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