N.B. As of August 2020 Osaka has reopened and is taking part in the government’s “Eat Out To Help Out” scheme.
I should start out by saying that really, this isn’t a review of Osaka. I went there, and I’ll talk a bit about the food and the service, but the world has changed so much in the fortnight since I had lunch there that no reviews, especially this one, are of any practical use. All of us restaurant bloggers (what’s the collective noun: a smugness?) are scratching our heads, wondering what to write now.
When I went to Osaka, I had an idea that it might be the last review I published for some time, but I didn’t realise that it would be surplus to requirements before I ever typed a word of it. The day after my lunch at Osaka I was meant to have lunch at Wetherspoon’s with Matt Rodda – I know! – until we both wisely decided that it really wasn’t the time. Given how Tim Martin has behaved since the beginning of the COVID-19 saga, it might never be the place either, even once we get through this scary, wobbly, historic period and life returns to something like normal.
Except, of course, we don’t know what that will look like and “normal” gets redefined every day. Last week my mother dropped a little food package at my doorstep and a card for my forthcoming birthday, and waved forlornly from the gate at the bottom of my front yard. I couldn’t hug her, even though I wanted to. In March 2020, that’s now normal. Yesterday at 6pm all the members of the community WhatsApp group I’m in opened their front doors, cup of tea or bottle of beer in hand, and waved to each other. The WhatsApp group buzzed with photos and videos so we could see what’s happening round the corner, or in front of the pub. These days, that’s normal too.
These are the starters I had at Osaka. The takoyaki (octopus balls – and no, I didn’t realise octopus had balls either) were a bit lacking in octopus for me, and mainly felt like stodgy potato. None the less, I quite liked them and I loved the mayonnaise (Kewpie, at a guess) and the tang of fruity sauce playing against the saltiness of the bonito flakes. The Korean fried chicken was much nicer – easily up there with Soju’s example, or the wonders of a bucket of Kokoro sweet chilli chicken. Beautifully presented, too. Of course, this is all academic now.
The following Saturday, the Lyndhurst hosted the final readers’ lunch for the foreseeable future. The tables were appropriately spaced, everybody was liberally washing their hands, sanitising gel was everywhere. The mood was interesting: even though there was no lockdown at this point, no real limit on movement, everybody knew that this was effectively the leaving do for life as we knew it.
The food was unbelievably good, too – a greatest hits performance in places, with chilli nachos here and trio of pork (including a pork wellington with black pudding) there but also plenty of wondrous surprises. Courgette flowers stuffed with ricotta and fried, stuffed squid, a rhubarb and custard dessert topped with a tart, chewy strand of dried rhubarb. I’ve thought about that lunch many times since: it may be a long time before I see anything close to that many people in a room again. Last Sunday, the Lyndhurst hand delivered Sunday roasts for free to vulnerable people who lived locally. Two days later, following the government announcement about lockdown, they had closed. I can’t wait to visit them on the other side of all this.
I expected Osaka’s sushi and sashimi to be better than they were, to be honest. I was surprised that the sashimi, beautifully presented though it was, wasn’t quite up to the standards of Sen Sushi, where I’d had such an iffy meal the previous month. The range of maki at Osaka was quite limited, which pushed us into ordering uramaki instead – and the “Rainbow” was pleasant enough but, at the time, didn’t feel like it had a wow factor for twelve pounds.
This was the privileged life we all led two weeks ago, that I could eat sushi and quibble about whether it was quite what I had hoped for. And now we’re all anxiously eyeing our cupboards and fridges and planning our meals for the week, wondering whether to risk a walk to the supermarket. I logged on to Ocado yesterday, and found myself 15000th in the queue for about two hours before giving up.
My last meal in a restaurant before everything changed, of all the places you could go, was at Carluccio’s. Not my choice, but a favourite of my family’s. My brother was over from Australia, touching down just before Australia announced that everyone returning from overseas would have to quarantine for two weeks. I was so pleased to see him that I couldn’t even bring myself to mock his undercut and his giant white hipster beard, one rogue strand of ginger fighting a rearguard action against the ageing process.
But the truth is that by then I was uncomfortable being out, uncomfortable being in a restaurant. We were one of two tables occupied, and when a pair of women came in at about half-eight to make it a third you could almost see the poor staff giving them evils. They wanted to go home, they wanted the restaurant to close and I can’t say I blamed them. I had arancini and spaghetti carbonara, and both were fine, but I knew this was the last time I would have dinner with my family – my mother, my stepdad, my aunt – for a long time. I didn’t hug them goodbye: another odd thing about the world now is the number of people you can hug has shrunk to almost zero. And even writing that, I know that for some people it is zero, and I feel lucky and ungrateful all at once.
I didn’t especially like my main course at Osaka. I ordered yaki soba, always my go-to dish at Wagamama so a sensible thing to compare. In a previous life I lived pretty close to the Oracle and I used to get a takeaway carton of yaki soba from Wagamama and eat it at home, feeling almost like a New Yorker. But Osaka’s wasn’t quite as good, slightly lacking in pickled ginger, the chicken a little too uniform for me. The sauce, while smoky, was too sweet and the broccoli and pepper were cut far too big, so eating it was a bit too much of a challenge.
Zoë’s beef donburi felt very similar, again with those massive stems of broccoli. I really felt for Osaka by this point – most restaurants get a long time to get things right. And it’s such a beautiful fit out (“the highest quality unit the Oracle has ever seen” said Zoë, who knows about these things). Even the bathrooms were beautiful: I don’t usually comment on bathrooms but unsurprisingly I went several times during this visit, availing myself of their very nice hand soap.
The waitress ushered another couple into the restaurant and invited them to sit at the table next to us. They nicely asked if they could be put at a more socially distant table. Everything was so counter-intuitive: normally restaurants want to sit you close together near a window to draw people in, but on this occasion they needed to dot us across the place, as far from each other as possible. And the staff at Osaka were so nice – too nice, really, asking pretty much every five minutes if we were still having a nice time. They, like so many people working in hospitality – a profession too many people take for granted – deserved better than the world we find ourselves in now.
My brother and I went for long walks last week while he was in the country. One day we strolled down the canal, past the Fisherman’s Cottage and out to the horseshoe bridge. The following day we wandered through Christchurch Meadows and up to Balmore Park. I’ve always thought it was Reading’s answer to Parliament Hill, and from the little bench you can see the Blade, Thames Tower, all of our town spread out in front of us. Everywhere was quieter than it had been but not as quiet as I thought it should be, but I knew that by being out I was part of the problem and not part of the solution. We headed back down Prospect Street and I saw Zezva inside Geo Café, still open and still serving the community, selling bread and eggs and jam.
The way Reading’s food and drink businesses have adapted is extraordinary. Restaurants have moved to takeaway and delivery, breweries have quickly set up web shops. On my birthday I received my Aeropress from Phil at Anonymous Coffee, and after years and years of sitting in cafés with lattes I now make myself a coffee every morning. The ritual of it is strangely calming and mindful, and the coffee tastes magnificent too. We’ve had deliveries from Double Barrelled, from Siren Craft, cider from Pang Valley: I don’t know whether it’s a lockdown or a lock in, half the time.
I’ve done my best to Tweet about all of the changes – just trying to do what I can – but the situation has changed so quickly that every day a business closes, or repurposes, or reopens. I hope that the measures that have been announced allow restaurants to keep staff on, to pay their rent, to stay afloat, but of course at this stage I doubt anybody really knows.
I really wanted to try dessert at Osaka when I saw that they did sesame ice cream. I quite liked it, but ideally I would have wanted it to be smaller and stronger flavoured: it felt like vanilla ice cream with a touch of sesame rather than sesame ice cream. It made me think wistfully about eating the same dish in Paris, which now makes me think wistfully about all the places suffering now and how none of us will get to travel for quite some time. Everyone who has booked holidays is mentally writing them off for the rest of the year. That includes me: Belfast will have to wait and sitting by the pool in Greece, wondering when to head down to town for lunch, is now just the happy place I think about when I’m trying to relax. (Zoë had cheesecake, by the way, which was small but perfectly formed.)
As Australia started to move towards lockdown, my brother desperately tried to move his flight forward and cut short his break so he could return to his wife and children. It wasn’t possible: he had to get a new flight. Then his new flight was cancelled at short notice and he had to get a second new flight, and then it turned out that he couldn’t take that flight because he would need a medical certificate to transit via Bangkok. And so finally he rescheduled his second new flight, at the eleventh hour, so he could get home. I found myself thinking about how upsetting it was to go through this without the people you love most.
Sitting in the airport he sent me a photo and I saw Heathrow as I’d never seen it before: almost deserted, the Pret and the Starbucks shut, people in masks dotted across the waiting areas, couples huddled together for comfort. My mother couldn’t get to sleep that night until she knew for sure that he was up in the air.
Since we went into lockdown, my house has acquired a different rhythm. My other half is working from home, so the living room is filled with the sound of her voice, checking in on her team, laughing and chatting, being authentically herself. I’m in charge of catering, so I’ve been pressed into service chopping and prepping, cooking and freezing, cobbling stuff together from the cupboards and improvising. A couple of days ago I cooked chicken thighs in ajika, my inadequate tribute to the magic of Geo Café’s legendary wraps. They came out better than I feared, and the kitchen had the faint whiff of Tbilisi all evening. Yesterday I cooked a huge chilli on the stove, the kitchen windows open and sunlight seeping in, my other half doing some of her calls in the sunshine on the doorstep.
I know it won’t always be like this, and I know I’m lucky to have a house, a home and a garden, so I’m trying to be grateful at the time rather than just look back later and realise things weren’t so bad. I know Reading, and every other place, has people struggling, cramped flats or houses full of kids who don’t understand why they can’t go outside. Getting to write about restaurants is by its nature a pretty privileged thing to do, but I’m not sure I fully appreciated it until now.
If I had been rating Osaka, which I’m not, I would have said that it was quite good but not amazing. I liked my meal more than Zoë did (often it’s the other way round), and I might have considered going back more quickly than she would. If I’d been rating Osaka this would have been a very different piece, and I would have told you how it was owned by the people who run Coconut. I would have told you how clever the design is, full of different types of tables for different kind of diners. I would have told you more about the lovely staff. And you would have had a mark at the bottom of this – but you’ve already scrolled down and seen that there isn’t one, haven’t you?
But really, this feels more like a review of restaurants in general, and of how we used to live. And the concept of restaurants is one I really would give 10 out of 10 to. Think about it: people giving up their time and their lives to feed us, to work evenings and weekends when most of us wouldn’t consider that. People creating our memories, of meals and evenings and times in our lives: forget Inception, restaurants have been doing this for years. Having someone cook for you feels pretty decadent right now, and I hope when we come out the other side of this that hospitality gets the respect and thanks it deserves. I hope that my favourite restaurants survive and that they come back stronger. I hope I get to play a part in helping that to happen. And yes, I know some people think these are first world problems but for people who run or work in restaurants, it’s a lot more than that. It’s their lives, and their livelihoods.
This morning I woke up to a photo from my brother. It was a plane window photograph showing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, so murky that you couldn’t tell if it was deliberately black and white or just naturally greyscale. He made it home, and they checked his temperature on touchdown. Thirty-six degrees, so he was allowed to go home to his family rather than being quarantined in a hotel for a fortnight. I felt emotional reading the message, but these are strange times; everything is just that little bit closer to the surface.
The last time I took a break from reviewing restaurants was nearly four years ago. My wife and I separated and this blog, which started as a joint project, was no longer appropriate. I didn’t start reviewing again until my life returned to something like normal. I moved into a horrible flat, I hated it, I moved again into a lovely house, my decree absolute came through, I started dating and life, as it tends to, went on. Eventually, my world was in a state where I felt like I could do this again.
Now I’m taking a break for the simple reason that there aren’t any restaurants to review: I feel redundant in the true sense of the word. And I would keep writing, I really would, but I don’t quite know what to write about. All suggestions gratefully received, as long as they’re polite.
In the meantime, all I can sign off with is to thank you for reading, to tell you to stay safe, to remind you to stay in touch with the people that matter to you and to do everything you can to support the small businesses you love. I sincerely hope that on the far side of this we will all be kinder, more connected, less complacent and more aware of what’s really important. And when this is over, if Osaka is trading again, it will be the first place I visit on duty. They deserve a better review than this.