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.