“Are you sure you don’t want to sit inside?” said the waitress, smiling as she handed us the menu. Like all of the service at Crispy Dosa it was friendly, kind and welcoming: the restaurant was filling up with happy families, all Indian as far as I could see, and she probably didn’t understand why Zoë and I had chosen to sit at a table outside on plastic chairs, opposite the Penta Hotel or in the wind tunnel of Thorn Street.
In other circumstances, I might have acquiesced. The inside of Crispy Dosa, from my cursory glance, looked like a nice space. It had plenty of banquetted booths (I’m not sure whether they were leather or leatherette: leatheresque, perhaps?) each one with a little patch sewn into it saying “CRISPY DOSA ❤️ YOU”. And the restaurant was, for a week night, buzzing: I saw a regular flow of people in and out, customers leaving, some carrying bags to take home and, of course, a steady in and out of delivery drivers.
By contrast, Crispy Dosa’s outside space is slightly unfortunate. On one of the hottest days of the year so far none of the tables caught the sun, and they felt a little like a consequence of necessity: they are, after all, how Crispy Dosa managed to trade for the first few weeks they were open, while they waited for indoor hospitality to be allowed again.
But I am not yet at the stage where I’m ready to eat and drink indoors and, with the exception of a post-vaccination celebratory brunch at Fidget & Bob last month, this was the first time I’d had an al fresco meal this year. So to say those plastic tables and chairs were a welcome sight would be quite an understatement; the waitress probably didn’t understand why we were so excited. So we sat outside, at the very beginning of West Reading, where things begin to get a little bit more lively – I’ve forgotten how much I enjoy people-watching – and for the first time in a long time I held a physical menu in my hand and decided what to order.
I picked Crispy Dosa for my first restaurant review in over a year for a few reasons. One is that I knew they had outside space. Another is that I had a feeling dosas wouldn’t travel well if I’d ordered them as a takeaway dish. But most significantly, on the day I visited them they were Reading’s newest restaurant, having opened at the end of April. They have two other branches, in Hounslow and Greenford, and they opened here with relatively little fanfare – mainly because they missed out on all the publicity that comes with opening over forty different sock puppet restaurants on delivery apps. What can I say? I like an underdog.
Reading has had a bit of a love affair with South Indian food over the last twelve years. First Chennai Dosa opened on Whitley Street in 2009, and proved so popular that people were queuing to get in (they didn’t take cash, which at the time was noteworthy: these days you’d steer clear unless a restaurant accepted cards). Then Chennai Dosa moved to the old Casa site, just over from Reading Library, and Cafe Madras took their place on Whitley Street.
There have been more musical chairs in recent times. Chennai Dosa became “Chennai Dosa Artisanz”, a transformation which mostly seemed to mean that they added a couple of quid to every dish on the menu, and then it closed, leaving that site vacant for nearly three years until Madras Flavours opened there this year, also offering southern Indian food. And Cafe Madras closed too, to be replaced by Vel, another southern Indian restaurant. So the market is clearly there, and the question is whether it’s big enough to support a third restaurant (and, I suppose, whether Crispy Dosa is the third restaurant for the job).
Crispy Dosa is entirely vegetarian, and its menu is a mixture of South Indian dishes (specifically dosa and uthappam, its thicker sibling) and Indo-Chinese dishes you’d find on the menu somewhere like Bhel Puri House. There’s also a selection of curries and noodle dishes, if you want something more conventional. But the centre of the menu is definitely the dosa options which span three sections, “Dosa Corner”, “Special Dosa” and “Chef Recommended Dosa”. I’m not sure what adjective to use out of reasonable, affordable and cheap, but nearly all the dishes cost less than nine pounds and many are significantly less expensive. We ordered a few starters to share, and a main course each, and sat back and waited.
But first, I got to reacquaint myself with mango lassi. I love this drink, and I hadn’t had one in a long time; it’s not something you really add to a JustEat basket. Crispy Dosa’s version was lovely, a bright orange slurp of tropical sweetness, and it took a reassuringly long time to arrive. The wait staff apologised for the delay, something they repeatedly did and didn’t need to: they also came out to tell us our starters were on the way, when there wasn’t any rush.
Our starters were taken from different sections of the menu, a hodgepodge designed to sample a wider range of dishes. The first, the Madras crispy masala potato slice, was the most disappointing. I’ve been spoiled by Bhel Puri House’s bhajia, slices of potato in a crispy batter, beautifully spiced and served with a bright carrot chutney. This dish, by contrast, felt like a bare minimum way to live up to the description on the menu.
It really was just sliced potatoes which had indeed been fried (although not all of them were enormously crispy) with some spice powder dusted on top. They were meant to come with sriracha, but instead we got what tasted suspiciously like ketchup. I guess if you’re South Indian both of those sauces are equally inauthentic, but I expected something a little more than sliced potatoes and tomato sauce. It looks quite nice in the picture, mind you.
The gobi 65 was better. You got a fairly generous helping of small florets of cauliflower, cooked but still with a little nutty firmness, in a spiced batter, along with some decorative fanned-out slices of red onion (Zoë thought they really added something, although she’d happily eat raw red onion for fun: I gave them a miss). But these were pretty good, and more interesting than the sliced potato. Again, I was baffled that it came with ketchup – had they given this to us because they thought it was the kind of thing we’d enjoy, or was it standard issue? It might have benefited from something to dip it in – a whole dish of it got a bit dry – but Heinz? Really?
This was even more of a no-no where my dining companion was concerned. She dislikes almost anything with vinegar in it – I always get a black look when I open a jar of pickles – and has a visceral loathing of tomato ketchup which took me some time to fully grasp. Early in our courtship, down the pub with friends, I placed a bottle of ketchup in front of her on the table and watched in shock as instantly, in a single unthinking reflex action, she picked it up and chucked over her shoulder, clean into the river (if it had been any other establishment they might have barred us, but to my shame we were in the Back Of Beyond: I’m sure they’ve seen worse). I’m allowed ketchup with fish and chips, but I have to take the plate through to the kitchen and rinse it the moment I’m finished: she claims she can smell ketchup at great distances.
Fortunately our third starter came with an assortment of chutneys, which were also handy for starters one and two. Medhu vada are doughnut shaped fritters made from urad dal that are often eaten as breakfast or a snack in South India: I’d never had them before, but enjoyed them a great deal. You got a couple for just over three pounds – they looked a little lonesome on that big steel tray – and they had a nice texture, crispy on the outside, doughy without being too heavy. I expected a little more in terms of spicing and curry leaves, but as a vehicle for the chutneys and sambar I thought they worked nicely.
“It’s the chutney I judge these places by” a friend of mine had said to me earlier in the week. “We haven’t found any good ones in the UK so far.” Although I quite enjoyed Crispy Dosa’s chutneys I suspected they might have left her underwhelmed. The coriander chutney was probably the best of the lot but it didn’t quite have the zing I’d have liked. The coconut one was pleasant, and the sambar, although thin, had a pleasing heat to it. But the red chutney felt a little lacking in oomph, and I didn’t make great inroads into that.
Our main courses arrived while we were tackling the tail end of our starters. I’d forgotten just how huge a dosa looks when it’s plonked in front of you – you need the superwide lens on an iPhone to fit it all in – and how attractive a dish it is. I’d gone for the ghee podi masala dosa, and it was burnished on the outside and glossy with ghee inside, sprinkled with a dry powder made from lentils which gave it a savoury kick (the closest thing I can compare it to – let’s insult two cultures at once, shall we? – was the shrapnel at the bottom of a packet of dry roasted peanuts).
It was terrific finger food, and probably worked better with the chutneys and sambar than the medhu vada had. Only the potato masala let the side down – for me it was too creamy and bland with a strange note of something like condensed milk, and didn’t have enough in the way of spice. I finished my meal feeling full, so I didn’t lose too much sleep over leaving some of it, but portions at Crispy Dosa are so generous that I probably could have skipped the masala completely. Maybe I’ll branch out next time.
Another good candidate for next time was Zoë’s choice, from the “Chef Recommended Dosa” section, otherwise known as the “What Other Things On The Menu Could We Stuff Into A Dosa?” section. I suspect this bit of the menu would give purists conniptions – Szechuan noodles in a dosa doesn’t sound anything but weird – but Zoë’s paneer Manchurian dosa was very good indeed and worked well as a dish. It came rolled and cut into segments, much more like a traditional sandwich, and the paneer in it was firm, tangy and pretty tasty stuff. I wasn’t entirely convinced this dish needed the chutneys, as it managed perfectly well in its own right, a thoroughly enjoyable dish.
“It reminds me of a quesadilla, and I fucking love a quesadilla” said Zoë, handily proving that I wasn’t the only person not averse to a spot of cultural appropriation: arguably the restaurant started it by giving us tomato ketchup, anyway.
If we had had a better idea of portion size, and maybe paced ourselves a little better, we might have saved room for dessert. I have a soft spot for kulfi, it was the perfect evening for it and Crispy Dosa does a pistachio kulfi that I imagine I’d have enjoyed. Another one to notch up for next time, I think. We were probably there about an hour in total – ever so slightly on the brisk side, but understandable for the kind of restaurant Crispy Dosa is – during which time the Oxford Road gradually got louder, crazier and more watchable.
“It’s nice to have another spot that’s perfect for a quick meal before heading to the Nag’s” said Zoë. “This place and ThaiGrr! will come in handy for that.”
“Good point. That’s been a gap in the market since Tuscany and the Jolly Fryer closed down.”
“I know” she smiled. “You should mention that in your review.”
Our dinner for two – three starters, two mango lassis and two dosas – came to just over thirty-five pounds, not including tip. That’s not bad value, and you could easily spend less and come away full. Service was excellent throughout, and I did find myself rooting for them despite the occasional misstep. We were the only table outside, but they worked very hard to make us feel like we hadn’t been forgotten. It’s been such a difficult year for restaurants, and Crispy Dosa has hardly opened at an auspicious time, but it felt like there was a decency and integrity to what they did.
Reviewing restaurants again means putting ratings at the bottom, which means the usual hoo-ha about people thinking my reviews are too harsh, or too generous, or that the mark is too low or too high to match the words. I’m not sure I’ve missed that; the current feedback seems to be that I’m too harsh, though no doubt it will swing around before too long. But I liked Crispy Dosa, perhaps more than I enjoyed the sum total of the dishes. Some were good, some were middling but all were reasonably priced enough that you can explore, make mistakes, revisit.
Perhaps my spectacles are a little rose-tinted by just how wonderful it was to sit outside a restaurant again. But I don’t think so: I think Crispy Dosa is a decent, solid restaurant which adds something to Reading, especially if you live on the west side of town, or especially if you’re vegetarian. I’m glad it’s decided to open here, and that paneer Manchurian has my name on it at some point in the not too distant future. It’s no longer the latest restaurant to open in Reading – that honour passed this week to some burger place on Friar Street – so it will just have to settle for being the latest restaurant I’ve reviewed. Small consolation, I know, but them’s the breaks.
Crispy Dosa – 7.0
60 Oxford Road, Reading, RG1 7LT
Delivery via: Direct through the restaurant, JustEat, Deliveroo or Uber Eats