Reading’s food scene has come on in leaps and bounds in the time since I started writing Edible Reading, nearly three years ago. The Tasting House, The Grumpy Goat, Pop-Up Reading, Tamp Culture, I Love Paella, Roast Dinners Around Reading, C.U.P., Bakery House… hard to believe, perhaps, but back in 2013 Reading was a very different place. It makes me wonder what Reading might be like in 2019, whether people on the Reading Forum will be saying things like “do you remember Nando’s? Those were the days” and “what did that place on Gun Street used to be called? You know, the one that does Korean barbecue-ceviche fusion cuisine and has all those giant 3-D chess sets on the mezzanine floor”.
One thing Reading has always had, though, is iconic dishes. Whether it’s the suckling pig at Pepe Sale (which needs to be eaten to be believed, only on a Friday and Saturday night and only if you order it before they run out) or Kyrenia’s kleftiko, cooked into strands of surrender, whether it’s London Street Brasserie’s fish and chips, the Top Toastie at Shed or Beijing Noodle House’s glorious duck fried noodles there are some items on Reading’s menus that have attained almost mythical status. This week, I went in search of one I had missed.
It all started with a Tweet from regular reader Steven Burns (hi Steven!) a few weeks ago about Standard Tandoori. When I go there, he said, I have to make sure I order the “Standard Super Dry Fry”. Accept no imitations, he told me. But there was more. “It’s quite possibly my favourite thing in the entire Reading food scene. I try to save it for special occasions lest I tire.” That, ladies and gentleman, is an accolade I simply had to investigate. If he was right this could be another culinary Holy Grail to stick in Reading’s already overstocked trophy cabinet, and that was a prospect I simply couldn’t resist.
Standard Tandoori is on the edge of what is colloquially known as “Welshtown”, the warren of streets off the Caversham Road with names like Newport Road, Cardiff Road, Swansea Road, Barry Place. I noticed on my walk there that born again Mexican joint Maracas had closed, and made a mental note to cross it off my list (a lot of people think that’s a difficult spot, but Papa Gee and Standard Tandoori itself are in the same area and have been doing nicely for years, thank you very much). I also spotted a very tasteful Ercol chair in the window of Epoch3 and wished I had space for it in the spare room, but that’s another story.
Standard Tandoori is a bit unlovely on the inside. Standard also describes the tables, and is probably too high praise for the rather tired-looking conference-centre chairs in shabby red velvet. The big room is broken into sections by curious partition walls with a big porthole in the middle and a surprisingly tasteful lightshade filling some of that circular space. The partition walls are covered in wallpaper which is best described as “disco pebbledash”. It’s all a bit odd and I wasn’t sure whether I liked it or not, the restaurant interiors equivalent of modern art.
I hadn’t been for a while and the menu looked more tasteful and well set out than I remembered, in a font and format which pays a knowing nod to House Of Flavours, a place which has rather raised the bar for this sort of thing. I didn’t realise beforehand that Standard Tandoori is ostensibly a Nepalese restaurant, although I didn’t take full advantage of this. After all, I was hunting big game here: the Standard Super Dry Fry. The rest might well have turned out to be also-rans.
I don’t normally mention the poppadoms at Indian restaurants (and I don’t always order them), but these were noteworthy for what was there and what was missing. No mango chutney – which thoroughly discombobulated me – and in place of my beloved lime pickle something really interesting which looked similar but had pieces of what I think was pickled carrot. Sweeter and lacking that acrid sharpness of a really good lime pickle, but a lovely thing to start with. Eating at an Indian restaurant, in my experience, always involves a tactical decision about what food to leave. I finished the poppadoms gladly, even though I knew I was just postponing that decision to the end of the meal.
Starters, which arrived not long after, were a frustrating bunch. Macha pakora was soft white fish in thick, spiced breadcrumbs served with a little dish of tamarind sauce: not offensive by any means, and all done pretty well, but somehow unexciting. The breadcrumbs had a nice flavour and the colour and thick texture I associate with the recently endangered Findus Crispy Pancake. The fish was delicate, and the tamarind sauce was sweet, but somehow it still felt more like the stuff of Iceland than of eating out.
Lamb choila on the other hand, from the Nepalese section of the menu, was plain tough. You could see how the dish could have worked – the little hits of chilli, the curry leaves, the pieces of onion and little crispy ribbons of fried onion on top, all things that really could have enhanced some perfectly done lamb. But this wasn’t that: nearly all of it was edible but some was chewy in a way I didn’t enjoy. Much of it resisted the cutlery, and might have even defeated a steak knife. I left one piece in particular, because sawing through it was an effort beyond me.
Service was friendly throughout – chatty, friendly, pleasant – but the starter plates were left in front of us for really quite some time. So was that single piece of recalcitrant lamb; I looked at it, wishing I’d left something else to cover it with. It made me wonder how my digestive system would cope with the rest, not at all an enjoyable exercise in mindfulness.
We were asked if we were ready for the mains, and by the time our starter plates were collected we pretty much were. Even so there was still a bit of a wait before they came out – not an unwelcome one, as it happened. It gave us time to drink a bit more of the house white, a pleasant and fruity sauvignon blanc which wasn’t overwhelmed by anything we had ordered.
I wanted to try a dish to benchmark the Standard Tandoori. I was tempted by the chicken achari, a sweet and sour number with mango which sounded right up my alley, but in the end I went for karahi lamb, curious to see if it could compete with Bhoj’s glorious, sticky interpretation of that dish. It was clearly some relation, but perhaps a step-sister: the lamb wasn’t as tough as that in the choila but it didn’t fall apart the way I wanted it to. It wasn’t quite as dry and savoury as at Bhoj, so there was plenty of sauce. Lots of chillies in there too, inviting you to eat them or leave them (I hedged my bets – by this point I’d got quite used to doing so). The taste felt less smoky, less complex, more route one. The fried onions on top were – again – a nice touch, although probably also an exercise in diminishing returns by this point.
The fact that there was plenty of sauce was handy for the pilau rice and the paratha. The rice was good – only so much you can say, really, but nice to see some cardamom pods strewn in there, booby traps though they are. The paratha was a bit of a poor excuse, I thought. I’m used to beautiful, rich, buttery multi-layered paratha, almost like a savoury croissant, whereas this just felt like two wholemeal pitta breads stuck together like limpets. If the sauce had been better, I’d have been sadder; scooping is a beautiful, magical thing, but it just wasn’t happening that night.
Finally, the star of the show: the Standard Super Dry Fry. It was a good example of how appearances can deceive, because when it arrived I did find myself thinking “is that it?” It looked like the kind of Campbell’s Cream Of Tomato Soup based curry I’ve spent my whole life trying to avoid ordering (and failing every single time I set foot in Reading’s now-departed old school Indian restaurants like Khukuri and Gulshan). Well, as it turns out that did it a disservice.
It did what it said on the tin: properly dry, the sauce condensed down to be sticky and intense. The chicken was beautifully cooked – again, on the dry side but perfectly so. And I do agree that there’s something about that sauce. It’s almost the perfect curry, I would say: the balance of spice, nowhere near overpowering, was interesting enough to appeal to people who would normally opt for the beigeness of a korma or a pasanda, while the taste was sufficiently complex that chilli demons too might give it a whirl. More fried onions, too, because that seems to be a hard habit to break. I really liked it, and I’m glad I tried it. Was it alone enough to justify a trip to Standard Tandoori? Yes, probably just about. Would I go back specifically to have it again? Probably not.
I would have had a pistachio kulfi for dessert if I hadn’t been so full (and the one I saw at a neighbouring table looked quite lovely) but as I implied earlier, all meals in an Indian restaurant – like all political careers – end in defeat. I waved the white flag with some rice, some karahi sauce and one limp quadrant of paratha in front of me. It probably tells you something that every single morsel of the Standard Super Dry Fry was gone. I found room for the Elizabeth Shaw style mint that came with the bill, though, because if you can’t eat that something has gone badly wrong. The whole thing, with those two glasses of wine, came to forty-two pounds not including tip. I felt full, I felt a little bit underwhelmed, but I certainly didn’t feel ripped off.
Standard Tandoori, like many of Reading’s old stagers (Garden Of Gulab, I’m looking at you here) feels like a restaurant which may well have been amazing once and is now merely good. I’m glad I went, and I’m glad I tried the Super Dry Fry, although it won’t be ending up in my metaphorical trophy cabinet of iconic Reading dishes. But perhaps that misses the point, because the map of Reading will look different for each of us. For me it will always be about the karahi lamb at Bhoj, or the jeera chicken starter at Royal Tandoori, a plate of chicken festooned with toasted cumin seeds which gets more delicious every time I have it. Your mileage will undoubtedly vary, and life would be very boring if we all went to the same places all the time (plus, people would have worked out who I am by now). For me at least, the search for the next big thing continues. But then again, there wouldn’t be much of a blog for you to read if it didn’t.
Standard Tandoori – 7.0
141-145 Caversham Road, RG1 8AU