Memory Of Sichuan

Early last year I received a lovely email from a woman called Claire. In it, she said that she’d noticed from my review of Chinese restaurant Happy Diner – now defunct, as it happens – that I’d wished I had a Mandarin speaker with me. As luck would have it, Claire had just returned from six years in Shanghai working for Time Out, and she kindly offered her services if I ever needed a dining companion who could decipher the (always more interesting) Chinese language menus in such places. In particular, she asked if I needed any help reviewing Furama, which had recently rebranded as Memory Of Sichuan. It was her favourite cuisine, and she said she could help me try out all the best dishes.

It was a brilliant offer, but back then I had a regular dining companion, and anonymity to consider, so I said thanks but no thanks. Eighteen months on, all sorts of things have changed – not least that Claire has gone on to become the editor of Explore Reading and the town’s Queen Of New Media. Things have also changed on my side, and now that I’m recruiting, cajoling and pressganging people to accompany me on reviews I couldn’t think of a better person to come and try out Memory Of Sichuan with me. Fortunately she said yes, which is why you get to read this review today.

In the run-up to the visit, I looked at the menu online, completely bewildered by the options. Pig’s ear, frog’s legs, tripe, duck blood curd: everywhere I looked there was something I didn’t much fancy trying. Who knew that China had quite such an amazing array of fauna and so few scruples about hacking it up and exposing pretty much any part of any of it to a direct heat source before dishing it up to customers? The descriptions of some of the dishes had definitely been lost in translation too, especially something called Sichuan Mentioning Surface (“ignore that”, said Claire, “those are dan dan noodles”).

I felt apprehensive as the evening approached, even more so when I reviewed the Trip Advisor reviews for some vague idea of what to expect. The general consensus seemed to be of disappointing food and service which was rude verging on openly hostile. Again, Claire was reassuring. Most of those reviews seem to be about the (less exotic) all you can eat menu, she said. “Besides,” she added, “brusque service is authentic. I once had a waitress tell me to fuck off. In China, if you’re not shouted at by waiting staff you’re paying too much money for your food.”

This, along with a promise that we wouldn’t order any offal, put my mind mostly at rest and so we turned up at the restaurant on a rainy weekday evening ready to take our chances. Claire was hoping for a Proustian reminder of the city she had left behind, I was hoping to make it through the evening without having to suppress my gag reflex. What could possibly go wrong?

The interior was about as nondescript as restaurants get, so much so that I struggle to recall it now. A carpet with one pattern, chairs with another. Biggish tables covered with crisp white tablecloths. It said conference centre more than restaurant: really, if you placed whiteboards in every corner you’d half expect a team building exercise to break out. A small smattering of the tables were occupied, and the vast majority of the customers were Chinese.

“Notice what’s different about this place?” said Claire.

I was stumped.

“No sofa. In all your other reviews of Chinese restaurants, you talk about the sofa at the front, but there isn’t one here.”

She was right: no takeaway on offer. I reflected on the menu at the same time as being impressed that she had done her homework. If anything, it was even more intimidating than it had been online – a huge thing, with far more dishes than I remembered. There were still more terrifying sounding dishes (“crab ovary with fired (sic) bean curd”, anybody?) and notes at the bottom of the page tersely telling you that the dish you ordered might bear no relation to the photographs in the menu: on reflection, I decided this might be no bad thing. One section, to ram this point home, said “NO Imagination on Physical Vision” in big stern letters in the middle of the page.

Even stranger was the other difference between the paper menu and the menu online: the prices had been massively hiked. Every dish we had considered ordering had gone up in price, usually by around three pounds. On one level, this is just one of those things: not all restaurants are brilliant at keeping their websites up to date. But on the other hand, Memory Of Sichuan had been open a couple of years at most, so it was hard to understand why they’d increase the price of some of their dishes by something approaching fifty per cent. And in some cases, it just made it impossible to pick a dish without the order sticking in your craw. Ten pounds ninety for sautéed green beans? How could green beans possibly cost that much unless they had either been covered in gold leaf or cooked by my therapist? It was almost worth ordering them just to find out, but ultimately we decided that this might well be how a fool and their money achieved a conscious uncoupling.

Of course, you probably reckon by now that this review is hurtling towards a horrifying denouement. If so, think again, because all of what we had was interesting, much of it was rather good and some of it was spectacular. The first dish to arrive was described on the menu as “Hunan mouthwatering chicken”, although Claire told me that this is often more literally translated on menus in Shanghai as “saliva chicken”. This didn’t raise my hopes enormously, but what turned up really was beautiful – tons of chicken with thin batons of cucumber, sesame seeds and peanuts, all sitting in a thin but potent sauce.

Claire told me that they boil the chicken and then almost blanch it in cold water to stop it overcooking and ruining the texture, and it really pays off – I was worried it would be rubbery, as chicken in Chinese restaurants can often be, but this was like the very best roast chicken a few hours later, when you want to cram it in a sandwich despite knowing that you’re still full. I’d say the Sichuan dish, though, might be an even better thing to do with the stuff. “The sauce isn’t as brick-red as I was hoping” said Claire, “but the flavour is all there.” And she was right, it was simply extraordinary: hard to describe, but almost like a grittier, earthier satay with none of the cloying sweetness satay can have.

This was also my first encounter with Sichuan heat. “It’s very different to what you’re probably used to” said Claire, “it builds up more gradually and it numbs the tongue.” She pointed to the black specks, Sichuan peppercorns. And it’s true – it was hot, but not excruciating, and the anaesthetised feeling in my mouth made me feel like I’d just crunched on a Tyrozet. But more to the point, it just tasted fascinating. I’d not had anything like it, and if I’d just looked at the picture on the menu I’d never have ordered it. I spooned more of the sauce onto my plate, tamped some plain white rice into it, made a pig’s ear of eating it with chopsticks and found myself excited about what was to come.

The two relative duds were, I think, the dishes Claire was relying on most to induce a madeleine moment. Ma po tofu, silken tofu in a spicy sauce with minced pork, managed to leave me nonplussed and Claire disappointed. “It’s not wobbly enough”, she said, showing that she’d spent long enough in China to forget that unless you’re talking about panna cotta or jelly, “wobbly” is rarely a good adjective in food. But the worst crime was that something so exotic could be so bland. Perhaps it was muted after the chicken (the chicken was a tough act to follow) but I didn’t see much to like about it. For my tastes, the tofu was pleasingly firm, but there wasn’t enough minced pork, there were no contrasts of texture in the dish and I wasn’t fired up to finish it.

Dan dan noodles are Sichuan’s traditional street food dish, and they’re named after the pole – carried across the shoulders with a basket at either end – used by the street vendors who originally sold the dish to passers-by, something that sounded a lot more interesting than grabbing an 80p Twix from the vending machine next to reception (a lot more likely to result in you actually getting any food in return for your money, too). Memory of Sichuan’s version was a little overcooked for my liking. I was assured this was authentic – there’s no word for al dente in Mandarin, after all – but even so lukewarm noodles didn’t hugely appeal to me. It wasn’t just me, though, because Claire was equally underwhelmed. Again, there was nothing pleasing about the texture, the sauce was a bit ordinary and neither the pak choi nor what I assume was more minced pork heaped on top. This dish also went unfinished, although that’s partly about the sheer quantity of food we ordered.

“That’s sad,” said Claire. “They can be much better than this. That’s basically the fish and chips and Cornish pasty of Sichuan cuisine.”

I think I’d rather have had fish and chips and a Cornish pasty, but never mind. Later on Claire described them to me as “mamahuhu”, a magnificent expression which translates as “horse horse tiger tiger” and, for reasons which I’ve had explained to me and forgotten, means “so-so” (maybe it’s because it’s neither one thing nor the other).

If we’d stopped there it might have been a sorry state of affairs, but the remaining two dishes were among the very best things I’ve eaten in Reading this year. First up, something the menu described as “Big Potted Cauliflower”. We’d ordered this instead of the eye-wateringly expensive green beans, but at nearly twelve pounds I was still half-expecting to be disappointed. But it was so much more than just cauliflower – firm but not crunchy florets, a ton of garlic, spring onions and, underneath, soy beans in a rich sticky salty-sweet sauce. On top were dark slabs of what I initially thought was aubergine. “No,” said Claire, smiling, “this is Chinese bacon. I used to dream about this stuff when I came back to England.”

What a dish! It had everything – so many different things to combine and so many perfect mouthfuls to construct. The bacon was almost a saltier char siu, and a piece of that, a small floret, some garlic, some beans and that sauce made for an almost perfect forkful (I’d moved on from chopsticks by then, mainly to make the most of this dish). Some of the best moments of this dish came right at the end, scraping the bottom of the pot and enjoying the very last of the beans, glazed in a sauce somehow simultaneously as sweet as honey and as savoury as Marmite.

If that was hard to top, the final dish came very close. Beef with cumin is again a pretty understated way to describe what I ate. Here’s the overstated way to describe it: impressively light clouds of tender beef, absolutely groaning with cumin. Beef is another meat I’ve always approached with caution in Chinese restaurants, but the texture of this was so delicate you almost didn’t know where it ended and the seasoned coating began. Claire told me that the wok will have been so hot that the beef spent next to no time there before being served up, and I could well believe it. Again, the dish was good right to the end, and once the last of the beef was gone I found myself wolfing down the strands of onion, just about cooked and again festooned with cumin. This dish, like the chicken and the cauliflower, was completely picked clean by the end.

Service was actually lovely throughout – quiet, deferential, not remotely matey but nobody told me to fuck off even once and there was certainly no shouting. It might have helped that my dining companion could ask for the bill in Mandarin and pronounce Tsing Tao properly, but quite possibly not. The bill, for all that food and two beers each, came to seventy-eight pounds, not including service. That’s a lot, but I would say that the food we had would definitely have fed three, if not four.

Later on Claire and I discussed the rating and we both agreed that it was problematic. Memory Of Sichuan is, it has to be said, on the expensive side. The room is pretty uninspiring, and the menu is so gargantuan that it induces the same kind of paralysis I get when I fire up Spotify. I couldn’t guarantee to anyone dining there that absolutely anything they picked would be good. Normally when I review a restaurant I am basing it on a single visit but, more than usual, I’m aware that I’m also basing it on this particular set of dishes, and not everyone will have a Mandarin-speaking accomplice to go with. All that weighs against the place (although it’s worth saying that the two disappointing dishes were also on the all you can eat menu, so perhaps just stay away from that).

And yet on the other hand, the three standout dishes here rank among the best things I’ve eaten in Reading – and if not the best, certainly the most surprising and unusual. Memory Of Sichuan is worth it, even if you just go once, to take your taste buds on a holiday. I’ve thought about those dishes pretty much every day since my visit, and that doesn’t happen often. So I’ll definitely go back, and I’ll try just enough of the things I know while adding something new each time. And if there are some duffers in there, so be it, because a relationship with a restaurant is a bit like any other relationship: everyone has off days. Towards the end of the meal Claire looked around and said “we’re the only Western customers in here eating from the Sichuan menu”. Well, we were that night, but I for one hope that changes.

Memory Of Sichuan – 7.6
109 Friar Street, RG1 1EP
0118 9575533

http://www.memoryofsichuan.co.uk/web/

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Namaste Kitchen

At the end of April 2018 one of Namaste Kitchen’s owners (who ran the front of house) and the chef left the business by mutual consent. The pub has already revised the menu, so some of the items I ordered below are not available. Moreover, there’s been an increase in prices across the board. I’ve left this review up for posterity, but it no longer accurately reflects the experience you’d have at Namaste Kitchen. I’ll consider re-reviewing the restaurant in due course.

I was at a wedding a couple of weeks ago: it’s the season for them, don’t you know. As the evening started to turn sharp and cold I was under a blanket, under a marquee, sipping my amaretto and Coke – don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it – and chatting to my fellow guests when one of them recommended that I try out Namaste Kitchen, the Nepalese restaurant operating out of the Hook and Tackle in Katesgrove. Funny that, I told him, I happen to be having dinner there next week: this visit was already planned by then.

“It’s really good, we went there the other week. What did we like?” he said, asking his partner across the table.

“The momos.” came the reply.

“Is there anything else I should definitely order?”

“All of it.” Helpful, I thought, although it did suggest you couldn’t go far wrong. Swings and roundabouts.

“And is it busy there?”

“It’s always full of Nepalese people but no, there’s usually plenty of room. I think lots of people don’t know it’s there.”

Just my kind of restaurant, the holy grail: somewhere independent, brilliant but unknown. Somewhere, much like Reading, deserving of wider recognition. By the end of the conversation, I was thoroughly looking forward to my visit and pleased with the odd coincidences which seem to abound in Reading. So many coincidences, in fact: I hopped in my taxi having had a chat with a stranger about a mutual acquaintance (“you know Matt? Do you get a word in edgeways?”), received a recommendation to check out local eleven-piece country band The Rumpo Kidz – how can you not like a band named after Sid James’ character in Carry On Cowboy? – and been advised that I really ought to attend the next Sunday Assembly.

I went to Namaste Kitchen with Mike, my oldest friend and one of the only people from school I still speak to. We’ve been friends for over thirty years, since the good old days growing up on the same suburban Woodley street, and nowadays he isn’t in the country often as he spends most of his summers running coach tours across Europe. He jumped at the chance of coming out on duty with me, and I figured if nothing else we could catch up on all the people from school I had seen at the wedding (was it that chap that bullied us or was it his older brother? The mind plays tricks). The timing was perfect: I figured it was in the stars.

The Hook and Tackle is a pub you could easily describe as having a chequered history. My pub expert friend reliably informed me that it opened in December 2015 and then closed in July last year. It reopened a month later, closed again in October and finally reopened this January: basically, it’s more open and shut than the case against Oscar Pistorius. It’s a handsome looking pub from the outside, a fetching shade of something rather Farrow & Ball, looking a tad incongruous at the bottom of Katesgrove, a stone’s throw from the IDR.

Inside, it was rather a game of two halves. On one side (the left as we went in), it looked more like a conventional dining room with high-backed chairs and menus at every table. On the right, it was more like a pub with round tables ringed with low tub chairs. A long bar connected the two. I knew that the dining room would be more conducive to eating but it was largely empty and much darker, so Mike and I grabbed a pint and sat in the window, enjoying the last of the summer sunshine. Besides, I figured my photos would come out better.

I half expected to order at the bar, so I was delighted when someone came to take our order. The menu was a big and slightly confusing one – some things were described as appetisers, some as starters and some were just listed without comment. I figured it was best to just order a whole bunch of small plates and share, so that’s what we did (and what I’d recommend, unless you think you’re intrepid enough to eat a number of small plates on your own, in which case you have my blessing – and a certain degree of admiration). There were a couple of set menu options for people who get especially territorial about food, although in my experience places like Namaste Kitchen aren’t necessarily for them.

Our waiter was lovely and charming from start to finish, and we got a pretty good idea that we’d be well looked after right from the beginning. I asked him if there was anything he’d particularly recommend and he smiled and said “all of it”, but this wasn’t a slack-jawed response of indifference from somebody who knew nothing about the food, more the beatific confidence of a person who absolutely knows that all the dishes are terrific (of course, I didn’t fully realise that until later, so let’s not jump the gun). I got some useful advice from him when we couldn’t decide which of two dishes to order, and he asked what experience I had of Nepalese food.

“I’ve been to Sapana, but I can see dishes on your menu that aren’t at Sapana. Are you quite different?”

“We are better than Sapana.” That smile again.

I didn’t have to wait long to realise that he wasn’t pulling my leg. From this point onwards, the meal was like a fireworks display – little dish after little dish came out, there were culinary explosions, we oohed and aahed and just as the last flickering lights died away, another dish took its place. First up, probably the most basic and complex dishes we were to eat. Aloo jeera looked pretty prosaic – cubes of potato scattered with cumin – but the taste was extraordinary, the potatoes rich with ghee, with all the taste of perfectly fried potatoes but with a softer, subtler texture. We grabbed cocktail sticks and speared and smiled, speared and smiled.

Next to it, the boneless chilli chicken was simply magnificent. Tender chicken came smothered in a hot, sour, complex sauce which, momentarily, rendered both of us speechless. It wasn’t crunchy, but it was coated – difficult to describe but impossible not to enjoy. We both knew better than to eat the chillies in the dish, lurking disguised as narrow green beans, but we fought over the onion, cooked until sweet and soft and just as worth devouring as the chicken. At this stage it crossed my mind that I, and they, might have peaked too soon. It turns out that I was worrying needlessly.

More was to come. Chicken bara was, according to the menu, a shallow fried patty made of ground black lentils stuffed with chicken. What came was almost like a fluffy savoury crepe, or a big flat veggie burger, or a huge round falafel or, most likely, something which completely defeats my powers of description but which I adored. I wasn’t sure it was stuffed with chicken except in the metaphorical sense that there was plenty of it: spiced, salty, minced chicken all over the top of it. It almost had the texture of a tortilla (to further mix culinary metaphors) and it was phenomenal with or without the relatively mild spiced dip served with it. “That was the biggest surprise of the meal for me” Mike said later, and I couldn’t but agree.

Paneer pakora was, by those standards, pretty straightforward – firm, subtle cubes of cheese covered in spiced batter and fried. But even here, when things are simple, the execution was superb. The whole thing was light, not heavy and leaden. The coating stuck to the cheese and the whole thing was beautifully matched with a sharper, spicier dipping sauce. My reference dish for paneer has long been Bhel Puri House’s chilli paneer, and – this is high praise – I almost liked this as much.

We ordered another couple of drinks – Cobra for Mike, Sharp’s Orchard for me (I’ve not had it before, but we can safely add it to the long list of Fizzy Cold Ciders I Like Which Are Not Strongbow) and then the momo arrived. The options here are steamed or fried rather than pan fried (I’ve since discovered that you can have them pan fried – or kothey – and very good they are too – ER), and the fried mutton momo that turned up looked gorgeous – golden, irregular, piping hot. The rough texture on the outside made me wonder if they’d been dusted with something, and cutting one open it was full of tender strands of mutton with a brilliant, deep flavour. I think it came with the same dipping sauce as the paneer, although I couldn’t say for certain. What I do know is that by the end of all this I was dabbing my nose in a distinctly undignified manner.

Every time the waiter took some plates away and asked how the food was, Mike and I overflowed with superlatives. He always asked if we meant it as if surprised and I think that must have been a reflex rather than an affectation, because he knew the food was good. I think maybe he was surprised that we knew it was good, too. Perhaps most of their clientele is from Reading’s Nepalese community: if so, they really are in on quite an impressive secret. After our last plate was cleared, we got to talking about the other dishes on the menu – unsurprisingly, because Mike and I had been planning our respective return visits to Namaste Kitchen since about halfway through our first set of dishes.

“I was very tempted to have the pangra (gizzard)” I said, “But last time I had it at Sapana Home it was really bouncy and not very unpleasant.”

“Ours isn’t like that. I’ll bring you out a small plate, and you can see what I mean.”

I am absolutely convinced that he had no idea we were there to review the place, and that he would have done the same for anyone. I’m also absolutely convinced that Namaste Kitchen doesn’t really know what a small plate is, because we got a hefty portion of gizzards – again, coated in something delicious, savoury and impossible to pinpoint and cooked until they became a chewy delight. And I use the word chewy after some consideration – they weren’t falling-apart tender, and they weren’t bouncily tough, but they had just enough texture and fight without having too much. They were almost like the chicken equivalent of pork scratchings and Mike and I, who thought we had eaten to a standstill, somehow found room for every last one.

“Each one tastes slightly different” said Mike, in raptures. “It’s like every mouthful has a different pocket of flavour.”

Mike can be a man of few words, but Namaste Kitchen brought out the poet in him. Actually, it brought out something even more dangerous: the restaurant reviewer.

The pangra was on the house, but the rest of our meal – five dishes, three and a half pints – came to just under forty pounds, not including tip. The most expensive dish we had, the chilli chicken, was seven pounds. All this took place in a pub many people don’t know about, a three minute walk from Reading’s branch of Wagamama where you can eat far less food for much more money without ever once shaking your head, gasping or feeling a milligram of civic pride.

At the risk of repetition, restaurants like Namaste Kitchen are why I do this. Places that should be full every night, doing something interesting and different, adding something to the cultural fabric of this town. I always hope that the next restaurant I go into will turn out to be the next Papa Gee, the next I Love Paella, the next Perry’s. For the rest of this year, I will be hoping to discover the next Namaste Kitchen, and it will make the comedown after a dispiriting meal even bigger knowing that I could have been sitting in the window of the Hook and Tackle reacquainting myself with that chicken bara.

Put it this way – I’ve been going to Sapana Home for years. I’ve eaten their momo many times. They won my Restaurant Of The Year for 2016, and right now all I can think to say to Sapana Home is: you’re no Namaste Kitchen. So I hope enough of you go there that the Hook And Tackle isn’t under new ownership again this year, because Reading would be a poorer place if you couldn’t eat this food.

I would end it there, but here’s a short postscript, because I did something I never, ever do. Two days later, after a few drinks in the Allied, I summoned my friend Tim and we headed to the edge of the Oracle, under the IDR and crossed the border into Katesgrove. I told myself I wanted to show off my new find to Tim, but I think I knew in the back of my mind that I just wanted to check that my senses hadn’t deceived me. I needed to be sure that it wasn’t a mirage. So we went, we sat in the dining room and we ordered almost everything I’d eaten the first time I went there.

You can all relax: it wasn’t a mirage.

Namaste Kitchen – 8.4
16 Katesgrove Lane, RG1 2ND
0118 9594617

https://www.facebook.com/Namastekitchenhookntacklereading/