Takeaway review: Coconut Bar & Kitchen

Despite the fact that I’ve written over two hundred reviews since I started this blog there are a fair few restaurants I’ve only eaten at once, in the course of writing the review, and not visited since. In some cases, it’s because they were truly awful: no power on earth could send me scuttling back to TGI Friday or make me brave the purgatorial multi-cuisine omnishambles that is Cosmo. In others, it’s not proved logistically possible: I would genuinely love to try Marmo again, but it will be a while before I can. And some restaurants have closed before I can revisit them – I still mourn the loss of Cappuccina Café, which tried to introduce Reading to bánh mì before Reading was ready for them.

In many other cases – the majority, at a guess – I’ve just never got round to it. Often they’re the middle-ranking places, the restaurants with a rating higher than 6.5 but lower than 7, which I liked but didn’t love. Or it’s because it’s a pub out in the shires, and it was enough of a faff getting there first time around. In my defence, I have a great excuse: I’m always out there investigating new restaurants, and there are only so many evenings available, only so much wiggle room in the budget, only so many spare calories unclaimed. In an ideal world I’d eat somewhere more than once before reviewing the place: in an ideal world people would pay for content online, and I’d be able to afford to. 

C’est la vie. But what it does mean is that there is a small but significant group of restaurants I reviewed years ago that are ripe for reappraisal. And Coconut, the subject of this week’s review, is as prime an example as you could hope for. I went in 2014, a couple of months after it opened, and had a pleasant but unremarkable meal: it got one of those like-but-don’t-love ratings and I thought no more about it. 

But Coconut proved to have more staying power than most. In the town centre alone it has outlasted the likes of Jamie’s Italian, Dolce Vita, Mangal, CAU, RYND and – less surprisingly – Smokin’ Billy’s. And in 2022 it’s still going strong and now has a spin-off, the beautifully turned out Osaka in Oracle’s old Café Rouge site. So this week I decided to give their takeaway food a whirl, to see if it was clear why they had survived where so many restaurants, including some I really loved, had failed.

Coconut’s menu has changed a little since I visited. Back when it first opened it made a big thing of its yakitori, a genuinely interesting point of difference. But over the years the menu has moved away from that towards being a more generic pan-Asian menu (which reminded me of the sadly departed Tampopo, another restaurant Coconut has successfully seen off), so you have dishes from Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Korea side by side. It always surprises me when restaurants try to cover such a huge geographic area in a single menu – I can’t imagine someone offering a pan-European menu where fish and chips sits alongside paella, ragu, kleftiko and schnitzel – but maybe that’s just me being finicky.

That said, a menu like Coconut’s makes it easy to find something you think you might like, and plays it safe enough that relatively mainstream dishes abound – satay, pad Thai, katsu curry and so on (one dish was just called “Vietnam Beef”, which felt plain lazy). Pricing is keenly set for casual dining, so starters are largely at the seven pound mark and the vast majority of the mains are between eleven and twelve pounds. We ordered three starters and a couple of mains and our meal came to just under fifty pounds, not including rider tip.

It’s always nice to be able to talk about a hassle free delivery experience, and gladly that was the case here. I ordered at around twenty to eight on a Friday night, it was on its way forty minutes later and the driver took just over five minutes door to door – not too shabby at all. Everything was well packaged, much of the packaging was recyclable and it all arrived pretty hot, or at the very least hot enough. We’d used the standard delivery tactic of repurposing starters as side dishes, so we decanted everything as swiftly as we could, pausing only for the standard issue photo opportunities, and raced to the sofa to dive in. 

The starters were a mixed bunch. My favourite was the sticky chilli chicken, a generous portion of chicken with a nice whack of heat and good texture – just enough crunch and no suspiciously uniform bouncy pieces of chicken à la Wingstop’s infamous boneless wings. They were too hot for Zoë – or, to use her words, “hot as fuck” – and neither of us really grasped the wisdom of pairing them with wasabi mayonnaise but they were still enjoyable as they came. It’s only now, writing this review, that I have a feeling that I ought to order more imaginatively in 2022, because if you had a fiver for every time I’d ordered fried chicken (or chilli chicken, or fried chilli chicken) in 2021 this blog might fund itself: I’ll try harder in future.

The other two starters were middling, and I couldn’t help feeling I’d had similar or better elsewhere. I left the gyoza in their plastic-lidded box too long which meant they were a little too limp by the time we made inroads into them, and they were perfectly agreeable but not markedly different from those I’d had in other places. You got four for just under six pounds, which isn’t bad value until you start to consider ordering momo from literally anywhere else. Still, even a slightly limp gyoza stuffed with chicken and veg is not to be sniffed at, especially when dipped into a nice mixture of sesame and soy. God bless them for including a random chive for garnish.

Finally, Coconut’s pork spring rolls were rather nice – light rather than heavy or stodgy and with a passable amount of pork in the filling. In another town: a smaller, less prosperous town, one – more specifically – without a Pho, they would get a higher recommendation from me. But once you’ve enjoyed Pho’s crunchy, rugged spring rolls the bar is raised a fair bit higher, and for me Coconut’s homogeneous, sanitised rendition fell short. 

For the mains Zoë and I stayed on familiar territory, the better to compare Coconut’s dishes with the tried and tested. She chose the pork satay, or, as it’s described on the Deliveroo menu, the “Pork Indonesian Satay”. The menu likes to give you nationalities all over the shop, which explains the “Vietnam Beef”, the “Chicken Japan Katsu Curry” (to distinguish it, no doubt, from those sneaky Portuguese impersonators) and the “Japanese rice” you can order as a side dish.

Speaking of the rice, this was one of the frustrating things about the menu. All the curry dishes, and (obviously) the rice dishes come with rice. But the stir fries don’t mention rice at all, so you’re left with the unenviable choice of ordering a side you won’t need or not bothering and finding your meal arrives a rice-free zone. We did the former, so had an extra completely unnecessary portion of rice – Japanese rice, no less – for three pounds fifty. I’m sure it was just an omission, but the menu should say that all these dishes come with rice (and, given that nearly everything does, I’m not sure what the point is of having rice as a side dish).

Anyway, those quibbles aside Zoë really enjoyed the pork satay and from the forkful I had I could understand why. There was some nice depth of flavour and heat in it, the pork was tender with a little caramelisation and I was surprised, but not unpleasantly so, to see pineapple in there too. “This is as good as the curry I have from Pho, and possibly better” was Zoë’s verdict, and given how often she’s had that dish over the last twelve months it constituted high praise. “I would have it again”, she added. “You may not be a promoter, but I’m certainly a promoter of them porks.”

I’d love to be able to say that my nasi goreng (sorry, “Prawn Indonesian Nasi Goreng”) was also up there, but it was probably the biggest disappointment of the night. Leaving aside the fact that you were forced to choose between chicken and prawn when the whole point of nasi goreng is that it usually contains both, what really disappointed was the lack of flavour. The prawns were nice enough, big firm specimens, but the rice itself seemed to rely entirely on chilli heat without the complexity of ketjap manis or shrimp paste. That made it, once the prawns were out of the way, a bit of a one-dimensional slog. 

It was served with a fried egg on top – I’m sure this works miles better in the restaurant where the yolk is still runny, but understandably it had set on the journey to my house. And there were cherry tomatoes in it, which may or may not be authentic but either way felt plain weird. I’m sorry to use the P word again, but the fried rice dish at Pho is light years ahead of this. So, from my dim recollection of going there many moons ago, was the Moderation’s nasi goreng.

So not a terrible meal, but one I’m tempted to damn with faint praise by using adjectives like “decent” and “solid”. Bits of it were quite good, and none of it was bad, but is that enough? I’m sure it could be if you’re eating in the restaurant, enjoying the atmosphere and necking the odd cocktail, but as a takeaway experience it felt a tad flat, despite being reasonably accomplished.

I suppose the problem with being a pan-Asian restaurant is that you have to do what you do better than a wide range of different places. Your chilli chicken has to improve on Banarasi Kitchen’s, your gyoza are competing with Sushimania’s, and your spring rolls have their work cut out to be better than Pho’s. Your pad Thai needs to top Thai Table’s, and good luck doing squid better than ThaiGrr!’s. Perhaps that’s why the aim is solid reliability – that you’re never the best but you’re always far from the worst. Coconut easily achieves that, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not much of an ambition, let’s face it.

Writing all this makes me really want to eat all manner of dishes, but the problem is that it doesn’t necessarily make me want to order them from Coconut. It also makes me miss Tampopo – and I imagine long time readers of my blog who used to go there have probably had similar thoughts by now. Last of all, it makes me think about how enjoyable a Reading restaurants edition of Top Trumps would be (“for fuck’s sake, I’ve got Zero Degrees”). Someone ought to make one. If they did, Coconut wouldn’t be the worst card in the pack to hold, but you’d often find yourself giving it away.

Coconut Bar & Kitchen
62-63 St Mary’s Butts, Reading, RG1 2LG
0118 9598877

http://www.coconutbarkitchen.co.uk
Order via: Deliveroo

Restaurant DIY kit review: Marksman at Dishpatch

Despite all the great meals I had last year, as 2022 begins I can’t help remembering the one that got away. In early December, Zoë had a weekday free and we were going to take an off peak train to Oxford to chance our arm with a quiet, off peak lunch at one of my favourite places, the Magdalen Arms. Back when I was a student nearly three decades ago, the the pub was a bit of a dive bar but, crucially, it had American pool tables and so my friend Dave and I would occasionally slope off across Magdalen Bridge for a few frames there (I invariably lost: Dave never plays a game he knows he won’t win).

In the intervening years much of that end of Oxford has gentrified, so the Cowley Road now has a great tapas restaurant in the shape of Arbequina and a wonderful cafe called Peloton Espresso. And down the Iffley Road, just past the spot where Roger Bannister first broke the four minute mile, the Magdalen Arms has been transformed into a fantastic gastropub, part of a small group including the Anchor & Hope on The Cut, one of the longest-running and most fêted exponents of that genre. It has a great menu which bursts at the seams with temptation but the main reason to go there, as far as I’m concerned, is their pie.

It comes to the table in an enamel dish, suet crust pastry still bubbling, and whether the filling is beef or chicken, the end result is always ecstasy.  It serves three hungry people or two lucky, greedy ones and it remains one of the finest things I’ve ever eaten in any pub or restaurant, anywhere. I generally agree with people who say that if a pie only has a pastry lid it’s really just a stew wearing a hat, but if anything can change my mind it’s the pie at the Magdalen Arms. That trip to Oxford was kiboshed by Zoë testing positive for Covid, so it wasn’t to be. But once her recovery was well under way we both agreed that we have some unfinished business with that pie.

The only pie that ever came close to the Magdalen Arms’ was one I had in the summer of 2019. I’d just been made redundant, in circumstances that meant I was in no hurry to get another job, and this being pre-Covid I had plenty of better things to do than looking for one. So I spent a very enjoyable afternoon wandering round Shoreditch, dipping in and out of design shops, drinking lattes in edgy cafés as if I belonged there, and after work I met up with Ian, a former colleague of mine who had also hopped on the Redundancy Express but only made it as far as an office near Old Street. 

We stood outside the Bricklayers Arms, enjoying our pints in plastic glasses, congratulating one another on our escape and enjoying all the people-watching Hoxton has to offer on a summer evening. We got chatting to a chap who knew the area well and when we told him we hadn’t decided where to have dinner, he told us to make a pilgrimage to the Marksman, a pub fifteen minutes further out into Hackney. So we did, and in a midcentury modern-styled dining room above the pub I had one of the best meals I’d had in as long as I could remember. 

I remember a crumpet smeared with salsa verde and topped with translucent strips of barely-cooked pancetta. There was Welsh rarebit on the dessert menu – because it was that kind of place – and I ordered it, because I’m that kind of person. But best of all was the pie, another enamel dish topped with a burnished crust, underneath it strand after strand of chicken thigh infused with tarragon. By the end of the meal I began to wonder whether I too could cope with commuting to a job in London, if the post-work gastronomic options were that good. It seemed to be suiting Ian nicely.

Two and a half years later, that meal crossed my mind again when I was on the website for Dishpatch, who offer heat at home meals from a variety of well-regarded London restaurants. Because lo and behold, there was a meal kit from the Marksman, the centrepiece of which was a pie. Not That Pie – this one was beef, rather than chicken, but a pie nonetheless. The winter was in full swing, Omicron was too and there are only so many times you can be slightly disappointed by a takeaway before you fancy a break, so I thought Fuck it and pulled the trigger on an order. It was that dead zone between Christmas and New Year, and I thought it would be nice to have something to look forward to in January.

I ordered the feature attraction with all the sides, extras and add-ons, which came to seventy-three pounds, not including shipping. More than a takeaway would cost, but potentially less than a meal in their restaurant might be. My only previous experience of reviewing a restaurant DIY kit, early in 2021, had been very hit and miss, but I thought it was time to give the concept another try.  After all, eating in a restaurant still felt like a somewhat distant prospect.

The box arrived last Friday in the appointed slot, although DPD kindly delivered it to a house round the corner and we had to retrieve it from their recycling bin: nice to know that, even with a heat at home kit, there’s scope to struggle with the delivery experience. But Dishpatch were beyond reproach when it came to packaging : everything was packed with ice and insulated with the same Woolcool lining Clay’s uses for its heat at home option. It was all clearly labelled, well boxed up and vacuum-packed.  A fancy-looking brochure gave you all the cooking instructions and, laudably, a separate sheet explained that all of the packaging was either recyclable or compostable.

The following night we opened a bottle of wine and set about cooking and demolishing as much of our order as possible. Again, you can’t fault Marksman for making it as easy as possible and the instructions for nearly all of it were the same – heat a baking tray to two hundred degrees, line it with parchment and cook each dish for however long it needs. And this reminded me of the edge heat at home options have over conventional takeaways – the opportunity to take your time and eat everything in an order, to experience starters, mains and desserts again without having to leave the house or scramble to eat it all before something gets cold.

First up we tried one of the extras, the truffle sausage roll. A mere twenty-five minutes in the oven and what came out was glorious – bronzed and beautiful, the sausagemeat coarse and herby. I thought the truffle in it was on the subtle side – more of a whisper than a honk – but I enjoyed it far too much to feel cheated. “That’s the best sausage roll I’ve ever had” was Zoë’s verdict, and casting my mind back I struggled to think of one better, although the one I sampled last year from Wokingham’s Blue Orchid Bakery came a close second. That said, this one was eight pounds: I did find myself wishing I’d had the foresight to order two.

Our second starter – you’ve got to love heat at home kits for taking the shame out of ordering two starters – was an interesting beast. What looked like plain bread rolls were in fact milk buns crammed with curried lamb, served with a yoghurt dip. It’s billed as an Anglicised version of the char siu bun, although the more famous version served at the pub is beef and horseradish instead. I liked it, and it was definitely the most interesting thing I ate from the menu, but it still seemed a tad modest and unassuming. I expected some lacquer on the buns, perhaps, or more oomph from the filling. The best thing about it was the fantastic yoghurt dip, bursting with lime and a lick of salt, topped with crispy curry leaves – but would it have killed them to give you more of it? This cost twelve pounds, and although I enjoyed it it still felt like slightly too much for slightly too little.

I had a sinking feeling that the pie would underwhelm as I prepped it to go in the oven. For once it wasn’t about the faff of cooking it, because it couldn’t have been simpler: they provided you with an enamel dish, the pastry was ready-rolled and ready to drape on top, there was even a little sachet of eggwash to brush over the top. No, the problem was the filling. The pictures on Dishpatch’s website show the platonic ideal of a pie, the golden crust and the rich sauce underneath, a tangle of slow-cooked beef, broken up into fine ribbons, the sauce rich and sticky. Inside my vacuum-packed bag? Three – yes, I counted – dense nuggets of beef. That was it.

The Dishpatch website talks about the beef in some detail. “We keep the meat in big chunks when slow-braising so that they really hold the moisture”, says the co-founder. I can understand that, but you would think that in the process of making the filling they’d then shred the stuff so you reaped the benefits. Instead, there they were, floating in the sauce as if they’d been introduced to it literally at the last minute. Imagine a pie where each quarter contained a solitary piece of meat, and one quarter contained no meat at all. I don’t have to imagine it, because I ate it: it felt like a very expensive, not very impressive ready meal.

It was a real pity, because the sauce was delicious and you really got the rich softness of the onions in there (slow cooked in beef fat for over an hour, apparently). There was a beautiful savoury, salty note too that had me checking the list of ingredients for anchovies. But with no meat to bulk it up, it felt a bit watery. And the three bits of beef you did get weren’t “super succulent” (I’m quoting the Dishpatch website again), just dense and needing a fair bit of aggression with a knife and fork to break them up. I suppose you could describe them as big, but only in relative terms: one had a rich vein of unappealing fat in it, too. A bad pie, as I learned many years ago at Sweeney & Todd, is worse than no pie at all, because it’s a betrayal of the beautiful concept of pie itself. I’m afraid this was a bad pie.

I should also mention the cost. This was thirty-five pounds, and my only comparable experience of heat at home, really, is ordering vacuum-packed curries from Clay’s. For the money I spent on this pie and an accompanying pressed potato side dish, you could pick up two curries from Clay’s and two portions of rice and end the meal replete and enraptured. By my reckoning, you’d get twice as much food. Whether this means that Marksman is overpriced or Clay’s an absolute steal I’m not sure. Probably the latter, although the truth might be somewhere between the two.

The pressed potato side dish, by the way, was disappointing. That word again. The blurb sold it beautifully – thinly sliced potatoes layered, pressed and fried until crisp, what could possibly be bad about that? – and I was hoping it would be a heat at home equivalent of the legendary confit potato they serve at Quality Chop House in Farringdon. But it came out wan rather than crispy, and lacking in flavour. It didn’t help that it was drowned – literally and figuratively – by that sauce, the pie-filling-that-wasn’t-a-filling. In the course of researching this I discovered that Quality Chop House does its own heat at home option where a pie for two costs seventeen pounds: perhaps I should review them next.

That was all the meh I could take for one night, so we saved dessert for the following evening. Again, it sounded magical on paper – chocolate puddings with a salt toffee sauce and plenty of Jersey cream. Again, it was incredibly easy to cook. You just eased the puddings out of their foil cases and baked them in the oven with a dollop of the sauce on top while you heated the rest on the hob. 

And again, they just came out badly. They sunk in the oven to flattened discs with an impregnable caramel perma-crust on top, sad parodies of the glossy pictures in the brochure. The sauce hadn’t thickened, so it pretty much had the same texture as the cream, and the end result was a chewy puck submerged in a lukewarm lake of something which combined the worst aspects of cream and a salt caramel sauce. Twelve pounds for something Gü, it pains me to say, does better. This is the one dish I couldn’t bring myself to take a photo of: it just looked too forlorn.

The strange thing about this experience is that I can’t really fault Dishpatch. Unlike the likes of Deliveroo and Uber Eats they take responsibility for the food they sell, so after I filled out my survey they sent me a lovely email and gave me a partial refund. And their packaging and delivery was spot on: they run a very polished operation. The problem was with the food, and for once I can properly compare like with like, because I’ve eaten in the Marksman. My meal there a few years back was beautiful, but this was nowhere near the same quality for broadly the same cost. It’s like the joke that kicks off Annie Hall: “This food is terrible.” “I know, and such small portions.”

Of course, it isn’t really that simple. I know, rationally, that heat at home kits have different overheads to absorb: fancy packaging, vacuum-packing kit, training, the cost of a delivery supplier and so on. The problem DIY kits like this one have is that even though you know all that, on a gut level it still feels like you’re paying restaurant prices for a substandard home experience. Perhaps I haven’t found the right ones yet, Clay’s excepted. 

On the plus side, it leaves plenty of room for improvement in 2022. But for now, my second brush with restaurant delivery kits left me feeling surprisingly appreciative of conventional takeaways, with all their wayward drivers drifting down the IDR away from my bloody house, all the timing issues, the lukewarm pizzas I’ve endured and all the other vicissitudes I grappled with last year. It left me feeling almost nostalgic, even. If nothing else, your disappointment is (a) instant and (b) cheaper. If I’m to have disappointments this year, and statistically it seems likely, I’d like them to be as instant, and as cheap, as possible. It’s not much of a mission statement, but the last couple of years have taught me to manage my expectations.

The Marksman at Dishpatch

https://www.dishpatch.co.uk/menus/collection/restaurant/marksman