Revolución de Cuba

Let’s get this out of the way straight away: it’s not a typo, you don’t need to adjust your set and you definitely don’t have to pay Specsavers a visit. This really is a review of Revolución de Cuba, Reading’s Latin American bar slash (chain) restaurant.

You might wonder what possessed me. Here’s what – I’ve been complaining for some time about Reading lacking a good tapas restaurant, a feeling which was compounded by a holiday in Granada at the start of the month. I returned even more bereft that I couldn’t find somewhere good to eat jamon, manchego, croquetas or chorizo in cider (let’s not dwell on the fact that in Granada you get something free with every beer: one step at a time).

On my first day back in Reading I sat in the courtyard outside Workhouse Coffee and ate paneer from Bhel Puri House while enjoying a crisp Estrella from the hotel bar next door, and it made a decent substitute but I still found myself wishing Reading had somewhere more suitable. That’s when the idea of trying the tapas menu at Revolución de Cuba entered my head.

After all, it might have been a chain but it was hardly a big one: less than twenty branches across the UK. And although it was part of the same group as Revolution, I’d been pleasantly surprised when I went to Revolution on duty back in 2015 (that said, I’d never been back, probably assuming that lightning never strikes twice in the same place). So on a Monday night I mooched over to Friar Street with my regular dining companion Zoë, wondering if my expectations would be surpassed.

My first impression was that it’s a striking – and gigantic – space. It used to be the old HMV building (I have plenty of happy memories of those days) and Revolución de Cuba waited a long time to open here, initially applying to take over the site in late 2014 and wrangling with the council before eventually opening two years later. The fit out had been nicely done – the long bar down the left looked especially inviting – and the room went back a very long way indeed, gradually getting darker and more conspiratorial.

Actually, that was probably my second impression. My first impression was that I wasn’t sure if I was in a bar or a restaurant, whether I could just plonk myself at a table or wait to be seated and whether it was bar or table service. We stood waiting near the front like lemons for some time before a solitary waitress told us to sit anywhere, before going on to explain that the two areas nearest to the front were probably more suitable for dining.

That might have been a more useful distinction at weekends when the place was busier, but when I went the place was pretty dead; there was a couple sitting at the tables nearest to the window, but the only thing they seemed to be eating was each other (in broad daylight on a Monday evening: I didn’t know whether to be appalled or impressed). Gladly they put their coats on and left seconds later – headed for the nearest Travelodge, I imagine – so we took the table next to where they’d been sitting. Was it my imagination, or did the banquette reek of sex?

The menu looked nice enough, although I don’t think it was the thing that had got them so frisky. It was divided into tapas and main plates, and was a mixture of Spanish, Tex-Mex and general 2019 box-ticking (halloumi, pulled jackfruit and so on). The tapas tended to come in around the six pound mark with three for fourteen pounds, so we decided to go for that, along with a couple of sides. While we waited for our food to turn up I had a pint of Angry Orchard which was just what I needed and not too dry (albeit oddly named: why so cross? Had it been reading the BBC website?) and Zoë had a bottle of Pacifico Clara, a serviceable crisp lager not that distinguishable from Modelo.

We’d asked for some guacamole and tortilla chips while we made up our mind, so this was the first thing to come out. A sign on the wall said it was freshly made, and although I wasn’t entirely sure it had been made to order it was decent, with just a little heat lurking in there. The previous week I’d been to Wahaca on the South Bank and their guacamole was better (as I had expected it to be) but not by a country mile. The tortilla chips were a little wan and not quite up to the job of dipping but again, for three pounds I was hardly devastated.

The tricky bit is what happened next: all the rest of our food was brought out at once. This wasn’t a problem in itself: god knows I’ve been known to bitch about the likes of Wagamama bringing out dishes as and when they’re ready, but for tapas this style of serving seems much more appropriate. But the real problem was that although the dishes were all brought out at the same time, some of them had clearly been sitting around a while. So much of what should have been piping hot was verging on tepid, and in many cases that made a world of difference.

Take the chorizo in red wine and honey, for instance. Done well, this is a superb dish – I had something very similar in Granada – but Revolución de Cuba’s version was cold. Not fridge-cold, but cooked-some-time-ago-cold. It came in a terra cotta pot without any steam or sizzle, and the pot was cold to the touch. So, pretty much, was the chorizo which made me wonder if it had spent any time in the sauce or just been introduced to it right at the end like some kind of super-awkward culinary blind date. It had been cut into weirdly-shaped segments by somebody who appeared never to have seen or eaten chorizo before.

The patatas bravas – a staple of any tapas menu – were also distinctly underwhelming. They had been placed on the mat in the middle of the table as if they’d be scorching hot, but again they weren’t. There just wasn’t the crispiness I was hoping for, and the helping of spicy sauce and aioli was both disappointing and miserly: there should have been more of it, but I wasn’t especially sad that there wasn’t.

Better were the pork belly skewers, which were well cooked, all fat melted away and a crispy-crackling layer on top. I’m not sure I got the “signature spicy rum sauce” which had apparently been used, but I wasn’t complaining. These reminded me of the pork belly at The Real Greek, which is higher praise than it might sound.

I also enjoyed the jerk fried chicken, although that says more about my love of fried chicken than of Revolución de Cuba’s version. It was nicely seasoned, if a little too crunchy, and it didn’t need the rum mayo I didn’t dip it in. But even here it could have stood with being hotter, and although the texture was a long way from mechanically recovered meat, they didn’t feel like single pieces of coated chicken. Make of that what you will.

The more Latin American dishes we’d ordered were the ones that really fell flat. Chicken quesadillas might have been average if they’d been served hot but they arrived much closer to room temperature, wan anaemic things it was difficult to get excited about. We’d also ordered pulled beef tostadas, but the beef itself was claggy, bland and lukewarm. You didn’t get much of it before the dish gave way to the (cheaper) guacamole underneath and the tortilla shell, which pretty much made it the dish we’d started the meal with. The Cuban term for this beef is ropa vieja, which it turns out doesn’t translate as old rope: a shame, as it would have been apt.

Finally, we also had some crispy fried courgette. Well, two out of three anyway: it was indeed courgette but cut thick enough that getting it crispy was always going to be a challenge. I didn’t mind this, but even as I ate it I was aware of how many places do it better (especially Papa Gee). It was apparently served with Cuban gremolata, although barely enough to be noticeable, and if it had been fried in “Mojito batter” you really wouldn’t have known that either.

“This is a menu that reads much better than the food looks or tastes, isn’t it?” I said to Zoë as we surveyed the plates (mostly empty, although neither of us had shown much interest in the insipid chorizo).

“I’m afraid so. I’d come back for the guacamole, the chicken and the pork belly but that’s it.” I thought about it and tended to agree: three out of eight wasn’t exactly a stellar hit rate. I reflected on the other reviews I’d seen of Revolución de Cuba, so breathless, so enthusiastic, so positive. So comped, come to think of it. We decided to skip the churros (no doubt described somewhere on the internet as “yummy”) and asked for the bill. The whole lot – six tapas dishes, two sides, a pint and two beers – came to just under fifty pounds, not including tip. That’s not an expensive meal by most standards, but even at that price point your money would go much further in a many other places.

So far so meh, but I do have to say a word about the service. Georgina, who looked after us (and, seemingly, everyone else in Revolución de Cuba that night) was lovely – personable, polite and likeable. She came over halfway through – mid-mouthful, as wait staff always do – to check if our food was okay and we both muttered the usual pleasantries. But when she came with the bill she asked more than once, as if she actually wanted to know. So we told her. The food all came out at the same time because that’s how the kitchen did it, she said. We explained that it might be better not to and that some of the food had been cold as a result. She promised to feed that back, and I believe she did (every bit as much as I expect that feedback fell on deaf ears).

In conversation with Zoë, who tends to ask lots of questions, Georgina told us that she was studying for a Masters in criminology (a part-time job which involves looking out on Friar Street on a Friday and Saturday night probably forms part of her dissertation, come to think of it). It can be rare in chain restaurants to feel looked after rather than processed, and Revolución de Cuba would have got a lower mark if it wasn’t for the service. I wanted to tip her extra, just for enduring the canoodling couple from earlier on (“it was definitely heavy petting”, said Zoë later, “you’d get kicked out of a swimming pool for that”).

I never saw Revolución de Cuba as the kind of place I might eat on a Friday or Saturday night – I’m far too old and unfashionable for that – but I did hope it might be a serviceable small plates restaurant for a school night, or a spot of lunch on the weekend. Sadly, I think it doesn’t quite hit that level either. Some of the dishes are decent enough, but you can get them better elsewhere – Mission is better for tacos or burritos, The Real Greek better for small plates and Bhel Puri House better still. Whenever I ask what chain restaurant people would most like to see in Reading the response is overwhelming: people would love a Wahaca to open here. Based on my visit to Revolución de Cuba that gap in the market is still there. My own personal gap in the market also remains empty: if I want to feel like I’m in Andalusia, I’m going to have to get on a plane.

Revolución de Cuba – 6.6
138-141 Friar Street, RG1 1EX
0118 2077016
https://www.revoluciondecuba.com/bar/reading/

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Feature: The best of Reading (2019)

Just over two years ago, I wrote a piece called “The Best Of Reading”, detailing the ten places I thought best illustrated Reading’s food culture. It was prompted by a conversation with a Reading doubter – you know the sort, people who slag Reading off without ever trying that hard to discover life outside the bland confines of the Oracle or restaurants beyond the chains. It was my attempt to counter that kind of lazy criticism, and I published it just before I made my comeback after nearly a year on hiatus. The feedback from everyone was truly lovely, I picked up reviewing again and two years later here we are.

The decision to publish this updated version was also prompted by a conversation, albeit a rather different one. I was having dinner one evening last month and my dining companion, who didn’t know Reading all that well, expressed surprise about what an interesting place it was. “At first I thought it was just another big town in the south-east” he said, “but if you scratch the surface there are all sorts of things going on.” I agreed that it punches above its weight, and then started rattling off the reasons why, many of which make it into this piece. The previous version of this feature was a rebuttal, but this one is far more of a celebration – and that feels exactly as it should be.

Of course, plenty has changed between 2017 and 2019. Some of the places which made my top ten last time around have closed: the sad losses of Dolce Vita and I Love Paella, both down to greedy landlords. Some don’t make my list this time because the ever-improving standard means they aren’t quite as good as they used to be: no room for Papa Gee, lovely though it is, or for Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus, which lost its talented front of house and never seems open when I walk past. Reading’s restaurant scene is nowhere near as fast-moving as in other towns, and restaurateurs consistently complain about how hard it is to find decent premises (I can’t help but feel our council should be able to help) but even so things have moved on in the last two years.

Here, then, is my list of the ten restaurants and cafés that most contribute to making Reading’s food scene special and distinctive as of May 2019. Any list is entirely subjective, and I wouldn’t have done my job properly if people didn’t get as aerated about what I left out as they were excited about what I’ve put in. But it is worth mentioning, with regret, that I couldn’t find room for Perry’s, House Of Flavours, Bluegrass or Soju.

The focus on the distinctive also meant excluding chains, which rules out the likes of Honest, Pho and Franco Manca. And although we have excellent coffee and beer in Reading, it’s for someone else to celebrate Tamp, Workhouse, Anonymous, C.U.P. and the magnificent Nag’s Head. Anyway, you can all tell me how wrong I am in the comments, so here goes.

1. Bakery House


What is there left to say about Bakery House? Open for nearly four years now, the proudly independent Lebanese restaurant has got pretty much everything right from the moment it opened, and standards show no signs of dropping. In warm weather you can grab a shawarma wrap from the counter and go eat it in the sunshine, but the true riches come from eating in. The chicken livers are terrific, the falafel light and simultaneously crunchy and fluffy, the boneless baby chicken a thing of wonder. Whatever main course you have comes with rice rich with vegetables and spice and salad perfectly dressed with lemon and mint, complete with tomato and crisp radish.

I held a readers’ lunch there in January and they dished up a whole roast lamb, on a bed of rice full of minced lamb and, it seemed, whole sticks of cinnamon; I daydreamed about it for weeks.

82 London Street, RG1 4SJ.

2. Bhel Puri House


Again, Bhel Puri House is a restaurant I’ve written about many times but it’s so criminally underrated that it deserves another mention here. For a long time it was Reading’s only vegetarian restaurant, and it remains one of the town’s only convincing small plates restaurants. All that and you can eat outside in the sunshine, in a courtyard it shares with the George Hotel and Workhouse Coffee.

There are so many dishes it’s hard to know where to start, but the Punjabi samosas are huge, tasty and crazily good value and the crispy bhajia (spiced, fried slices of potato, their pungency offset with a sweet carrot chutney) are superb. Paneer is irresistable, either dry and caramelised with chilli or served Manchurian style in a sweeter, stickier sauce. And the samosa chaat, pictured above, is a riot of colour, flavour and texture. Who needs a faddish meat-free burger when you can try a vada pav?

Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF.

3. Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen


Right, let’s get this disclaimer out of the way first: as I’ve explained elsewhere, I have never reviewed Clay’s because they know who I am and I would describe the owners as friends. You could quite easily argue that this damages my impartiality, so if you’ve never been to Clay’s you may be a little sceptical about their presence on this list, and that is of course your prerogative. I can’t blame you – I would also be pretty dubious, but believe me, if anything Clay’s had to meet an even higher standard to make it on to this list. And I can appreciate the ways in which the restaurant still needs work: the room can be a little murky, loud and poorly lit, the service still lacks a little warmth and authority.

Anyway, by however high a bar you set, Clay’s has to be on a list of this kind, and if you have been there, I suspect you’ll completely understand why I couldn’t omit them. I think Clay’s does some of the best and most exciting food Reading has ever seen, especially the starters which are simply a brilliant range of small but perfectly-formed dishes (I’d love to see Clay’s open a small plates restaurant one day).

From the fish fry to the incredibly dry, smoky chicken livers, from the chicken 65 to the creamy, indulgent paneer majestic there is an almost bewildering plethora of flavours to sample and enjoy (my tip: order one or two starters more than you have diners, and share everything). And that’s before we ever get to the mains – the hot and sour monkfish, the now almost legendary bhuna venison and possibly my personal favourite, the red chicken curry. Anyway, you know what I’m talking about because I suspect you’ve already eaten at Clay’s by now, haven’t you?

45 London Street, RG1 4PS.

4. Fidget & Bob


Possibly the most unusual beast on this list, Fidget & Bob is out in the wilds of Kennet Island and truly is an all-day venue, going effortlessly from a breakfast and brunch cafe during the day to a little restaurant in the evening. It might well have the best front of house in Reading at the moment, it certainly has the best Twitter feed and it announces daily specials which regularly make me want to drop everything, hop on the number 60 bus and make a beeline there for dinner (the char siu, a regular Tuesday offering, is a particular culprit).

I went for brunch recently and you can see the picture above – the most beautifully buttery scrambled eggs (from Beechwood Farm, who supply another venue on this list), properly cooked mushrooms, wonderfully buttered toast and bacon cooked just right. A lot of my Twitter followers have raved about Fidget & Bob’s brunches, but I’m ashamed it took me so long to try them for myself. Many of the beers are local, the wines are top-notch, the coffee is excellent and in summer, the outside space will be lovely and buzzy well into the evening. What more could you possibly want?

The Piazza, Whale Avenue, Kennet Island, RG2 0GX.

5. Geo Café


Another disclaimer: over the past couple of years Keti and Zezva, who run Geo Café in the site which used to be Nomad Bakery, have become friends and so you should take everything I’m about to say with a pinch of (Svaneti) salt. And again, I am more than aware of the areas Geo Café still needs to work on – service can be a bit thin on the ground, and they don’t always cope brilliantly with high volumes of customers. But the food redeems so much that I stand by my recommendation: Georgian food is the great unsung world cuisine (although maybe not for long) and there are many eye-opening dishes at Geo Café that you simply can’t eat anywhere else – not only in Reading but, generally speaking, in England.

The classic dish is the chicken wrap – lots of chicken thigh spiced with ajika, served in a well-assembled wrap packed with salad, baje (a sauce made from walnut), salad and lemon juice. Anybody who has had it at Blue Collar knows just what a good dish this is, and the Geo version comes close to hitting those heights. But there are also aubergine wraps, all sorts of skillets using the café’s excellent sourdough and of course, the wonder that is khachapuri – a flatbread stuffed with a gooey cheese which is a blend of cheddar, mozzarella and feta (made by the café, because they can’t get the Georgian cheese which is normally used).

Anyone who has followed Geo Café (or Georgian Feast, or Caucasian Spice Box, or whether they’ll be called next month) on their journey from the Horn to the Turk’s to the Island via countless food markets will be delighted to hear that they’ve finally found the home they deserve. Oh, and the cakes (from the bakery upstairs) are pretty good too.

10 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG.

6. Kobeda Palace


Kobeda Palace is a scruffy, unpretentious, popular Afghan grill house down the Oxford Road. It is decidedly no-frills, its neighbour Da Village looks swankier and glossier, but I absolutely love it all the same. They make the naan on site – big, stretched, fluffy things with bubbled crusts. The kobeda kebabs are decent, as are the chicken tikka kebabs and the chops. And the karahi chicken, a red, oily, warming, ginger-strewn miracle of a dish, is one of the finest things you can eat in Reading. Order it, take the meat off the bone before you start and eat it with a naan, enjoying the bustle around you. There’s no alcohol licence, but when a restaurant on the Oxford Road has no alcohol licence that’s just the cosmos telling you to stop at the Nag’s Head on your way home.

409-411 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA

7. Pepe Sale


After the demise of Dolce Vita last year, Pepe Sale might be Reading’s longest-running restaurant, and it really is a class act. Eating there is an impressively timeless experience – the service is quite brilliant, even when the place is extremely busy, the room has been gently updated (it still looks a tad dated, but nowhere near as much as it was), the menu still has tons of Sardinian classics but there are always specials to give regular diners numerous reasons to return. The suckling pig, only available on Friday and Saturday nights, has rightly attained almost mythical status but there are so many other things to enjoy, including chicken stuffed with mozzarella and wrapped in pancetta, beautifully tender veal in cream sauce and countless splendid pasta dishes.

Pepe Sale, as I’m often given to saying, was my first ever review on the blog and when I published it, one of my detractors piped up. “Pepe Sale is just an okay neighbourhood Italian restaurant” she said. How wrong can you be?

3 Queens Walk, RG1 7QF

8. Sapana Home


Sapana Home needs little introduction by now – heaven knows I’ve written about it enough times. The little Nepalese restaurant on Queen Victoria Street has been there for what seems like forever, and the clientele is an interesting mixture of Nepalese diners and non-Nepalese customers who are in the know. I’ve heard criticisms that their momo are frozen (and it’s true that the ones at the long-lamented Namaste Kitchen were even better) but really, on a cold day when you have ten pan-fried chicken momo in front of you I find I don’t give a monkey’s. Every time I put a picture of them on Instagram, I get a chorus of likes: it really is almost impossible to look at it and not want to eat them immediately.

There are other attractions. The chilli chicken and the chicken fry are both delicious, on a good day the chow mein is quite lovely and I do have a soft spot for the samosa chaat here, all sweet tamarind, crunchy sev and red onion. The service, too, is more friendly than you might expect, and they still do one of the best mango lassi in town. Judge all you like, but I ate there on Valentine’s Day.

8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG

9. Shed


Shed was a quite shocking omission two years ago: all I can say is that I don’t know what I was thinking. It still does Reading’s mightiest toasted sandwiches – “The Top One”, all cheese chorizo and jalapeño, and “Tuna Turner”, which is tuna mayo, cheese and, err, also jalapeño. But the salads are excellent too, as is “Saucy Friday” when you can have, say, scotch bonnet chilli chicken with rice and peas, coleslaw and macaroni cheese. The service is outstanding, Pete and Lydia are almost annoyingly likeable, the milkshakes are great and they do some of the best loose leaf tea in town.

If I was being picky I sometimes wish the room itself (upstairs, it transforms into cocktail bar Milk in the evenings) was a bit lighter and the furniture was a little more comfortable, but I’m well aware that says more about my age than Shed’s beauty. It remains one of the best places in Reading to have lunch, and we’re lucky to have them.

8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT

10. Tuscany


N.B. Tuscany closed in May 2019, sadly. But there’s always Kungfu Kitchen.

Last but not least, the delights of the tiny Tuscany, tucked away on the Oxford Road. A handful of covers and a menu which basically consists of heading up to the counter and choose your toppings by pretending that you’re doing the numbers round on Countdown (“I’ll have two from the top, Carol, and six from anywhere else”). The pizza bases are really good, the pricing is ridiculously keen and the service is quite lovely – and many readers of the blog have told me about wonderful evenings they’ve had there after picking up a couple of cans or a bottle of wine from one of the nearby shops (no alcohol licence, but they don’t charge for corkage).

I’m long overdue a return visit, and this story maybe illustrates how much I found I cared about the place: I went a little while back for dinner with a friend to find the shutters down and the lights off. I went on Twitter to vent my despair, and felt a huge sense of relief when someone kindly pointed out to me that Tuscany was closed on Wednesdays. I’ve rarely been so happy to be wrong.

399 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA

Da Village

I remember being irked when Comptoir Libanais opened in its fancy new space on the Oracle Riverside. It felt like such a lazy attempt to steal custom from my beloved Bakery House: didn’t the people going there know that just across the IDR you could get much better, far cheaper Lebanese food from a proudly independent restaurant which had been there for years? Was being able to drink really enough consolation for such underwhelming food?

In reality, perhaps I was just peeved by another chain opening in a town which really doesn’t need any more. I certainly wasn’t so annoyed when Bakery House itself opened, when there was already another Lebanese restaurant in town (La Courbe, which did good food but never quite transcended being a big glass box that did good food). This crossed my mind this week when I decided to visit Da Village, an Afghan restaurant which opened in January on the Oxford Road, literally a handful of doors down from Kobeeda Palace, an Afghan restaurant on the Oxford Road. Couldn’t they have opened somewhere else? I remembered when I first got reports of it opening, at the end of last year. “Oh God” people on Twitter said, “Kobeeda Palace must be closing.”

“I suppose there can only be a few possibilities” I said to my friend Yasir as he drove us to the nearby Tesco car park. “Either there’s such a big Afghan community that it can support two restaurants, or they’re really going after Kobeeda Palace, or they’ve made a huge misjudgement.”

“I guess so” said Yasir, pulling into an empty space. I’ve known Yasir for years – we first worked together over fifteen years ago, and in the intervening time both of us have done a very patchy job of growing up. Yasir’s family are from Islamabad, not that far from the border with Afghanistan, and he knows that cuisine better than most people I know. Not only that, but he makes some of the best kofte kebabs I’ve ever tasted. If anybody was the right person to test out Da Village with, it was Yasir.

“By the way, when you say the words ‘Da Village’, do you think of…”

“…Ali G? Definitely.”

The windows of Da Village are tinted so you can’t see in, so I was surprised when we went in to find it was a pretty nice space, pleasingly spacious with pretty big tables. The chairs looked comfy too, although when I tried to pick it up by the handle at the top of the backrest it came away in my hand: impressive going for a restaurant barely three months old.

But anyway, it was a nice room. There were some hanging plants breaking the room into smaller sections, tasteful lighting and some art along one wall – a selection of pictures of landscapes, a quote by Alexander the Great saying “God must have loved Afghans because he made them so beautiful”. That was superimposed over the classic National Geographic portrait Afghan Girl, which I’d seen many times but not realised was connected to Afghanistan.

“I’ve seen that photo before somewhere.” I said.

“Oh yes, it’s basically the Afghan Mona Lisa” said Yasir. “It’s a very famous image.”

The eyes followed you round the room, which was no mean feat when you were in the same seat throughout the meal.

The other thing that wasn’t a hundred per cent clear was whether Da Village was a takeaway or an eat in restaurant. The menu blazed away on big screens above the counter but when we asked the waitress ushered us to sit down, so it transpired that it was both. The menu was wider than that at Kobeeda Palace, with kebabs and wraps, burgers, food from the grill, curries and biryanis. Yasir and I quickly came to an agreement to eat three meals between two and pretend one of them was a starter, the by now traditional approach of passing off greed as research. We slurped at a mango lassi each as we waited for our food to arrive – pretty good, but I wished you could buy a jug of the stuff, like you could at Kobeeda Palace for not much more money.

I’d really wanted to try Da Village’s interpretation of chapli kebabs, having enjoyed other versions in the past. It’s a dish technically from the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan – flattened, fried lamb kebabs absolutely studded with chilli – and I had a good feeling about them as soon as they reached the table.

I wasn’t wrong: if I’d liked them before, I truly loved them this time. They managed to marry the outer crunch perfectly with the firm, coarse centre, tender without being dry. They came with salad, a naan and three dips and assembling mouthful after mouthful was so enjoyable that I only realised partway through how effectively the heat had crept up on me and started dabbing my nose with a second napkin.

One dip was a deep red hot sauce, with a little smoke and pungency, but better was the verdant green dip which combined sweet mint and a little chilli. The naan was suspiciously circular and lacking in bubbles or airiness, and that made it difficult to use to scoop and dip, but it tasted nice enough. We happily ploughed through a kebab each but in the back of my mind I was thinking that I would gladly come back and have a couple to myself, especially for the princely sum of eight pounds.

“These are as good as any I’ve had in Reading” said Yasir, whose capacity for heat was unsurprisingly greater than mine. We also had a starter, “Da Village hot potatoes” which was simply some cubed fried potatoes served in the same red sauce that came with the chapli kebabs. They were okay, but the potatoes were waxy, too firm and a little undercooked, without enough of the texture of a really good fried potato.

“There are a lot of desis in this restaurant” said Yasir. “That’s a good sign.”

“What are desis?”

“You know – Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis… it’s a general term.”

“That’s useful to know – I always worry about saying there are lots of Indians in a restaurant in case it sounds a bit, I don’t know, colonial.”

Yasir looked at me as if I’d said the stupidest thing on earth.

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with saying a restaurant is full of Indians.”

“Isn’t there?”

“No, not at all.”

“It feels like such a minefield. I’ve been criticised in the past for that kind of thing. And anyway, you’re always joking about taking bombs on holiday and you refer to anybody who isn’t a Muslim as an ‘infidel’. Are you the best judge of these things?”

He grinned wolfishly. “Possibly not.”

Yasir’s main course was a double kobeeda kebab – a kofte, as it’s otherwise known. As a Muslim, Yasir can only eat halal meat but, for reasons best known to him, he refuses to eat most meat because he doesn’t like the texture. Or, as he used to put it when we worked together, “I can’t have solid meat in my mouth but I do love mince” (and if at this point you’re imagining Larry Grayson I’d say you’re not a million miles from the truth).

He generously let me try some of his kofte and I liked it very much – very firm and coarse and perhaps not as wet and pappy as it might be at other establishments. Ironically, that’s why Yasir preferred the kobeeda from a couple of doors down: it takes all sorts, I suppose. It needed more sauce (and perhaps we should have asked for some, given that we’d used most of ours on the chapli kebabs) but it was still tasty and excellent value at nine pounds. The rice it came with was pleasant enough, but not in the same league as at, say, Bakery House.

I had chosen the karahi chicken, as my reference dish in Afghan restaurants. It came to the table with all the sizzle and steam you could hope for, and it looked the part. But it was, on some levels at least, all mouth and no trousers: the sauce lacked depth and complexity and was more peppery than spicy. I would have liked some ginger in it, or heaps of coriander, but instead it was a very glossy and extremely oily sauce that did all its shouting up front without enough to back it up.

The meat was on the bone and some of it was very easy to get off – some pieces, on the other hand, had so little meat that it hardly felt worth the bother. They brought another naan with the karahi and this dish was where it really disappointed – not enough lightness or flexibility to allow for the proper scooping that would have transformed the experience.

Our mostly-empty plates sat in front of us for some time after we admitted defeat, during which time the restaurant started to fill up with friends and families. Our waitress, who had been lovely all evening, rather forgot about us at this point, although she did eventually bring the bill when we waved her down and boxed up some leftover kobeeda and chapal kebab for Yasir’s lunch the next day. We didn’t mind: it was nice to catch up, to gossip and to reminisce. Around us plenty of buddies were doing the same, and if they thought we were misfits they certainly didn’t let on. Our dinner for two – more food than we could eat and a couple of mango lassis – came to thirty-three pounds, not including service.

“I wish I could have the chapli from this place and the kofte from Kobeeda Palace in a single restaurant” said Yasir. “And the sauces from Bakery House! I really love their orange chilli sauce, I could eat that all day.”

“I love the chapli here too, but I preferred the kobeeda here. But the karahi chicken at Kobeeda Palace is miles better.”

We argued the toss a little longer – designing our own little Top Trumps deck of Reading restaurants – and not for the first time I found myself thinking that restaurants are often about compromises. You rarely get everything you want in a single package, but that’s even more complicated when your closest competitor is literally the closest – a few doors down and offering the same dishes, in a slightly different way and at a slightly different price.

I can imagine there are people out there who have never been to Kobeeda Palace and might chance upon Da Village first, drawn in by the slightly fancier exterior. Maybe they would like it better, because you never forget your first love. Maybe they’ll be the Coke and Pepsi of Reading’s Afghan restaurants, and everybody will have a different favourite. I liked Da Village a lot, and some of its dishes are definitely better than their Kobeeda Palace equivalents. But I’m a sentimental soul, and will I ever really stop at Da Village when I could walk another minute down the Oxford Road and go to the original and best? I don’t know: maybe two or three times out of ten, and maybe not. Perhaps we should just be glad that Reading has two decent Afghan restaurants, even if they could be a little more helpfully spaced out.

On the walk back to the car park we went past Kobeeda Palace. The lights were on, you could see through the windows and the place was buzzing and packed. Rather unworthily, my instinctive reaction was to smile. That’s right, you show them, I thought to myself.

Da Village – 7.0

387 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA
0118 4378657

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