Café review: Cairo Café

Something I often bang on about often in restaurant reviews is that feeling of being elsewhere, of the power some places have to completely transport you, in mind if not in body. Restaurants as travel agents, taking you somewhere else without having to rack up a huge hotel bill or get to the airport two hours early, or feel that sense of gloom about no longer being able to join the “arrivals from the EU” queue.

Last Saturday evening I had dinner on the sunlit terrace at Buon Appetito, and I felt like I could have been anywhere on the continent but nowhere near Reading. My Aperol spritz shone a luminous orange, soft jazz was playing on the speakers and my pizza was speckled with savoury bombs of gorgonzola left, right and centre. At the end of the meal the manager brought over a couple of amaros for us to try – one from Sicily, rich and sweet, the other from Calabria, medicinal with rosemary and mint. Could I really be a stone’s throw from the Oxford Road? It felt hard to credit.

I had a similar feeling the following day, pretty much from the moment Zoë and I walked through the front door of Cairo Café. It’s where Beijing Noodle House used to be, in a site they’ve bizarrely divided into two not side by side, as usual, but front and back: you walk down a corridor to get to Nepalese restaurant Chillim Kitchen out back, but at the front, with a much smaller bright yellow sign advertising its presence, is Cairo Café.

Inside is a little room that could maybe seat ten people, if they knew each other extremely well. Two small tables for two are on the left, all vibrant tablecloths, and on the right is a high table seating four. A couple more stools are up at the window staring out onto West Street, which offers a characterful viewing experience. It’s tiny, but I loved it, with all the little touches like the black and white photos on the wall and a couple of clocks showing Cairo and Reading time.

Like many places serving lunch in town, the menu – in bright yellow above the counter betrays a certain amount of bet hedging. You can have a conventional panini or baguette, if that’s what you want, and the menu gives you all the mainstream choices – tuna mayo, brie and bacon, chicken tikka and so on. And at the counter you can see all the steel dishes with those fillings, if you want to try the same sort of thing you could easily get somewhere like Pierre’s. But the middle of the menu, marked “Cairo Street Food”, is the reason I went: a range of Egyptian dishes, some of which I’d tried and some I’d never heard of. And the kitchen, just about visible out back, is where all of these are conjured up.

“I’m sorry, but we don’t have any falafel” said the owner, aproned and smiling. “It’s been a crazy morning.” Undeterred I asked him to explain a few things on the menu I hadn’t heard of before, and discovered that warak enab was what I would recognise as dolmades, stuffed vine leaves. He went on to explain that sakalans was an iconic Egyptian dessert, a sandwich made with halva, cream and honey: I made a mental note not to leave without trying it. 

I placed my order – this is a venue where you pay at the end – and took a seat. The room had a strangely serene calm, and despite knowing that all the noise of the less salubrious end of town was just the other side of the door, I had that feeling of being transported, of not being in Kansas any more. I could see the owner up at the counter plucking fresh mint leaves for our tea and I had that dangerous feeling that comes from time to time, the slowly building hope that I might have discovered a gem. The tea, by the way, was cracking: fresh and fragrant.

Things improved still further when the chicken shawarma wraps arrived on their little tin plates. So many places don’t know how to assemble a wrap so it can be eaten, so instead either all of it falls out of the end or you get a giant indigestible clove hitch of tortilla. You wouldn’t want these people rolling you a joint, put it that way. By contrast Cairo Cafe’s wrap was a stunner, carefully assembled as a square and flattened under a grill – neat, no wasted space, and the crisped exterior almost reminiscent of a pastilla. 

And the chicken inside was terrific: the whole filling was, in fact, with some kind of beautiful alchemy of chicken, cheese, mint and (this might have been my imagination) a hint of something like cinnamon. I ate it slowly, partly because it was hot but mostly because I didn’t want it to end. This cost a ridiculous – and in all honesty, unsustainable – four pounds fifty. You should go and try it, before he puts his prices up. He should put his prices up.

While we ate our wraps, in a sort of wordless euphoria, something lovely happened. A couple of gents came in to the café looking for a late lunch, but clearly in a rush. The owner explained that he was preparing our dishes and that it would take him a while to put some baguettes together. Were they willing to wait? It transpired that they weren’t, and so they scarpered and as the owner came over to take our plates away he was splendidly unapologetic.

“I’m not making food in a hurry. I want to give people something they’ll remember” – a quiet smile at this point, because the two chaps in question looked like they might have struggled to recall what they did the night before – “even if only for a little while.”

I was happy that we’d been prepared to wait, because our remaining choices, from the more resolutely Egyptian section of the menu, all came together and largely kept up a very high standard. Possibly the weakest thing were the waraq enab: I love stuffed vine leaves, but these weren’t quite the best I’ve had, a little too saccharine. I don’t know if they’re made on the premises – they might be, because they felt a little ragged and slightly loosely wrapped – but I’ve had better, both at Bakery House and at Blue Collar, from Fink as part of their superb mezze boxes. A good example of wayward pricing, too: these cost as much as a shawarma wrap. I know which I’d rather have.

But the other two dishes we’d chosen returned to the high standard of those wraps. Moutabal was a bright, zingy thing shot through with parsley, perfect loaded on to pitta (the pitta, again, was a slight weakness: a little hard, and not quite enough of it, although I’m inclined to be more forgiving than it was). It didn’t have the smokiness I associate with some examples – this was a light and happy dish, not a dark and brooding one – but I didn’t like it any the less for that. Dark and brooding gets boring, doesn’t it.

Even better was the sojuk, a marvellous surprise and one of the nicest things I’ve eaten this year. I was expecting something like Bakery House’s maqaneq – sausages cooked and served simply with onion and lemon juice – but what I got instead was wonderful pieces of coarse, caramelised sausages, punchy and brick-red inside, in a thick, spiced gravy (if I didn’t know better, I’d have likened it to a curry). Slow-cooked, soft pieces of green pepper and green chilli were in the mix, giving the potential for every mouthful to be a gorgeous sunburst of heat. 

Again, this was four pounds fifty and again I worry about the owner’s ability to make money charging so little. I ate forkful after forkful in beaming delight: Zoë loaded some on to a piece of pitta, dolloped some moutabal on top and said something to the effect of “this is really fucking good” between mouthfuls. It was, simply put, one of my favourite discoveries of 2022 so far, and I’m not sure I’m capable of going back and not ordering it.

As we reached the end, and sipped what was left of our mint tea, there was a moment of perfect peace. The hubbub of West Street had died away, no customers came in, the owner was out back. The clocks on the wall ticked away the advancing seconds, in Reading and Cairo, and I thought to myself: there’s something slightly magical about this place.

When the owner took these plates away, I asked him a little about Cairo Café. He’d been trading for four months, he said, and things were going well.

“Do you sell more stuff from the Egyptian side of the menu than the conventional dishes? It would be sad if most people who came here didn’t try this.”

Another grin.

“Yes, we do. But I try hard to convince people – we give out little samples, too.” I was reminded again of this man’s spiritual family here in Reading: people like Jo at Kungfu Kitchen, Nandana at Clay’s, Keti at Geo Café and Kamal at his eponymous new restaurant. People who believe in the narrative power of food, of telling stories, of welcoming you into their home with the food they grew up with.

“I’m glad customers don’t just come here for an English breakfast.”

“We don’t do one! We do that stuff in a baguette but we don’t do a full English. We sell an Egyptian breakfast instead” (it comes with falafel and shakshuka, by the way, and it sounds excellent).

“What should I order next time I come here?”

“I know we’ve sold out, but our falafel are really good. And you should try the beef livers.” I made a mental note: the menu says they come ‘all the way from Alexandria’.

The sojuk had a wonderful building heat, so I wanted something cooling and I’d left room for dessert so we ordered a couple more things. Again, the owner apologised that they would take a while but by that point I thought the prospect of another half an hour in Cairo Café was a positive boon, so I wasn’t complaining. First to arrive was a cooling drink which had rather been misplaced in the “Fresh juices” section, a drink made with yoghurt, milk and honey. I absolutely adored this – as a dairy fiend it’s right up my alley at the best of times, but what I loved about it the most was how light and delicate it was. It didn’t have that thick stubbornness a lassi can have, and the sweetness was almost floral, complementing things rather than beating you round the head. To add to the random pricing, this was four pounds but, for me, worth every penny.

Last of all, I had to try the sakalans. This took a while to prepare and I can honestly say I’ve never had anything like it – a warm, almost-crunchy baguette split lengthways and crammed with cream, honey and huge wedges of halva. I’ve loved halva for years – ironically, since my mother brought some back from a holiday in Egypt, and as a huge fan of sesame in all its forms this dish had a huge amount to appeal to me. The idea of sticking it in a sandwich had never occurred to me, but eating this I was delighted that it had occurred to someone. Zoë was a little less convinced by it, I suspect, but she was also either fuller, or more restrained, than me.

Our bill, for all that food and an hour and a half of serene, unmitigated delight, came to forty-five pounds, not including tip. I felt a compulsion to keep telling the owner how much I’d enjoyed everything, but eventually I realised I’d have to button it and stop thanking him. Besides, I have the opportunity to tell all of you instead, so it’s not as if I’m going to get an ulcer from suppressing anything. I went on my way absolutely convinced that I would be back, and positively evangelical about making sure some other people went there too.

My overwhelming feeling when I discover somewhere like Cairo Café is to think: how lucky are we in Reading? How lucky are we that despite the best efforts of the unholy trinity of Messrs Brock, Sykes and Horton-Baker, that cabal of the unimaginative, avaricious and dim-witted, people still come here to open their restaurants and their cafés, to battle away against the misguided focus of our public bodies and the bleak indifference of our local media. How lucky are we that we still get a gem like Cairo Café defying all of that inertia and doing their damnedest to get a foothold in this town?

It reminds me, many years ago, of another café only a few doors down from where Cairo Café is now: Cappuccina Café, a modest little place serving banh mi and pasteis de nata. I visited it, I rather liked it, I wrote a review and within a month it was closed. It remains, even now, one of the Reading closures I’m saddest about – more so, in a funny kind of way, than all the Mya Lacartes and Dolce Vitas out there; everybody misses them, but when I think of Cappuccina Café I sometimes think it’s mourned by me and me alone. I’m determined to do my bit to ensure that Cairo Café doesn’t go the same way. So please, go there and try the food: it has, I think, a little spark of magic. And heaven knows, we all need to keep that alive in Reading, as much as we possibly can.

Cairo Café – 8.3
13 West Street, Reading, RG1 1TT
07862 200055

https://www.instagram.com/cairocafe11/
Delivery via: Just Eat, Deliveroo, Uber Eats

Restaurant review: Shree Krishna Vada Pav

When it comes to food and drink, Reading is an especially interesting place. You may find this hard to believe at times, but it’s true.

I don’t mean all the stuff that’s obvious to you, especially if you’re a regular reader of this blog. I don’t mean our coffee culture, or our street food scene that’s the envy of towns for miles around. I don’t mean our two local breweries with taprooms, or excellent pubs like the Nag’s and the Castle Tap selling fantastic craft beer and cider. I don’t mean the jewels in our restaurant crown – places like Clay’s, the Lyndhurst, Kungfu Kitchen or Vegivores. I’m not even talking about our network of local producers and the independent shops, like Geo Café and the Grumpy Goat, which sell their stuff. You know all that already, although I suspect a lot of people who live here still don’t. 

No, I mean interesting in terms of the world outside our food-loving, indie-supporting echo chamber. Because a lot of businesses have clocked that Reading – with its university, its prosperous populace and its tech employers, just the right distance from London – is the perfect place for them to open another branch of their restaurant chain and make pots of cash. They have us down, mistakenly I like to think, as something of an Everytown, the perfect testbed for their particular flavour of the hospitality experience.

In fact, two very different types of businesses have Reading in their sights. The first, tapping into that affluent, well-educated demographic, are smaller, more targeted chains. They’ve often seen Reading as their first attempts to expand west (Honest, Pho) or east (The Coconut Tree), or just picked it as one of the first stops on a journey to nationwide ubiquity (Itsu). And this still continues, albeit to a lesser extent: we’re getting a Leon and a Wasabi this year, don’t forget.

But the second type is more interested in Reading as Everytown, and often we are the lucky Petri dish they squirt their pipette into before deciding whether to open branches elsewhere. And this is, I’m afraid, often an American thing. It’s no coincidence that Reading got one of the first Five Guys, got a Chick-Fil-A, albeit briefly, got a Taco Bell and a Wingstop and a Wendy’s and has a Popeyes on the way. Such is life: newly added to the Tube map, but somehow equidistant between London and the good ol’ United States. 

These big American chains with plenty of money are aided and abetted in their mission to slightly worsen Reading by our local media – which posted dozens of stories about Wendy’s, mainly because they were too dumb to think critically for even a split second about whether Reading getting the first Wendy’s in the U.K. was actually a Good Thing. But it also points to just how much is going on in Reading, and how interesting the battle will be between all these factions fighting it out for your money. No wonder Jonathan Nunn, the editor of Vittles, called our town a “fascinating anomaly”.

“Why is this the subject of your interminable preamble this week?”, I hear you say. I thought you’d never ask. The reason I talk about all of this is that the subject of this week’s review is that rare thing, a chain choosing to plonk a branch near the centre of town that people can get genuinely excited about. Because Shree Krishna Vada Pav, a small chain selling vegetarian Maharashtrian street food which started out in Hounslow and only has three branches outside the M25, comes here with an excellent reputation.

Eater London, which tirelessly covers everywhere worth eating outside Zone 1, has enthused about SKVP on numerous occasions. They classed it as one of London’s best Indian restaurants, and one of West London’s best value restaurants. And they said it served one of London’s finest sandwiches, on a list rubbing shoulders with greats like Beigel Bake’s salt beef bagel and Quo Vadis’ legendary smoked eel sandwich. Eater London aptly summed up what SKVP do as “carb-on-carb masterpieces”, and commented elsewhere that their dishes (carbs stuffed into a soft bap) had a “curious affinity with snack culture from the north of England and Scotland”. 

So you might not have heard of Shree Krishna Vada Pav, or you might not have known they were coming to Reading, but one way or the other this is a strangely big deal, despite the grand total of zero coverage in Berkshire Live or the Reading Chronicle. But who needs them anyway when you’ve got me, so this week I headed there on a Monday evening with Zoë to try as much of the menu as I could.

It’s at the edge of town, opposite the Back Of Beyond, and once you get past its Day-Glo orange exterior it’s fundamentally a very long thin room with a view of the kitchen and a corridor heading to the back – and presumably the loos – which seems to go on forever. (“I know” said Zoë. “I used to come here when it was Julia’s Meadow and I thought it was like the fucking TARDIS”). A panel down one wall gave a potted history of the chain which opened its first branch in 2010, although the founders go further back than that, having met at college in Mumbai at the turn of the century. I found all that oddly sweet, which is no doubt the desired effect.

Apart from that the interior was best described as functional – basic furniture, a mixture of tables for two and four and cutlery on the table. It looked very much like a fast food restaurant, albeit one with table service. The music was just the right side of overpowering, although I found I liked that.

“I don’t know how unbiased I can be” said Zoë as we took our seats. “Have we ever had a meal for the blog where I’ve been this fucking starving?”

She had a point. We got there around eight o’clock, having not eaten since a light lunch, and irrespective of how tempting the menu might be there was very much a strong urge to order nearly everything. That said, looking at the menu didn’t make that any easier. It was two things: cheap and huge, not necessarily in that order. It was split into sections, each of which contained an embarrassment of riches: a variety of pav and other bap-based dishes, some Indo-Chinese dishes, some chaat, some sandwiches and wraps, a section of “bites to enjoy” and some signature dishes marked as “SKVP recommends”. And the carb on carb struggle is real: if you want an onion bhajiya sandwich, this is the place for you.

It’s possibly an indicator of how you should eat here that the handful of curries are squirreled away in the furthest corner of the menu, and ordering any of them never occurred to me. But also the pricing positively implores you to order lots of things and share them – the most expensive dishes are around six pounds but most are less than that. I took this as encouragement to take an approach much like the numbers game from Countdown: a couple from the top and the rest from anywhere else. We ordered – please don’t judge – eight dishes in total and our bill came to just under thirty-two pounds. That didn’t include any drinks, because SKVP didn’t have any mango lassi and we didn’t especially fancy anything else: there is, unsurprisingly, no alcohol license.

I do have to say that although the set-up says fast food, ours was far from that. We ordered at ten past eight, and it wasn’t until half an hour later that food started coming to our table. That’s not a problem of itself, but it’s worth mentioning because the restaurant ostensibly closes at nine. And weirder still, the customers kept coming: we were by no means the last table seated or the last people to get their food. I’m pretty sure that SKVP has been busy from the day it opened, and on this showing that’s not going to change any time soon. I should also mention at this point that the staff were quite brilliant, although clearly under the cosh. 

We ordered a lot of food – if you go, you don’t need to order anywhere near as much as we did – and it all came to the table over the space of five minutes. Again, I’m not complaining but it was an odd approach to bring nothing for half an hour and then literally every single thing. I would have preferred a steady stream of dishes, but that might just be me. But don’t be fooled into thinking that low prices mean small portions: you’ll get very full very fast if you make the same mistake we did.

Your challenge, if you go, will be narrowing it down. We had to try the vada pav – it’s in the name, after all – and although I liked it I’m not sure I loved it or preferred it to Bhel Puri House’s version. It really is a carb overload: fried potato served in a cheap white floury bap with a variety of chutneys. I think you kind of have to have it, but I don’t know if I’d have it again – the chutneys were excellent, sharpening and and elevating it, but the potato was a little too much stodge and not enough crunch. Zoë had the version with cheese (plastic hamburger cheese, I think) and she absolutely loved it. That might be the Irish in her.

“Can you believe this only costs two pounds?” I said.

“It’s a bit of old veg though, innit?” came the response, between mouthfuls. Did I mention that we were both ravenous?

More successful (and, frankly, slightly insane) was the “aloo bomb”. I’d wanted the paneer bomb – the sandwich, incidentally, lauded by Eater London as one of the capital’s peerless butties – but it was off the menu that night so they subbed it for the aloo bomb. It’s hard to do justice to this but essentially it’s a spiced potato sandwich that has been battered and fried and it’s every bit as nuts as that description makes it sound: Glaswegians, it turns out, aren’t the only people who will batter anything. 

A portion comes in two triangles so you only need one between two but it’s well worth ordering, if only to tick it off. It struck me as a vegetarian cousin of Gurt Wings’ infamous chicken burger in a glazed donut with candied bacon on top: you’d want to try it once to say you’ve had it, but you mightn’t order it again for at least twelve months.  Who am I kidding? When I go back that paneer bomb has my name on it.

Possibly the best dish was that reliable staple, the chilli paneer. Reading has always been spoilt for this by Bhel Puri House, where the tricky decision is whether to have chilli paneer, paneer Manchurian or – as I have on occasion, again, please don’t judge – both of them. SKVP’s version is beautifully pitched between the two – a little hot, sweet and savoury all at once, staying on that highwire without putting a foot wrong. The paneer was just caramelised enough without being crispy or burnt and this was one dish where, even though we were full to bursting, we made it a personal mission to ensure that not a forkful remained.

“You could come here and have a portion of that to yourself and a vada pav and that would be you sorted” said Zoë. “You could come here for lunch when you’re working from home, you lucky bastard.”

I’d be lying if I pretended the idea hadn’t crossed my mind, although they’ve have to take less than half an hour to bring it.

If the other dishes were less successful, it was still just the difference between rather good and very good. I quite liked the onion bhajiya, I really liked the red onion studded throughout them and I adored the little fried green chillies they were festooned with. But although greaseless they were a tad dried out for my liking: what they really needed was a chutney of some kind. And fried momo were more doughy than their Nepalese cousins, and probably didn’t bring enough to the table. But once you’ve had a spiced potato masala in a deep fried sandwich and a samosa, a third carby vehicle for it is probably overkill by anyone’s standards.

The samosas, by the way, were excellent. My benchmark for these is Cake & Cream up on the Wokingham Road (where they’ve recently gone up in price to a still-ludicrous seventy pence). But I reckon SKVP’s match them nicely, with a filling flecked with chilli that starts out gently hot before going on to clear out every tube you have from the neck up. You can have them on your own – you get four for a ridiculous three pounds fifty – but we had them bundled with a really delicious, deeply savoury and soothing chickpea curry which was one of the milder, less aggressively hot dishes of the evening. Five pounds fifty for this lot, if you can believe it.

I don’t know to be impressed or faintly disgusted with myself that we ate so much of what we’d ordered but eventually we admitted defeat, although not before picking away at the last peppers and spring onions from the chilli paneer. We waddled out into the night, and headed to the back room of the Retreat for a bottle of chocolate stout and a post-meal debrief: I wouldn’t say it was the stuff of Shakespeare, as it mostly consisted of us saying “I’m so full” to one another after a suitably pregnant pause, but it was a debrief nonetheless. The pause probably seemed less pregnant than I did.

It probably won’t surprise you, now that we’ve got to the end, to scroll a little bit further down and see the rating. I loved SKVP. I didn’t care that it took half an hour to turn up, I didn’t care that I missed out on that paneer bomb and, perhaps most significantly, I didn’t care in the slightest that I’d had a meat free evening. It gets an unqualified thumbs up from me, and I imagine a lot of you would enjoy it, even if it’s just for a quickish bite to eat at lunchtime, or before the pub (good luck catching it at a quiet time, though). And I suspect that my selections from this menu were probably pretty mainstream and tame: I look forward to trying more of it.

SKVP’s closest equivalent is Bhel Puri House – which I still love, don’t get me wrong – but it strikes me as offering something very different to Reading’s other vegetarian Indian restaurants, Madras Flavours and Crispy Dosa, both of which focus their menus elsewhere. And SKVP also achieves that underrated thing which not enough restaurants succeed in pulling off: it’s fun. Fun from start to finish, fun looking through the menu, fun picking too much stuff, fun eating somewhere unlike the rest of Reading, fun eating a deep fried potato sandwich. One hundred per cent fun. It was even almost fun lying in bed that night, feeling like a python slowly digesting a mongoose it had swallowed whole. Almost.

So maybe Reading’s story isn’t written yet. And that’s an encouraging thing to realise, that with big U.K. chains to the left and bigger U.S. chains to the right we still have the chance to be stuck in the middle with our independent heroes, our restaurants and pubs, breweries and cafés, producers and shops. And in that happy place, I like to think there’s also still room for someone like SKVP – an occasional epic, incongruous, glorious curveball.

Shree Krishna Vada Pav – 8.1
97 Kings Road, Reading, RG1 3DD
07900 345120

https://skvp.co.uk
Delivery via: Deliveroo

Café review: Madoo

It’s a fact of life in hospitality that restaurants open and close all the time. There’s an inexhaustible supply of plucky new businesses ready to sign a lease and try their chances, and you can almost measure how long someone has lived in Reading by how far back they remember the history of certain sites. Do you recall when Thai Corner used to be Bistrot Vino, or when the Nando’s on Broad Street was a place called Bistro Je T’aime? You’ve probably been here since the early days of the Oracle, if not longer.

In some cases a restaurant makes such a go of it that you almost completely forget the establishments that went before. Some people have long memories, and remember Mum Mum or that pretzel joint on Market Place, but for many people I imagine it feels like it’s always been Tasty Greek Souvlaki. And although I know rationally, in the back of my mind, that there used to be a great branch of Ha! Ha! on the Kings Road – and that after that it was a Turkish place, and a tapas restaurant, and a weird kind of pub that closed on Sundays – it’s been House Of Flavours so long that it’s jarring to imagine anybody else there. It’s a bit like how, after you’ve been in a relationship with a person long enough, your previous life feels as if it belonged to somebody else.

But there are some sites where you need not only a long memory but a good one, because so many restaurants try and fail to make a go of it on the same premises. The quintessential example of this is the site of the old Warwick Arms, which has been Bali Lounge, the Biscuit & Barrel, Cardamom and King’s Kitchen and currently goes by the name of the Aila. I only reviewed the first two of those, and most of the others closed before I could get round to them.

Or take Cozze’s site on the Caversham Road, which has been Chi’s Oriental Brasserie, La Fontana, Al Tarboush, Casa Roma and Maracas, all of which eventually went pear-shaped. (Incidentally, I heard a fantastic story once that when Casa Roma decided to change to a Mexican restaurant called Maracas they did it mainly because they realised they could reuse all the letters in their sign except the O: I so hope this is true.) But can there really be a god in heaven when the TGI Friday opposite has outlasted them all?

What’s behind these high-churn sites, I wonder? Is it bad judgment, bad luck or bad juju? Are they run by enthusiastic amateurs who bite off more than they can chew, or are some sites simply cursed – by lack of footfall, of parking or of access, or by the presence of better (or better-known) alternatives nearby? Or is it just that they haven’t found their forever home – or rather, their forever homeowner – yet? All that crossed my mind last weekend as I stepped through the front door of Madoo, ready for lunch.

By the standards of titans like the Aila’s or Cozze’s site, Madoo’s is only slightly hexed. It used to be a sandwich shop called It’s A Wrap which lived up to its name by closing, and then it was the ill-fated Project Pizza (pizza may be many things, but surely it should never be a project). But it’s been Madoo for a couple of years now, and it forms a Little Italy on Duke Street with delicatessen Mama’s Way opened just next door. And it has its fans – I’ve heard lots of good things about its toasted sandwiches and it even came up in conversation with my physio this week. “I love that place, it feels like being in Italy” he said. “I started going there in lockdown because it was one of the only places in the town centre that was open.”

Inside it was a lot more hospitable than you might think from trying to peer through the tinted windows. It probably seats just over a dozen people, some of them up at a bar that runs along one wall, but it had a nice feel to it. The chevrons on the floor, pallets fixed to the ceiling and lights attached to the pallets make it feel somewhat like a zone from the Crystal Maze that didn’t make the cut, but for all that I rather liked it. One other table was occupied when I turned up just after noon, but half an hour later the place was full.

You order up at the counter but along the walls are loads of tempting bits and bobs to take home – dried pasta, a small selection of cheese, sauces, biscuits and all manner of snacks. I know a few eyebrows were raised when Mama’s Way opened next door but they seem to have put some effort into not treading on one another’s toes – Madoo has the space, and sells coffee but no booze, and its neighbour is minuscule and sells booze but no coffee. Between them they make up one of Reading’s most fascinating gastronomic micro-climates.

Madoo’s menu is a symphony of toasted sandwiches. There are a couple of salads, if you want to eschew carbs, but really it’s just about picking your fillings. Some of the sandwiches are made up and behind the counter, ready to eat, or you can pick an option from the menu, or pretty much customise it however you like. But the majority of the sandwiches are variations on a classic theme – pick your meat, pick your cheese, pick your veg or salad and off you go. Everything sounds fantastic on paper and many of the ingredients here – mortadella, speck, scamorza, gorgonzola – are far more exciting than anything you’d get in another dreary soggy sandwich from Pret. It’s affordable, too, with nothing clocking in at more than a fiver.

The other main decision you have is all about the bread. The menu suggests the sandwiches all come in ciabatta (incidentally, did you know that ciabatta is a comparatively recent invention? Created in 1982 to protect Italy from the existential threat posed by the baguette apparently, my other half tells me). And Madoo’s recent social media posts suggest you can have puccia, a flattish Puglian bread, instead. But when I ordered at the counter I was given the choice between puccia and focaccio and, out of curiosity, I picked the latter.

While I waited for it to arrive, I made inroads into my latte. I’ve had coffee from Madoo once before and it was somewhere on the borderline between nothing to write home about and actively bad, so I was hugely relieved to find that either it’s improved or they were having an off day last time. It isn’t top tier, not up there with the likes of Workhouse, C.U.P. or Compound, but it’s probably comfortably in the pack with Shed and Picnic – and tellingly, it was better than the one I had recently at Raayo.

I’d chosen toasted sandwich number one, a classic combo of prosciutto, mozzarella, tapenade and rocket and it came to the table looking the part with a nice golden sheen and telltale lines from the grill. It didn’t look hugely like any focaccia I’ve had before, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t authentic: they vary widely by region and this was a long way from the oily, dimpled foccacia most people are used to. Instead it was flatter, denser and less airy – if anything, better suited to a sandwich. It was still oily, though: enough to soak through both napkins that had been put underneath it. Why do cafés still put napkins under the sandwich or cake? It’s an eternal, nearly-unsolvable mystery that not enough philosophers have tackled over the years.

There’s an art to toasted sandwiches, that fine balance of getting everything inside hot and/or melted, all those mingling flavours cross-pollinating without ending up with a charred exterior. Based on my sandwich Madoo hasn’t quite got the hang of that yet, because although the ingredients were unquestionably good, it hadn’t had long enough under the grill for the magic to happen. The mozzarella had begun to melt but not reached full glorious elasticity, and the prosciutto – again, good quality stuff – was too close to fridge-cold at the core. But the tapenade saved the day, uniting everything with that deep, pungent saltiness. It felt like there were a few intact olives in the mix, too. 

Even with all that nit picking, it was a thoroughly enjoyable sandwich – and it reminded me of many happy lunches in the early Nineties from Parmenters, a sandwich shop in Oxford. This was back when the whole town was ciabatta crazy and you could get big pillowy sandwiches full of mozzarella, sundried tomato and pesto and eat them in quadrangles across the city (I didn’t realise, back then, that even the concept of ciabatta was barely ten years old). When I go back to Madoo, I have designs on something with scamorza, or speck, or pesto – or some arguably ill-advised combination of all three. 

Because I’m greedy, and because I wanted to try out more of Madoo’s food, I’d also ordered two mini cannoli – one with chocolate, another with pistachio. Again, they were served on their own personal napkins but that aside they were a beautiful indulgence – both with nicely brittle shells and the kind of smooth, rich filling that lingers on the tastebuds for almost long enough. I ordered the chocolate one – because I’m basic like that, and that’s just what I do – but the pistachio was equally lovely if not more so. I don’t know whether Madoo makes them or buys them in, but given that they sell them for one pound twenty each I’m not going to complain if it’s the latter.

My whole lunch came to less than a tenner – and again, it’s instructive to think how little that would buy you eating in at Pret these days. And service was excellent – kind and friendly, even to a total newcomer. I felt very much the exception in that respect: I was struck by how nearly everybody else who came into Madoo that lunchtime had clearly been there before, probably had a regular order or a favourite sandwich. Two chaps came in, talking Italian, went up to the counter, got their espressos, downed them and left. A family came in towards the end of my lunch and their son was wearing a Bari shirt. 

Every table was bright with chatter, and I possibly liked it even more because with some tables I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. It’s things like that which made me fall ever so slightly in love with Madoo and this tiny corner of Italia overseas. Because restaurants and cafés are about more than just the food, or the coffee. They’re also about the atmosphere, the little bubble they create and whether they make you want to be inside it. Madoo’s toasted sandwiches are definitely better than many of their competitors – not perfect, but not too far off it, and the ingredients they use are a cut above. But also I just loved sitting in a different part of Reading to my usual, to having a different type of coffee and sampling an entirely different flavour of people watching. 

I can absolutely see why it’s always so full. And although I may not ever become a regular there – I have too many lunch places still on my list to review, it’s rather an occupational hazard – I’m certain they will see me again. It’s great to have another option, too, because some days Reading still seems a tad thin on good candidates for a quick, light lunch. And besides, I’m reliably informed that they do arancini every Friday – so if nothing else, I’ll have to drag myself away from my regular appointment with Blue Collar one week to try them out. Maybe this spot on Duke Street has found its forever homeowner, after all.

Madoo – 7.4
10-14 Duke Street, Reading, RG1 4RU
0118 9502249

https://www.facebook.com/madooitaliandelicafe

Kamal’s Kitchen Competition: the results!

I’m delighted to announce the results of the competition I ran last month with Kamal’s Kitchen. As ever, this was a writing competition and I asked entrants to give me 250 words on the Reading institution they missed the most – and this clearly triggered a tidal wave of nostalgia, not only in the competition entries but also in the feedback I got on Instagram.

Unsurprisingly, some names came up again and again – so if, for instance, you miss Dolce Vita or Mya Lacarte rest assured that you’re far from alone. But there were also a few cafés and pubs that were mentioned in despatches – Tamp Culture and the Tasting House, obviously, and Tutti Frutti come to think of it. And then there were the more niche choices that marked you out either as having distinctive taste or a long memory (or both). So award yourself a handful of internet points if you find yourself missing Sardar Palace, or Brett’s, or Café Iguana. And you get bonus points if you remember Cartoons (although, like the Sixties, if you can remember Cartoons you probably weren’t there).

I found myself thinking about all the places I miss that nobody mentioned. Bhoj, back when it was down on the Oxford Road, the proof of concept that the people of Reading were very happy with the idea of eating excellent Indian food in a room with orange walls. Ha! Ha! when it was where House Of Flavours is now: it did a chicken and chorizo pasta dish which probably offended several national cuisines at once, but back in the early Noughties I couldn’t get enough of it. Cappuccina Café on West Street with its beautiful bành mì. Santa Fé on the Riverside, with its boozy 2 for 1 cocktails and its beefburgers served in a tortilla wrap. The 3Bs. Sahara. I could go on, but if I do I’ll just get sad.

I’m delighted that I wasn’t the judge for this one, and that dubious honour went to Nandana Syamala, co-owner of Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen. Nandana runs one of the restaurants people in Reading would most miss if it vanished off the map tomorrow, but also as a relative newcomer to Reading judging the entries gave her that Bullseye “look what you could have won” feeling. I asked Nandana how she felt about judging this competition, and here’s what she had to say:

The majority of the entries talked about the hospitality industry, and I’m really glad about that. I’ve always believed that a vibrant independent food and drink scene is what gives a town its identity, and makes it a much more fun place to live. All of us in hospitality aim to make a mark the way Dolce Vita or Mya Lacarte have, and be remembered with fondness many years after closing down.

But for me personally, what I miss the most is Tuscany on the Oxford Road. During the short time they were open, we developed a ritual of going to them with a bottle of wine after closing our restaurant by 10pm on a Sunday night. And honestly, that’s where we had some of the best pizzas in the U.K. Sometimes, when it was their closing time, they would bring in their not so secret stash of some of the best Italian charcuterie, and we’d share wine and our experiences. In fact, I may have been guilty of closing the kitchen early a few times, just so I could get there and have my favourite meal of the week.

Nandana is spot on: I miss Tuscany too. Anyway, without any further ado, here are the results. Oh, and the picture below is of a takeaway I had recently from Kamal’s Kitchen: he’s on delivery apps now, and those extraordinary pressed potatoes travel surprisingly well.

WINNER: Derek Goodridge

From the 1980s through to the early 2000s, Reading had an excellent delicatessen, County Delicacies, situated on St Mary’s Butts. At this time the store was really the only place in town that you could rely on for interesting food purchases. I was a regular visitor on Saturday mornings, along with pretty much anyone else wanting to stock up on cheese, charcuterie, excellent breads from DeGustibus bakery and lots more. Almost every visit ended with purchases that I hadn’t planned but were too good to resist: perhaps Italian fennel sausages, fresh rum babas, slices of proper cheesecake or possibly a cheese I hadn’t tried before but was persuaded to try.

The store was presided over at the time by the late Chris Rogers, who managed to keep the large queue of customers happy even though sometimes on Saturday it was several deep. He was assisted by “Saturday job” part timers, one of whom I discovered later was the young Kate Winslet. I recall that each purchase would be weighed and priced, then added up by hand on the edge of the wrapping paper, possibly the last store in the town to do so. The store changed hands in 2001 and Chris retired, finally closing permanently in 2010.

I’m obviously pleased that new independent food vendors are established in the town, so it would be wonderful if they were joined once again by a quality delicatessen run by knowledgeable people. Maybe one day!

Nandana says: I had no idea Reading had such a place! Reading this has reminded me about places like that I’ve visited in Italy, some even at highway service stations, and remembering the hours spent exploring the wonderful produce they stock. It makes me imagine how wonderful it would be to have a place like this in Reading (it made me crave a good rum baba too). The town’s changing: I hope we get a great delicatessen too very soon.

RUNNER-UP: Lucy Manners

I miss Fisherman’s Cottage. I miss the cod croquettes, I miss the potatas bravas with the right amount of smoke, the plump prawns in the paella, oh the paella, and everything with a lick of punchy aioli. 

I went with friends and we laughed, grazed, chatted, grazed, gossiped and grazed some more. I walked down along the river to Fisherman’s Cottage several times with my first post divorce date for lazy sunny lunches and we talked about tapas in Spain and the future. I know why I miss it though. Not just missing the food, but the me I was when I was eating the food. After all, it wasn’t all good. I never quite ‘got’ the faux beach huts out back, and the calamari had more than a hint of elastic band the times I tried it.

Since Fisherman’s Cottage closed my then date is now by my side raising our two young children and juggling life. Lunches are often an exercise in eating quickly before a child needs you to cut more up, replenish the dip-dip, fetch another drink or asks for the bite from your plate you were saving for last. Rare meals ‘out’ just the two of us are a fiercely planned thing – on the calendar weeks in advance, locations debated with links, recommendations and menus WhatsApped during night feeds and quiet moments at the desk. I think if it was still open, Fisherman’s Cottage and a stroll down memory lane would be a contender. 

Nandana says: This is one place in Reading we were lucky enough to experience! We went a couple of times before they closed and always had really enjoyable meals. This piece captures what a great restaurant can do – trigger memories of a place, of what you were at that time, and create a longing to go back and experience or feel that all over again. I can imagine I Love Paella doing exactly that: it’s dearly missed by many, including us.

Amen to that. Huge congratulations to Derek, who wins a meal for four including drinks up to a maximum of £120, and to Lucy who wins a meal for two, also including drinks, up to a maximum of £60. And many thanks to everybody who entered – and, last but not least, to Kamal’s Kitchen for being so generous.