I’ve had meals in some weird and wonderful places in the course of writing this blog, but I’m not sure many can top spending a night in Genting Casino, the gambling den near Rivermead. Getting off the bus just outside the Moderation, I trudged down the Richfield Road with a vague feeling that I wasn’t sure where I was going and no idea what to expect. On the other side of the road, I spotted the glowing lights of a purgatorial Toby Carvery. Some consolation, I thought: at least it was unlikely that I was about to visit the worst restaurant in the neighbourhood.
Inside the casino, at the front desk, I handed over my passport and filled out some forms – you have to do that to become a member, to be able to eat here. The rather taciturn man behind the counter seemed to take delight in drawing this process out for as long as possible. Had I ever been to their Southampton casino, he asked. When I said no, he seemed nonplussed. Was I sure? I did try to explain that I’d never been to Southampton full stop, but it took a full five minutes before he was convinced that I had some weird south coast doppelgänger, rather than being part of some sort of Oceans Eleven style conspiracy to defraud multiple branches of the Genting casino chain.
By this point my friend Sophie had turned up, and went through the same palaver. The main thing I was struck by was that her passport – full of stamps and visas from her many work trips to Eastern Europe, spoke of a life more fully lived than mine. Once we were given our cards – which you don’t have to swipe or seemingly ever use again – we were free to wander to the restaurant.
The inside of the Genting Casino is a very strange place. With no natural light and the phosphorescent hum of slot machines, you could almost be anywhere at any time. It could be a Wednesday afternoon or the small hours of a Sunday morning and you’d be none the wiser: it’s open until 4am, and even on a Monday night there was a steady stream of punters shuffling to the card tables. You could imagine stepping outside and finding yourself on the Strip in baking heat, as opposed to on the edge of an industrial estate in that part of the world neither Caversham nor west Reading wants to claim as its own.
Not that the place was Casino Royale, by any stretch of the imagination. I had turned up shabby, my default sartorial choice, but I didn’t feel especially underdressed. The place has a dress code – no shirts, no football shirts, although a lot of the big screens were showing the football – but nobody looked like they’d made much effort, with the exception of my dining companion. Many of the customers were Chinese, which explains a lot about why I found myself there in the first place.
So why was I at the Genting Casino, and why had I dragged Sophie there to eat with me on a Monday evening? Well, it all comes down to a throwaway Tweet a couple of weeks ago from Clay’s. “Another amazing meal at the Imperial Kitchen located inside the Genting Casino” it said. “It’s definitely the best Chinese food we have in Reading.” It went on to rave about the crackling on their belly pork, and the photos looked good – a huge spread of dishes, clearly for a big group.
I remember Nandana told me once that back when Clay’s was opening on London Street and the builders were doing their work she ate at Bakery House and Namaste Kitchen all the time. Well, from the sound of that Tweet she’d clearly found an equivalent close to their new site to have dinner at after a hard day of supervising. So when I read that I had to go and try it for myself: when the owner of one of Reading’s best restaurants says that a restaurant is even better than another of Reading’s best restaurants, how can you not?
The restaurant itself is a fairly beige and anonymous space, up some steps and set away from the card tables. Certainly tasteful and muted, but not desperately exciting, with little splashes of colour from the paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling. When we got there it was doing a reasonable trade, though not absolutely rammed, but we were solemnly told we could choose from two tables (although none of the ones we weren’t allowed to sit at were subsequently occupied). But all that said it was a pleasant, and curious place to have dinner. It does feel separate from the casino, which makes sense, but the rubbernecker in me wished it hadn’t been.
One tip from Nandana was to ask for the Chinese version of the menu, and that was the first challenge because our waitress brought us the conventional menu. Now, at this point I must confess that if my interactions with her were a bit awkward that wasn’t entirely her fault. She had a strong accent, and was wearing a mask, but to complicate matters I was pretty deaf in one ear, the consequence of a heavy not-Covid cold I was only just recovering from. That lent proceedings a certain pantomime air as I lost count of the number of times she didn’t understand me and I didn’t understand that she didn’t understand me. How we got through the evening I’ll never know: if Sophie found it hilarious (and why wouldn’t she?) she was too civilised to let on.
So for instance when I asked for the Chinese version of the menu she effectively said “are you sure? Lots of our Chinese customers order from this menu” and when I insisted it felt like she was peeved to have been overruled. But when it arrived I knew we’d done the right thing. The conventional menu moves around too much, with a section of Thai curries, some “curry samosa”, crispy seaweed and the conventional Anglicised dishes you can get anywhere. By contrast, the proper menu doesn’t waste time with that but dives into the jellyfish salad and the chicken feet.
“It’s closer to the Kungfu Kitchen menu, isn’t it?” I said, seeing some dishes I recognised.
“It is” said Sophie, “but Jo’s menu has a lot more offal on it.” I knew this was true: I’d gone to Kungfu Kitchen with Sophie and her fiancé once and they’d made a beeline for the gizzards, so to speak.
“Well there is this: Deep Fried Red Fermented Bean Curb Intestines. How does bean curd have intestines?”
“Maybe it’s something to do with the wokerati we’ve heard so much about.”
Anyway, it was an extensive menu and I could see why Nandana had told me it was best to go in a big group. It didn’t bother with starters so got straight to the point, and the dishes ranged from about ten to twenty pounds. On any day I could easily have chosen three or even four dishes and this review would have been completely different, but I’d taken some recommendations from Nandana ahead of the visit, so we largely stuck to those.
This in itself caused some difficulties, I think. Nandana’s order was the order of someone who knew their food well, whereas the waitress took one look at me and reached the conclusion, not entirely unreasonably, that I might have chosen by closing my eyes and sticking a pin in the menu. One dish in particular, the clay pot chicken with salt cod, prompted an intervention. I was too deaf to understand it, but I think it boiled down to are you absolutely sure? This is a very authentic dish. Unable to even hear my own voice clearly I just boomed that it would be okay and she wandered off, probably thinking that I was nuts.
Another strange thing about The Imperial Kitchen is that you order your food at the table but they don’t serve you drinks. Instead you have to wander off to the adjacent bar, order there and pay as you go. They have an extensive gin menu (their drinks list refers to it as a “Gindex”) so both of us tried something from there – a Jinzu for me, with notes of yuzu and sake which I rather enjoyed and a gin from Kent’s Chapel Down for Sophie. “It’s very reasonable, actually” she said, bringing back a couple of nicely dressed and finished G&Ts. “A double and a single came to twelve pounds.”
The first dish to come out was the one Nandana enthused about in that Tweet. The Imperial Kitchen’s barbecue dishes are on a special section of the menu, and only available Sunday to Tuesday. Initially we’d ordered barbecued duck and belly pork but while Sophie was at the bar the waitress came over and brusquely told me that they’d run out of duck, so pork it was. First things first: Nandana was absolutely right about the belly pork. It was braised to glossy softness, all of the fat smooth and moreish; I often find an overdose of fat in pork belly offputting, but this was marvellous. And the crackling on the belly pork was truly magnificent – feather-light and hyper-crisp, an impressive technical feat.
“This is so good” said Sophie, “and there’s no danger of doing your teeth any damage”. As someone who’s lost fillings to a slice of bread more often than I care to remember, I was with her on that. The barbecued pork was perhaps more workaday, but it had that good sweet-savoury coating and a decent fibrous chew. I liked it, but what it really did was make me miss Fidget & Bob’s splendid char siu, back in the day. With both dishes, I found myself wishing they’d been hotter: they were on the warm side when they arrived but they seemed to cool down very quickly indeed. Eighteen pounds for this lot – not cheap, I guess, but if I knew somewhere that did this as a bar snack I might well stump up the cash.
The beef ho fun was more variable. I find the texture of beef can often be problematic in Chinese restaurants, but these were big, tender pieces of gorgeous beef and they went well with the coated, flat noodles. But aside from a slight hint of smoke and sesame, I found it curiously underpowered. Had I accidentally picked a really subtle dish, or was the kitchen dialling down the contrast? Some of this was left on the plate when we finished – possibly from politeness on Sophie’s part, but indifference on mine.
Last but not least, another dish Nandana had raved about, the clay pot chicken and aubergine with salt fish. It looked beautiful – that deep, shiny sauce hugging pieces of chicken thigh and big claggy cubes of aubergine – and spooning it onto the rice I had that feeling that I was about to eat something special.
“You can see why they warned us off it though”, said Sophie. “That taste of fish is probably jarring for English customers – it has that taste of sardines, or anchovies, that they probably struggle to get their head around with chicken.”
“We do seem to have a problem with fish in this country, don’t we?”
“Apart from salmon, the fish for people who don’t like fish.”
Sophie may have been right, but for me this dish fell between two stools. The note of fish, which was a little like sardines come to think of it, did stick out like a sore thumb. But really, I wanted more from it: I love anchovy and the savoury depth it lends to a dish, and I love salt cod, but this dish didn’t have the courage of its convictions. What was especially odd was that occasionally I had a mouthful that was pure, concentrated flavour: one with shedloads of vibrant ginger, another with that deep, dark saltiness that was missing elsewhere. But overall I was surprised that a dish with so much going for it on paper tasted of so little. I liked the chicken – chicken thigh is always a winner – but masses of mulchy aubergine with nothing to bring it all to life made it a slog. Had they toned it down because they thought we’d ordered it by mistake? Why was everything so well-behaved?
In some respects, I wish I’d been in a bigger group so I could have staged a many-pronged assault on every section of the menu. But on the other hand, I hadn’t had a proper catch up with Sophie in as long as I can remember, so she ordered some tea (it turns out that they do hot drinks, just not alcoholic ones) and we chatted about everything and nothing in that weird, timeless space as the gamblers wandered past, just out of sight.
“The tea’s nothing special” said Sophie, who knows about these things, but the staff kept coming and topping up the hot water and were generally really lovely. An older lady came over and was especially interested in how we’d found our meal, and I wondered if she was the owner. We settled up and our bill – for the food and the tea – came to about fifty-two pounds, not including tip. Trying to get them to take a tip by card was challenging, so it’s just as well Sophie was carrying cash.
“I think a lot of people would be put off coming here by having to become a member. Ed” – that’s Sophie’s fiancé – “certainly wouldn’t want to be giving his data to a casino.”
“I know what you mean. I’ve only ever been to one before, and I think that was a stag night.” I don’t have good luck with stag nights: I once had to feign illness to get out of paintballing and zorbing in a single weekend in Bournemouth, a place I’m not falling over myself to revisit.
“The weird thing is that casinos often have really good restaurants” said Sophie. “When I went to Las Vegas I stayed in the Bellagio. They make so much money on the casino that the hotel and the restaurant are often good value, as a way of keeping you there.”
I’d never been to Vegas, so I lowered the tone by telling Sophie that I’d watched Showgirls recently. It was the only contribution I could think of (and if you’ve never seen Showgirls, don’t: I have a soft spot for films that are so bad they’re good, but Showgirls is so bad it’s worse).
“So what’s your verdict on this place?” I said, trying to rescue matters.
“It’s okay, but I wouldn’t choose it over Kungfu Kitchen. And if I was having friends down I’d still take them to Jo’s.”
Sophie has summed it up so perfectly that I could have ended the review there. But as Sophie slipped into a black cab (“I’m not walking home down Cow Lane late at night” she said, quite sensibly) and I ambled back into town I found myself thinking about it some more. Because The Imperial Kitchen, despite its rather Day-Glo setting, is polite and restrained. Even eating off the Chinese menu, it felt like everything had been toned down. The clientele is largely Chinese, but if some of them order off the more mainstream menu maybe that tells its own story about how adventurous the diners are.
And that’s what made me think about the chaos and charisma of Jo, and of her crazy little restaurant by the university. Because she has created an establishment very much in her image: unapologetic, authentic and unrepentantly Jo. And that reflects everywhere: in the menu, in the offal, in the “no, you don’t want that, you should order this” approach and, more than anything, in the foot to the floor, balls to the wall flavours that feel like a paradigm shift from any Chinese restaurant you’ve eaten in anywhere else.
The Imperial Kitchen might suit some people, but I found it too nice, too shy, too – and I’m afraid I can’t think of a better way of putting this – not-Jo. The best Chinese food in Reading? For me, that position is taken, and it will take more than this to knock Kungfu Kitchen off its throne. Still, it could have been worse. I could have ended up in the Toby Carvery.
The Imperial Kitchen – 7.0
18 Richfield Avenue, RG1 8PA