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
Order via: Deliveroo