Reading’s vegetarians and vegans have never been served terribly well. Back in the day there was Café Iguana, which I still miss (my order was usually a Roma toasted sandwich and their delicious, if whiffy, garlic and herb fries). It was scuzzy but lovable, the service was haphazard and the whole thing was distinctly, well, nineties, but I was very sad when it closed. For a long time after that, the only destination for vegetarians was the brilliant and unsung Bhel Puri House, and plenty of people didn’t even know it existed.
It’s only in the last couple of years that things have started to shift. We’ve seen restaurants raise their game: now there are many places with credible meat-free (or plant-based, or whatever you want to call it this month) options. So now we have Pho where most of the menu can be made vegetarian or vegan, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen which has an excellent vegan selection, and Honest which first introduced an excellent vegetarian fritter and then added a trailblazing vegan burger. I keep meaning to do a round-up of the best places for vegetarians in Reading – another gap in the market – and the main thing that delays it is the growing plethora of options.
In parallel, Reading saw two completely meat-free venues open this year. The first, Miami Burger, offered a vegan take on American fast food and closed its doors last week shortly after announcing a deal to sell its products in Morrisons. A cynic could almost believe that the restaurant was always just a shop window to land that kind of contract (a conspiracy theory hardly helped by Miami Burger rewriting history to describe the Reading restaurant as a “test kitchen”).
Either way I never visited Miami Burger – known to some as “Brexit Burger” because of the political views of its owner, a man who left the Tories for UKIP and once pondered on his blog whether the unemployed should have their votes taken away – and I’m not convinced I’ve missed much. Besides, for five pounds you can get one of Bhel Puri’s amazing vada pav, and that’s more than enough veggie burger for me.
The second meat-free restaurant is a more interesting proposition. Global Café for many years was home to Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen, a much-celebrated Reading establishment which left me baffled when I visited it on duty many years ago. Tutu left this year to take over a site in Palmer Park which used to belong to the Chalkboard Café, and as a result Global Café has taken on a new chef and is offering a regularly changing vegetarian and vegan menu under the moniker Global Café Kitchen.
I was having a drink at Global Café with my mother and my stepfather the fateful night we went to review Lemoni, and looking at their menu I was very tempted to change our plans and eat there instead. It was small (four or five main courses and a couple of starters) and reasonably priced (mains were around a tenner). But most crucially, it all looked worth eating: from a tempura mushroom burger to a vegetarian rendang, from Sri Lankan dahl to a halloumi and tabbouleh salad, I could happily have ordered practically anything on the menu. I wasn’t alone, either; my mother in particular would much rather have eaten at Global Café than Lemoni, so much so that we agreed to come back the following week and give it a whirl, with my stepfather in tow.
The Global Café hasn’t changed in many years, and I suspect you either think it’s one of the last great Reading institutions or an anachronism you haven’t felt the need to visit for a very long time. I veer more towards the former – even though it’s a tad on the scruffy side I’ve always had a soft spot for it. The area at the front, near the bar, gets lots of light from the lovely big windows and if all the tables and chairs don’t match and don’t seem to be designed for eating at or drinking at, it doesn’t necessarily matter. Nor does it matter that there’s a sofa randomly plonked there, with a big metal trunk serving as a table. It’s Global Café: that’s just how it is.
My stepfather found the long trip downstairs to the loos genuinely alarming (“it smells of damp down there”) and was a bit baffled by the different-coloured lights in the wicker lightshades (“you’d think they’d be LED bulbs, wouldn’t you?”) but I wouldn’t describe him as the target market for this kind of place. He was more impressed with the selection of local beers, as was I, but because it was a school night the three of us opted for an alcohol-free Erdinger Blue apiece while we decided what to order. It’s my top tip for anyone who likes the taste of beer and wants to cut down on their alcohol intake – and it cost less than £3 a bottle, considerably cheaper than the crazy prices charged at some of Reading’s pubs.
There were only a handful of starters, but all the mains from our previous visit were still on the menu, along with a couple of specials – a spiced potato and cheese “Bombay burger” and what was described as a “Banana Blossom burger”.
“What’s the banana blossom burger?” I asked the dreadlocked chap behind the bar (no table service, so that’s where you place your order).
“It’s not made from banana, it’s another part of the banana tree. It sort of has the same texture as chicken.”
“They’re changing the menu all the time. I’m not even a vegetarian, but I really like the food here.”
“How long have you been running the new menu?”
“About three months, we’re still getting used to it really.”
I wasn’t sure whether this exchange inspired confidence or eroded it – but I liked his honesty and I liked the sound of the banana blossom burger, so I changed my mind about what to eat and ordered it instead.
Our starters arrived reasonably quickly, brought I think by the chef. The menu had three, one of which was soup, so we ordered the other two planning to share them. The best of them was the crispy fried aubergine, cooked with a beautifully light touch and free of all the stodge and mulch I associate with aubergine done badly.
This stuff was better than versions I’ve had of the same dish, berenjanas con miel, in Andalusia and the little tweaks to make the dish vegan only added to the appeal: vegan labneh had a very pleasing touch of coconut, and the miel de cana (vegan honey) was hard to distinguish from any other kind of honey. We all ever so politely made sure we had our fair share before nicely bargaining over the final piece. A really good dish, although at six pounds it felt like it should have been a bigger portion. “I could have eaten one of those on my own” said my mother, echoing my feelings. Still, I guess that’s what happens when you share two starters between three: if you go, order your own.
The other starter was a very different kettle of quinoa. Flatbread with marinated tomatoes, olives and dip sounds like just the thing to graze on while you wait for your food to arrive, but this was a lukewarm warm-up act. The tomatoes – cherry tomatoes halved – were pleasant enough, and the olives, small and pitted, were the kind of thing you could get in any supermarket.
The houmous, though, was worse than anything you could get in a supermarket – I’ve no doubt they made it themselves, but it had no lightness, no evidence of olive oil or garlic or tahini. Calling it a dip was optimistic because it didn’t have the texture for dipping: you’d have had more luck using it to cement a wall. We did our best to scoop it on to the heavy, unremarkable flatbread.
This rogue’s gallery came to four pounds – for the same money you could have a much bigger bowl of the best houmous in Reading just up the road at Bakery House, and they’d throw in piping hot, fresh-from-the-oven pitta bread into the bargain. It felt like the restaurant had bought those little, weird-shaped dishes, and then struggled to decide what to serve in them. The answer, I think, is Not this.
The themes of the starters – glimmers of talent, inconsistency and slightly sharp pricing – followed through to the main courses (which arrived pretty quickly), although these were generally far better. My mother’s choice, the parippu – Sri Lankan dahl – was earthy and creamy with a nicely gradual heat. Her verdict was that it was “a bit monotonous” – although I suspect that, texturally at least, that’s always the way with dahl. The toasted coconut on top helped, but it needed something like toasted seeds for texture and what it really needed was plenty of fresh coriander. The rice was somewhat clumpy – brown rice might have been better – and the flatbread wasn’t required: there wasn’t enough of the dish to be able to use it. If that all sounds like faint praise, it shouldn’t entirely – I enjoyed it, but even at eight pounds it felt like it could have been a little bigger and better.
My stepfather had chosen the rendang – in this case a chickpea curry with aubergines and courgettes. I’m used to rendang being made with long-cooked, sticky strands of beef and having an intensely savoury taste. This dish didn’t have any of that, feeling more like a massaman or a Thai curry with as much sweetness as heat, if not more. Again, I liked it, and again I felt that it was a little keenly priced: eleven pounds for this one. My stepfather seemed to enjoy it, too, and polished it off in short order.
This brings us to the appropriately alliterative banana blossom burger, which I’m delighted to say was an eye opener. It didn’t have the texture of chicken, after all that: it reminded me more of artichoke hearts, and you got a couple of pieces rather than a single patty. But the coating around the banana blossom was very good – salty and savoury, reminiscent of shame-free KFC. The bun was strong enough to stand up to everything in it (so unlike, say, Honest’s buns which always seem to go soggy at the bottom) and the ripe avocado and mango mayo in it finished it off nicely.
This was a revelation to me, and I hope Global Café Kitchen moves it off the specials menu so more people can try it. A chap at the table next to me ordered it and when it arrived at his table I butted in to enthuse to him about how much I’d liked it. “It’s a bit like KFC!” I said, to which he mournfully replied “I’ve never had KFC” (I asked him his verdict as we were leaving: he thought it was too salty, so Christ knows what the poor guy would actually make of KFC).
Also, I really liked Global Café Kitchen’s fries – clearly hand-cut and prepared on the premises – and the sweet tomato sauce and (presumably) vegan mayo they came with were both tasty, too. My stepfather had some “dirty fries” although it wasn’t clear what made them so sinful or indulgent: the “beetroot aioli” mainly seemed to be finely diced beetroot and the sesame seeds felt a bit unnecessary. They were still very good, though, because their fries are very good.
There isn’t much more to say about Global Café Kitchen than that – there was no dessert section, and we’d been fed so quickly and efficiently that there was nothing more to do but to head out. Our whole meal – two starters, three mains, those extra fries and three beers – came to almost bang on fifty pounds, not including service.
Service was really friendly and likeable but had a general air that they were still getting the hang of things. We had to ask for side plates, for instance, and the speed with which our mains came out gave the impression that the restaurant didn’t have masses of customers, so was used to just cooking things and getting them out of the door almost straight away. Three months should be long enough to get those teething troubles under control but, much like everything else about Global Café, I was prepared to overlook some of the less polished aspects.
Reviews like this are the hardest to conclude. A hatchet job writes itself, a rave review also builds to a natural, logical crescendo, a rallying cry of sorts. It’s far more difficult to write the sort of nuanced summary that makes half your readers think the mark at the end is far too harsh and the other half believe that you’ve let a restaurant off the hook. All the same, here goes: much of what I ate at Global Café Kitchen wasn’t perfect, and much of what I liked felt too small or too expensive (or ever so slightly beige) but in terms of imagination and range there is still plenty to celebrate.
They offer a genuine vegan menu (nearly all the dishes are vegan, and they say the rest can be made vegan on request) which offers a wide range of dishes, tries different meat substitutes rather than just doling out the same old tofu and – most crucially – offers real and interesting choices. I could have ordered any of the main courses we tried that night, and a couple we didn’t, without feeling like I was missing meat at all. There’s a lot to be said for that – whether you’re vegetarian or vegan, or know somebody who is that you’d actually like to have dinner with once in a while. Or, for that matter, if you’d just like to do your bit to eat more sensibly and help the planet from time to time. That you can do so without donning a hair shirt is quite an achievement, even if in 2019 it shouldn’t feel that way.
I never made it to Miami Burger – deliberately, I’m afraid – but the one thing I heard about it from my vegan followers was how nice it was just to have somewhere where they could order everything on the menu. Those people should make their way to Global Café and support a kitchen that may not be doing everything right quite yet but definitely has the right idea. And the rest of us? We should consider following suit from time to time, and supporting a Reading institution – one which, it seems to me, has picked up the torch from Café Iguana and is doing its best to carry it forward into an uncertain future.
Global Café Kitchen – 6.9
35-39 London Street, RG1 4PS