One of the best things to happen to Reading’s food scene during Covid wasn’t the influx of American chains blighting the town centre, complete with inexplicable queues for weeks. Rather it was the return of a welcome trend, with independent businesses setting up shop in the kitchens of established pubs, offering interesting menus in a way which minimised the commercial risk for all concerned. Everybody won, particularly Reading’s diners.
The notable proponents of this were in West Reading. At the Butler on Chatham Street you had Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen cooking up a storm, with beautiful dumplings, bronzed jerk chicken, moreish slabs of macaroni pie, plantain and so much more; I visited in the summer of 2021 and adored practically everything I ate. Further down the Oxford Road at the Spread Eagle, just next to Kensington Park, there was Banarasi Kitchen, offering an Indian menu with some regional specialities. I reviewed a takeaway from them early in 2021, and loved it.
All good things must come to an end, and by the end of last year both pubs had parted company with the businesses that had made them brilliant places to eat. At the Butler, it was Chef Stevie’s choice – he left to cook at Liquid Leisure in Windsor, only for the water park to close later that month in tragic circumstances. Now the Butler plays host to a business called The Toastily that serves toasties, breakfasts and that retro staple, the jacket spud. As for Chef Stevie, so far as I know he’s yet to turn up elsewhere, but if he ever does I will be there, ready and waiting to order.
The story with Banarasi Kitchen is a little more opaque, and began very curiously indeed. Last October the Spread Eagle made an announcement on Instagram. “We’re restructuring our management team” they proclaimed, language that sounded more IT and telecoms than hospitality. What did that mean for Banarasi Kitchen, somebody asked? It’s now called Bagheera, they said. But was it? Their next post had the old Banarasi Kitchen logo on it.
A couple of days later, the panther out of the bag, the pub said again that the restaurant would soon be known as Bagheera. Along with the new name came a new menu, new signage, a new chef and a new kitchen team. As further announcements came out, you could be forgiven for wondering whether we’d gone past the point of rebranding alone. The logo looked snazzy, the mock-ups of the dining room (or, as they put it, the “design concept” – more corporate speak) looked classy. Was this a conscious attempt to go upmarket?
Things continued to be baffling. In early November the pub confirmed that they had officially rebranded as Bagheera. But for some reason they didn’t announce their official opening until early December, even though they did continue posting about their menu and dishes during the intervening time. All clear as mud, but it seems that the business is one hundred per cent Bagheera now (although at the time of writing they still have the link to Banarasi Kitchen in their Instagram bio: go figure).
One of my biggest regrets last year is that I didn’t make it to Banarasi Kitchen before they closed, so I always had it in mind to visit Bagheera early in the New Year. There was something special about Banarasi Kitchen’s food, but once you’ve changed the name, the room, the menu and everyone in the kitchen, could any trace of Bagheera’s predecessor remain, hidden in some intangible way? I wanted to find out, so on a Saturday evening, nice and early, Zoë and I hopped on the trusty 17 bus and strolled up Wantage Road to check it out.
First things first, the “design concept” is actually really attractive. There’s a dedicated dining room on the left as you enter the pub, separated by an old-school sliding door, and it’s a distinctly luxe place in which to have a meal. The room is all wood panelling, deep green walls and gold accents, beautiful chandeliers. The chairs, in complementary green and gold, were tasteful and comfortable, proving that you can have both at once. The gold-edged tables were fetching and sturdy. The room had handsome big windows, and I can imagine it would be a lovely place to eat in the summer. It looked like they’d let one of the better contestants on Interior Design Masters loose on it, and I liked it a great deal.
When they announced a new menu as part of the rebrand, the Spread Eagle wasn’t kidding. Banarasi Kitchen’s menu had the Anglo-Indian dishes you might expect but the menu stretched further than that, offering more regional dishes like murg kori gassi, rye ke aloo and railway lamb. Bagheera’s menu is far more generic. They have a tandoor, and an Indo-Chinese section, but beyond that you have your jalfrezi, your korma, your rogan josh and your butter chicken. It’s to their credit that they don’t allow you to pick your protein with any of the curries, at least giving the suggestion that all the components have spent some quality time together rather than being thrown together at the last minute. But it’s not a menu that sets your mind racing; it struck me as interesting, when Banarasi Kitchen’s menu had been more rambling, to stick to the hits.
But first, drinks. Now, I’ll get all this moaning out of the way in one go so we can talk about the food. They don’t have any Indian beers on tap, which struck me as strange. They also didn’t have one of the gins on their list either, but when we did eventually get a couple of Tanqueray and tonics they came in big Beefeater branded glasses with – being charitable – a couple of tiny nuggets of ice in them. So they weren’t massively cold, and I got the impression a very small bottle of tonic had been used. Possibly between two. I found all this a tad weird, because when you eat in a pub you do rather expect them to have the drinks part down pat.
The same problem reared its ugly head further on in the meal when we ordered more drinks. Initially I’d asked about their draft cider, but that was off too. So instead we asked for the same again and this time the waiter brought two equally small, completely ice-free gin and tonics before explaining that one was Tanqueray and the other was Gordon’s. No explanation was offered, and we were left to guess which was which in a sort of blind taste, find the lady scenario.
Service at Bagheera could be a little like that, likeable enough but hapless. The main front of house was a charming, dapper, authoritative older man who clearly knew his job back to front and was brilliant with customers. The rest of the team, though, were wayward, bringing mismatched gins, dropping salad on the floor when they cleared our starters away and generally making me want to stage some kind of intervention.
I was hugely relieved when the starters turned out to be good, solid dishes. The best of them was the Punjabi fish fry, a generous portion of fish in a light bubbled batter that clung superbly to the flesh. It was quite possibly my favourite thing I ate at Bagheera, and good value at seven pounds. But being critical, because that’s what I do, it lacked a bit of spice and depth and the coriander chutney it came with was lacking some sharpness and definition. The whole thing lacked heat, too: I didn’t mind that, as it happened, but I had been expecting to find a little more going on.
The coriander chutney made a repeat appearance accompanying three firm, sizzling seekh kebabs in a skillet sitting, as they often do, on a bed of onions which became more golden and caramelised as we went along. I thought these were respectable, the texture finely balanced between coarse and crumbly with some decent heat. A couple of weeks before I’d been to House Of Flavours and sampled their seekh kebabs: Bagheera couldn’t quite come close to that standard, but it was by no means dreadful.
Last of all, we ordered some onion bhajis. Zoë liked these more than I did – she’s a sucker for a bhaji – but I found them a little dense and stodgy, big unforgiving pellets rather than light, crispy, finely-spun things. They were perfectly pleasant dipped in a sort of date and tamarind confection that could easily have been HP sauce, but no more than that. Two of the starters came with pointless foliage – doesn’t Bagheera know we’re in the middle of a nationwide salad shortage? – and we didn’t eat it. As I said, thanks to the mishaps of our waiter some of it ended up on the floor anyway.
Main courses came about fifteen minutes later and continued a general trend of being perfectly reliable but quite unexciting. Zoë liked her chicken korma (“I’m the korma queen” she told me when she announced her intention to order it) and I enjoyed my forkful more than I expected to. I would never order it in a restaurant, probably because I’m a snob/terrible person/both, but it had a sweet nuttiness that was far from unpleasant. The chicken was impressively tender, especially for breast, but this was an extremely liquid dish, with a big gloopy pool of glossy sauce, too much really, left at the end.
I’d picked the lamb rogan josh, mainly because I was sold on the menu’s description of lamb marinated for six hours and slow cooked with chilli-infused oil. It’s a good blurb: it absolutely gets you thinking about texture and flavour, of time taken and a glorious end product. And it feels like I’ve said this about most of what I ate at Bagheera but, again, it was dependable without approaching mind-blowing. The lamb was tender, with no dodgy bouncy bits, but not falling-apart tender in the way you’d expect from long, slow cooking. And the flavour was, well, pardon my poverty of expression but it was okay. Just okay. No other word quite captures it.
Again, a gigantic lake of sauce was left at the end. And – sorry to use the C word, but I’m sure you were expecting me to bring them up at some point – I was reminded that when you eat food from Clay’s the sauce is the best bit. It’s to be swept up with bread, or mixed with forkfuls of rice, but however you get it in your mouth you make sure you taste every last molecule. Could I imagine feeling that desperate to squeeze every last drop of flavour out of any of the dishes from Bagheera? I only wish I could.
I suppose I should talk about sides, just to show that they were there. Jeera pilau was, according to the menu, “accentuated with cumin” but could have done with more of it. I didn’t mind my lachha paratha but it didn’t have the decadence, the layers I love in paratha – like the bhaji it was too compressed, too stodgy. And Zoë liked her keema nan, but she has a weakness for keema nan in general. “Again, it’s not as good as the one at House Of Flavours” was her considered verdict. That could, in hindsight, be the tl:dr version of this review.
What more can I say? The whole thing set us back just over eighty pounds, not including tip, and when I looked over the bill I saw that they’d charged us for double gins even though we’d ordered singles. Whether we got doubles is anybody’s guess, although it was hard to believe that those G&Ts could have been any smaller. We paid up and headed out to the bus stop in search of the Nag’s Head, where you can be pretty sure they don’t ever run out of cider.
The obvious thing to do is compare Bagheera to Banarasi Kitchen, but that’s not the right comparison. I loved the food I had from Banarasi Kitchen, and I thought their menu was more interesting – and out and out tastier. But I never ate at the Spread Eagle when Banarasi Kitchen were operating there, and restaurants are about more than the food. Reading’s history is full of pubs and kitchens parting company, sometimes in acrimonious circumstances, and you probably never learn the full story. So maybe the Spread Eagle saw Banarasi Kitchen doing so well, fancied a piece of the action and decided to take over the kitchen themselves. Perhaps the whole pub is under new management. Ultimately, it’s pointless to speculate.
But it’s a real pity is that Bagheera has such a beautiful dining room and such a grown-up brand but they’ve decided to use both those things to play it exceptionally safe. On that basis, it’s fairer to compare Bagheera to the likes of House Of Flavours, or Royal Tandoori, and I don’t think it emerges well from those comparisons. The food isn’t bad, not in the slightest, but it’s almost as if Bagheera has decided to leave the wow factor to the room and dish up an unadventurous, inoffensive set of dishes to eat in it. I wonder, in our crowded restaurant scene, how viable an approach that really is.
I might be doing Bagheera a massive disservice. Their vegetarian section looks like it could be where the real treasures can be found, and it’s possible that the Indo-Chinese dishes are where the kitchen really shines. Looking back over the menu I see many roads less travelled and dishes I could have tried instead. I don’t think we picked the staid, hackneyed dishes to fit a narrative I had in my head that big polished Bagheera had displaced plucky, authentic Banarasi Kitchen, but I at least have the self-awareness to see that on some level that might have happened.
So Bagheera probably does deserve another try at some point, but I have to admit that I still have reservations. When it comes to running the country, I am positively looking forward to someone boring but competent taking over. But in a restaurant, that just isn’t enough.
Bagheera at the Spread Eagle – 6.9
117 Norfolk Road, Reading, RG30 2EG