2021: The Year In Review

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the year Reading got a Banksy, it was the year Reading got a Wendy’s. 

And you could be forgiven, if you were a regular reader of Berkshire Live, for thinking Wendy’s was the only restaurant to open in Reading in 2021, given the huge number of puff pieces and free advertising our local webshite churned out this year. But actually, despite the most challenging year since, well, last year, we still saw a steady stream of restaurants opening here over the last twelve months. 

Many were chains slithering their tentacles towards the lucrative Thames Valley, which explains why this year Reading became host to Filipino chain Jollibee (home of the “Yumburger” and “Jolly Spaghetti”, which is made with chopped-up hot dog – count me out), Sri Lankan small chain The Coconut Tree, shouty Gordon Ramsay’s new burger place in the Oracle and Ji Chickens, a little Taiwanese-style fried chicken place which has established a Reading outpost in the mall literally nobody is calling Sykes’ Paradise. And just to show that hospitality never sleeps, our newest addition is Dutch chip specialists Chipstar who opened next to the Alehouse only last week. I’m told it’s decent.

These are the openings that will excite the council and Reading UK, because chains are what really make them lose their shit; the council’s tin-eared bid for city status this year actually celebrated the fact that we still have a Carluccio’s and a Pizza Express (which were, in their words, “forced to abandon other towns”) rather than talking about our vibrant independent food scene. That’s Reading Council for you – literally the only people still banging the drum for Pizza Express. Apart from Prince Andrew.

But I’ve been heartened that there are still independent businesses choosing to open in and around Reading. So in 2021 we saw Flavour Of Mauritius finally open on the Caversham Road, Mama’s Way offer a proper Italian delicatessen in town on Duke Street, ThaiGrr! start trading on Queen’s Walk and, a few doors down, Catford’s Compound Coffee open a second branch in the ground floor of the Biscuit Factory, our new independent cinema. Out in West Reading, Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen began cooking at the Butler, the most exciting pub pop-up since the golden age of I Love Paella and Caucasian Spice Box.

Further afield, Tilehurst got an interesting-looking new café in the shape of The Switch and new burger restaurants opened all over the place – on Cemetery Junction, on Christchurch Green, on St Mary’s Butts. Blink, and you could miss a new one. We were also graced with not one but two vegetarian South Indian restaurants – Crispy Dosa at the top of the Oxford Road and Madras Flavours further along the 17 bus route, just next to the library (for a while this was not two but forty-five different restaurants: we’ll get to that later).

Possibly the shortest-lived new Reading hospitality business was Cult Antiques & Coffee, on the Tilehurst Road. Offering, as you would expect, antiques and coffee (along with baked goods from local Wolseley Street Bakery) it was perhaps a fusion too far because by September it was shuttered again. And most of our closures this year have been cafés: Anonymous Coffee stopped trading from the Tasting House, shortly followed by the Tasting House also leaving Chain Street. And after seven years, Nibsy’s decided to call it a day on Cross Street: a new business called YayLo, also gluten free, has taken over the premises. 

And finally, another very significant closure: Tamp Culture gave up its spot on Gun Street at the start of October. Tamp had been trading, pretty much, as long as Nibsy’s had and it’s difficult years later to imagine town being quite the same without them. And when you think that in a year Reading has lost Anonymous, Nibsy’s and Tamp, that’s a real blow for Reading’s thriving coffee culture; at least it might silence all those all those “not another café” blowhards Reading seems to be afflicted with.

But having said all that, cafés seem to have been particularly hit by the ongoing effects of the pandemic. When I thought about restaurants that bit the dust in 2021, the only one that sprung to mind was Lemoni. Did you even notice? And really, the main mystery is how it limped along for so long. The company was wound up in the summer owing, among other things, nearly £300,000 in rent. And now Lemoni is running two pubs, including the Bull At Barkham, under its brand name: I can only assume they have different suppliers there.

But if 2021 was a year when most of Reading’s businesses were treading water, running to stand still, it was also the year when finally our restaurants came to the attention of the national press. It started in July when the Mail On Sunday’s Tom Parker Bowles visited Kungfu Kitchen. 

Now, I’ve always had quite a lot of time for Parker Bowles: I’ve long thought that restaurant critics fall into two categories, the ones whose articles can be summed up as Look at me! Look at me! Me! Oh, by the way, I’m in a restaurant and the ones whose reviews are more Let me tell you about this restaurant I went to. Parker Bowles is that rare national critic who falls into that latter category, and I’m not just saying that because he described Edible Reading as a “golden nugget… among the sulphurous effluence of social media” (although I’d be lying if I pretended it wasn’t a factor).

Anyway, Parker Bowles loved Kungfu Kitchen and he clearly got everything that makes the place such a gem, from the uncompromising cooking to the magical welcome from Jo (he described her as “charmingly loquacious”, which is true yet probably doesn’t fully prepare Mail On Sunday readers for the KFK experience). And best of all? Jo had absolutely no idea who he was: to her he was just some guy who obviously knew his Sichuan food and wanted to enjoy what he described, quite perfectly, as a “30-napkin lunch”.

And it wasn’t long before Parker Bowles was back on a train to Reading, because in October he reviewed Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen, a couple of months after their much-anticipated reopening. And if anything this was even more of a rave review: after making a bold attempt on the entire menu (the difficulty of narrowing down your choices is one every visitor to Clay’s understands only too well) he nearly ran out of superlatives. “I cannot tell you how much I love this place” he concluded, after, as with the menu, giving it his best shot.

Before Kungfu Kitchen and Clay’s the last Reading restaurant to feature in the national press was Thames Lido, four years ago in the Guardian. And before that? You have to go back to 2010, and a decidedly lukewarm (and entitled) writeup of Mya Lacarte in The Independent On Sunday. So for all of 2021’s drawbacks, it was the year that Reading’s food scene finally got some national attention – and what’s more, Blue Collar also featured in a piece in the Mail in October about the country’s most delicious street food. But that’s nothing: have you heard that we still have a Pizza Express and a Carluccio’s?

I was quite surprised to see my blog mentioned in the national press, but it wasn’t the only time in 2021. Back in April, when I was reviewing takeaways, I discovered that Madras Flavours, our new South Indian restaurant, was operating under multiple names on delivery apps. Tevye Markson, then at the Reading Chronicle, decided to run with the story and between us, like Woodward and Bernstein, we found a total of over 40 different brands operating from that single premises on the Kings Road, from Manchurian Magic to Indian Chimney, from Fatt Monk to my personal favourite, Soul Chutney.

The story went national and got picked up by the i, before the Sunday Times ran a full article about it with quotes from yours truly. They also featured a quote from the owner of Madras Flavours: “It’s all legal”, he began, which is an interesting way to start your justification. 

Anyway, 2021 was also the year that restaurants tried any hustle to keep afloat. In some cases that involved hiving off a section of your menu and pretending it was cooked by a different restaurant (Coco di Mama and Zizzi, for instance, or Blazing Bird and Las Iguanas). In others there was something weirder going on: did you know, for example, that if you order Gourmet Burger Kitchen on Deliveroo it’s cooked up in the kitchen at Carluccio’s? Maybe that’s why we still have a branch, rather than Reading’s eminent suitability for city status.

Being in the papers a couple of times was brilliant. But even better is that it’s been a bumper year for the blog, with more readers and page hits than ever before. At the start of the year when I decided to review takeaways – for a few months, just while I was waiting for everything to go back to normal – I had no idea it would lead to weekly reviews all year. 

I’ve tried the weird and the wonderful with an expanding cast of dining companions – whether it’s my friend Nick gamely ordering tiny snails at O Portugues, Graeme lucking out and coming with me to Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen or the welcome return of my old friend Jerry at Monty’s Café I’ve been incredibly lucky that people have wanted to come and try restaurants with me. And, of course, this is the year that my partner in crime Zoë has attained legendary status for her perceptive (and deeply Anglo-Saxon) assessment of many meals and takeaways.

It’s been a great year for food, too, and I’ve had many brilliant meals and dishes both on and off duty. Too many to mention, really, but plenty will stay with me for some time. Discovering Banarasi Kitchen’s excellent Indian takeaway down the Oxford Road, or revisiting Buon Appetito to find that at some point in the last five years it had become the best pizzeria in Reading (I still daydream about their Napoletana). Enjoying a magnificent prego steak roll at O Portugues, on the edge of Palmer Park, or the smoky, savoury joys of Chef Stevie’s jerk chicken, marinated for twenty-four hours and well worth the wait. And that’s not to mention the perfection of ThaiGrr!’s pork curry, or their crispy-skinned, garlic-studded fried chicken. Or La’De Kitchen’s beautiful pistachio encrusted lamb kebabs, another knockout find this year.

But it wasn’t just about new discoveries. A slightly greater sense of freedom this year meant the opportunity to revisit old favourites. Every single samosa from Cake & Cream, usually picked up after a mildly traumatic visit to the dentist, was a little wonder, and every portion of Gurt Wings picked up on a Friday from Blue Collar was a not-so-little wonder. Going to Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen on their reopening night was a surprisingly affecting reunion, and even if the dishes on the menu had gone up a level in terms of complexity and accomplishment it still felt like being reunited with an old friend – one who had done far more self-improvement in lockdown than I had.

I was also delighted this year, at last, to manage to get away a couple of times – which itself was about a mixture of new and much-loved places. Going to Bristol and eating again in Bravas, one of my favourite haunts, was terrific, but going to Marmo  for the very first time and eating one of my meals of the year was true bliss. Making one solitary trip to London and another to Oxford to revisit a couple of my very favourite places (Medlar and Pompette, respectively) was almost enough to make up for eighteen months away: I was relieved to see them still muddling through. And finally getting on a plane and going back to Malaga with my disgusting new blue passport made me happier than I can tell you.

My other highlight of the year was last month, when I held the first ER readers’ lunch in the best part of two years. It was at the Lyndhurst, as the previous one had been, because I’d always said that the next one would be back where we all ate pre-pandemic: not only that, but the Lyndhurst’s food (and their willingness to deliver it) has rescued many a Saturday night for me, to the point where it wouldn’t have felt right to watch Strictly Come Dancing without a TV dinner from the Lyndie. The weeks where they had skate wing in were happy weeks indeed.

The readers’ lunch, as I knew it would be, was a fantastic afternoon. It was properly emotional to see so many people – old and familiar faces – enjoying the Lyndhurst’s phenomenal food. ER readers really are a fascinating bunch, from academics to musicians, from rocket scientists to retailers, and my only regret doing the seating plan was that I couldn’t talk to everybody all afternoon (although they probably all had a far better time as a result). 

Even at the time, though, before Omicron was a Thing, I still had the same nagging feeling as I did back in March last year, that this was probably the last time I’d be out and about until the spring. After that Zoë and I went into semi-hibernation, and I thought we’d managed to beat the virus: her positive test a few weeks back, and subsequent hospitalisation, showed me that I’d spoken too soon. Fortunately she is on the mend – and we’ll both be spending the festive period taking it easy. I for one will be particularly grateful for everything I have, and determined not to take it for granted. Even before the events of this month, it’s been that sort of year.

It’s too early to know what sort of year next year will be: ever the pessimist, I think we have a challenging winter ahead. But even so, 2022 already promises more new openings. La’De Kitchen plans to open an “express” branch on Market Square and Black Sheep Coffee is taking over the old Caffe Nero site on Friar Street. We’re still promised a new Greek restaurant in the Broad Street Mall, and Blue Collar’s permanent site should open next year after an inexplicable eight months waiting for Reading Council to grant planning permission. Apparently Rosa’s Thai is going to open permanent premises on the ground floor of the iconic Jackson’s Corner. And maybe we’ll finally get that branch of Leon, many years after they used to be good.

Another interesting development will be Kamal’s Kitchen on the Caversham Road. Namaste Momo never quite lived up to the promise of Kamal’s previous restaurant Namaste Kitchen, but this time he is going it alone. If he sticks to the Nepalese classics that made Namaste Kitchen so special, and doesn’t muddy the waters with the more generic Indian food he offered at Namaste Momo, it could prove to be a big hitter. 

But who knows what else next year holds? The one thing you can guarantee, I’m afraid, is that next year some restaurants will fail, and others will be more than willing to try their chances in the same location. There will be some bandwagon-jumpers, some awful concepts, some good chains, some bad chains and, probably out of nowhere, some real gems. And I’ll do my level best to help work out which is which. 

All that remains is me to thank all of you for reading over the last twelve months. It always pleasantly surprises me how many of you come along week after week to read the reviews, comment, share and spread the word. It all counts, and it’s all contributed to this being the most successful year ever on the blog. So whether you’re an avid reader, a skeptic, a lurker or a hater I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a peaceful, happy and healthy New Year. Stay safe, and I’ll be back in 2022 with the usual mixture of takeaway reviews, restaurant reviews, ill-informed social comment and very lengthy preambles. What more could you possibly want?

Takeaway review: 7Bone

Many of my best laid plans have gone amiss this year, and this week’s review is no exception. It was all sorted: Zoë had the day off and we’d decided to take an off peak train to a quiet restaurant I’ve always loved, to chance our arm and enjoy a wonderful, peaceful lunch. We knew it would be our last chance to do anything like that before the new variant swept the country and hibernation became the only sensible option. And I was literally putting my coat and my scarf on in the hall when the shout came from upstairs. “I can’t fucking believe it. I’ve tested positive.”

The week that followed was nothing like I expected, under virtual house arrest and watching with concern as my other half ached, shivered and sweltered, couldn’t sleep at night and catnapped fitfully during the day. When she was awake, the cough seemed to come from the depths of her soul. After an encouraging start, she was unable to taste a thing for over a week. There were regular checks of her blood oxygen levels, and her temperature, and every morning I did a lateral flow test. Every morning, surreally, it came back negative.

Equally surreally, according to government guidelines I was allowed to carry on going out and about, shopping, even eating in restaurants if I wanted to. Of course I didn’t, because that would be nuts, so with the exception of a ridiculous dash to four different pharmacies to pick up steroids for Zoë’s asthma I spent a week on the sofa, making lunch and dinner, making a steady stream of hot beverages, a veritable Laurence Nightingale. My main task, I tended to think, was not to appear as worried as I was. And I reckon I did a reasonable job of that, even if writing this lets the cat out of the bag.

But there was one more curveball. This review was meant to come out last Friday, but the night after I ordered this particular takeaway Zoë’s breathing got so bad that I had to call 111, to translate for her because she couldn’t complete a full sentence with the air in her lungs. And at midnight an ambulance turned up, incongruously outside our little terraced house and took her away.

And so began five anxious days of text messages back and forward, keeping everybody in the loop, hoping things would get better rather than worse. I had a couple of phone conversations with Zoë – no visiting in the Covid ward – but each time she ran out of puff and energy after about fifteen minutes. And sleeping at night was a challenge on a busy ward full of bleeps and general mayhem, so she grabbed rest where she could.

Every day I traipsed to the hospital with a bag full of the latest things she’d requested: biscuits; samosas; Lucozade; M&S sandwiches (even without a sense of taste the hospital food is diabolical, apparently). And every day a nurse would meet me at the door, take the tote bag from me and whisk it away. She was there on the other side but I couldn’t see her, so near and yet so far. And so I went home, to a house suddenly too big and too quiet, to self-medicate by eating chocolate and binging Game Of Thrones.

To cut a long story short, she was discharged this week and is resting at home. She’s recovered enough strength to be frustrated that she can’t do more (and to order me around extremely efficiently), but not enough that she can do much beyond directing operations from bed or from the sofa. And everybody has been so lovely – to her, to me, to both of us. I’ve been overwhelmed by the offers of help and expressions of sympathy, and I’m beyond glad to have her back where she belongs.

This virus is no joke, especially if you have underlying health conditions, and it’s likely Zoë contracted the older, less serious variant. So I hope you’re all careful this Christmas – although, as always, I really feel for the hospitality sector which has, yet again, been hung out to dry by the Tories. People are cancelling reservations in their droves, and there hasn’t been a whisper of financial support from the government. As if last year hadn’t been bad enough for them, they now face another December without the bookings that tide them over for the months ahead.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago when all this was just the ghost of Covid yet to come, I sat down at my computer and decided who to order a contactless Deliveroo dinner from to give me something to review and to give you something to read. Zoë didn’t join me, because all she could taste were very salty and very sweet things, so she ordered a sweet and sour chicken from Kokoro instead. I suspect that even with Covid she had a better meal than I did (whoops: cat out of the bag again).

I picked 7Bone because I quite fancied a burger and I’d heard decent reports of their takeaways, including ones saying that they travelled well. And it’s been a long time since I ate there – I’ve not been back since I went on duty over four years ago – so it felt like revisiting their food was long overdue. And their menu is good, if a little too wedded to the idea that “dirty” (or, in some cases and for some reason, “dirrrty”), is a Good Thing when it comes to food: a great range of snacks, a good variety of burgers and fried chicken sandwiches and plenty of options for vegetarians and vegans.

For someone used to eating at Honest, you could easily feel spoiled for choice here. The burgers are all under ten pounds, although you order fries separately. And there was a small section of Christmas specials. 7Bone, you might not be surprised to hear, spells Christmas “xxxmas”: I guess that’s its schtick. Anyway I chose a burger and three snacks, none of which was described as unhygienic, and my order came to just under thirty pounds, not including driver tip.

I always hate writing this next bit, but I’m afraid this delivery was not without problems. I ordered at about twenty to seven, and eventually when my order arrived I saw from the ticket (which also said something facile like I’m dirty – take me home!: somebody in their marketing department thinks it’s still 1997 and hasn’t cancelled their subscription to Loaded) that it was due to be collected from the restaurant at seven. My driver didn’t collect it until twenty-five past seven, and he took an impressive three minutes to get it to my front door. But most of it was lukewarm, so what went wrong?

At a guess, the driver shortage is starting to affect Deliveroo: I was told they had a rider for me at 19:08, and then at 19:13 Deliveroo announced that they were still trying to get a rider. “We’re delivering lots of orders right now” said the following status update – which, when you’re still waiting for yours to arrive, sounds a lot like rubbing it in. Deliveroo also does this deeply cheeky thing of moving the goalposts in real time, so the estimated time of arrival of your order gets later and later. And this means you can never chase them about it, because technically it’s not late. Even when the driver was en route the message in the app said “Great news! Your order should be with you by 20:04”. How it was great news that my driver might take forty minutes to complete a five minute drive was a mystery to me.

It was hard to escape the conclusion that the order had been sitting there waiting for a rider for the best part of half an hour, and the temperature of the food tended to back that up. And, as so often with complicated supply chains, it’s hard to work out where the blame lies. It’s not the rider’s fault – he took next to no time to get the food to me – but is it Deliveroo’s fault for not having enough riders? Or should the restaurant, once it became clear that the order wasn’t going to go out for some time, have cooked another one?

All that leaves us in familiar territory this year on the blog, the slightly melancholy world of “if only it had been hot”. Take the burger: if it had been hot I think it could have been marvellous. I’d gone for the “Triple B”, which comes with blue cheese, bacon, bacon jam and truffle blue cheese dressing, and even lukewarm it was quite pleasant. To their credit, 7Bone allows you to either have a single burger pink or well done or two smashed patties. I’d gone for the latter, and it worked rather nicely. I mainly got the salty tang of blue cheese and little in the way of truffle, and the bacon jam was as inconsistently applied as the Covid regulations last year, but even so it wasn’t half bad. It made me want to go back and try it in their restaurant at some point next year, when hopefully it won’t take the best part of half an hour to get from the kitchen to my table.

Rather than go for the fries, I’d chosen the festive special, crispy fried roasties. I’m not sure how something can be fried and a roastie – surely you’re either one or the other – but these were smashed and fried potatoes dusted in sage salt and accompanied with a gloopy cheese sauce which I didn’t especially take to. The potatoes themselves were decent, though I wasn’t entirely convinced they were worth five pounds fifty. If only they’d been hot.

That said, the Korean fried chicken would not have been great even it had been piping hot. Gochujang, done right, has a beautiful taste which is simultaneously somehow sweet, hot, sour, spicy and savoury and I absolutely love it. This was the fake tan of gochujang – the colour was there but the taste was all wrong, just acrid, one-dimensional chilli. And while we’re on the subject, calling something fried chicken writes a cheque that promises crinkle and crunch, but this stuff couldn’t cash that cheque at all: texturally, it was a dud. I’m not a fan of restaurants turning “tender” from an adjective to a noun – it’s as bad, in its way, as “gifting” – but it does imply that the dish should at least be tender. This was as hard and unforgiving as Priti Patel. And even less appetising.

Last but not least, I had a snack which I had to order for smut value alone. I’d chosen “Coq skins” (it’s a shame they didn’t have the nerve to call them coq scratchings) because I’ve long felt that crispy skin is the absolute best part of a chicken. These were in danger of changing my mind, with an overwhelming taste of nothing but salt, salt and more salt, with a little underlying fat to make you feel profoundly icky afterwards. They could have shrivelled a slug at twenty paces. I didn’t eat many of these, because I didn’t want to do lasting damage to my love of chicken skin. Zoë, having finished off her Kokoro upstairs, probably could have tasted them, but I don’t think she’d have thanked me for the leftovers.

It might be for the best that the year is limping to an end, because I’m running out of ways to say fundamentally the same things: that a takeaway is not the best way to enjoy a restaurant’s food and that a delivery app is not the best way to order a takeaway. Those links in the chain mean there’s more that can go wrong, and if something does go wrong – which it does often – it’s harder to get somebody to take responsibility. In a restaurant if your food was lukewarm you’d send it back, but with deliveries that’s not really an option. In a restaurant, you wouldn’t pay. With a delivery, you already have. It’s a shame, because in the current climate we might all be ordering a lot more takeaways.

So on this evidence I would probably give 7Bone another try when it’s safe to go back and eat in, but I wouldn’t rush to order a delivery from them again. But, writing this in December 2021, I’m tempted to say “who cares?”. It’s just a takeaway, from a restaurant which was probably busy and stressed, in a climate where the cost of ingredients is going through the roof, inflation is going mad, it’s hard to get hold of drivers and all of a sudden hospitality businesses are losing customers left right and centre. So if you like burgers, maybe you should try 7Bone anyway: the burgers are decent, and you might have better luck than I did (just give those chicken strips a wide berth). But ultimately, I’m not sure a review like mine matters; this week, of all weeks, I’m reminded that there are far more important things in life.

7Bone
60 St Mary’s Butts, Reading, RG1 2LG
0118 9595106

https://7bone.co.uk
Order via: Deliveroo

Takeaway review: Zyka

I’m easily old enough to remember a time before delivery apps and dark kitchens, before the weird and wonderful world of restaurants running side hustles, diffusion brands or heat at home kits. Back in the Eighties and Nineties, for most people, takeaway meant a curry, a Chinese meal or fish and chips from the local chippy. The closest you got to fusion food was having curry sauce (or in my case, sweet and sour sauce from Woodley’s Hong Kong Garden – still going strong, would you believe) on your chips. They were, in all respects, simpler times.

And in those days, having a good takeaway nearby was like gold dust: if you discovered one close to home, you made the most of it. At the end of the last century I lived in Nottingham for a year, and just round the corner from my house in Sherwood was the most incredible Indian takeaway. The flavour has probably been enhanced with a powerful dusting of nostalgia, memory’s answer to MSG, but the Fridays when we got food from there and sat down in front of something from Blockbuster Video were happy evenings indeed.

I’ve never found anything comparable in Reading. I used to live just around the corner from Kings Chef on the London Road, and I had their Chinese takeaway from time to time but it largely left me unmoved. And back when it was open, I would happily wander over to the now sadly defunct Seaspray to grab fish and chips which were still hot when I got home. But doing restaurant reviews for eight years meant that, until the pandemic hit, I never had much cause to use takeaways. And now the proliferation of delivery services, third parties on bikes and scooters and all that means that there’s probably too much choice. You channel hop meals the way you channel hop TV programmes or, as I remember from my days on Tinder, actual human beings.

Ordering from Zyka, the subject of this week’s review reminded me slightly of the old days. No Deliveroo or Uber Eats for them, so you just have to contact them and tell them what you want. Although you can order online (and they even take Apple Pay), so it’s not quite as basic as getting a leaflet through your door and ringing them up. And why did I choose Zyka? I thought you’d never ask: it’s because it won an award recently.

Not at the British Curry Awards, which were announced this week and gave prizes to the likes of Benares in Berkeley Square and Cheltenham’s brilliant Prithvi (“we’re building back balti” said the Prime Minister in a by all accounts cringeworthy recorded message). And not at the English Curry Awards, which were awarded in October and where winners included Wokingham’s Mumbai, either. Zyka won at the Curry Life Awards, also held October, where they were one of twenty-one restaurants to win “Best Curry Restaurants Of The Year”. With hindsight, there are a lot of different curry awards and a lot of winners: perhaps they should have some kind of unification bout, like they do in the wrestling. 

Anyway, a fair few people have asked for this review, off the back of that award, so I figured it was about time. “They’ve been excellent for many years”, one person told me on Twitter, adding that they’d diversified by opening The Switch, a Tilehurst café which looks, on paper at least, like an attempt to create a West Reading equivalent of Café Yolk. “The menu doesn’t look that inspiring” said a friend of mine. “It’s not a patch on House Of Flavours” was another piece of feedback I heard: I guess if there was universal consensus I’d never need to review anything.

For what it’s worth, I think my friend was right about the menu. It’s pretty generic, with the same dishes you’d find anywhere else. Starters are mainly bhaji, samosas and a few options from the tandoor, and then there’s a tandoori section and largely the same curries offered with either lamb, chicken, seafood or vegetables and paneer. Another section is entitled “House Favourites”, which makes you think this might be where the specialities live, but no: that’s where you find your bhuna, dopiaza, korma, dansak and so on. 

In fairness to Zyka, and I may end up saying this a few times in this review, it may well be very different if you eat in the restaurant. The menu makes a point of saying that they’ve selected the dishes on the takeaway menu to ensure that they travel well – and I understand this might make some dishes unsuitable but I was still a little surprised not to see something off the beaten track on the menu. Because they’ve won an award. 

Anyway, my order for two people – poppadoms, a couple of starters, two mains, a vegetable side and some rice – came to a smidgen over fifty pounds. They charged three pounds for delivery and a nebulous extra quid under “surcharge”, whatever that means. I got a text saying that my meal would be with me in about an hour and then, just like in the old days, we sat back and waited.

He was at the door ten minutes later than predicted, but because I didn’t have the facility to endlessly, pointlessly track his whereabouts I just assumed it was because he’d left a little later than planned rather than because he got lost. And everything was piping hot and in a rather natty branded carrier bag. So far everything had gone like clockwork, and the only thing left was to eat the damned thing.

And that, I’m afraid, is where things didn’t quite come together. I’d chosen one of their curries that wasn’t generic, the murg haryali, chicken with mint and coriander: “a touch of sweetness and spice”, said the menu. I have fond memories of a similar, Kermit-green dish from Bhoj many years ago, aromatic and whiffy with garlic. This, I’m afraid, wasn’t that: it’s true that there was a bit of spice, but mostly there was sweetness – an odd, saccharine, artificial sweetness. You got the mint, but not really the coriander, and the chicken, tikka-tinged, was in big and slightly homogeneous pieces. I didn’t finish it, and it tasted a little – that word again – generic.

Zoë – and how many times have I had to write this in 2021? – ordered better than I did. Still giving carbs a relatively wide berth, she’d picked Zyka’s equivalent of a mixed grill, the Zyka mixed tandoori. This was fundamentally a huge plate of meat, with chicken and lamb tikka, an impressive quarter of a chicken, some prawns (“look, there’s a crustacean” was how Zoë chose to describe this development) and a seekh kebab. All lobster-red, so red it’s unreal, and all suffused with the deeply savoury notes that come from time well spent in a tandoor. 

I had a bit – I enjoyed the chicken, I thought the lamb was on the tough side. “I love the meats. I’d order the meats again” was Zoë’s verdict after this meal, although in fairness she says that after nearly any meal in which meat plays a predominant role (sometimes it’s a little like living with Captain Caveman). She’d chosen bhindi bhaji, thinly sliced okra, to accompany her rhapsody in crimson, and she thought it was decent enough, “but a little bit underseasoned”. The menu had given me the option to have this dish “desi style” for an extra pound, saying this meant the dish was “a slightly spicier and more authentic take”. I didn’t go for that, and maybe I should have, but it’s a bit weird to have to pay extra to make it taste authentic. They do seem to like their surcharges at Zyka.

The two starters, repurposed as side dishes, were fine but again, no more than that. I think it’s pretty hard to fuck up an onion bhaji, so if I say that these were good I’m not sure it’s especially glowing praise. And the samosas were a little unremarkable – full of pellets of minced lamb and peas but without any overwhelming flavour. You got two of them for a fiver, and the following day on the way back from seeing my dentist I picked up two infinitely more enjoyable ones in the legendary Cake & Cream for under two quid. Cake & Cream, as far as I know, has not been nominated for any awards, but I’d give them “Samosa Of The Year” any day of the week. There were also some poppadoms, but they always taste the same in my experience – even a bad one is usually enjoyable, provided it’s not stale.

I don’t want to sound withering about Zyka. What I had wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t great either. And this is the problem with awards: back in 2011 when Petersham Nurseries, a restaurant in a garden centre near Richmond with plain tables and no whistles and bells, won a Michelin star the chef there, Skye Gyngell, said that she wished she could give it back. The expectations of her customers changed, and they wanted to eat at a kind of restaurant she never wanted hers to be. It got too much, and she quit the following year. 

I get that expectation problem, admittedly on a different level, with Zyka. If they hadn’t won an award, maybe the upshot of this review would be “eh, it’s okay”. But because it has, it’s hard not to come away saying “how did they manage that?” I had a much more enjoyable takeaway from Banarasi Kitchen earlier in the year – which is equally well placed to serve West Reading, and much closer to you if you live across town. But the restaurant Zyka really made me miss was Bhoj. I ordered deliveries from Bhoj a few times, back in its golden age when it was still on the Oxford Road, and it never disappointed me.

I’m sure Zyka would have done brilliantly back in the days when I still had a Blockbuster Video card, when it was all leaflets folded into three and putting a call in from your landline (remember landlines?), shouting above the background noise. But the world moves on, and things change. There is so much choice, and it raises the standard: a rising tide, as I often say, lifts all boats. Although perhaps it’s a neighbourhood thing, and maybe if you’re a Tilehurst resident you count your lucky stars to have it just down the road. 

I should close by giving them the benefit of the doubt – maybe you had to be there. Maybe their full, eat-in menu has all the imagination and execution that was missing from my meal this week. And I know a restaurant is so much more than the food, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if their welcome is warm, their service superlative. I’ll make a point of checking them out in person in the New Year, and I look forward to them making me eat my words. But, for now at least, I’d rather eat elsewhere.

Zyka
6 Park Lane, Tilehurst, Reading, RG31 5DL
0118 9427788

https://www.zyka.co.uk
Order via: Direct from the restaurant