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.
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