Palace also does a karahi chicken and a karahi lamb, so we ordered the former and it was a revelation. The sauce was thick and complex with no slick of oil, full of chilli and nigella, curry leaves and coriander, fine batons of ginger strewn on top (“it tastes like a really good Vesta curry” said one of my companions – if that had really been true the Eighties could have been so much more enjoyable), and scooping it up with that perfect naan was an unmitigated delight. But the chicken was gorgeous – on the bone but well-jointed and easily separated from it, tender from slow-cooking in a way that grilled meat could never be.

KobedaKarahi

There was no alcohol licence, so we drank mango lassi by the jug, which is especially easy to do when a jug is only five pounds (in fact, even if they had been licenced I might have stuck to the lassi). The second jug never quite arrived, so instead once we’d finished our meals the waitress came over apologetically with three glasses, and I’m not sure she charged us for all of them. That was the service in general – friendly but a bit harried. In other restaurants I might have taken against this but somewhere like Kobeda Palace which is deliberately quite no frills I found it impossible to resent. Oh, and the mango lassi was good – especially the second batch which was ice cold, refreshing and cleansing without being cloying. Dinner for three (and we ate far more food than is strictly sensible) came to pretty much forty pounds on the nail.

How to sum up a place like Kobeda Palace? Well, let’s do the downside first. It’s a little bit scruffy, just the right side of chaotic and in an area where many people would have to go out of their way to visit. Some people will be put off by the lack of an alcohol licence, others will find it far too meat-centric. It’s also a bit nippy if you get a table by the window, as I did, the back room on the way to the loos is strangely threadbare and the toilets are best described as a work in progress. So yes, I can honestly say that if you’re the kind of person who’s bothered by that kind of thing, Kobeda Palace is not for you. But all the people I ate amongst that Friday night had other priorities – food and company, the things restaurants should really be about. I’m with them, and I found it all rather marvellous; I fully expect to pay it another visit soon (for a big bowl of karahi chicken – to myself, this time). But I used to eat there when it had a one star hygiene rating, so what do I know?

Kobeda Palace – 7.4
409-411 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA
0118 3271400

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Kobeda-Palace/588327924595489?fref=ts

Royal Tandoori

I sometimes envy other restaurant reviewers. Michelin has its stars, the AA has its rosettes, even the much-maligned TripAdvisor has its Certificates Of Excellence. And what do I have? Just a bunch of ratings nobody really understands which I’ve consistently refused to explain (“What do they mean?” said a friend of mine down the pub recently. “I mean, seven point five, what’s all that about?”). Well let’s not go through all that again but there’s one exception, and that’s what I call the 8+ Club: without giving too many trade secrets away, a rating in that range means a place is really, really good. Go again good, plan your next visit good, evangelise to friends good.

Sometimes, when I eat out on duty I find myself mulling over what elevates a restaurant or a café into that select few, and as you can see if you’ve scrolled down to the bottom already (and own up, lots of you do) that was very much on my mind when I visited Royal Tandoori. Almost, but not quite. Right on the edge. I changed my mind several times during the meal, although that in itself never bodes quite well enough. So what went wrong? Why is Royal Tandoori just very good, rather than great?

For the uninitiated, it sits downstairs in the slightly ironically named “Quality Hotel” (I suppose it doesn’t specify whether it’s good quality or bad quality) and – as proudly proclaimed on the the menu – has done since 2008. It’s in town but not quite in town and yet it always looks full on the occasions when I pass by – in fact I was lucky to get a table, judging by the number of big groups that were in (on a school night, too) and the amount of hushed staff discussion that went on before they decided they could seat me. It’s a large, long room and I think they’ve spruced it up since I was there last: I may be imagining new windows, but I’m pretty sure the large black and white Bollywood stills papered onto the walls – which I rather liked – weren’t there before. The menu, though, was every bit as huge and bewildering as I remembered.

The starters were pretty darned good. Gobi Manchurian, a dish I’ve had elsewhere in Reading, was miles better here, little nuggets of battered cauliflower in something almost like an Indian barbecue sauce – sweet, sticky and spiced. It tasted so terrific that I found myself not caring that the cauliflower was ever so slightly soft and that the batter had no crunch. The best dishes can make you suspend your disbelief like that, and the only real drawback was how much I resented having to share. Jeera chicken was also top notch. It was very tender pieces of chicken breast in a spiced sauce – so far so blah – but covered in cumin seeds, somewhere halfway between a speckle and a crust. How I loved this: I adore cumin, and eating a mouthful with the sauce piled high and the pungent crunch of those seeds made me go quiet and nod an awful lot.

RoyalStarters

I was quite enjoying drifting in a cumin-infused daydream, but sadly my reverie was interrupted far too soon by the arrival of the main courses. I’d had reports of the chicken chettinadu (like nothing else in Reading, according to one reader – hi Chris!), so I felt it would have been remiss not to order it. Well, it goes to show how little help photographs are when you’re reviewing this kind of food. Like one of the other starters and the other main, it was just meat in an orangey-red sauce (and yes, I know I always say this) but the flavour was indeed complex and unusual, all black pepper and curry leaves, nigella seeds and a sharp hint of citrus which came from I know not where. It also had that clever heat which sneaks up on you rather than beating you about the tastebuds – 3 out of 4 on the International Scale Of Chillies (or ISOC for short) used by many Indian and Thai restaurants, although the only thing with an ISOC rating of four was “devil lamb”, which sounds like something you might see on a terrifying cross between Springwatch and Most Haunted.

I do like a dish that’s interesting, and this fitted the bill perfectly. The first mouthful established that it tasted different. The second mouthful established that I wasn’t entirely sure how. For all the other mouthfuls I was fed up of analysing and too busy enjoying. But it wasn’t perfect, for all that – mainly because there wasn’t an awful lot of meat. The big bowl of sauce I was left with was good for dipping and pouring, but it still felt a tad unbalanced.

The other main, lamb Hydrabadi (ISOC2 – handy!) was just as good. Despite looking very similar, it couldn’t have been more different. The lamb – and there was loads of it – was rich, intense and cooked beyond the point of having any give at all: if it had had any less integrity it could have been the subject of an OK! magazine photoshoot. But the sauce was what made this dish – smooth and spicy but shot through with the sharp green surprise of mint leaves. I know lamb and mint is a classic combination, but seeing it in this context was incongruous and comforting at the same time, and I loved that slightly altered perspective. Neither main had much – or, to be more accurate, anything – in the way of vegetables, but it was hard to care (sorry vegetarians, I’ll be back doing meat-free mains again very soon).

RoyalMains

The plain rice on the side was exactly that – although it was a bit clumpy, which made me wonder quite how it had been cooked and when. The butter naan though was interesting in that it wasn’t the big pillowy bicycle saddle of a naan that I’m used to. Instead it was light, thin, almost pizza-like. I really liked it, although I did find that with that and the rice there was sauce left at the end which I couldn’t scoop or mop. Who ever finishes a meal in an Indian restaurant and says “that was nice but I could have done with some more carbs?”. Me at the Royal Tandoori, it turns out.

We did manage to find space (and eventually manage to find some staff to order with) for dessert – and dessert, for me anyway, meant gulab jamun. The texture and the flavour were perfect, the sugar syrup had a clear note of rose water and there were a few chips of pistachio in the bowl too which I appreciated (I am starting to become a connoisseur, I reckon). But there was one drawback: the kitchen didn’t seem to be able to decide whether to serve them hot or cold and so they were neither, coming instead at a slightly jarring off-room temperature. Mango lassi (ordered as an alternative to dessert by my companion) was very good – normally the smoothness would be off-putting but apparently it was silky, sweet and delicious. Almost like caramel, I was enthusiastically told.

It wasn’t a Cobra kind of evening so we tried a couple of the red wines by the glass – a merlot and a shiraz. They were pleasant enough to drink but not nice enough to remember, which is as much as I was hoping for. The total bill, for three courses and a glass of wine each, came to fifty pounds not including tip. Service was friendly when they were there, but only when they were there. When they weren’t it seemed impossible to attract anybody’s attention and the overall atmosphere was oddly downbeat (maybe they were huge Wogan fans).

By any standards, Royal Tandoori is a good restaurant. Everything I had tasted good, everything I had tasted distinctive and some of what I had tasted quite unlike anything else I’ve had. Not only that, but I can see where it would win out over other Indian restaurants in town – more consistent than Pappadams, more central than Bhoj, maybe slightly less chaotic (and better with big groups) than House Of Flavours. More than any of those places I could see myself going there with a gang of work colleagues, all ordering different things and having a lovely time. But it doesn’t quite cross the line into great – the service was just a little too patchy, the food a little too rushed, the dishes just a little lacking in balance. But really, this score malarkey: who cares? Very good is plenty good enough most of the time. You’ll read this review, irrespective of the number at the bottom, and you’ll either want to go there or you won’t. Which is exactly how it should be.

Royal Tandoori – 7.9
4-8 Duke Street RG1 4RY
0118 9572717

http://www.royaltandoorireading.com/