A couple of things happened last weekend that got me thinking about the cost of food, and the concept of value for money.
The first was a visit to Nirvana Spa, where the menu had been ravaged by Storm Shrinkflation. “I’m sure last time I had the halloumi salad there was more halloumi on it” said Zoe, shortly before looking up her picture of the dish from a previous visit and finding that yes, you used to get three bits of chargrilled halloumi whereas now it’s just two. For nine pounds. I would have sympathised more, but I was too busy looking at a single, tiny tranche of pork and chicken terrine, also nine pounds, and thinking “where’s the rest?” My dish, which wasn’t billed as a salad, had more salad on it than Zoë’s, which was.
It’s one matter to reduce portion size and another to increase prices but it takes a rare kind of chutzpah to, as Nirvana has, do both at once. I’d ordered a pizza as a main course, which was nine inches at most and cost all of sixteen pounds: I couldn’t help but compare it to a lunch at Buon Appetito a couple of weeks before. Food is becoming more expensive, and it’s going to become more expensive still. That’s not necessarily a problem, but you at least want to feel that it’s great quality, even if it’s not good value. At Nirvana, it just felt like they were milking a captive audience.
The second experience, at the other end of the spectrum, was this week’s takeaway, from Biryani Boyzz (yes, not one but two Zs). It’s where Punjab Grill used to be, at the top of the Oxford Road before you reach Harput Kebab, and I think it was owned by the same people as Kobeda Palace, Palmyra and Da Village, although I’m not sure if it still is. Biryani seems to be one of Reading’s new trends, with Biryani Boyzz out west and Biryani Mama (which is owned by the same people as Crispy Dosa) just opened last week in the old Ask site on St Mary’s Butts.
Incidentally, because I’m going to be typing the word “Boyzz” numerous times during this review – with gritted teeth I might add – I want to say that I truly hope abusing the letter Z in this manner is a trend that doesn’t catch on. I know Biryani Boyzz is a stone’s throw from the equally woefully named Ladz Barbers, but I think they ought to learn lessons from history: restaurants with gimmicky Zs in their name rarely do well in Reading. When Chennai Dosa changed its name to Chennai Dosa Artisanz, it was the beginning of the end for them, and the coffee shop Artizan on St Mary’s Butts doesn’t seem to have ever opened. In my taxi back from Nirvana I spotted a place on the Wokingham Road called “Milano’z Pizza”: doesn’t the word pizza provide enough Zs already?
Rant over. I’d been tipped off to Biryani Boyzz by one of my readers, who said that it had excellent reviews on Google. So I went had a look, and although the reviews on Deliveroo were less glowing it piqued my interest enough to give it a try. Besides, their eponymous dish, the chicken biryani, was a startling four pounds ninety-nine. Could it really be any cop at that price?
Biryani Boyzz’s – I hated typing that combination of letters, just so you know – menu is a mixture of Indian, Pakistani and Afghan dishes. Chapli kebab is on there, as it would be at Kobeda Palace or Da Village, but you can also order Lahori chane, butter chicken if you want something more mainstream, or paya, a stew made with lamb trotters, if you’re the adventurous kind.
The main thing that brings the menu together is its affordability. Nothing costs more than a tenner, most of it is far less than that and, of course, that biryani stands out at just under a fiver. I had to try that, so we ordered it along with a selection of starters, a couple of curries and some rice. The whole lot came to forty-five pounds, not including rider tip: not much money for quite a lot of food.
Fancy a drama-free delivery paragraph? Of course you do. So here it is: I placed my order around twenty-five past seven, I was told it would be about an hour and in reality it was with me in forty-five minutes or so. And the driver took just over five minutes to reach me from the restaurant. There you go: drama-free delivery paragraph ends. It was all perfectly packed and piping hot, just to further reduce the element of drama: if only the situation in Ukraine could de-escalate as rapidly.
We’d chosen three things which broadly classed as starters, and they turned out to be a bit of a motley crew. Chapli kebab, which came in a brown paper bag shiny with grease, was a far cry from the very good ones I’ve had at Da Village or, back in the day, Afghan. It didn’t have that lean, meaty muscularity I’ve always enjoyed, and the texture was a little sodden and pappy, as if it had been padded out with something. There were bits of tomato speckled in it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more. It cost three pounds: after placing the order I wish we’d added a second, but after finishing it I was glad we didn’t.
Chicken 65 was more like it, but I still came away from it liking but not loving the dish. My previous experience of the dish comes from its time on the menu at Clay’s, and I tried to put that rarefied version to the back of my mind while eating this. The flavour of it wasn’t bad, with a good whack of acrid heat but the chicken was in little pellets rather than bigger, more tender pieces and there was something slightly off-putting about that.
I’d have liked it to feel drier and less glossy – and I know this dish isn’t big on vegetation but I couldn’t help thinking that if, say, Momo 2 Go did a version of this it would have had a flash of green from some curry leaves or some coriander, whereas this was a relentless tidal wave of day-glo terra cotta. We left some of it. “I’m not even sure it was chicken” was Zoë’s verdict: feel the burn.
The last of our starters was Afghan lamb chops, which weren’t bad but weren’t exciting either. Cooked through with no blush, these were old-school chops where you got a postage-stamp sized piece of meat that was largely redeemed by bathing it in raita. To put this in perspective, you got four small chops for seven pounds, so if it wasn’t great it at least wasn’t expensive: presumably at Nirvana Spa they’d have charged you fifteen pounds for that lot. Deliveroo claims this dish is “Popular”. But then so is the Caversham branch of Costa Coffee.
Did things improve with the main courses? Well, yes and no. The yes came in the unlikely form of the butter chicken: it’s not a dish I ever really order but Zoë requested it and it was better than I was expecting. The sauce had a good, smooth sweetness which made the rice more interesting even if, again, there was only limited evidence it had ever seen any vegetables, or even just some herbs. And again, the chicken was in small, homogeneous pieces and lacked the generosity I would associate with the likes of Royal Tandoori or House Of Flavours.
But every rose has its thorn, and the thorn in this case was the chilli paneer. I think maybe I was expecting a dry chilli paneer, like the one you’d get at Bhel Puri House, whereas this was very much soft unfried cubes of paneer in a chilli sauce which took no prisoners and didn’t fuck around. My friend James has an expression for things that people like me think are hot but which wouldn’t make him bat an eyelid: he calls them “white people hot”. There’s no disgrace in that, per se: James classes Gurt Wings’ buffalo sauce as white people hot, although he’s never passed judgment on “The Gurt Locker”, their hottest sauce. I must take him to Kungfu Kitchen some time.
But it’s safe to say that Biryani Boyzz’s chilli paneer isn’t white people hot. It’s just hot. And not one of those clever, layered heats that builds momentum and pace as you work your way through a meal. No, it’s just really hot. Hot as in it makes your eyeballs leak with what might be tears, could be sweat or might just be a disgusting cocktail of both. Hot as in it clears out every sinus in your face while reaming your Eustachian tubes for good measure.
Zoë said she thought there must be something like lime pickle in it and initially I disagreed, because I rather like lime pickle, but on reflection I thought she might be on to something because lurking under the brooding heat was something that could have been sour citrus. What do I know? If I’d had another couple of forkfuls I might not have been able to taste anything until the following Tuesday. The odd thing is that, in a treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen sort of way I admired Biryani Boyzz for doing something so uncompromising. It wasn’t for me, but there might well be customers out there who would love it. Reading the last few paragraphs, you probably know whether or not you’re one of them.
I’ve saved that five pound biryani til last, just so that this review has a little twist in the tale. You know what? I quite liked it. The chicken was on the bone, which of course it’s meant to be – and although you didn’t get huge amounts of it and it needed a little persuasion to get off the bone it was perfectly nice and the rice had some flavour – more, and better balanced, than the other dishes I’d tried. Did I mention that it was five pounds? And here we return to what I was saying at the start: something either has to be good value or good quality. Nirvana was neither, and Biryani Boyzz was one of them, in places. If Nirvana’s pizza had been something like a tenner, I’d have been quietly pleased, but if Biryani Boyzz’s biryani had been a tenner I’d have been nonplussed.
But cheap food for cheap food’s sake isn’t the holy grail some people like to think it is. Even ignoring that witless Berkshire Live article about how you can’t buy lunch in town for a quid any more (as everybody should), there can be a prevailing view in publications like Vittles that each time you get a dirt cheap meal in a restaurant you’re somehow sticking it to the man and getting one over on capitalism. But food ought to cost money, staff ought to cost money and everything ought to go through the books and be above board. I always worry that when food is cheap what you’re actually doing is just enabling a slightly different, equally unpleasant, flavour of capitalism.
Anyway, rarely have I been gladder that my takeaway reviews don’t come with a rating. Biryani Boyzz’s food is okay, and interesting in places, but I really don’t know where I’d put it if I had to find a place for it on a scale. And I’m not sure I’d order from them again, because I’d either spend more somewhere like Banarasi Kitchen or pay roughly the same amount at Momo 2 Go for very different cuisine. But I may not be Biryani Boyzz’s target market, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They didn’t lose me at that first Z, they didn’t even necessarily lose me at the second, but they probably lost me somewhere after that.
109 Oxford Road, Reading, RG1 7UD
Order via: Deliveroo, Uber Eats