The hardest bit of writing restaurant reviews, I’ve always found, is the start. It’s the bit where you have to find a hook to hang all the other words on. Why this place? Why this week? Why should you care? It’s especially hard when, after the meal, I ask myself some of those questions – or, even worse, what was I thinking? Or you can try to be topical, but I didn’t fancy writing about the week’s events, eating something lettuce-themed or shoehorning in a reference to exploring new pork markets. The news is depressing enough as it is.
I’ve started a couple of reviews in the last few months by talking about the unlikely food trends of 2022, or singing the praises of the number 17 bus. And this week we get the unholy love child of the two, as I delve into the world of Reading’s biryani restaurants. Because yes, it’s a thing, and a comparatively recent one at that. Biryani has always been there, on the fringes of the menu at most Indian restaurants, and I used to go leftfield from time to time and order one: I had a soft spot for Royal Tandoori’s lamb biryani, for instance.
But in 2018, out of nowhere, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen opened on London Street and elevated the dish to signature status. Their clay pot biryanis – meat always on the bone, cooked sealed and ceremoniously opened at the table – became a talking point. Customers could take the pots home with them afterwards, and photos cropped up on social media of them as plant pots, or utensil jars. And then, around the start of this year, not long before Clay’s announced that it was upping sticks and moving to Caversham, biryani restaurants started cropping up all over the place.
Well, not quite everywhere, but certainly in very specific parts of Reading. In West Reading, on the Oxford Road, we have Biryani Boyz – it actually has two zs, but I can’t bring myself to type both of them – and Biryanish. In the centre where ASK used to be, there’s Biryani Mama, which I mainly remember from their ill-advised job advert back in January desperately seeking a “Bartender Cum Waitress”: just imagine that on your cv. And then on the Wokingham Road there’s a second branch of Biryani Boyz and The Biryani Lounge, the subject of this week’s review.
And what ties them together, of course, is that from west to east they can all be reached on the number 17: we may not have a Silk Road, but we can boast a Biryani Bus Route. So what prompts the decision to put biryani front and centre in these restaurants’ offerings, to make it eponymous? I decided it was worth further investigation.
I picked The Biryani Lounge for several reasons. One was that I’d already tried Biryani Boyz’s takeaway earlier in the year and I wasn’t seized by an insatiable curiosity to meet a bartender cum waitress. Another was that it has a nice backstory – four friends who met at college and university, opening a restaurant together. I also felt for it, given that rivals Biryani Boyz have opened a few doors down.
Last of all, the Google reviews were intriguing – all from Indian customers. And that’s the thing about biryani: it might be a curveball choice for many of us in a conventional Anglicised curry house, but it occupies an exalted place in Indian cuisine and everybody has strong opinions about what biryani should be like (and, for that matter, how much it should cost).
To describe The Biryani Lounge’s space as basic is probably being charitable. It’s a very bare room with a handful of neutral black tables and standard issue Tollix chairs, and menus up at the counter. Nobody was behind the counter when I got there, but after a couple of minutes someone came out.
“Do you do eat in?” I asked, because nothing apart from the sheer number of tables suggested that this was an option. After a pause, the lady confirmed that they did, so I placed my order.
“It will take a while” she said, and I said that of course that was fine. They didn’t have any mango lassi, always my default in places like this, so I said some water would be fine (the water, by the way, never arrived). I took a picture of the room and sent it to my other half, who was sitting at home waiting for her Papa Gee to arrive courtesy of Deliveroo. It looks like a doctor’s waiting room she said, and I had no idea how right she would prove to be. It would be over forty minutes before I saw any food.
In that time I got to read the menu several times, so I can tell you all about it. There is a big biryani section, most of them costing six or seven pounds, but actually there were plenty of other dishes including a bunch of curries, tandoori dishes, starters and so on. The most expensive dishes were a tenner, but most things were far cheaper. I’m no judge of how authentic, or how authentically Hyderabadi, any of it was but it was interesting to see dishes on there – like cut mirchi, or Andhra chicken fry – that I’d only previously experienced in their rarefied forms at Clay’s.
During the forty minutes I was sitting there like a lemon, the main thing I saw was people coming in, picking up bags bulging with biryani and leaving. In some cases they’d clearly ordered ahead, in others they turned up, placed their order, paid and still hightailed it out of there before I was served. Nobody was eating in, although about half an hour in a group of gents turned up, placed a big order, paid cash, tried to split the change exactly and plonked themselves at the next table. I saw three plastic containers up at the counter, which could have been mine, but I assumed they must be part of a takeaway order that hadn’t been completed yet.
That time also gave me a chance to read, in full, the blurb occupying the whole of the opposite wall. Spices play a significant role in the way we cook and consume food around the world it said, quite laudably, before going on to list the health benefits of various spices. And that’s lovely in theory, but reading that star anise is “widely used in flatulence or gas like conditions”, that bay leaves can “treat digestive disorders such as heartburn or flatulence” or that cinnamon “Helps Fight Bacterial And Fungal Infections” doesn’t necessarily put you in the mood for a hearty dinner. It was less infomercial, more sponsored Facebook ad. Or what Holland & Barrett would be like if they were obsessed with farting.
About ten minutes after those plastic containers arrived on the counter, a member of staff realised they might have been mine. “Are you eating in?” he asked, in a way that suggested this rarely happened. When I said I was he gave me a tray and quite a lot of plastic spoons and forks. He then asked if I wanted a plate, which funnily enough I did, and a couple of minutes he brought me one.
I only say all this to illustrate that I don’t think The Biryani Lounge views itself as an eat in restaurant. That it has the feel of a waiting room is probably deliberate, nearly everyone probably collects and takes it home and that’s absolutely fine with me. Because although it felt deeply random to eat my dinner in that bare room, looking out at a big red Biffa on the Wokingham Road though the open door from plastic tubs with plastic cutlery, I’ve eaten in enough unlikely places to know that none of that matters an iota if the food is exquisite.
And I so wish it had been, so this could have been another one of those amazing finds. After all, some of the best meals I’ve had have been in places every bit as unprepossessing as The Biryani Lounge. But that’s where, sadly, the dream evaporated. Because my food was okay, I suppose, but nothing to get excited about.
A lot of the reviews I’d read criticised the biryani for being more like a pilaff and not like a biryani at all. And eating it I could see what they meant. I’d committed heresy by going for the “special chicken biryani” – special, in this context, meaning boneless – and it very much felt from the look of it like the chicken and the rice had been introduced at the last minute, a culinary Married At First Sight. The rice was pleasant enough, and comforting I suppose, but it lacked any complexity. It also lacked onions, mint and all the things I’ve been spoiled into thinking should be a feature of any good biryani. The chicken, on top, was in hard pellets with a curiously orange hue.
I’d chosen Andhra chicken fry because, foolishly, it had been one of my favourite things about Clay’s new menu. And although it was my favourite dish on the night it bore no resemblance to that. The chicken was on the bone – which was fair enough – but it didn’t want to leave the bone any time soon, and trying to ease it off with a plastic spoon and fork was beyond my powers of persuasion.
I didn’t see any evidence that any of it had been fried, but what rescued it was the gravy – hot, complex and shot through with curry leaves. This on its own with some plain rice would have been better than anything else I ate from The Biryani Lounge, if it wasn’t for the fact that more than once I had to spit out another shard of bone. Even so, the sauce was great: like a great movie star carrying a shit movie, I loved it but I wished I’d seen it in something else.
Last of all, the biggest disappointment, the gobi Manchurian. Again, this can be a wonderful dish and what makes it is a combination of three things: cauliflower with a bit of firmness, coating with a good crunch and a sauce that’s hot, sour and sweet all at once (and yes, Clay’s has perfected all three). The Biryani Lounge’s fell short across the board. Maybe it was that extra time spent steaming up at the counter in its plastic sarcophagus but, by the time I ate it, it was a mulchy, soggy affair with a sauce which had a little garlic and chilli heat but was nothing like the captivating dish it can be.
Quantities, by the way, were huge. My three dishes could easily have served two and came to just under seventeen pounds. I probably got halfway through all three of them before I thought nah, snapped the plastic lids back on, put them in a tote bag and headed off. I took the bus, but my nose ran all the way home. Back at my house I decanted a little more to see if it was any better in the comfort of my living room, and it wasn’t. I got the rest of the meat off the Andhra chicken fry and enjoyed the sauce, but that was it.
Sometimes, when I review restaurants, I get a very clear idea that I’m just not the target market for them. That’s all well and good: it doesn’t make them terrible restaurants or me a terrible customer. And I think The Biryani Lounge is a good example of that. I suspect it’s mainly a takeaway with a few tables just in case, and I don’t have any issue with that. Nor did I really mind the sterility of the room: it is what it is. The problem here is the food.
Because even if you strip out the ambience, and forget about whether something is or isn’t authentic, the food just didn’t soar. I would eat in pretty much any room if the food bowled me over, and although The Biryani Lounge’s food might be good by the standards of Reading’s biryani restaurants, it wasn’t for me. I like to think that isn’t solely because I’m a gentrified ponce who has had his head turned by the food at Clay’s, but I can’t rule out that possibility: if you read this blog, you probably can’t rule out that possibility either.
So if this review made you curious, by all means try it out. But I would say get it delivered, or turn up and collect. You may find you prefer eating it on your own sofa. Have the Andhra chicken fry, and devote the time to getting all the meat off those bones before you get stuck in. And order the Apollo Fish – for the name alone, because it’s an amazing name and I wish I’d ordered it for that exact reason. But for most of us, I think The Biryani Lounge mightn’t be our cup of tea, and I doubt that will bother them one bit. The only thing I do take issue with, slightly, is the name: why call yourself The Biryani Lounge if you aren’t a place people want to spend plenty of time, in comfort?
The Biryani Lounge – 6.2
89 Wokingham Road, RG6 1LH