Vel

I was on holiday in Bologna, buying a gigantic wedge of Parmesan in a food market of all things, when I got a message telling me that Matt Farrall had died. For those of you who didn’t know him, Matt was a raconteur, rambler, writer for the Whitley Pump and possibly the proudest Reading resident you could hope to meet.

He was one of the very first people ever to persuade me to give up my anonymity. He interviewed me for the Pump last year – we went to the Turk’s Head (back when it was good), ate food by Georgian Feast and just chatted and chatted. I kept waiting for the interview to start, and it never did – Matt seemed far more interested in speculating on the relationship status of the couple at the table next to us. Were they just splitting up? Just getting together? Not even a couple at all? It occupied us for much of the evening, as did the meatballs, the khachapuri and Matt’s inexhaustible supply of anecdotes, none of them less than uproarious.

But of course, Matt’s sly genius was that he still managed to get me to talk, the way curious people and natural writers do, and I told him many things I wasn’t expecting to: about my past, my family, all manner of information. He was smart like that. I still have the recording of that interview, and it’s more a document of a lovely evening than an interview at all; we were nearly a podcast waiting to happen.

Our paths crossed several times after that. We were both at the Hop Leaf celebrating the landlord and landlady’s tenth anniversary; to his credit, he didn’t reveal my secret identity to his pub buddies that night, at least not in front of me. We were at the same table for the first ever Saperavi Party at the Island, where he charmed the socks off my mother while eating more of the Georgian food he had come to adore. Matt was nothing if not charming: to know him was to love him, and even if you never met him you got that feeling from his writing. Good writers do that. You feel like you know them; you wish you could beetle off to the pub with them.

I went to his funeral, on a gorgeous sunny May afternoon, and the crematorium was so packed that tons of us were just standing outside, taking in the speeches, listening to the impeccable selection of music and, in my case, fanning myself with the programme. It was almost like being at a rock concert, and – not for the first time since I got the news – I found myself wishing Matt had known just how much he was missed. Matt had packed many different lives into just shy of fifty years, and I wonder if anybody knew the whole person or whether we all just got one fascinating facet. It was definitely hard to imagine a more eclectic crowd – colleagues, family, friends from way back. Glen, who runs Blue Collar. Adam from the Whitley Pump. Claire from Explore Reading. Afterwards we all went to the Back Of Beyond and drank until chucking out time, old friends and new. I like to think Matt would have approved.

I planned to put together a tribute to Matt but, for reasons I won’t go into here, it never quite happened. Nevertheless I wanted to do something to mark his passing, and I couldn’t think of a better way than to visit the venue of one of his last ever reviews for the Whitley Pump, Vel, a South Indian restaurant in his beloved Katesgrove. I took my mum, who remembered him fondly, although I did have to point out to her in advance that no, a dosa wasn’t basically a posh Findus Crispy Pancake.

Vel is described on its website as a “South Indian Kitchen & Bar” and I think what that means is that it’s made up of two rooms, with a view of the kitchen from one and the bar from the other. It’s actually quite a handsome, neutral, uncluttered restaurant – bare wood floors, tasteful bare walls, attractive muted wood panelling, nice tables and sturdy chairs. The bar is a fetching tiled affair and the kitchen – open and visible through the glass – might make for an interesting spectacle if you had a view of it (I saw a couple of the chefs putting long skewers on the grill at one stage, but that was about all I managed to catch). We took a table in the first room with the bar, close to the window so I could make the most of the natural light.

“It makes such a difference” I told my mum, herself no photographic slouch. “My food photos in winter are no good to man nor beast.”

“It’s not a bad table” my mum responded. “Good view of the wheelie bins.” I sometimes forget that my mum is more leafy Bath Road than downtown Katesgrove.

The place was almost completely empty when we arrived, but we had plenty of time to review the menu before we were approached by the waitress. They’ve made some effort to walk diners through it by breaking it up into sections – interestingly named ones, actually, from “Get Tempted” (starters) to “Get Fired” (starters from the grill or tandoor) and onwards to “Keep Calm Curry On” (which rather screams “get help”) and “Rice Rice Baby” (which is verging on “delete your account” territory).

That’s all well and good, but the next level of detail about what the dishes actually are was missing in action. For instance, the section covering dosa (or “thosai” on this menu) – entitled “Get Girdled” for reasons which escape me – had a plethora of bases and toppings or special dosa without really explaining what they all meant. Never mind, I thought. We’ll ask the waitress, that’s the whole point. What could go wrong?

“What’s the difference between a plain dosa and a ‘paper roast’?”

“One paper roast. What else would you like?”

“Err, no, we’d like to know a bit more about the paper roast.”

This went on: every time I asked about a dish I had to then explain, sometimes in excruciating detail, that I wasn’t ordering the dish but simply asking for more information. I don’t know whether it was a cultural thing, or a language barrier, or Vel having a bad day but whichever way it was I didn’t like it. It made me feel difficult, patronising or ignorant and none of those are how you want your customer to feel. I was tempted to get my mother involved, but the benefits of her cut glass diction would have been easily offset by the gathering storm of waspishness, so I thought better of it.

We got there in the end, drank our Kingfishers and, once the starters arrived things were positive. Gobi 65 is one of my go-to starters and Vel’s version was close to spot on. The bright red, almost scarlet colour was arresting and the coating was nicely spiced. The cauliflower underneath was lovely and firm and the florets were all a sensible size. But six pounds fifty felt ever so slightly on the steep side for a plate of veg and if you’re going to charge that they have to be crisp and absolutely piping hot and these weren’t quite that.

The mutton pepper fry was delicious – tender pieces of mutton in a lovely peppery sauce with just the right level of heat. But again, this was eight pounds and there wasn’t a lot of it and that did give me cause for thought. The crockery – and I don’t often talk about this in restaurant reviews – was attractive stuff with just a hint of sparkle in the glaze, but ultimately when they only put the mutton on half of a small plate and pad out the rest with iceberg lettuce I did find myself assessing the balance between style and substance.

I’ve always found dosa a bit confusing, and I’m never sure when they’re meant to make an appearance in a meal. Are they a starter? A main course? A light lunch? You might know better than me: we wanted to try one but neither of us fancied having it as the feature attraction, so we ordered one in between our starters and mains to give it a try. It looked gorgeous – a giant burnished cylinder of wafer thin pancake wrapped round some potato masala. It came with a little bowl of sambar (a sort of curried lentil stew, for the uninitiated) and three chutneys, one with coriander, one with tomato and nigella seeds and what I think was a coconut chutney.

Never having excelled at dosa I asked our waitress for some advice on how to eat it. She came out with some words and gestures and lots of smiles, but I was left none the wiser. So my mother and I just had at it, tearing off pieces and dipping as best we could. It was lovely, in truth – the masala was warming with green chilli and spring onion studded through it, the potato just the right side of firm. I loved all the chutneys, especially the tomato one, and the dosa itself was paper thin and beautifully buttery. Again, though, the pricing seemed steep – eight pounds was an awful lot more than I ever remembered paying at Chennai Dosa.

This was the point when things started to go wrong for Vel – not in terms of the food, but because of everything else. By now, two other tables were occupied and it seemed the kitchen couldn’t cope with having three sets of customers at the same time. So we waited and waited, saw food arriving at other tables, and waited some more. Our waitress brought poppadoms to our table by way of apology – a lovely thought but, really, yet more food was the last thing we needed.

It also gave us time to order more drinks, which also didn’t go smoothly.

“I’d like a half of Kingfisher please, and a prosecco.”

“A Kingfisher and a second?”

“No, a prosecco.”

A blank look. I was forced to resort to pointing at the menu and trying to speak as clearly as I could, which again was an uncomfortable experience. She wandered off and eventually returned with my half and an individual bottle of prosecco.

“I didn’t realise you wanted presco” she said. I decided to leave it there.

All told it was easily half an hour until our main course arrived, and few main courses are worth that wait. My mother had ordered the Chettinadu fish curry, having been talked out of the milder Kerala fish curry by the waitress. That almost redeemed the “presco incident”, because the sauce it came in was splendid – all the heat coming from black pepper rather than spice, but if anything even more interesting for that. The sauce, again, had lots of nigella seeds speckled in it and I also caught a note of roasted onion. The fish, which was apparently kingfish, was a cutlet with the bone in the middle and I liked that too: it broke into firm meaty flakes like a swordfish rather than being the soft mushy white fish you sometimes get in Indian curries. My mother started out a little underwhelmed by the dish but by the end I think she too was won over, if a tad full.

My chicken biryani was competent but not exciting. The pieces of chicken were well cooked and not dried out, and the rice had something about it but there were still a few bland clumps in there. There were plenty of cloves and cardamom and cinnamon, but they made the last bits of the biryani surprisingly difficult to eat as you were constantly sifting it for inedible bark and pods.

“It’s okay, but nowhere near as good as Royal Tandoori’s” said my mother. My mother is prone to compare all dishes with the best version she’s ever had, but I had to admit that she was right. The Royal Tandoori version has cashew nuts and just the right amount of mint and it did rather show this up. Even if it hadn’t, the following night I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the lamb biryani at Clay’s Hyderabadi and that – the rice fragrant with saffron and rosewater – blew this biryani squarely out of the water.

We didn’t investigate the dessert options (just as well, because looking at their menu I’m not sure there are any) so instead we settled up and moved on. Vel has been open for nearly four months, and I find it a bit dubious that it still only takes cash: for some that alone would be a deal breaker. Our meal came to sixty-two pounds, not including service. We could have spent less by ditching the dosa but, any way you cut it, this wasn’t a cheap meal for this kind of food in this kind of location. I’ve probably said enough about service already, but it would be unfair not to add that our waitress was lovely and friendly throughout, just a little wayward.

Is Vel worth a visit? You’ve probably formed your own view from reading this, and that will depend on how close you live to it, how important value for money is to you and whether you fancy paying cash and navigating some rather challenging service. Katesgrove and Whitley deserve good restaurants as much as anywhere else in Reading but, with the exception of Gooi Nara and the excellent Dhaulagiri Kitchen, I’m not sure there’s much to stop local residents making the trip into the town centre instead, despite all Vel’s interesting dishes (and, let’s not forget, attractive crockery).

Matt Farrall would tell you to give it another go if he was still with us, I’m sure, but that was Matt all over: a true local champion, a permanent optimist and a huge fan of the underdog. We saw eye to eye about a lot of things, but I never quite got his love of the likes of Sweeney Todd and Pau Brasil. The review over, my mother and I traipsed down Whitley Street behind a triptych of underdressed young ladies, their skin tone the kind of burnt orange that probably features on the Dulux colour chart as “Double Plus TOWIE”. I took her to the Hop Leaf for a pint and a debrief.

“It’s a nice pub, isn’t it?” said my mother, who – unsurprisingly – hadn’t been to the Hop Leaf before.

“Yes, I think so. It was one of Matt’s favourites.” I said.

My choice of venue had been deliberate. It’s what he would have wanted.

Vel – 7.0
73-75 Whitley Street, RG2 0EG
0118 9758551

https://eat-vel.co.uk/

Advertisements

Soju

One question I’m often asked is: why are your reviews so bloody long?

Well, it’s a reasonable observation. When I wrote a piece for Claire Slobodian, editrix of Explore Reading and the town’s Queen Of All Media, she gave me a word count of 800 words and expressed some scepticism about whether I’d be able to stick to it. “You normally haven’t even got round to talking about the food in one of your reviews by then” she said. A fair cop, I suppose: there’s always something to be said first about the context. There’s scene-setting to do, not to mention introducing the person you’re going to dinner with. And if all else fails, I can always get on my well-worn soapbox and pontificate about Reading (although not Caversham: heaven knows I’ve learned that lesson). The first eight hundred words fly by – to write, anyway, if not necessarily to read.

The problem is that, this week, that’s harder to do than usual. After all, Soju isn’t Reading’s only Korean restaurant. It’s not even the first: Gooi Nara up on Whitley Street opened before Soju (and I had a lovely time when I went there). It’s not necessarily that unique within the gastronomic Bond villain lair that is Atlantis Village – or whatever it’s called at the time of writing – because small chain Pho opened just across the way offering Vietnamese food (and I had an okay time when I went there). So where’s the angle? There probably isn’t one, but on the other hand Soju is a genuinely independent restaurant in a prime central spot in town, and it’s traded for a while without coming a cropper. That has to be worth a visit, I thought.

I went with Zoë, who started out as a Twitter acquaintance before becoming a very good friend. Was there an angle there? Well, no: Zoë knows even more about beer than my beer friend Tim does, so really I should have taken her to Bierhaus. But neither of us really fancied schnitzel and knuckles, so we turned up to Soju on a weekday evening not knowing quite what to expect and ready to take our chances. “I’ve gone for lunch a few times and they catered a work event for me recently, will that do?” said Zoë. Probably not, I decided. So there you go – no real angle, limited preamble. Maybe I’d just have to talk about the food the way proper restaurant reviewers do.

The room, not to put too fine a point on it, was a big black box. Not in a sleek sophisticated way, but in a way that suggested it was only a lick of paint away from being a big white box. Despite the sturdy tables, each with a barbecue hot plate in the middle, and the decent-looking chairs, it felt more like a canteen than a restaurant: no soft furnishings, nothing on the walls, no whistles and bells. You could see the pass and the kitchen beyond but that back wall looked messy and cluttered.

Despite that, it was packed when we turned up at about eight o’clock. The majority of the tables were occupied, with a long table for over a dozen people right next to us, a big family function with several generations dipping in to hot pots and barbecued meats. Nearly all the other diners were either Korean or Chinese, as far as I could tell. Our table had a gadget on it with a button you pressed when you were ready to order, which I assume worked although I was never entirely sure one way or the other.

The menu was divided up into starters and mains with separate sections for hot pot and Korean barbecue. We fancied trying a bit of everything, so when our waitress came over we ordered a couple of appetisers, then some barbecue and finally a couple of rice dishes. We started drinking a Hite – Korean lager, which I found pleasant and crisp, if a tad featureless – and waited for the food to arrive.

“This isn’t bad. It tastes like a Radler, or a little like a white beer like Hoegaarden” said Zoë. I nodded sagely as if I knew what she was talking about, even though all I remember about Hoegaarden is that they used to serve it in Bar Casa, where Chennai Dosa is now, and that every time I drank it I woke up the next morning feeling like I’d been trepanned with a rusty corkscrew.

The first dish to arrive knocked it out of the park so comprehensively that I wondered whether anything would be able to match it. Dak-gang jeong, or fried chicken, was properly magnificent – tender chicken (thigh, I think), in a glorious batter and coated in a hot, sour, sticky, punchy sauce and scattered with sesame seeds. We picked away at it with our metal chopsticks, quite unable to believe our luck. First there was silence, then there were big grins and then came the superlatives.

“That might be the best fried chicken I’ve ever had – better than any Cantonese stuff” said Zoë. Coming from someone who, like me, ate at Woodley’s Hong Kong Garden a lot as a child, this compliment carried no little weight, but I think she was probably right.

“I even prefer it to KFC” I said, which was also quite the compliment (don’t judge). But not only that, it was finer than the boneless chilli chicken at Namaste Kitchen, or the tori kara age at Misugo. Better still, it improved as the meal went on and the pieces we hadn’t yet got round to cooled slightly. The remaining sauce on the plate was greedily used as a dip with anything else that came to hand. The following day, Zoë and I exchanged messages admitting that we were both daydreaming about the chicken, and it was nice to know it wasn’t just me.

The kimchee pancake was less exciting. I’d expected good things based on other reviews I’d seen but it was just stodgy and carby, with barely a hint of kimchee at all. That might have been because I ate it after the chicken by which point my taste buds had been slightly numbed, but I still expected more. It was pleasant enough, though, dipped in the sweet soy that they brought with it.

This was the point in the meal where things started to go wrong in terms of timing. I had deliberately ordered in such a way to suggest that we’d like the starters first, then the barbecue and then the mains, but in no time at all literally everything else we had ordered was brought to our table, with no rhyme or reason. This was odd in plenty of ways – firstly because it meant that there was an awful lot of food sitting in front of you with no structure, but secondly because there was no room to switch on the hot plate, which made me wonder why they’d brought the barbecued meat at all (not that we were given any advice on how to start up the barbecue or where to put the glass cover, for that matter).

Fortunately, the food was really quite something. Oh-jing-uh bok-geum, or squid in spicy sauce, was a beautiful dish, if hard to describe. The squid was tender, but what made it was the sauce, rich with garlic and chilli and also something which might have been fish sauce. It was savoury without any hint of sweetness, and somehow more interesting than any Indian, Thai or even Vietnamese dishes I’d had. And it had some heat, but it was the kind of clever heat you didn’t mind. My only frustration was that serving the dish up spread out on a low flat plate meant that it went cold quicker than I’d have liked, and that it was difficult to get all the sauce off and mix it with the plain white rice. I waxed lyrical to Zoë that rice and sauce was always the best bit of dishes like this, even though I always say that.

The chicken dolsot bibimbap, served in a hot stone bowl, was almost as good. It’s one of those dishes you assemble when it turns up, stirring the bright orange egg yolk in and letting it continue to cook in the bowl. I wasn’t sure there was enough heat in the bowl – I did manage to burn my thumb on it like the klutz I am, but there was no sizzle and none of the beautiful crispy scraped bits of rice towards the end that I associate with this dish. I probably would have liked a bit more chicken in it, too, but even so it was a gorgeous, understated thing. The hot sauce it came with added pungency and punch (and was also good with the kimchee pancake dipped in it) but the really impressive thing was how subtly it all came together, the egg binding it without being cloying and the ribbons of courgette studded through it cooling things down beautifully without being bland.

“This beer goes so well with all this” said Zoë, “You start out thinking it’s too bland but it cleans the palate so well between mouthfuls.” She was right, so we ordered another bottle each and asked the waitress ever so nicely if she’d turn our hot plate on after clearing our empty dishes away. Not the biggest issue in the world, but odd that a restaurant which gives you a whizzy gadget to summon a member of staff to your table didn’t show quite as much sophistication about when the food arrives.

We’d only gone for one Korean barbecue dish, the pyeon gal-bi, boneless short rib marinated in sweet soy sauce. This came in long sections with some mushrooms and what I imagine was sweet potato, along with some tongs to turn it on the grill and some scissors – on the blunt side, as it turned out – to cut it into long strips. We also ordered some ssam, essentially lettuce leaves to wrap the beef in before eating, along with some very thick batons of cucumber and carrot and some cloves of garlic, which we immediately lobbed on the hot plate. I wasn’t convinced by the ssam – a lot of it was stuff I didn’t want, and at five pounds fifty it felt like a bit much for what was fundamentally a naked salad.

On the grill, of course, the magic took effect and things were a very different matter. The beef was sweet and soft, there was a reasonable amount of it and it was properly delicious wrapped in the lettuce leaves and dipped eagerly in the barbecue sauce and seasoned sesame oil.

“It would be good to come back with a big group of people and properly attack the barbecue menu” I said, mindful of how much fun the long table next to us seemed to be having.

“Definitely” said Zoë, and I could already see that, like me, she was mentally assembling a guest list.

There was no dessert menu that I could see, and I was slightly too full and not quite persuasive enough to talk Zoë into my preferred dessert option, namely more fried chicken. So we finished our beers and settled up, replete and happy with our choices. Dinner came to sixty-four pounds, not including tip, which I thought pretty reasonable considering how very enjoyable the meal had been. We did tip, of course, because things have to be exceptionally bad before I do that, but service was probably best described as pleasantly distant.

Sitting at the table, waiting for our bill to arrive, we compared notes on the rating and I was pleased to see that we really weren’t very far apart: Zoë, by contrast, was positively relieved. The problem with having no real angle for this review is that the rating might take a lot of you by surprise but, really, I liked Soju an awful lot. It’s far from perfect – our food should have been staggered better, some of the pricing is a little erratic and some of the plating could be better done. And it’s in Atlantis Village, for goodness sake, which is right up there with the Oracle in terms of being the bad guys (how Dolce Vita has survived in that cut throat hotbed of capitalism I’ll never know).

But all that aside, Soju was busy and bustling, it’s properly truly independent and somehow resolutely uncommercial, despite the snazzy website and the attempt to impose sophistication mainly through the liberal application of black paint (the Rolling Stones principle, as it were). And I had a fantastic night, and ate a few dishes unlike anything else I’d had in Reading. And the fried chicken. And the fried chicken. So no clever angle this week, just a surprisingly good meal somewhere I’d like to go again. Maybe I did finally manage to just talk about the food, the way proper reviewers do. Also, did I mention the fried chicken?

Soju – 8.1
9-11 Kings Walk, RG1 2HG
0118 3348162

https://www.thesoju.co.uk/