Takeaway review: O Português

Many years ago, in another life, I was spending a long weekend in Lisbon (remember when we used to have those?) and I had the good fortune to go on a food tour hosted by the journalist and writer Celia Pedroso. Every city – every country too, for that matter – should have an advocate like Pedroso, and anybody who went to Lisbon thinking that Portugal was all peri-peri chicken and egg custard tarts would have had their mind absolutely blown by a few hours in her expert company. 

It turned out that Portugal had cheese and ham that could rival anything from Spain, had not only port but also wonderful rich red wines and fresh, almost effervescent vinho verde. We sat in a restaurant called Tagide, looking out over the city, trying petiscos, Portugal’s take on small sharing plates, which were every bit as delicious as any tapas I’d eaten in Andalusia. Then there was ginjinha, a cherry liqueur sometimes served in – just imagine this – an edible chocolate shot glass. Throw the aforementioned chicken and pasteis de nata into the mix, and you have the makings of a wonderful, unsung cuisine.

I came away from that afternoon thinking that Portugal, so often overshadowed by its Iberian cousin, might be the best-kept food secret in Europe. It’s well-kept enough, for some reason, that Portuguese food has never quite made it to these shores; London has never had a Portuguese invasion the way as, say, Peruvian food some years ago and, closer to home, in nearly eight years of writing this blog I’ve only ever reviewed two Portuguese restaurants. Both of them left me a bit baffled, to put it lightly: was it just that the food didn’t travel well?

All of this made me very curious indeed when the old Bart’s Steakhouse site next to Palmer Park, which was Colley’s Supper Rooms for many years, reopened as O Português. All the early signs pointed to a hearty, authentic Portuguese restaurant, and the restaurant’s social media output – all bilingual – suggested a wide and interesting menu, ever-changing daily specials and huge amounts of support from the local Portuguese community. With the exception of Deliveroo-only London imports like Burger & Lobster and Rosa’s Thai, O Português is probably the restaurant most readers have told me they want me to check out. They’re on JustEat, so on a quiet weekday lunchtime I sat down to pore over their menu and decide what to order for dinner.

Researching the menu was an awful lot of fun and involved having JustEat open in one browser tab, Google in another. It was both an education in Portuguese food and a reminder of how little I knew about it. The menu had a selection of just under ten starters, most of them hovering around the seven pound mark, and a wide range of main courses ranging from ten to twenty pounds. Some had descriptions, some didn’t, but I hadn’t heard of much of it and the more I researched the hungrier I got. Did I fancy arroz de marisco, seafood rice that might rival a paella, or bacalhau a bráz, a sort of salt cod scrambled egg dish with matchstick potatoes? 

Everywhere I looked a different genre of gastronomic temptation was waving from the menu, shouting “pick me!”. And of course, the problem with looking up all these different Portuguese specialities was that Google always seemed to throw up the platonic ideal of each dish, a picture of every single one as its absolute best self. It partly wanted to make me order from O Português, it very much made me want to hop on the next plane to Porto and, perhaps most of all, it made me hope that ordering from O Português would make me feel less sad about the fact that I couldn’t so much get on the RailAir, let alone fly to Portugal at the drop of a hat. 

I deliberated, I horse-traded with my other half Zoë and we placed an order for that evening – two starters and two mains, coming to just over thirty-six pounds, including delivery and service charge. Then we got on with our day, but every now and again, on our afternoon walk, I would remember that I had this takeaway to look forward to and I thought what I always think with these review meals: I hope it’s good.

We’d ordered our food to arrive at seven pm, and the JustEat experience was pretty efficient, painless and slightly early. We were told at just before twenty to seven that our rider was on his way, and he pulled up outside the house barely five minutes later. Most of our food was in foil containers with cardboard lids, all recyclable, and one dish we’d ordered was in polystyrene. At the time I thought nothing of it, but later Zoë said “considering it’s less than ten minutes down the road it’s just not hot enough” and, on reflection, I tended to agree.

O Português’ starters mostly read like unpretentious bar food and I was excited about trying them. The first of them, pica pau, was thinly cut pork or beef in a spicy, beery gravy with pickled vegetables: the name translates as woodpecker, and the idea is that you pick away at it with a cocktail stick while drinking a cold Super Bock (or, in my case that evening, a beautiful bottle of Alhambra 1925, a birthday present from a friend). 

That sounds fantastic in theory, but O Português’ version was a bit challenging in practice. There was plenty of beef, most of it reasonably tender, but I didn’t detect any spice and next to nothing you could describe as gravy. Instead, there was a lot of pickled cauliflower and carrot, so much so that the sharp tang of vinegar was the main detectable flavour of the whole lot. I was inclined to give O Português the benefit of the doubt: I suspect this dish was reasonably authentic and probably just not for me. But I love pickles and I still found this a bit acrid; Zoë, who despises vinegar in all its forms, couldn’t cope with even a forkful of this dish. Strangest of all, it was a lot of food for six pounds fifty: if you liked it, you’d describe it as amazing value. If you didn’t, it was just cheap.

Fantastic in theory probably also sums up the other starter we had, another iconic Portuguese dish and again, meant to be robust rather than fancy. I had been tempted by the prego no pau, a “nailed” steak sandwich with garlic – apparently – literally hammered into it, but instead I went for bifana, which is probably the national sandwich of Portugal. And again, some of the problems with it may have derived from the disconnect between reading all about how amazing these could be in theory and then eating O Português’ in practice. 

In the wonderful theoretical world of the internet, the pork loin used in a bifana is thin and marinated, soused in flavour. In the real world of the polystyrene container in my living room, the pork was thicker, drier and, it seemed to me, ever so slightly overcooked. There was a good pungent waft of garlic underneath the pork, but it felt like it had been added afterwards rather than cooked alongside it. Perhaps if I’d had this in a tasca somewhere in the Bairro Alto, I’d have loved it, but on my sofa it lacked that power to transport.

Zoë liked it more than me – “thank god for bread and pork” were her exact words, but that might be because she had so little time for her main course. She had gone for the frango grelhado, grilled chicken, thinking that it was a classic Portuguese dish and relatively easy to get right. Now, ordinarily in these takeaway reviews Zoë plays a relatively minor role. On this occasion, however, I’ll have to quote her extensively, because she disliked her dinner so much that I ended up resorting to grabbing my phone, opening the Notes app and taking dictation at numerous points throughout the rest of the evening.

“It’s a mirage” she started. “It looks like it’s going to be a delicious baby chicken, like the ones from Bakery House, but actually it’s just a carcass covered in tasty skin.”

The forkful Zoë had let me have taste indeed have a tasty coating and I’d rather liked it. I wasn’t sure it was better than Nando’s, and it definitely wasn’t better than the best roast chicken I’d had in Lisbon, but it wasn’t terrible.

“You know that bit of chicken I let you try? That was most of the meat there was on the whole thing. It had more bones than Cemetery Junction. And another thing: it tastes to me like it’s been reheated. It feels like a quarter of chicken you’d get from a chicken shop.”

I supposed it was possible. I knew, for instance, that Nando’s precooked its chicken before finishing it on the grill: perhaps O Português did likewise. As if to prove her point, she lifted the whole scrawny thing up. It dangled uselessly from her fork, as if from a gibbet.

“It’s tough in places. I think it’s been reheated. It’s the chicken I feel sorry for. If it’s going to die, it should at least give somebody some pleasure. And the chips are just cold and hard.”

They’d looked pretty decent and home made on the plate, but apparently not.

“What about the rice?”

“It’s okay, but it’s rice. How wrong can you go with rice?” 

She had a point.

I’d picked my main having scrolled through O Português’ social media and when it turned up, it definitely looked the part. Arroz con pato, or duck with rice, sounded really promising. And again, it was a huge portion – tons of rice with what looked like shredded duck leg tumbled through it, and crispy slices of chourico and what looked like smoked pork on top. I mean, on paper, how good does that sound? And even looking at the picture below – well, it does look the part.

And yes, in theory, this dish should have been a standout. But there’s that word, theory, again: in reality it somehow managed to be less than the sum of its parts. The chourico was lovely and smoky (you smelled it the instant the lid came off the foil container), there was plenty of duck and even the smoked pork – which I’d normally approach with caution – was salty and tasty. But somehow, none of that flavour had made it into the rice and so the whole thing was heavy going. 

And again, portion size and cost made for a confusing combination – this dish was eleven pounds, was far more food than I could physically eat and wasn’t tasty enough that I was remotely disappointed about having to leave some. If you liked it, it would be phenomenal value. It seemed especially odd compared to the chicken dish, which was also eleven pounds but, even by comparison, poor value. Poor value compared to Bakery House’s wonderful boneless baby chicken too, come to think of it.

Later, when we were emptying quite a lot of our dinner into one of Reading Council’s exciting new food recycling caddies, she pointed to a clump of something beige in the foil dish. “See that? That’s where I spat a chip out.” I’ve had some iffy chips in my time, often bad enough that I’ve not bothered finishing the portion, but spitting one out isn’t something I’ve ever had to do. The meal left a disappointment which lingered for the rest of the evening, only slightly redeemed by eating some phenomenal chocolate brownies (another birthday gift, as it happens).

I’ve really not looked forward to writing this review, and I’ve rarely taken less pleasure in saying that somewhere wasn’t my cup of tea. I so wanted to like O Português, and I very much wanted to be reminded of everything I love about Portugal. And I find myself in a difficult position because, despite having visited that country several times, I couldn’t even begin to tell you whether the dishes we ate were authentic. It might be that they were, and that I like Portuguese food less than I thought I did, or that they weren’t. 

Or it could just be that the restaurant just had an off day. I don’t even know, really, which is the best case scenario, out of those possible outcomes. I’m sure that O Português has enough of a customer base that this is no skin off their nose, but I still feel sad that I can’t recommend them. I wished that everything I had eaten had been smaller, better and more expensive – and wanting all three of those things from a restaurant, all at once, is just not how it should be.

All I really know is that a small independent restaurant, pretty much the only one of its kind in Reading, cooked a meal I very much struggled to enjoy, and a large part of me dearly wishes this week’s review had reported different news. We still have no tapas restaurant since the sad departure of I Love Paella, and I’m yet to find a Portuguese restaurant in this country that feels like it does their food justice. If you want chicken perfected on a grill, Bakery House remains the place to beat. And if you want the closest thing to Portuguese food here, I’m afraid you’ll have to head to Nando’s. Nando’s isn’t Portuguese either – it’s South African, as a matter of fact – but you probably knew that already, didn’t you?

O Português
21 Wokingham Road, Reading, RG6 1LE
0118 9268949

https://www.facebook.com/OPortuguesInTown
Order via: JustEat

Takeaway review: Thai Table

Can you believe it’s two months since I announced that I was going to start reviewing takeaways? January properly dragged – even more than most Januaries, and that’s saying a lot – but the weeks feel like they’ve whipped by since I settled into my regular routine of research, ordering, eating, digesting and writing. As we sit on the cusp of the next phase of whatever this year will turn out to be, I realise I’m running out of time to review takeaways before restaurants (or, at least, those restaurants lucky enough to have sufficient outside space to be vaguely profitable) open again. And after that, you might be off eating in those, or you might still want to read about takeaways. Who knows? The future has never felt harder to predict.

My original plan was to try and check out places that had opened since I stopped writing reviews last March, and places that I’d never had a chance to review because they only did takeaway. And it’s been a real journey of discovery since then – square pizzas from the Shinfield Road, beautiful dal from West Reading, stunning grilled meats from suburban Woodley, not to mention woeful burgers from a hotel that ought to know better. And, because they deserve to be shouted about, I also found time to sample delicious and imaginative food from the pub just round the corner from my house

But I realise there’s one category of takeaway I’ve not managed to cover so far, and that’s places that have always done takeaway but that, for whatever reason, just never occur to people as an option. Under the radar restaurants.

This time last year, when the restaurants had just been told to close, because I really wanted to do something to help, I started a Twitter thread listing local businesses and how they were adapting. It took off, and I was constantly updating it: this business was doing free delivery, that business had moved to call and collect. Things changed on a daily basis as restaurants, cafés, pubs and breweries were forced to adapt and fight for survival. I bet they all look back, reflect on the fact that was a year ago, and feel incredibly tired.

When I did the thread, I got a reply from Thai Table, the Thai restaurant in Caversham just down from the Griffin. They delivered to a wide range of Reading postcodes, they said. Thai Table does takeaway, I thought. Who knew? So I added them to the thread and they very politely thanked me. They’ve only ever written four Tweets, and half of them were either asking me for help or thanking me for it. 

They stuck out like a sore thumb in the thread – everybody else was pivoting here and there, setting up webshops, looking at new ways of doing business. By contrast, the mention of Thai Table wasn’t about innovation, it was just a quiet reminder. We’re still here, it said. Don’t forget about us. So Thai Table crossed my mind last weekend when I was deciding what to eat and review this week. I’d always enjoyed their food when I ate in the restaurant, and I remembered their awfully nice Tweet from a year ago. 

The other thing that occurred to me is that, with takeaways, geography is key. When I reviewed restaurants where I’d eaten in, the chances are you could probably get to them, but with deliveries it all hinges on whether you’re in the catchment area. And so far I’ve covered central Reading, and south east and west, but I hadn’t reviewed anywhere north of the river. So it was high time I got a delivery from Caversham: it felt like the very least I could do for my many avid readers there.

Thai Table’s menu is a classic Thai menu with few surprises and lots of old favourites, and although a handful of dishes are marked as specialities I didn’t see anything on there I haven’t seen on menus elsewhere. There is a star rating for heat where one star means mild, three stars means hot and so on: a fair few have zero stars, and it wasn’t clear whether that meant extra mild or bland. I suspected it wouldn’t be the kind of scorchingly hot authentic Thai food you might get at Oli’s Thai in Oxford, Som Saa in Spitalfields or The Heron in Paddington, but that didn’t bother me – sometimes menus like this are about comfort and familiarity, rather than trailblazing and sinus razing. There’s also a gluten free and vegetarian menu, which I assume means they omit fish sauce for the latter.

Thai Table handles deliveries itself, covering a relatively wide range of RG postcodes, and isn’t on any delivery apps, so you can either order on their website or go fully old school and ring them up. I decided to phone, mainly because my browser told me that their website wasn’t secure, and because their website warned of potentially long waiting times on Friday and Saturday nights I put my call in just after six o’clock. It was clearly a well-oiled machine, and after I had placed my order I was told someone would call me back in a few minutes to take my payment – no doubt freeing up the hotline for the next takeaway order. 

We ordered two mains, two portions of rice and three starters and the whole thing came to just over fifty pounds, which included a delivery charge. Our food would be about fifty minutes, they said, and everything about the process made me feel like I was in safe hands.

It’s no coincidence that every time I’ve ordered direct from the restaurant delivery has worked like a charm, and this was no exception. Around forty minutes after placing my order, there was a ring on the doorbell and a friendly driver handed over my branded carrier bag. Everything was perfectly hot, and everything came in recyclable plastic tubs. Another sign that Thai Table know what they’re doing with this stuff: they had put clingfilm over the tubs before snapping on the lids, just an extra precaution to prevent any disasters. It sounds like a small thing, but I appreciated the thoughtfulness, just as I loved the little slip in my bag detailing, with little infographics, all the extra steps the restaurant had taken to ensure the safety of its employees and its customers.

I reviewed Thai Table back in 2015, but one of its dishes, the massaman beef, made such an impression on me that three years later, when I published a list of Reading’s 10 must-try dishes, it made the cut. I felt it was incumbent on me to try it again, so I made a beeline for it when I placed my order. It was a ridiculously generous portion of beef, wavy-cut chunks of waxy potato and sweet onion in a glossy sauce, so much that it almost spilled over the high sides of my bowl. 

It had stuck in my memory as an indulgent, cossetting dish but actually, if anything, it was more interesting than I remembered. So of course every forkful of fragrant coconut rice soaked in that silky sauce was gorgeous, but the whole thing was shot through with star anise, giving it an extra dimension that stopped it being cloying. I thought it could do with ever so slightly more chilli heat, but it was so luxurious (and faintly soporific) that I couldn’t complain. I’d been concerned that the colossal hunks of beef bobbing in the sauce might be too tough, but every single one passed the two forks test with flying colours. And I’d forgotten how much I love coconut rice, too, right up until the moment when I took the lid off the container and that wonderful aroma rapidly came into focus.

Zoë had stayed traditional with a green chicken curry, and I was allowed a forkful (“but that’s all, I’m not sharing”). It had considerably more punch from the chilli and crunch from the bamboo shoots, and the chicken was tender, but I didn’t feel like I was missing out by sticking with my choice. It was a decent effort, and probably healthier by virtue of containing more veg (the courgettes had the same crenellations as the potato in my curry), but I would have liked it to have a little more richness and oomph. I was graciously permitted to approach the bowl again with my fork to try some of the rice and sauce – for me, always the best bit of eating Thai food – and that was enjoyable enough to make me think I might have judged it harshly.

The problem with takeaways, as I’ve said before, is that it isn’t that practical to eat two separate courses – you’re bound to have one of them past its best, or kept warm when it should have been eaten there and then – so often starters find themselves promoted to side dishes, as happened here. The first of the starters was ribs, which came in a deep, dark sauce without much chilli heat but with a hint of peanut and what felt like braised lettuce swimming around at the bottom. The meat fell cleanly off the bone with three of the ribs, while the fourth was a distinctly more cartilaginous affair. 

“The ribs definitely win the starters”, said Zoë: I, saddled with that slightly gristly fourth one, was less certain. The ribs were definitely better, though, than the fish cakes. I know their slightly squeaky, rubbery texture isn’t for everyone but they really do need to be eaten piping hot for it not to be disconcerting. I like fishcakes, or at least I seem to remember that I always have, but these didn’t really do it for me.

My pick of the starters was probably the Northern Thai sausage, which was a single sausage (homemade, apparently) cut into diagonal slices. It was more fragrant than hot, with a good whack of lemongrass. I enjoyed it, although three starters definitely turned out to be a starter too many, especially with such generous mains. 

But I couldn’t help comparing it to the Thai sausage cooked up by street food traders Porco at the Blue Collar-hosted final of the UK Street Food Awards last year. That – so aromatic, coarse and perfectly spiced – was one of the most magnificent things I’d ever tasted, whereas this was slightly diminished even by its memory. But that’s Blue Collar for you: they excel at gradually making conventional restaurant food suffer by comparison, cuisine by cuisine and dish by dish. It would be easy to hold it against them, if they weren’t so good.

This week’s meal, as much as any takeaway I’ve had, has been truly educational when it comes to the difference between eating in and eating at home. Because if I had eaten this food on duty in a restaurant, in some parallel world where the pandemic never happened, I might have spent my time looking at what was missing. I might have said that the food wasn’t particularly inventive or revolutionary, or that it didn’t bowl me over. I might say, as I’ve said reviewing many Thai restaurants in and around Reading over the last seven years, that it all felt somewhat much of a muchness. 

But here’s the thing: in this world, in March 2021, I found it all really quite lovely. It’s nice, sometimes, to play it safe. It’s fun to enjoy a meal without surprises, good or bad, and to know exactly what you’re getting. In a world where so much has changed, some of it beyond recognition, it can be hugely reassuring to be reminded that not everything has. And on that Saturday night, I felt grateful that Thai Table were there, still doing what they’d always done, working their socks off (and taking all those extra precautions) so I could sit there in my comfies and be transported by the alchemy of coconut, beef and star anise. 

So there you have it – they’re not on Deliveroo or Uber Eats, they’re not gurning away on Instagram Stories, they’re not doing anything but cooking very pleasant food and driving it round to your house. If you live in their catchment area, and you fancy taking a night off juggling what’s in the fridge and the cupboards, checking your best before dates, you could do an awful lot worse than giving them a call. They probably won’t ever see this review, and they may never Tweet again, but I’m strangely delighted that they contacted me a year ago with that simple message: We’re still here. Please don’t forget about us. I’m glad, too, that I didn’t.

Thai Table
8 Church Road, Reading, RG4 7AD
0118 9471500

https://www.thaitable.co.uk
Order via: Direct with the restaurant, online or by phone

Takeaway review: Osaka

The sort-of roadmap back to normality was announced last month and you could almost hear, online and among friends, a cautious but relieved exhalation. Pubs and restaurants announced their plans, the days got longer, my parents were both vaccinated, my barber booked me in for a haircut on a date some months away. There were some sunny days, at long last, and when I walked through Forbury Gardens I could see people sitting on the grass, as if you could wish summer into existence by force of will alone.

And yet now we’re in March I see a lot of people looking back; the earth has completed its orbit around the sun, and everybody seems in a reflective mood. So we remember the last time we went to a pub with friends, the last time we hugged our loved ones, the last time we took a train to London or a bus to Kennet Island; someone I follow on Twitter posted recently that it was the anniversary of the date on which he is pretty confident that he contracted Covid-19.

We’ve had a year largely in stasis and it gives all the little historic moments, all those Facebook memories, enormous power. This weekend a year ago I held my last pre-Covid readers’ lunch at the Lyndhurst. Even at the time, it was an event that felt slightly more of a gamble than I might have liked – but we knew so little, back then. In any event the tables were spread out, there was hand sanitiser at every table and everybody had a pretty good idea that this was probably the last big social event they would attend for the foreseeable future. 

I am hugely fortunate: if I had to pick a day to recall over and over across twelve relatively barren months, I couldn’t have chosen a better one. My birthday is in the not too distant future, and it will probably be even more of a non-event than the last one. At least I had some kind of party last year, even if I didn’t understand that at the time.

That delicious lunch at the Lyndhurst, nearly a year ago, was my first encounter with what I’ve since termed the clock of terror: that anxious seven day wait after you do something that involves an element of risk. Seven days of scanning and anxiety: is it a sore throat, or just allergies, or the arrival of the Big Bad? My own personal clock of terror has been reset dozens of times this year, and it never gets much easier. The prospect of a humdrum, quotidian life absent of risk or fear (or, at least, with a lot less risk and fear) can’t arrive soon enough.

The last meal I had on duty before the restaurants closed, a year ago today, was at Osaka, the Japanese restaurant in the Oracle that took over the spot that used to be Café Rouge. I liked a lot of my food, and I loved the way they’d made over a tired and unloved site. When I went, I thought I can fit in one more review on the blog without fully grasping, at the time, just how pointless that would be. I should have known, really: lockdowns aside, when you’re looking at a restaurant hoping it won’t get busy, when you find yourself in a hurry to pay up and leave instead of enjoying a leisurely midweek lunch, you aren’t in the right frame of mind to review it. 

The week of lockdown I wrote a piece about it, but you couldn’t really call it a review. It was more of a diary piece, and it started an enjoyable few months of writing posts on the blog that weren’t just about restaurants, to keep myself occupied and give people something to read. People were very kind about them, and I kept going until just after the first big lockdown came to an end. Then I took a break, then in our third national lockdown I said I’d have a go at reviewing takeaway restaurants, and here we are.

I also said that when I went back to eating in restaurants, Osaka would be the first restaurant I reviewed. But a year has passed and we aren’t quite there yet, so to mark the occasion I thought I would review their takeaway this week instead. And flicking through the menu on a Monday night, I found myself wishing I hadn’t left it so long; I adore sushi and sashimi, and I couldn’t quite believe I haven’t eaten it for a year. I guess the problem is that the list of things we all haven’t done for a year is so long you forget half of what’s on it.

You can only order via Deliveroo, and the range is slimmed down compared to the restaurant menu – a handful of starters, just over half a dozen maki, the same for nigiri and only two types of sashimi. There’s no tempura, no temaki, no platters or bigger selections, either, so the selection is considerably more limited than at Sushimania, Osaka’s closest competitor. The pricing is comparable, but all over the place: some items are more expensive at Osaka, others at Sushimania with little rhyme or reason behind it. 

Osaka also has main courses on its menu, ramen, rice and noodle dishes, all priced around the twelve pound mark. I decided to steer clear of them, partly because I figured sushi and sashimi would travel better – with no danger of going cold – and partly because once I started looking at all that sushi and sashimi I pretty much wanted to eat that and nothing else. Moreover, Deliveroo was running an offer that gave you twenty per cent off provided you spent over twenty pounds: not difficult at the best of times, but easy as pie when you’re scratching a year-old sushi itch. 

Delivery was free of drama and in very good time – I placed my order just after seven o’clock, and about half an hour later the man was at my door with a couple of bags. Plonking them all on a couple of little tables in the living room, I was struck that although sushi was convenient to have delivered, it probably loses out more than most food when you compare it to eating in the restaurant. Japanese food is all about precise arrangement and beautiful presentation, and that’s something you can’t really replicate when you package food for delivery. So instead everything was crammed into black plastic trays with a clear lid – and I did find myself thinking that the black plastic might not be recyclable. 

There felt like an awful lot of packaging, too: I wasn’t sure, for instance, whether a separate plastic sachet of ginger, wasabi and soy sauce with every single item was strictly necessary. It felt odd, too, that they supplied all these condiments but no chopsticks – there was probably a tick box for these when ordering but I wasn’t used to asking for asking for cutlery for a delivery order (for obvious reasons) so I didn’t spot it. Fortunately, it turned out that we had a couple of pairs of in the house: the ones pictured below, which I thought were adorable, were commandeered by my public transport-loving partner in crime.

We kicked off with the one hot dish we’d ordered – crispy chicken karaage – a portion each because we were too peckish to share. I loved this: it’s a reference dish I often order in Japanese restaurants and I think Osaka’s rendition is up there with any I’ve tried (with the possible exception of Gurt Wings’ “JFC” at Blue Collar on Fridays, which is Death Row stuff). 

Good tori karaage is trickier to do than you might think, and many versions either feature breast meat which is a little too dry or thigh which is just a tad too bouncy. Perhaps it’s all in the marinade, but the texture of Osaka’s was bang on, the coating light and crispy with no grease or oiliness at all. I squeezed my lemon over the generous helping of fried chicken, dipped it in the thick mayonnaise, sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds, and ate in rapt contentment. 

One way of offsetting having a whole portion of fried chicken to yourself is to eat something as clean as sashimi, so we each had a portion of salmon sashimi to ourselves, too. You got three expertly cut slabs of fish for your money – just under five pounds – and they really were terrific, marbled, almost buttery things. If only everything that was good for you tasted as marvellous (or contained as few calories as) sashimi, the planet would be a very different place. And even if it wasn’t, I might be a lot slimmer. The sashimi came, as it always does, with a big pile of spiralised mooli, and I wondered, as I always do, who actually eats that bit: slim people, probably.

I’m not generally a fan of nigiri, but I always make an exception for unagi, or grilled eel. There’s something about this especially meaty, muscular fish, strapped with seaweed to a lozenge of sushi rice, that makes for a perfect mouthful. Osaka’s were decent – and pretty good value at four pounds forty – and the eel had plenty of oily flavour, but I would have liked a little more of the savoury sauce on top.

The rest of our dishes were all variations on sushi rolls and, like the rest of the food, they were impeccably done, tasteful and a model of restraint. Avocado maki are another of those reference dishes – done well, there’s nothing quite like that gorgeous creamy avocado hugged by rice, all dabbed in a tiny pool of soy. These were very well assembled – no looseness, no nori not quite meeting in the middle – and the avocado was wonderfully ripe with no browning. 

It seemed a little strange that each maki was made up of several smaller slivers of avocado rather than one big strip, but it made no difference to how enjoyable they were. Spicy tuna maki were also extremely good, with the fiery tuna perched on top of the sushi rice rather than encased by it – these were definitely the punchiest thing I ate, and a dish I’ll make a beeline for when I order again.

Finally, we had ordered an uramaki roll – these are bigger, longer affairs, all of which hover around the twelve pound mark. The selection through Deliveroo was very limited – just the five on offer, as opposed to the twelve on the restaurant menu – and the purist in me ruled out the two featuring crushed tortilla as a fusion bridge too far. Fortunately the one we ended up going for, the green dragon, turned out to be an excellent choice. This had katsu prawn, a baton of avocado and thin strips of cucumber in the middle of the rice with avocado daubed on top, the whole thing then crowned with Japanese mayonnaise (Kewpie, at a guess), a drizzle of dark unagi sauce and, last but not least, a little cluster of tobiko, or fish roe. 

Typing that all out makes it sound incredibly busy, and I was worried approaching it that it would taste too muddled, but it really was a masterful dish. The many flavours and textures could have jostled for supremacy, or tried to shout each other down, but in reality the whole thing was harmonious and superb. I especially liked the fact that the cucumber was so finely cut – so often you get a big watery ingot in the middle of your sushi – and the crunch largely came from the katsu prawn instead, with everything else almost symphonically arranged. 

Again, I imagine this dish is quite a looker in the restaurant but distinctly jolie laide when delivered. Not that that bothered me in the slightest: I’ve taken more than enough pictures of the university’s Lego Building to prove that I have a soft spot for the unconventionally attractive.

Our meal for two, including a 20% discount, came to just under forty-five pounds, not including tip. And although I feared at the start of my meal that I’d still be hungry at the end of it I found myself nicely sated: all those small bits of rice here and there add up, and you find yourself full almost by stealth. Some people will think that’s pricey, and I understand that you could get a lot more food for far less money, but to some extent I feel that runs the risk of missing the point.

I’ve found Osaka’s food far more difficult to sum up than usual: it’s technically very competent, and much of it is delicious, but because it’s so polite and precise, so well done and well behaved, the danger is to damn it with faint praise. It does feel like the menu is less suited to sharing than the likes of Sushimania, and more limited too, so I can see that if you wanted a sushi feast you might spend your money elsewhere. But if you compare individual dishes I’d say that Osaka is better, in terms of its attention to detail and quality of execution (a more interesting comparison might be with Oishi down the Oxford Road which, confusingly, offers delivery both under that name and the nom de plume Taberu Express).

Also, more than with most restaurants, I sense that Osaka offering its menu for delivery involves a number of compromises. Those kind of compromises wouldn’t trouble, say, a burger joint, but for sushi and sashimi it must be frustrating to present your food in a format so far from the ideal. Personally, I’m delighted that they made those compromises so I could spend some of my Monday evening enjoying their immaculate food. Resetting the clock of terror is one thing, but resetting the clock of sushi is a far happier experience. 

For all of the time I’ve spent looking back, I do wonder what the world will be like in March 2022. Perhaps we’ll look back on all our Timehops and Facebook memories and we’ll struggle to remember what it was like to feel and behave the way we once did. Maybe it will be like seeing Bobby coming out of the shower in Dallas, feeling like we’ve had the strangest dream, the kind that fades quicker than we can tell it to somebody or write it down. In any event I’m looking forward to that future, when the restaurants we love are thriving again and the people we love are sitting at our table. When it comes – and it will come – Osaka will be one of the places I go to celebrate.

Osaka
The Oracle, Unit R16, Reading, RG1 2AG
0118 957 3200

https://www.osakarestaurants.co.uk
Order via: Deliveroo

Takeaway review: La’De Kitchen

This week’s review owes a big debt of thanks to Mansoor, a long-time reader of the blog who came to the first ever ER readers’ lunch over four years ago. He came on his own and very kindly, in reference to some of the conversations we’d had on Twitter, brought me a blue Toblerone as a present. 

For those of you who’ve never had one, the blue Toblerone has salted, caramelised almonds in it and is, for my money, the finest of all the fruits of the Tobler tree. You can only get them in airports (and it’s better to get them in the UK, where they’re usually three for a tenner), and for a long time I had a decent stockpile in my basement, because I was lucky enough to go on a fair few holidays in 2019. My failure to replenish it before the lockdown this time last year is one of my many Covid regrets; we finished the last one at some point last summer, and it was as tangible a reminder as any I could think of that we were, quite literally, going nowhere fast.

I wasn’t sure whether that first readers’ lunch might be a bit much for Mansoor – he was at a boisterous corner of that long table in Namaste Kitchen – but I’m happy to say that he kept coming along and these days brings his delightful wife Zahra with him. Mansoor told me at one of the lunches that he had used the blog to find places to take Zahra for dinner back when they were courting – which was lovely to hear, but also highlights just how long I’ve been doing this for. But it’s obviously worked for them, and they’re always a welcome presence at the events I used to organise, pre-Covid. 

“Food is how I keep my wife happy”, Mansoor once said to me and, speaking as someone whose moods are largely managed through the judicious application of calories, I can understand that completely. Over the years, Mansoor has returned the favour by giving me lots of excellent recommendations in return – he was the one who introduced me to Reading’s best samosas at Cake&Cream down the Wokingham Road and recommended that I try the chapli kebab when I went to the now-defunct Afghan

He has also been telling me to try Rizouq, on the same strip, for as long as I can remember – I never did, because you couldn’t really eat in there, but now I’m doing takeaway reviews it’s firmly on my list to try before this lockdown comes to an end. And at the end of January, when I announced that I was going to start reviewing takeaways, he was very insistent that I should try La’De Kitchen, the subject of this week’s review. “Best Turkish grill I’ve had in the U.K.”, he said. “It might be an 8 on the ER scale.” That was all the encouragement I needed.

That said, I’d heard murmurs about La’De Kitchen for much of last year. They’re in an interesting position, because they have restaurants in Woodley and Pangbourne so can, in theory, cover both east and west Reading (there’s a third La’De Kitchen – the original, I believe – in Muswell Hill: a good omen, because I imagine that part of London is home to quite a demanding clientele). A lot of the good feedback I’d heard related to the Pangbourne branch, but Mansoor was talking about the Woodley one. As it was the closest to my house, that’s the one I ordered from one weekday evening.

La’De Kitchen is on JustEat but you can order direct through their website, which I did because I wanted them to get as much of the money as possible. Their menu is wide, varied and enormously tempting: a mixture of hot and cold mezze; classics from the charcoal grill and güveç (Turkish casseroles). There are also pide, or Turkish pizza, along with a few more European dishes – some Italian pizzas and a couple of steak options, both also cooked on the charcoal grill. 

I’ve heard some feedback that La’De kitchen is on the pricey side, but I couldn’t decide whether it was – most mezze dishes hover around the seven pound mark, and that feels reasonable enough, but some of the mains creep close to twenty pounds which I can see might feel steep for a takeaway. I guess part of the problem here is that for most people, the obvious yardsticks are Bakery House and Tasty Greek Souvlaki, both of which are reasonably priced almost to a fault. So, the question is: does La’De Kitchen represent a premium experience, or is it just spenny? 

In a run which will probably jinx my delivery experience over the weeks ahead, for the third week running my food arrived efficiently, quicker and – crucially – hot. I ordered at about twenty to seven and forty minutes later a man was at my door holding out my bag. By my reckoning it’s just over a ten minute drive from Woodley, so I thought that was pretty good going. And the bag was absolutely chock full of food: initially I thought I might have over-ordered, and by the end of the meal I was certain of it. 

Everything was in recyclable cardboard boxes, and the attention to detail was spot on – everything that was meant to be hot was, and everything that was meant to arrive chilled had survived  the journey without warming up. We decanted some of it onto dinner plates and took the rest through to the living room to be divvied up when we’d cleared enough space.

Not only did I follow Mansoor’s advice when I chose the subject of this week’s review, but I also let him guide me on most of the things we ordered. The first of these was the pistachio adana, a lamb kofte studded with crushed pistachio. As a first forkful of the meal it was almost impossible to beat. I’m a sucker for a lamb kofte, whether it’s from Kobeeda Palace, or Tasty Greek Souvlaki or Bakery House, but La’De Kitchen’s rendition was so good that it was almost hyper-real. It was packed with dense, coarse, beautiful lamb, to the extent that it made its competition feel pappy and padded out by comparison. 

One of my mother’s constant complaints about lamb in restaurants is that it never seems to taste “lamby” enough. I wasn’t sure I knew what she meant, but having sampled the depth of flavour in La’De Kitchen’s adana I am beginning to understand. If there’s one dish I would order again, it would be this one: and the strip of pita underneath which had soaked up all those juices (and some stray fragments of pistachio) was a wonderful bonus. This went particularly well with the yoghurt and mint dip they provided – unsurprisingly, you could say – and slightly less well so with the chilli sauce, which felt more like a salsa. A blackened chilli rested on top of the kebab: a very fiery one, as I was to discover.

Mansoor’s other recommendation was music to my ears. Turkish, Greek and Lebanese restaurants often specialise in shish kebabs and it can be a challenge to get flavour and moisture into chicken breast, to the extent that I often give them a miss in favour of kofte, shawarma or gyros. But La’De Kitchen’s chicken kulbasti kebabs – chicken thighs that had luxuriated on the charcoal grill – were truly gorgeous. Herbed, spiced, marinated and expertly cooked to have the char and tenderness I was hoping for. Chicken thighs can be difficult to get right, but thigh meat is always better than breast meat in the hands of the right kitchen, and this was astounding. 

Both these kebabs cost sixteen pounds, which made them among the cheapest mains on the menu, and I thought they were very good value. You had a choice of chips, rice or bulgur rice as an accompaniment, so we tried out a couple of those between us. The chips looked limp coming out of the box but were actually very decent – dusted with herbs and with plenty of flavour, even if the texture was slightly lacking. And I liked the bulgur rice, nutty pearls rendered a rich red with tomato. There was also a salad, full of ribbons of red onion: I would have liked it to be better dressed, but perhaps it wouldn’t have travelled so well if it had been.

Octopus is one of my favourite things to eat, and a dish I always associate with holidays, so when I saw it on the hot mezze menu I had to try it. That smell of the charcoal practically leaped out of the box when I opened it, and there it was, that glorious fractal coil. There’s a skill to cooking octopus, too – too much and it can be dry and too brittle right at the end, not enough and the whole thing is too rubbery. 

La’De Kitchen didn’t put a foot wrong with theirs, and within a few mouthfuls I was sitting by a harbour (in my mind at least) with a cold Efe in front of me and the sun beating down. Zoë had never tried octopus before, and although an unworthy part of me was hoping she wouldn’t like it so I could eat it all to myself, when she loved it as much as I did that made me even happier. It’s always better after all, if you can, to escape with an accomplice. This starter was on the expensive side at a tenner, but it was worth every penny just to feel like I’d travelled somewhere, even if in a small way.

Finally, I had really wanted to try the hummus kavurma, a dish I often order at other restaurants. It should come as no surprise by now to find that La’De Kitchen’s version was exemplary. The houmous was a lovely texture – coarse, but not too gloopy, with just the right amount of tahini. And the soft umami nuggets of lamb were resting on top just waiting to be scooped up with pita. I have to mention La’De Kitchen’s pitas, too, because they were stunning: full of air, edible balloons, with a scattering of black and white sesame seeds and a pleasing glaze to them. They were hugely generous, and they gave us three of them; eating them made me wonder what La’De Kitchen’s pizza would be like.

Mansoor had also told me that I needed La’De Kitchen’s pistachio cheesecake in my life, so after an appropriate period of rest and digestion had taken place I fished it out of the fridge. Desserts haven’t exactly been a feature of my takeaway reviews so far, so I was very happy indeed to get to try one. It was good but not great – the centre was very cold and much harder than the rest, in a way that suggested this dessert had previously been frozen. I might have been spoiled by the lovely cheesecake they sell at Geo Cafe, by the very talented Anabel of Reading Loves Cheesecake, but this was a little too sweet and a bit too insubstantial for me. 

The base, which didn’t go all the way to the edge, was sponge rather than biscuit and tasted boozy to me, like the bottom of a tiramisu (and in fact La’De Kitchen also sell a tiramisu, so maybe they share a component). Some more chocolate chips would have been nice, too, but then I’m not sure I’ve never seen a dessert that couldn’t be improved with more chocolate chips. Your mileage may vary.

Dinner for two, which included more food than we could sensibly eat in one sitting – not that that stopped us – came to pretty much bang on sixty pounds. That may seem on the high side, but La’De Kitchen don’t charge for delivery and we could easily have ordered less food and have been every bit as happy – provided that octopus still made the cut, anyway.

As you can probably tell from this review, I was very impressed with La’De Kitchen. For one of the first times since I started reviewing takeaway food, I realised some of the things I miss out on by eating new food in this way. It’s lovely to eat dinner on your lap watching Interior Design Masters With Alan Carr, and it’s lovely not to have to brave the rain or leave the house wearing trousers that don’t have an elasticated waist. But even though La’De Kitchen’s food was terrific, it made me think how much I would have liked to eat it in their restaurant, taking my time over everything, getting through a bottle of a great Turkish red and catching up with good friends. And I imagine La’De Kitchen’s food could be very easy on the eye in the restaurant, far nicer than my very limited plating skills make it look.

But to make too much of that would be to be one of those people who looks at good takeaway food and says “I’ll come in to try it when they reopen”, because these restaurants need our help to make sure they can reopen. And La’De Kitchen, as much as any restaurant I’ve reviewed this year, absolutely deserve that support. There is nothing revolutionary about what they do, arguably, but they do it superbly. And actually, I don’t think Reading has ever really had a good Turkish restaurant: I’ve always had to head to Didcot, to the amazing Zigana’s Turkish Kitchen. Zigana does positively life-changing lamb chops: the fat is even more prized than the meat. 

I introduced a friend to Zigana a couple of years ago, and she and her husband regularly went there to eat before Covid. He orders the lamb chops – just the chops, no chips or rice or garnish – and ploughs through them without a care in the world, in his happy place. After I’d finished eating my meal, I messaged my friend. I’ve just eaten the most delicious Turkish food. I said. The restaurant has a Pangbourne branch that could probably deliver to you. I haven’t tried their lamb chops, but I reckon they’ll be excellent. It felt like the right thing to do: passing on recommendations is what this blog is all about. And thanking people for recommendations, too. So thank you, Mansoor. See you at the next readers’ lunch?

La’De Kitchen
61-63 Crockhamwell Road, Woodley, Reading, RG5 3JP (also in Pangbourne)
0118 9692047

https://www.ladekitchen.com
Order via: Direct through the restaurant, or via JustEat