This might be hard to believe, but I’ve been writing this blog for coming up to eight years, and in that time many different people have joined me on duty, sitting the other side of the table from me as we’ve experienced both triumph and disaster. For the first three years of the blog, my regular dining companion was my ex-wife, but for the last four years I’ve had all sorts of plus ones as I’ve explored restaurants in Reading and beyond.
Whether it’s my waspish mother (“Good view of the wheelie bins”), my friend Reggie (“Don’t tell them I drink Amstel, they’ll think I’m a right chump”), ex-Reading Buses CEO Martijn Gilbert eating a naan the size of his head or my delightful friend Jerry trying Japanese food for the first time in his sixties, they all add something to the experience – for me, anyway, if not for the reader. All in all, over twenty people have come out with me to review restaurants since this blog began. And there may well be more to come: I already have a poor unfortunate who has volunteered to accompany me when I get round to reviewing Wendy’s.
Nowadays, my most regular dining companion is of course my other half Zoë, especially this year when I’ve mostly reviewed takeaways. It’s safe to say that she’s build up rather a cult following over the last six months, to the extent where I get Tweets about it. “Hope there are some good Zoë quotes this week”, one reader has said to me – more than once – and recently my friend Graeme told me that he mainly reads the reviews for Zoë’s comments. “They belong on motivational dinner plates” he said.
He has a fair point. Her greatest hits include referring to something as “artisan shit”, describing Pho’s legendary chicken fried rice as “hot as balls”, calling a hearty meal a “proper gut bash” (can’t you just see that round the edge of a piece of Emma Bridgewater?) and staging a revolt during our only attempt at a restaurant DIY kit (“Sixty pounds and they ask you to roll your own fucking dough”). That’s before we get on to her summing up Rizouq’s beautiful samosas as “fried, fresh as fuck and full of meat”, or savaging O Português’ grilled chicken as “a mirage… just a carcass covered in tasty skin”.
I’m lucky to live with someone so endlessly quotable – I’ve long suspected I’m the true plus one in this partnership – although I should add that she writes beautifully on her own blog. Anyway, I’m sorry to have to tell you that this week’s meal is a solo effort. “I need some time off” she told me. “I’m never going to lose any weight eating a takeaway every week like this.” I tried my best to dissuade her – think of the readers I’ll haemorrhage, I told her – but when Zoë’s mind is made up it’s decidedly hard to change. “My jeans are saying pack it in” she added later.
So, this week it’s a solo takeaway from Rosa’s Thai Café, the smallish London chain of Thai restaurants. It started as a privately owned Thai restaurant in Spitalfields before expanding to other London locations. Then – and this is a familiar story by now – it was the subject of a private equity-backed management buyout which installed an ex-director of Wahaca as chief executive and the former chief executive of Yo! Sushi as chairman. Good times! At the time, a managing partner at “investments specialists” Connection Capital said “Rosa’s Thai Café’s differentiated and well thought-through business model puts it in an excellent position to exploit growth opportunities, even with today’s macro-market headwinds”, and if that’s not a sentence that makes you peckish I don’t know what is.
Anyway, the rest follows a well-trodden path: Rosa’s Thai expanded to Leeds, to Liverpool, to Manchester and Birmingham. The only other Thai chain I can think of is Giggling Squid, and Rosa’s Thai is clearly trying to leapfrog them for national primacy. In their search for new growth opportunities (err, sites) they have turned to Deliveroo Editions, which means Reading is one of the only other places that gets to try out their food. So off I went to Deliveroo to see if the soul of that little restaurant in Spitalfields in 2008 was still alive in the menu today.
To their credit, the menu on Deliveroo is relatively compact, and largely the same as the one they offer in their restaurants, with the exception of a few starters. The mains are divided into noodle dishes on the one hand, and curries and what they call “wok stars” (lord, no) on the other. The prices are the same as those in the restaurants, which must mean there’s some loss leading going on given the cut Deliveroo invariably takes. Starters cluster around the seven pound mark and mains between nine and twelve, although you pay extra for rice. “Pick one each and try serving them at the centre of the table” says Rosa’s Thai’s Deliveroo page of the starters, seemingly under the impression that they’ve invented communal dining.
There are decent vegan options, which you’d expect with Thai food, and most of them revolve around tofu although they do manage to slip in some “This Isn’t Chicken”, last seen on the Pho menu. I still don’t understand the name, because by definition you could use it to describe anything which isn’t chicken: Quorn, beef, Michael Gove, an air mattress, the list is endless. It’s a nice touch, though, that you can also order pumpkin crackers instead of prawn crackers.
Anyway, I ordered a main with jasmine rice and a couple of starters – partly for research and partly so Zoë could try some of the dishes to liven up her boring ready meal – and everything came to thirty-two pounds, not including rider tip. If that sounds expensive, bear in mind that I ordered two starters.
As so often with Deliveroo, things were very speedy indeed: I placed my order at ten past seven and less than fifteen minutes later it was on its way, with the rider taking a mere five minutes to get to my door. I’d say that’s right on the border between “quick” and “too quick”: I imagine as restaurants have reopened, the demand on takeaway services has declined. Everything came in a paper bag liberally stuck down with Deliveroo Editions stickers, and a handwritten note saying “Keep Calm And Curry On”, also asking me to leave a review on the app.
Now, with many takeaways I’ve ordered recently, including both the Thai meals I’ve had this year, the restaurant had not only popped a lid on but wrapped the whole thing in clingfilm first. If I thought that was an unnecessary belt and braces approach, the delivery from Rosa’s Thai proved me wrong: the bottom of the bag, and all the napkins, were liberally soaked with red curry sauce. Fortunately, there was still a lot of it in the cardboard container but as it turned out it was a telling sign – although Rosa’s Thai were delivery only, one of the things I took away from my meal was that they hadn’t quite given enough thought to how takeaways work.
The best example of that was the first starter I ordered, the pork skewers. These were probably the best thing I ate, as it happens. The pork was nicely tender with just one suspiciously bouncy bit, and that tenderness suggested there had been some marination, even if the supposed honey and soy hadn’t made it into the skewers. The tamarind dipping sauce they came with was worth the price of admission alone. I would have liked to see some evidence of char, of caramelisation on the pork, but more to the point the way they’d served this for takeaway was plain silly.
I accept that it’s never going to be quite as delicious as a takeaway dish as it would be taken straight off the grill and send to your table, but they could have given it a fighting chance by not serving it in a plastic coffin buried underneath a pile of chilled shredded cabbage and carrot like some gastronomic hostage situation. Even so, I liked it – as did Zoë who hoovered up one of the skewers. “This is good” she said. “But you know I love the porks.” (See? She just couldn’t stay away.)
Less successful were the sweetcorn patties. Normally I would have made a beeline for the chicken satay, but I checked myself because I always seem to order it and my reviews don’t always contain enough of interest for vegetarians, let alone the rest of you. So I veered off the beaten path, but I’m not sure it was worth it. The fritters were heavy and stodgy, not light and crispy, with a disconcerting habit of shedding stray kernels, like droppings, on the plate. Apparently the batter has red curry paste and kaffir lime in it, but they didn’t really make their presence felt. Worse was the sweet chilli sauce, which had so much sweetness and so little chilli that it felt like jam, and the whole thing was almost more like a dessert.
“This is when I could do with you weighing in, saying something like this is a fucking corn festival and a half.”
“I wouldn’t say that” said Zoë, trying her first forkful of a corn fritter. “It’s okay, actually. I feel like I’m getting some lemongrass.”
For my main course I’d gone for Rosa’s Thai’s chicken penang curry, one of two different red curries they do. It was nice, and if “nice” sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise it’s probably because I am. Everything was well cooked and well put together. The sauce had some heat, although it felt slightly lacking in depth. And it made a surprising amount of difference that the bamboo shoots were finely shredded – so different from the big planks of it you often get in Thai curries. But the overall feeling was one of inoffensive pleasantness. I don’t know why I expected a little more from Rosa’s Thai but I did, and when I didn’t get it I wondered who this restaurant really appealed to – diners or private equity firms.
So far from a terrible meal, all things considered, but here’s the problem: I just can’t think of the question to which “Rosa’s Thai” is the answer. If you want Thai food in Reading I would urge you to support Thai Table, which has been around for ages and, without fanfare, churns out reliably solid, lovely food. And if you want to try something exciting and new, I highly recommend ThaiGrr!, which really impressed me when I ordered from it recently. Crucially, both restaurants have properly thought about how to make delivery work, they have a better and more interesting range of starters and they’re just all-round more appealing.
By comparison Rosa’s Thai, although by no means bad, falls a little short. And this isn’t about taking against Deliveroo, or Deliveroo Editions: VIP Very Italian Pizza is doing exactly the same kind of market research as Rosa’s Thai. It just so happens that they offer something a little better, more interesting and more distinctive: Rosa’s Thai, on the other hand, just isn’t the growth opportunity I was looking for. I’m taking a week off next week, so you won’t get a review until two Fridays’ time. I plan to spend the next week or so persuading Zoë to join me on my next on duty visit. Wish me luck.
Order via: Deliveroo only