Well, we all made it through Christmas. Presents were wrapped, unwrapped and hopefully loved, fingers crossed receipts were not required. Drink was taken, if that’s your thing, and chocolate and cheese were eaten – not together, let’s not go crazy – and now it’s both sort of Friday and sort of no day at all. This is that final smudge of the calendar when time loses all meaning, whether you’re at work or not, and the only milestone left is New Year’s Eve.
And après ça, le deluge: the diet, the budget, the unrealistic resolutions. So in the immortal words of none other than Peggy Lee, if that’s all there is let’s break out the booze and have a ball. 2022, the year of soaring bills and three prime ministers, like a shit set of Russian dolls where each one, inexplicably, was as bad as the last. Soon it will be gone, but probably not missed.
This is my first annual awards since 2019 and I’d forgotten how enjoyable they are to put together. It’s fun to remember all the great food you’ve eaten over the past twelve months and to celebrate, even if only in your head, just how much Reading has to offer. But it’s agonising too, because picking just the one winner and a couple of honourable mentions makes for extremely hard choices and means you have to leave out lots of really gorgeous plates of food.
To give you an idea how difficult this was, here’s a selection of the dishes I just couldn’t find space for: Intoku’s unbeatable crispy squid, and the pork ribs at Park House, the perfect beer snack. Kungfu Kitchen’s epic sweet and sour aubergine, ThaiGrr’s divine fried chicken and Smash N Grab’s MacBook Pro burger didn’t get a look in. I had no room for the beautiful fried lamb momo at Momo 2 Go or their siblings at Sapana Home, couldn’t squeeze in Monkey Lounge’s excellent burger or Clay’s Kitchen’s village lamb. I nearly put in a Best Breakfast category too, just so I could mention Dee Caf.
So if you think I got these wrong, and on the law of averages you probably do, just bear in mind that it isn’t easy. In every category bar one my decision was exceptionally tough, and on another day each could have gone another way. So by all means disagree, but let’s celebrate the fact that there’s so much scope to disagree. We have a lot of strength in depth here in the biggest town in the U.K., and if nothing else I hope we can say the same when 2023 also draws to an end.
After this I shall take a couple of weeks off, but I’ll be back in the New Year with more of the same. 2023 will be a significant milestone in the blog as in August I’ll mark ten – yes, ten – years of doing this. Any ideas how I should celebrate? Anyway, without further ado, let’s get in to the nitty gritty of the particular ways in which I’ve called these categories wrong and who’s been robbed this year. Make sure you’re sitting comfortably, and let the dissenting begin!
STARTER OF THE YEAR: Thhicheko aalu, Kamal’s Kitchen
It was, in fairness, love at first sight; the first time I tried this potato dish at Kamal’s Kitchen in the spring I knew that I’d never eaten anything quite like it and that I would do so again many times before the year was out. These are discs of fried, pressed potato, textural perfection, covered in a potent but anaesthetising spice mix and I have evangelised about them to pretty much anyone and everyone all year. They’re actually simple and unadorned – no dip, no chutney, just a little extraneous salad – and yet this variation on the humble spud has a seemingly infinite variety.
Kamal served them at my readers’ lunch at Kamal’s Kitchen in the summer and they weren’t at their very best – having to cook a giant batch of them for nearly 40 people probably has that effect – and I started to worry that I’d got it wrong, like when you recommend your favourite novel to a friend and they hate it (Louise Williams, Excellent Women, circa 2010, since you asked). But it was a blip, and every time I’ve had them since has felt like coming home. In a year full of wonderful new gastronomic experiences, when I was starting to get jaded enough to feel I’d seen everything, this was one of my favourites.
Honourable mentions go to the Lyndhurst’s karaage chicken, another dish I have eaten far more times this year than I’d admit to my GP, and the unbelievable gobi Manchurian at Clay’s Kitchen. It’s a dish you think you’ve had and loved, and then you eat Clay’s version and realise all the others were pale imitations.
CHAIN OF THE YEAR: Shree Krishna Vada Pav
In a year when chains seemed better positioned to ride out the coming storm I was delighted when Shree Krishna Vada Pav opened on the Kings Road. It came with plenty of hype from the London food media, but this was a world apart from our other London arrivistes like Pho and Honest. I went and although it was a bit scruffy and crowded I thought it was an absolute riot. So it gets the award from me this year, for being every bit as enjoyable as The Coconut Tree, which opened the previous year, was disappointing. Next year we’re getting Popeyes and who knows what other horrors, but places like SKVP are vital for showing that there are chains and chains.
Honourable mentions go to the two arrivistes I mentioned earlier. Because say what you like about Pho and Honest, but if all chains were like them Reading in particular would be a much better place – although one in which it would be a lot harder to support independent businesses.
LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Madoo
It was a happy day when I went to Madoo on duty, but my love for the place was a slow burner that grew as the year went by. Their toasted foccacia are lovely, their cannoli are great but most importantly, something about the place feels special. You honestly don’t feel like you’re in Reading, helped no doubt by the amount of Italian being spoken in there, the Eurohits on the radio and the general feeling of otherness. I popped in on Boxing Day for lunch and was just absolutely delighted to find they were open. Madoo isn’t perfect – the coffee could be better, the occasional toastie feels rushed and they still do that greasy napkin under the sandwich thing that drives me crackers – but sometimes you love something for its imperfections. For my sake I hope so, anyway.
Honourable mentions go to the gorgeous Cairo Café, which I loved but haven’t visited anywhere near enough this year, and Blue Collar. The original and best, rather than their fancy new place, because I’m a sentimental soul.
MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Monkfish with Bombay potatoes, the Lyndhurst
My brother visited from Australia in the spring, after a badly-timed visit in March 2020 was curtailed by the pandemic. And when I asked him if there was anywhere he wanted to eat while he was here, he had one request: the Lyndhurst. “Your photos always make it look amazing” he said, and so we booked a long leisurely midweek lunch there. And this dish, tender monkfish on a flattened cake of crushed, spiced potatoes with a bright green coriander and mint chutney, made me both ecstatic and proud of my local. We both ordered it, we both loved it. Like everything that the Lyndhurst does, it was a perfect plate – everything you needed was there, nothing more and nothing less. I had it a couple more times before they took it off the menu and every time it looked slightly different, was slightly better, because they never stop improving things. But I never forgot my first.
Honourable mentions go to Papa Gee’s pizza Sofia Loren, every bit as much a legend as the woman herself, and to Kungfu Kitchen’s deep fried fish in spicy hot pot. The latter is possibly Zoë’s favourite dish in the whole of Reading, but she usually lets me have some. My brother also wanted to eat at KFK so we went there on his last day in the country. He left full, deliriously happy and thoroughly bedazzled by Jo: the gold standard full KFK experience.
OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR (BERKSHIRE): Seasonality, Maidenhead
I so loved Seasonality. Having been to lots of restaurants a little like it nowhere near Reading, and constantly asking the question “why doesn’t Reading have anywhere like this?” it was a huge relief to find that at least there was somewhere like it, fifteen minutes down the Elizabeth Line. A compact, clever menu with plenty going on, prices that weren’t crazy – especially if you go at lunchtime – and some dishes that were just unlike anything I’d tried. I still think about the lardo dish in the picture below, and that was just in the nibbles section. I’ll be back there before too long.
Maidenhead also has the gorgeous Miyazaki, one of my favourite discoveries of the year and a true understated, classy little place. And another honourable mention, on the other side of Berkshire, has to go to Goat On The Roof where I had a terrific and eminently boozy dinner earlier in the year. My friend Graeme still goes on about the chocolate mousse I allegedly didn’t let him have.
CAFE OF THE YEAR: C.U.P.
I found this really difficult because I frequent two cafés in town, C.U.P. and Workhouse. But going to the C.U.P. on Blagrave Street, having their unbeatable dark chocolate mocha and gazing out of the window, or sitting outside in warmer weather, is one of my favourite contemplative things to do. It is, and I can tell you this from personal experience, a great place to watch people running the Reading Half Marathon. And it just about wins out over Workhouse by virtue of being a bit comfier, having better outside space and actual mobile phone reception.
I do still love Workhouse though, and their latte has a special place in my heart (literally, I fear). An honourable mention also goes to Compound Coffee who not only do beautiful coffee but, uniquely in Reading, are open past six on account of being part of the Biscuit Factory.
OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR (OUTSIDE BERKSHIRE): Wilsons, Bristol
I mean, it got the best rating I’ve ever given out for a reason. More than usual it feels a bit reductive to talk about it rather than just to say read the review but you’ve all got busy lives and maybe you’ve read the review already. Wilsons served me one of the best meals I can remember in my restaurant-going life, with so many elements and components, so much cleverness but no wanky trickery and no stinginess either. Other restaurant reviewers might bleat on about how it deserves a Michelin star, I’d just say that those accolades are nearly as worthless as the award I’m giving out now. But if you’re ever in Bristol at lunchtime or of an evening, I cannot imagine a world in which you’d regret going there.
Sadly there can only be one winner, but in any other year Bristol’s Caper & Cure would romp home with this title. Them’s the breaks. An honourable mention also goes to Oxford’s Magdalen Arms – I was there for a properly magnificent boozy lunch the weekend before Christmas Eve and can confirm that their chicken and mushroom pie is every bit as heavenly as the steak and ale one they do.
SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Buon Appetito
Buon Appetito was a happy place for me this year. If the sun was even remotely out when we’d finished work on a Friday or Saturday and if one of us could even remotely persuade the other that we couldn’t be arsed to cook, you would find us on the terrace there – me with an Aperol spritz, Zoë with a negroni and both of us with a big grin. I bumped into other ER readers there more than once and once, in a surreal turn of events, my nextdoor neighbours.
And the food there is great – more on that in a second – and it does have a certain Balearic feel when you’re bathed in sunlight listening to music on the speakers, but what really makes it for me is the service. Zoë said to me that they work hard for every single cover and every single pound they get, and I think that’s true. But there’s more to it than that. The ease, the charm and the ensemble there is at the top of its game in a way I don’t remember experiencing since the golden age of Dolce Vita. Praise doesn’t come much higher.
Speaking of high praise, an honourable mention has to go to Kamal’s Kitchen, where Kamal is thoroughly affable and his daughter Kritika (who works there alongside studying for her degree) is an absolute natural at front of house. And I also have to mention Kungfu Kitchen, another family business. Nobody who’s had Jo looking after them forgets it in a hurry, but in her husband Steve and her two boys she has a formidable – and effortlessly charming – brigade.
DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Pistachio tiramisu, Buon Appetito
When I first tried this it was a special, just something they were trying. A tiramisu with pistachio cream and pistachio crumb crumbled on top. And I thought, well, it sounds interesting. But it wasn’t interesting, it was compelling. I love pistachio, I love tiramisu, it had never occurred to me to combine the two. Every time I went I asked if it was still on the specials, gladly every time I went it was and eventually it graduated to the main menu. And in all the times I’ve eaten it, or taken friends and said “you have to try this” it has never disappointed.
No honourable mentions in this category. I had some fantastic desserts on my travels but when it came to Reading, I only had eyes for the pistachio tiramisu.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Kamal’s Kitchen
When I first ate at Kamal’s Kitchen, I said something to him that might have sounded a little harsh. I said that Namaste Kitchen, his first restaurant, had been amazing but that he took too long to pop up again at Namaste Momo. And Namaste Momo, though its best dishes were great, was too inconsistent, too much of a mixed bag of Nepalese food and bog standard dishes you could pick up in Royal Tandoori. And then he left Namaste Momo and again, was dormant too long.
This is your big chance, I said to him, to make your mark and have the kind of restaurant you’ve always threatened to run. I’m glad you have your name above the door this time, I told him. I told him not to blow it, because this was his chance to be the fourth restaurant people talk about outside Reading. For all that we love our little bubble and the array of tempting options here there are three restaurants with reach outside our town: Clay’s, Kungfu Kitchen and the Lyndhurst. Your job, I told Kamal – he’d probably tuned me out by then – is to become the fourth place on that list.
Has he done it? Put it this way: he’s made an excellent start. Kamal’s Kitchen is a modest, unassuming room and nobody would describe it as a plum location but he is slowly, quietly and modestly building something rather brilliant. I’ve eaten there several times this year and each time the food is a little bit more assured, more superb. There are things I always order, because they’re unmissable, but slowly and surely I’m trying the rest of the menu and so far it has that breadth of excellence I remember from the Eureka moment when I first ate at Namaste Kitchen, over five years ago. I can’t think of a more deserving winner this year, even if he does know who I am.
Honourable mentions go to the excellent Cairo Café, which has the misfortune to be good enough to contend for all of these awards without quite winning any of them, and Intoku. If they sort the service, and based on my visit they really need to, they could redefine Japanese food in Reading.
RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: The Lyndhurst
This is a neat symmetry – back in 2019 I gave the Lyndhurst Newcomer Of The Year, three years on they win Best Picture, so to speak. I have eaten out so much more this year than I did in the previous two, and it’s been like waking up from a terrible dream remembering how much I love food and restaurants, eating, drinking, company and people watching.
But so many of my most treasured moments this year have been made by the Lyndhurst – whether that’s lunch with my long-lost brother, over from the other side of the world, or lunch with my dad, or just a post-work dinner with Zoë because it’s curry night and our designated meal in the fridge suddenly looks nowhere near good enough. I’ve eaten there with good friends the night before setting off on holiday, I’ve even gone there and had lunch on my own on a random Saturday when Zoë’s working.
And I’ve had so many beautiful dishes – from their legendary nachos and Korean chicken wings to specials like confit duck, or rabbit stuffed with liver and wrapped in prosciutto. People who just look at their burgers, their curry nights and their Sunday roasts could easily miss the truth about the Lyndhurst: it’s an extremely accomplished kitchen which is always innovating. If they don’t have the reputation they should, for some of the best, most interesting and best value food Reading has ever had, it’s because they are so damned modest about it. And the times I’ve been there and they’ve said those magic words – we have the skate wing on specials – have made my month, without fail, every single time.
The first ER readers’ lunch of 2023 will take place at the Lyndhurst, just after payday at the end of the longest, drabbest month of the year, a month synonymous with self-improvement and privation (and, mostly, attempted self-improvement through the medium of privation). I can’t think of a better place to have it. It will only be the end of January, but from that meal onwards I’ll know that spring is on its way.