I never go anywhere expecting to have a bad meal – I mean, why would you? – but if I’m honest there are occasions where I step through the front door of a restaurant and I get a bad feeling right from the off. The welcome is disinterested, or the furniture is tired, or the menu looks uninspiring or the music is awful. I’ve not even eaten anything yet, but from that point onwards I’m hoping that my preconceptions can be turned around. Sometimes they are, but usually they’re not: for some reason if it looks like an iffy restaurant and it feels like an iffy restaurant, more often than not it turns out to be an iffy restaurant.
Of course, conversely there are times where you just get a good feeling from the moment you take your seat. But this isn’t so straightforward; I’ve been to many places that looked right and felt right, places where the menu makes you hyperactive with indecisive excitement but still, there can come a point in the evening where you realise you’ve settled down to a duff meal. When that happens I chalk it up to experience, I make mental notes, I come home and I write a review where I try to be kind, knowing that most of you will look at the number at the bottom, possibly skim the rest and say – to yourselves, to friends or to other halves, Well I won’t be going there then. Them’s the breaks. They can’t all be hidden gems. They can’t even all be gems, let’s face it.
The reason for all this preamble is that Dhaulagiri Kitchen won me over right from the start. I liked it, I wanted it to succeed, I was rooting for it. And as a result, because I like an underdog and I wanted it to do well, eating there was a surprisingly nervy experience, a bit like walking a culinary tightrope except that I wanted them, rather than me, not to put a foot wrong.
It’s a little spot at the top of the Basingstoke Road, where Portuguese restaurant O Beirão used to be, and the first surprise was that none of the décor had changed. So it was still neat little tables with red-checked gingham tablecloths, and it was a bit odd to think that last time I had sat there I was eating piri piri chicken and drinking house red from a terra cotta cup. But somehow it still felt homely, warm and welcoming. A lively group of six was in one corner talking and placing their order, and we were shown to a table by a smiling, happy waiter.
The service at Dhaulagiri Kitchen was so good that I want to talk about it a lot, and it was another reason why I instantly liked the place. I was asked things I’m not usually asked – how I am, where in Reading I’m from, how I found out about the place. I was told things I’m not usually told – what’s good, that everything is made on site, how proud they are of their food and their pickles (they had me at pickles – I love pickles). In the course of the evening they constantly checked up on us, asking us if we needed anything else, bringing unsolicited glasses of water, offering advice on the menu. It’s a proper family business, one of them told me towards the end of the evening, and the chef and all the staff are related. It seemed like a happy place to work and that rubbed off on the kind of place it was to eat in: it felt like eating with family in a way that restaurants so rarely do.
Technically it’s a Nepalese restaurant although the menu goes wider than that, so there’s some Nepalese food and some more generic Indian dishes. I took some advice from the staff and I generally tried to steer towards the Nepalese options, which got a brilliant reception from them and yet more interest and questions. Had I tried momo before? Did I like the thali? I also got loads of detail about what went into the dishes, more than I can remember and repeat here. The enthusiasm was infectious, and again I found myself hoping against hope that the food could even begin to match everything else.
They brought us a couple of poppadoms while we waited for our orders to arrive, and impressively they were free. I liked them – still warm, light and crispy – and I liked the dips they came with too. I doubt they make their mango chutney but it was paler and more interesting than many I’ve had in Indian restaurants, but more importantly the lime pickle (did I mention I like pickle?) was sour, sweet and salty; a veritable triathlon for the tongue.
We tried to stick to Nepalese for the starters, and it was about this point that I stopped worrying about being on a tightrope and just started enjoying myself. Sekuwa was three stonking big hunks of baked lamb, deliciously spiced and tender without being pink. I absolutely adored it and shared some reluctantly, especially as the waiter had by this point brought me what he called mint sauce but which was in fact a raita which set them off perfectly. But it was worth doing so I could also sample Dhaulagiri’s chicken momo – something I wanted to do if only to compare them with those at Sapana Home.
Normally I’m all about pan fried momo, with that slightly caramelised, crispy exterior, but I found this positively changed my mind. Here they come steamed, five neat parcels with a small bowl of spicy chilli sauce. The filling was subtler and more delicate than Sapana’s and, although I hate to admit it because I love Sapana’s momo, all the better for that. The chicken was mixed with finely chopped onion, lemongrass and chilli (and probably other flavours that I’m not quite sophisticated enough to detect) and really, the whole thing made me delighted that I’d sacrificed some of that glorious lamb after all. Both starters – and you might want to read this twice in case you don’t believe it the first time – were less than four pounds.
The mains came just as I was beginning to feel peckish again and I was really looking forward to the thakali thali, another Nepalese speciality and one the waiter got properly animated describing to me. It truly was an embarrassment of riches. There was a chicken curry, tender pieces of chicken, not a bone in sight, in a thin but savoury gravy. There was a delicious vegetable curry, big firm pieces of cauliflower and cubes of potato, all cooked to still have bite as well as flavour. Fresh spinach came flash cooked with the crunchy surprise of soy beans and a note of sesame. There were what I think were pickled radish (more pickles!) and another pickled vegetable which almost looked like bark but was dried and marinated and packed an awful lot of flavour into a deceptively small helping. Only the dal disappointed – I think this is a Nepalese thing because I remember being unmoved by Nepalese dal in the past, it had a note of evaporated milk and was a bit too grey and gloopy for my liking. A minor criticism though, really, when the plate had so many things to try, combine and enjoy. I was delighted later, when asked if I had enjoyed it, that I could be so unreservedly enthusiastic, just as the waiters had been.
The chicken makhanwala was meant to have butter, fenugreek and cashew nuts in it, but if anything it was dangerously close to a korma, the Ronan Keating of curries. It just about managed to pull it off by being just a little more interesting (although being more interesting than Ronan Keating might not be much of a challenge). So there was an almost marzipan hint to the sauce – perhaps the cashews were ground, because I certainly didn’t find any whole ones – and just enough complexity that I didn’t feel I’d sold myself short. Would I have it again? Maybe not, given all the other wonders on the menu, but I certainly wouldn’t say I was disappointed. I had a plain naan with it – I’d always pick naan over rice, I think – and it was spot on if not out of the ordinary. But that is, after all, what you’re looking for from naan bread and it was perfect for scooping up spare sauce from both main dishes.
We drank a Cobra and a Diet Coke, which tasted exactly how Cobra and Diet Coke taste, and the whole meal came to thirty-two pounds, not including tip. I couldn’t help thinking, as I paid the bill, that it was almost exactly as much as I’d spent on eating at Handmade Burger Co. the week before; that realisation made me want to stand outside Handmade Burger Co. handing out flyers to Dhaulagiri Kitchen.
Normally I would say that one of my only regrets is that I was too full to have a dessert but, looking back, I don’t think I was offered one and looking at the menu I’m not sure they do them at all. Instead the waiter asked if we wanted a coffee, we said no and again there was that warm exchange of enthusiasm: we were delighted to have had such a lovely meal, they were delighted to have had happy customers. It’s the transaction all restaurants are aiming for, and when it goes as well as that it hardly feels like a transaction at all. They’ve been open for about four months, and they said it’s going reasonably well with locals, although I can see that a restaurant in a spot like this might need all the help it can get.
So yes, sometimes you go to a restaurant and everything looks good, and you spend half the meal worrying that it won’t live up to your expectations, that beneath the veneer something will go wrong. But don’t worry, because this isn’t that story. This is the story of a place that looks nice, isn’t flashy, wins you over and does exactly what a restaurant should do: cook you nice food, be friendly, take care of you and make you feel like the world is a slightly better place. Stories like that are some of the best stories there are, and as a restaurant reviewer they’re my favourite stories to tell. As I left I promised the waiter that I’d tell some friends about Dhaulagiri Kitchen: hopefully I’ve kept my promise.
Dhaulagiri Kitchen – 7.8
63 Basingstoke Road, RG2 0ER