Restaurant review: Eat The Bird, Exeter

I found myself in Exeter in a very specific set of circumstances: I was down in Padstow last week, celebrating my dad‘s birthday, and looking at how long the train took Zoë and I decided to break our journey en route and spend the night somewhere along the way. It quickly came down to a choice between Totnes and Exeter and although I was tempted by the former – I have happy memories, the one time I visited Totnes, of arriving on Midsummer’s Eve to stumble upon what can only be described as some kind of Druidic ceremony under way in the town square – the former won out, on account of being bigger with potentially more to do.

As it turned out I rather liked Exeter, revisiting it after an interval of close to twenty years. It has an absolutely superb bakery and coffee shop slap bang next to the central station which did a splendid job of refreshing me the afternoon I arrived and the morning I departed; my only regret is not getting to try the craft beer and gin bar next door. What a contrast between this and stumbling out of Gare Du Ding to choose between a Mitchell & Butler and a Fullers pub: we could learn a lot from Exeter.

Not only that but Exeter also had, as I discovered, a burgeoning coffee scene with several marvellous coffee shops, mostly clustered round Fore Street. I stopped at the excellent Crankhouse Coffee and enjoyed a superlative latte, picking up some beans to take home (one trend I did spot in Exeter was people in cafés bed blocking tables for hours with a laptop and a glass of tap water, not buying any coffee: it must drive the owners nuts).

Fore Street also played host to a brilliant independent bookshop and a bottle shop whose owner had got his hands on stuff from all sorts of intriguing American breweries I’d never heard of before. I left with a pair of novels for my holiday and a couple of imperial stouts it took all my strength not to open before the end of my trip.

It wasn’t all beer and skittles, mind you. Without wishing to channel my inner Pevsner or Betjeman, Exeter has as much postwar architecture as the next place, some of it fascinating and some downright ugly. I was surprised by how many premises were boarded up, even if the area round by the Cathedral was blessed with the usual suspects – Côte and what have you – along with a branch of The Ivy, the Wetherspoons for people with more money than taste.

I was in the unusual position of having some Exeter recommendations from Ruth, a long-standing reader of the blog who moved to the city from Reading three years ago. It was Ruth who tipped me off about Crankhouse Coffee, and I can only apologise that I didn’t get to try out her other suggestions. So apparently there’s a little enclave called St Leonard’s a mere ten minute walk from the centre with a terrific tapas place called Calvo Loco and a cutting edge small plates restaurant called Stage: I promise, scout’s honour, that I’ll check them out next time.

But I’m afraid, because I’m basic that way, I probably disappointed Ruth by having my eye on a fried chicken restaurant called Eat The Bird, the second in a tiny chain based in Taunton, Exeter and Cardiff. I didn’t just disappoint Ruth, either: when I told the thoroughly nice, distinctly urbane chap at our hotel our planned destination was it my imagination, or did he roll his eyes despairingly? He recommended some good gin bars I could stop by on the way there, but I was beyond redemption.

Eat The Bird is at the end of Exeter’s rather long High Street, a wide-pavemented thoroughfare which somehow reminded me of Belfast, just past a retro-looking party shop called Streamers, at the point where the city starts to look a little postmodern (put it this way: it’s opposite a bookie and a Poundland).

But I quite liked the interior: it was well done, in a sort of stripped-back way. The main dining room in the front was all partitioned booths, the floor bare concrete and the brick wall painted a vivid crimson. The kitchen itself was in a shipping container plonked in the middle of the restaurant. The overall effect was about as close to street food as you could get while still eating indoors, but the whole thing was transformed by warm, enthusiastic service from start to finish.

The reviews I’ve read of Eat The Bird’s menu tend to focus on the laddishness of the puns behind most of the dishes. And yes, I suppose calling a Korean chicken burger “the Chicktator” is a little hackneyed, as is giving other sandwiches monikers like “Clucking Hell” or “Cluck Me Sideways”. But the same bloggers clutching their pearls about that do like to wank on about “falling in lust” with dishes, describing them as “lascivious” or generally rambling on as if they’ve never met a risotto they didn’t want to shag, so maybe some perspective is in order. Personally I blame Nigella and Nigel, the patron saints of that kind of food writing.

The thing I’d focus on is the drinks menu: I’m really not sure that calling a cocktail “Hobo Juice” and serving it in a brown paper bag is the wizard idea they thought it was. But their house IPA Wing Fingers, “a 3 way collab between us, Many Hands Brewery and hip hop artist MC Abdominal” (really?) was truly gorgeous, just about sessionable and spot on with all of the food we ordered. And we ordered a lot, as you’re about to discover.

The menu focuses on chicken – you don’t say – but mostly boneless, either as burgers or tenders. You can get wings, but not whole pieces of chicken on the bone à la KFC or Popeyes. There are a handful of beefburgers, more than lip service, which looked very good indeed, and four vegan variants of the chicken burger featuring everybody’s favourite apostrophe-ridden meat substitute, something called “chick’n” about which I’m perfectly happy to know nothing. Most chicken burgers will set you back eleven or twelve pounds, and there are also four different types of loaded fries including a tempting-sounding poutine.

But best of all, they also served frickles. If I could do it again I’d order these with the beers rather than having the food come all at once, because they were one of the finest beer snacks I can recall. So often they’re big watery things, the batter not adhering (a problem Honest’s onion rings, much as I like them, also have). Here they were smaller, punchy slices of gherkin, salt and sharpness in perfect harmony, the impeccable batter leaving your fingers shiny. Good on their own, even better dabbed in a pot of ranch dip; even Zoë, a pickle hater of long standing, liked them.

Better still – and yes, we ordered these as well as having burgers, because gluttony – were the chicken tenders. You got a generous helping of these, along with a little pot of dip, for a crazy six pounds fifty. And honestly, they were so good – all gnarled exterior, a fantastic coating that delivered on taste and texture. Good dipped, just as good on their own, close to the summit of what this kind of food can be.

Having eaten at Popeyes not so long ago, I remember thinking that although the American chain had perfected the crunch the flavour had just not bothered to show up. I thought at the time that something was missing: what was missing, in honesty, was that they weren’t these. Whisper it quietly, but these might even have been better than Gurt’s tenders, and they’ve attained near-legendary status in Reading. We ordered two other dips on the side, a ranch for Zoë and a decent, if slightly gloopy, Korean one for me.

Both of those things were strong contenders for my favourite dish, but so were the fries. We’d picked the tastefully renamed Kyiv fries which were loaded up with little nubbins of fried chicken, confit garlic butter (apparently), garlic mayo and an avalanche of Parmesan. Yours for seven pounds, and in my book easily worth that. I didn’t really get the garlic butter, and the overall effect was almost like a portion of chips covered in a really potent Caesar dressing. But even once the Parmesan and the mayo had run out – which they only did towards the end – what was left were gorgeous, still-crispy chips. So often this kind of dish is a way to charge more for fries and conceal how poor they are, the old street food confidence trick, but here every single element was best in class. “These have to be the best loaded fries I’ve ever had” was Zoë’s verdict. I completely agree.

If I’ve saved the burgers til last it’s almost because, with everything else, we arguably didn’t need them. And if they didn’t quite scale the heights of our other food it’s simply because that had set a tricky standard to meet. But the chicken burger itself was extremely good – generously proportioned, again in that top notch coating and holding up against everything dumped on top of it. It was breast rather than thigh, and although thigh would always be my preference this was excellent, tender stuff. I imagine it’s brined, or soaked in buttermilk or unicorn’s tears and all that bla, but however they do it, it comes out superbly.

Zoe had hers – the “Holy Cluck”, don’t you know – with brie, bacon, garlic mayo and onion marmalade and was an enormous fan of it, but for me that oozing brie would have been overkill.

I’d chosen the “Proper Filth” – let’s not go into how this kind of food tries to present poor hygiene as a good thing – and I loved it. Instead of brie it has smoked cheese and that, along with bacon and a decent barbecue sauce gave the whole thing a hulking whack of smoke that worked beautifully. I’d have preferred the bacon streaky and better cooked, but I’ve been saying that about most of the bacon I’ve encountered for many years and I don’t expect that to change any time soon. The bacon was the weakest element of the burger, the burger was the weakest element of the meal, but by weakest I just mean “least utterly excellent”. It was still utterly excellent.

One thing I found odd about the restaurant was that although they took your order at the table, they gave you the option to settle up by scanning a QR code. We did that, and I suppose I can see it’s convenient, but it felt jarring that you could just pay your bill and sneak out into the night without human contact. I partly say that because the service was excellent all round. It was surprisingly apologetic too – I think our food came out in around forty minutes and what with the gorgeous beer, and the buzz, and the feeling of being on holiday that was perfectly fine with us. Maybe it wouldn’t have been with other tables, but they really didn’t need to say sorry for making us wait. If anything, it gave me confidence in the food.

At the end the chap who had mostly looked after us came over, we chatted about fried chicken in general and the places we were keen to tick off in London (Chick ‘n’ Sours has been on my list for as long as I can remember) and I got a clear impression that the people who worked here loved food, loved Eat The Bird’s food and cared about food and service in general. It’s always nice when you’re served by someone who is as interested in restaurants as you are, something that also happened the last time I went to COR.

Our bill, which we’d already paid by then, came to sixty-three pounds not including tip, for all that food and a couple of two-thirds each of the house beer. Personally I thought that was solid value – especially when someone more sensible, less greedy, less on vacation and less of a tourist would most likely have spent less.

I know a review like this is all a bit “what I did on my holidays”. Exeter, of all places: some of you will never read it, many of you will never go there. But the point is that you have to try the Eat The Birds of this world to understand why the likes of Popeyes are so desperately pisspoor. You have to eat the unhyped stuff, sometimes, to understand that the hyped stuff is all smoke and mirrors.

If you want Reading to have ambition, you need to try and work out who its role models should be. And places like Eat The Bird – small, independent, growing cautiously and still clearly taking pride in everything they do – are the kinds of places we should be getting. They’re also the places we don’t get, and that is a worry.

Full and happy, we wandered out into the night and ended up at a place called Little Drop Of Poison – also on Fore Street – which was a captivating jumble of styles. There were old men drinking cask, hogging big tables, who had probably been drinking there since before it was a craft beer place and were too stubborn to switch their allegiance. There were a bunch of impossibly young people, one of them still wearing his staff t-shirt from Boston Tea Party, congregated around the pool table drinking the kind of brightly coloured ciders I hurt my liver with when I was their age.

And finally, in a cosy table near some twinkling lights, there were Zoë and I, taking advantage of beer lines full of obscure treats – IPAs from a little brewery I’d never heard of in Worthing, pastry sours from Poland’s Funky Fluid, imperial stouts packed with chocolate and chilli by Põhjala, brewed in Tallinn. It was just a quietish Wednesday night, but I felt a real gratitude to the city for showing me just a fraction of the stuff that doubtless made it a lovely place in which to live. So I silently raised a glass to Ruth, even if I hadn’t wound up drinking in one of her recommended pubs, because she was right after all. Exeter has an awful lot going for it.

Eat The Bird – 8.3
183 Sidwell Street, Exeter, EX4 6RD
01392 258737

https://www.eatthebird.co.uk

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Restaurant review: You Me Sushi

2022 was the Year Of The Sushi Restaurant in Reading: you waited ages for somewhere to come along to challenge Sushimania and the bigger chains, and then three came along practically at once. The most upmarket, grown-up proposition was Intoku, which I reviewed last year (tl;dr – great food, everything else was problematic). But the other two – what are the chances? – opened a few doors and a few weeks apart on Friar Street last summer.

One, Iro Sushi, took the tiny site previously occupied by Raayo, which I reviewed last year (tl;dr – a nice pulled pork panini I was sorry to see the back of). The other, You Me Sushi, was bigger, the latest franchise in a chain previously confined to London. Before that, that site was home to the now defunct STA Travel, something I only know because I Googled it. It’s sad, I always think, when you can’t remember what something used to be.

Both Iro Sushi and You Me Sushi are far more aimed at the casual grab and go market, closer rivals to Itsu than to Yo!, I would say. I don’t think either sells alcohol and although both are open until the evening they feel more like lunch venues, somewhere you would eat without necessarily hanging about. Both are on delivery apps, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a reasonable amount of their custom comes through that channel. Size is a factor there: Iro only has about five stools, two facing the bar and three looking out of the window, while You Me has a smattering of tables and maybe twenty or so covers.

You nearly got a review of either of them this week. Zoë and I wandered in that direction ready to take our chances, but although my heart said Iro (besides, somebody told me they make everything to order whereas You Me has readymade sushi on display) there were people sitting up at the window there, whereas You Me was empty. So the choice was made, although I did wonder in the back of my mind whether You Me Sushi was empty for a reason.

It’s perfectly pleasant, if a tad sterile, inside. They have some of the same furniture, I think, as Kokoro and it’s very much reminiscent of the likes of Kokoro and ThaiGrr! – functional, utilitarian, lacking in any homeliness (unless your home resembles a dentist’s waiting room). It’s mostly black and white – one black wall, a white tiled kitchen at the back – although a bright graphic on one wall adds colour and character.

This might sound like a basic error, and I’m not sure if it’s mine or theirs, but there aren’t any menus on the table. A lot of premade sushi boxes are on display in the fridge – a very good range, in fact – but it wasn’t clear to me until later that there were menus up at the counter and you don’t have to limit yourself to what you can see. That was very much my mistake, but I still found it weird to not make the menus a little more visible.

Most of the stuff they had out were the more expensive sushi rolls or selection boxes, but even then prices weren’t eye-watering: nearly all the boxes on delay were under or at the ten pound mark, and they also had some reliable staples like avocado maki. Over the counter illuminated menus offered soups and hot dishes – the latter very reminiscent of the sort of thing you can get at Kokoro – along with poke bowls, something which always seems to be huge whenever I go to Europe but which hasn’t really caught on in this country. From my photo one of their screens was out – maybe that’s where the more conventional bits of the menu should have been.

When I did eventually get a look at the menu, I saw that you could get a decent range of maki, uramaki, temaki, nigiri and sashimi – along with something called the “crazy crunchy roll” – at reasonable prices. So you don’t have to take your pick from the fridge and, in most cases, they’ll make it there and then for you like Iro, their near neighbours. They also apparently offer free delivery for orders over twelve pounds – I have no idea what the small print on that is, or how on earth it’s viable, but it’s worth knowing.

Anyway, by then I had grabbed a bunch of stuff from the fridges, which along with a couple of soft drinks came to just over twenty-four pounds. I told myself that if we liked it, and we were still hungry, we could always go up and order some more stuff.

First up, something called the “salmon box” which, confusingly, wasn’t all salmon. Nigiri, never my favourite, were actually really nicely done and I loved the salmon and avocado maki, arguably the best entry-level sushi out there. But the real pick, for me, was the salmon free zone: the California roll, with crab stick and avocado, the pop of tobiko and the elevating factor, a smidge of wasabi. Just enough to lend an edge without shouting everything down. I really loved it. Just over ten pounds for this, although I think they’re meant to charge more if you eat in – looking at my bill, I think they forgot to do so.

Avocado maki are an absolute must-order for me and I liked You Me Sushi’s a great deal. Ever so slightly raggedly rolled – the nori didn’t join up on all of them – but at under two quid for a dozen I was very much not complaining. You could hit their twelve pound delivery threshold by just ordering a fuckton of these and you (well I, anyway) could have a very enjoyable meal.

Last but not least, we’d also chosen the crunchy salmon box. Now in hindsight I probably should have picked something with a little more variety – a lot of this review could basically be summed up as “textures of salmon” – but even so it was very enjoyable. The crunch here was partly supplied by some crispy onion, of the sort you used to get in plastic tubs and sprinkle over salad, glued on with something like Kewpie mayo, and by little batons of finely sliced cucumber, in the mix along with the ever-present avocado. Seven fifty for this and, again, very respectable at this price point.

Having eaten and enjoyed everything we had, sipping away on a rather nice ginger and lemon kombucha (unusually, You Me Sushi sells multiple kombuchas), I was seized with the thought that by picking from the stuff already in the fridge we may not have given the place a fair crack of the whip or tried enough of what they had to offer. So we conferred over the menu, and I went up and ordered a few more dishes at the total cost of another twenty-six pounds. I know, the lengths I go to for you lot. Looking beyond the counter I could see the kitchen behind, all precision knife work and efficiency, and it made me glad that I hadn’t left it there.

They offer salmon sashimi either as it comes or seared, and for scientific purposes we ordered one of each. It was a beautiful piece of salmon and although it was interesting to see how searing slightly changed the buttery texture of the fish I’m not sure it was worth the extra quid to have them do that and then scatter some sesame seeds over it. They weren’t the most generous cuts of salmon though – slightly thin slivers that draped limply over the chopsticks. It’s also worth mentioning that even if you order at the counter to eat in, everything comes in disposable plastic trays. That didn’t sit easily with me: I really hope they do plenty of recycling.

Last but not least we tried soft shell crab, one of my favourite things, in temaki, big conical hand rolls. The crab itself, still warm, was delicious with just enough crunch. But it had to carry the whole show. There was tobiko but not enough, a spiced mayo but not enough, avocado but not enough and so on. Just past the halfway mark there was nothing really left but rice, and it was time to give up.

Short and sweet this week, then, a little like You Me Sushi itself. By my reckoning we can’t have been there much longer than forty-five minutes – and that’s ordering two rounds of dishes, so you can probably see why I think this is definitely a quick lunch spot more than anything else. And this is where I do slightly worry about the place, because I’m not sure that people in a hurry want to drop fifty quid on sushi, even when it’s decent value and surprisingly good.

That second bit, the “surprisingly good” part, bears repeating. You Me Sushi had the misfortune that I visited it the day after eating sushi from Misugo, possibly my favourite Japanese restaurant in the world. And I’ll say this for the place – if their sushi wasn’t quite as good at Misugo’s, it was far, far closer to it in quality than I was expecting. Add in a pleasant, if functional, room to eat in and very friendly, polite and efficient staff and you have something of a surprise package.

When you also factor in their free delivery for orders over twelve quid – an offer that, even as I type it out, still seems too good to be true – You Me Sushi may have a viable business on its hands. I very much hope so, because it definitely adds to Reading’s food scene, especially in the town centre. It isn’t really a competitor to Intoku or Sushimania, nor a like for like comparison either. But I would choose it over drab old Itsu eleven times out of ten. Fingers crossed enough people do likewise.

You Me Sushi – 7.4
150 Friar Street, RG1 1HE
0118 2290616

https://youmesushi.com/branches/reading/

Restaurant review: Popeyes

Yes, Popeyes. Now, I imagine some of you think it must be Shooting Fish In A Barrel Week here on Edible Reading, that I’ve gone for the easy option of punching down for those sweet, sweet clicks. And who can blame you? Fried chicken restaurant Popeyes is the latest, though by no means the last, big American chain to touch down in Reading, continuing a trend that began with Five Guys ten years ago and which, if anything, is accelerating. You know this already, I’m sure: we’ve also had Chick Fil-A, Wingstop, Taco Bell and, of course, Wendy’s.

And, just as with Wendy’s, from the moment the news broke about Popeyes our local press – what’s left of it – went completely gaga. OMG Popeyes is coming to Reading! it gushed last March, followed by It’s going to be in the old Gap store on Broad Street! in November. I especially loved the photo caption – always a Berkshire Live speciality – saying “Popeyes is an American restaurant that sells fried chicken” (who writes them, Mr Chips from Catchphrase?)

“Customers can now sign up for updates about when the new Reading Popeyes will open and a lucky few are in with a chance of being invited to the grand opening of the store” said an article, suspending any remaining critical faculties. But why sign up for updates when you can just read Berkshire Live as it pumps out more free advertising for a well-backed business which doesn’t need it?

So a couple of months ago Berkshire Live confirmed that Popeyes was opening on the 23rd February, and that the first two people in the queue for the first three days would win a year’s supply of chicken sandwiches. It must have been a slow news day on the 22nd February because it ran almost exactly the same story again: copying and pasting from TripAdvisor is bad enough, but copying and pasting from your own website must be a new low.

I hope after doing all that free advertising for Popeyes the drones at Reach plc at least got some free food in return, you might be thinking. Well, don’t worry – they did! “I was lucky enough to be invited down to the Reading restaurant for a sneak preview of what the international chicken chain has to offer”, an article began. “With celebrity fans including Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian, I’ve been eager to try their famous Louisiana cooking for quite some time.”

You might be astonished to find that our local Reach plc publication absolutely loved its free food: I know I was. “I tried Reading’s Popeyes and was blown away by one thing” said the headline, although the article then raved about both the chicken sandwich and the Cajun fries, so even that was an inaccurate report of their own meal. By my reckoning Berkshire Live sounds like it had two meal deals, so it sold its soul for twenty quid: that’s roughly what it’s worth. “If I was walking through town, wondering where to stop for a quick bite to eat, I’d head straight there” it concluded. Talk about a plot twist!

Not to single Reach plc out, the Reading Chronicle managed an even more glowing writeup of its free scran, although one that copied out more of the accompanying press release. “This burger is put together like a piece of art…” it enthused, with a touch of hyperbole. “Every bite makes you want another and by the time you know it you’ll be buying another portion.” Pretty potent stuff for a chicken burger you might think, but apparently, it had the author’s “jaw hitting the floor”. The overall impression was that Popeyes made Pulp Fiction’s legendary Big Kahuna burger taste like the contents of a warm food recycling bin. Two local journalists can’t be wrong, can they?

So yes, the scene is set for me to give Popeyes the time honoured kicking that I’ve doled out, over the years, to the likes of TGI Friday, Taco Bell, even Wingstop. But here’s the thing: my antipathy towards big American chains and the homogenisation of Reading is on the record and has been for years. And yet, on the other hand, I really love fried chicken. Always have. I love it in all its forms, from a crafty KFC to Blue Collar’s legendary Gurt Wings, from Bristol’s Wing’s Diner to the Lyndhurst’s karaage chicken to Clay’s Kitchen’s payyoli chicken fry and everything in between. The crunch and yield, the seasoning and the sauce: there’s nothing else out there quite like it.

It’s a proper Achilles heel and if I found a good one I doubt I’d care if the restaurant serving it was the property of a holding company co-owned by Elon Musk, Tim Martin and Scrooge McDuck. And all the talk and hype about Popeyes, about how its chicken sandwich “broke the internet” back in 2019, raises at least the possibility that it could be a game changer. So we have a classic scenario: what happens when an irresistible force (my love of fried chicken) meets an immovable body (my disdain for big American chains)? If you know the answer already you were one step ahead of me when Zoë and I stepped through those doors on Broad Street on a Bank Holiday Monday afternoon.

It’s hard to believe the interior had ever been a Gap, that much is true. But beyond that I’m not sure what there is to say – there are big touch screens at the front on which you can place your order, there’s a counter right at the back and there are loads of very functional-looking wipe-clean tables, most of which are occupied at any given time. If it sounds like I’ve described McDonald’s, there’s a reason for that: it’s not that different from one (and I actually went to the McDonald’s on Friar Street a few months ago – after an afternoon and evening on the sauce, in my defence – so I vaguely know what I’m talking about).

So yes, it’s a big cacophonous space where you sit, eat your food and sod off. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but let’s not pretend it’s a masterpiece of interior design that will make you long to linger. It’s almost designed to be just insufferable enough that you vacate your table nice and quickly so they can make money off the next group to plonk themselves down there. Someone on Twitter said to me that the interior was much nicer than KFC. I’m not sure it is, really, I think it’s just a lot newer.

Although you can order at the big touchscreens – and I hope for their sake they’re more effective than the ticket machines in Reading Station – there’s also a QR code on the table so you can grab a seat and look at the menu at your leisure. Not that it will take long, because Popeyes does chicken, chicken and chicken. Oh, and something called a Creole Red Bean Sandwich, for vegetarians who are dragged to Popeyes by friends or family who don’t much like them. But beyond that, it’s just how you want your chicken: in a bun, on the bone, on the wing or as tenders. The only other permutation is whether you want it regular or spicy.

Oh, and the sandwiches are either normal or “Deluxe”. Want to guess what Deluxe means? It means they charge you an extra pound and give you cheese and some lettuce. I know we’re in the middle of a salad shortage, but when did salad become a luxury item? Is it only a luxury to people who are going to Popeyes for dinner? It’s a puzzle. Anyway, sandwiches are six or seven pounds, if you bundle them with fries and a soft drink you’re spending something like a tenner. I don’t eat in Popeyes’ peers often enough to tell you if that is especially expensive in relative terms, but in absolute terms it’s pretty affordable.

We decided to try a little of everything so we placed our order, which came to just under twenty-eight pounds, all in, and waited the grand total of six minutes before a tray was brought to our table. They bring you the food, but you have to go up and get your own drinks – I’m not sure why. Weirdly they also charge twenty-five pence extra for fat Coke, although I’m not sure how they enforce that.

The fact that everything I’m about to describe are iterations of the same dead animal in one of two different coatings might make what follows a tad monotonous. Let’s whip through it. I’d chosen the classic sandwich, the one that allegedly broke the internet. Those two local articles I’d read raved about how huge it was, as if they’d somehow deep fried some ostrich; it’s not a meagre burger, but it’s not colossal. The one thing the articles did get right was the crunch: the crunch Popeyes achieves is quite something. It does have that almost-brittle snap spot on, and the coating adheres to the burger perfectly. That’s the good news.

The bad news, and I’m not sure how they managed this, is just how little it tastes of anything. It’s all very well raving about how huge and thick the burger is, but if the coating is bland it just means that however tender the flesh underneath is the whole shebang feels like a bit of a chore. And that, sadly, is how I felt about it. With KFC, there’s no mistaking that blend of herbs and spices. It’s not for everyone, and it’s probably just as well I don’t know what goes into it, but it tastes of something. It leaves you gasping for a cold drink, it dehydrates the inside of your mouth with every bite. But it tastes of something, and afterwards you feel like you’ve done something disreputable but indulgent.

Popeyes’ burger, on the other hand, could have been produced on a 3D printer and I’m not sure I’d have been any the wiser. A splodge of mayo and some watery slices of gherkin weren’t going to change that.

Popeyes’ fries, especially their Cajun fries, also come in for a lot of praise. I quite enjoyed them, actually – they had good crunch and the dusting of Cajun seasoning (yours for an extra quid) definitely added a dimension. But they were lukewarm when they arrived and cold not long after that, one of the most basic things fast food restaurants have to get right. KFC used to get a lot of stick for its fries and it worked on improving them: they’re still not best in class, but they’re not noticeably worse than Popeyes’. Zoë dunked hers in some ranch dip, which apparently improved matters.

Being fancy, Zoë had gone for the spicy Deluxe burger – just look at that luxury iceberg lettuce – and had similar feedback to mine. “It’s okay, but it’s not that spicy and it’s really not that special. To be honest, I prefer the McSpicy.” McDonalds put the McSpicy back on its menu permanently in February, apparently: it’s almost like they knew Popeyes was coming. If I went to Popeyes again, I’d be tempted to order this just to see if it supplied the so what factor, but, as you’ve probably already guessed, that’s unlikely to happen this side of Christmas.

For completeness we also had chicken without bread in a slightly different shape or, as the menu likes to call them, tenders. And again, the disconnect between looks and taste couldn’t be starker. These look the part: they look like they’re going to taste amazing. And when you bite into one, your teeth tell you you’re in for a treat, with that almost audible crunch. And beyond that? Nothing much.

If you dip them into something, they at least taste of the dip but that, I’m afraid, is as far as it goes. I tried them with a “Bold BBQ”, which really wasn’t, and a “Red Hot Honey” dip which I rather liked, despite it not being especially hot. It was more like a sort of sweet chilli number, and perfectly agreeable (I looked on the label on the lid of the plastic tub: the main ingredient was water).

Zoë also had some chicken wings, thrown in as part of a promo the restaurant was doing. I almost forgot she’d ordered them, in the course of writing this, but that’s okay because I think she almost forgot eating them too.

So, let’s recap. The sandwich may have broken the internet, but this review will not. Throughout my meal, my jaw remained resolutely undropped. I didn’t have one bite after another until, as if possessed by some kind of hypnotic superpower, I wandered over to the touchscreens, zombie-like, to order another portion. Sorry to piss on anybody’s (Cajun) chips, but if this restaurant was half as good as Berkshire Live and the Reading Chronicle said it was, it would be ten times as good as it actually is.

And yet this isn’t a hatchet job, and the mark below isn’t savage. And why’s that? Because, I’m sorry to say, it’s so boring. It’s not terrible food – not like Taco Bell, or Wingstop – it’s just bang average with a thick dusting of weapons-grade hype. I’ve always thought chains opening in Reading shouldn’t be a problem if they do something nobody else does, or if they do it better than everybody else. The best chains, like Honest, understand that.

But on either of those counts, Popeyes falls flat on its face. You can get a chicken burger in countless places, and most of them are easily as good as theirs. Honest’s has gone from strength to strength, even Blue Collar Corner is doing one at the moment – it’s a little bland, but at least it’s chicken thigh and it’s still probably more exciting than Popeyes. And speaking of Blue Collar, if it’s fried chicken you want Gurt Wings is in the market Friday lunchtimes and their tenders knock the spots off Popeyes’,

I’m not even angry, and I can’t bring myself to hate Popeyes. It’s good that people are excited about it, even if that’s mainly because they’re excitable, and bringing new jobs to the town centre can only be a good thing. But while I was eating it, and as I cogitated on it afterwards, I couldn’t help thinking, in the immortal words of Peggy Lee, is that all there is? Is this all it takes to get half a dozen articles in the local press, while newcomers like San Sicario get ignored?

It frustrates me that people think Reading is so easily mugged off with the latest shiny thing, that nobody wants to look beyond the obvious to the people and places that make this town so interesting. Why even now are we, as a town, so happy to settle for second best? I can already picture Reading Borough Council’s bid for city status in 2026: Look, we’ve got a Popeyes!

Just this once – and these are words I never thought I’d say on the blog – I’ll leave the last word to Beyoncé. She may have got a lifetime loyalty card from the restaurant, but that was back in 2003. What does she say nowadays?

“I can’t really eat it anymore.”

Popeyes – 6.5
107-108 Broad Street, RG1 2AX
0330 1758760

https://popeyesuk.com/restaurants/Reading

Restaurant review: Mama’s Way

Without question, Mama’s Way is the smallest venue I’ve ever reviewed. There are three stools outside on Duke Street, looking out on our thriving branch of Ryman: I suppose you could sit there with an Aperol Spritz, but best of luck eating at them. Inside, up at the window, there are three more stools with a ledge in front of them. The bits of the ledge that aren’t accommodating goods on display, that is.

And there are goods on display literally everywhere in that little room. Chocolate eggs hang from the ceiling this time of year, the wall nearest the door is lined with Italian wine, amaro, vermouth – even mirto, the Sardinian liqueur. Under the counter, lit enticingly, is a cornucopia of cheeses, again all Italian, and a delectable range of cured meats just asking to be sliced. On the counter is a makeshift wall of panettone, and above that glasses hang down, ready to be filled with Aperol or Crodino.

It doesn’t stop there. Eye level might be buy level but if you stoop, there are multiple types of balsamic vinegar and oil, black rice, snails in jars, every kind of paté or pesto you could want. On the far side another fridge gently hums, keeping burrata and scquacqerone cool, next to them sit ’nduja, blocks of bottarga, fists of sausages crammed with fennel. You could get lost in the place, walk out with countless treats you weren’t intending to buy. Perching on a stool next to Zoë, people watching the passers-by heading into town, I fantasise about lock-ins, imagine the fun you could have.

I would describe the room as a Tardis but that’s not right. The Tardis was bigger on the inside, this room is still minuscule. It just happens to be absolutely rammed with lovely things to eat and drink, covering nearly every square inch. When I was in Paris last month I went to a branch of Eataly, the upmarket food hall; I reckon Mama’s Way has, in a fraction of the size, a respectable proportion of the stuff you can find in Eataly. I bet it’s a darned sight cheaper, too. With Madoo next door, this forms a little Italy in the town centre: I’ve tried dubbing it Via Del Duca, but so far it hasn’t caught on.

Although I’ve popped in to Mama’s Way occasionally to buy coppa, fennel salama or olive oil this is the first time I’ve eaten on the premises since it opened in 2021. I remember seeing the pictures of their opening night, that hole in the wall transformed into a riot of drink and celebration, people spilling out on to the street, and I recall cursing the risk aversion that stopped me joining in.

Months later, towards the end of the year, I tried their food via Deliveroo but wasn’t won over – and yet even at the time I knew that some food just doesn’t travel well and that I needed to try it out properly. Since then Glen Dinning, the man behind Blue Collar, has raved to me about the experience of eating at Mama’s Way during the day. You just turn up, grab one of those three seats and let them look after you. He even compared it to José, the tiny but legendary tapas restaurant in Bermondsey. “For fuck’s sake, don’t go telling everybody” he said, almost immediately after waxing lyrical.

Looking back I wonder what took me so long to try it out, but better late than never. And this week’s review is the consequence of providence and opportunism. Zoë and I were strolling into town on a Saturday lunchtime, we approached Mama’s Way and – could it be true? – the seats inside were all unoccupied. It felt like fate, so we went inside, waited for the customers standing at the counter to finish their business and plonked ourselves down (there’s enough room for Mama’s Way to have customers eating in and customers buying stuff over the counter, but only just).

The menu looks wider than it is, because it contains plenty of variations on a theme: you can have one of five types of pasta with the sauce of your choice, from a range of ten, giving a dizzying range of options. Similarly they serve pinsa – a Roman variant on pizza made with a particular blend of flours and praised for its airiness – and that too lends itself to many combinations. It’s a clever way to offer a lot of choice from a core of ingredients, but there are also some salads, soups, a handful of main courses and other options which make use of the wealth of produce they have to hand.

I was struck by how reasonable the prices are – pizzas are just over a tenner, most pasta dishes clock in around the same price and some dishes, as I discovered, are a real steal. This was especially confusing because the price gulf between eating in and ordering on Deliveroo is considerable, with a huge uplift on some dishes. Up to a hundred per cent, in fact, in some cases. Similarly the prices on the menu on Mama’s Way’s website bear no relation to those on the menu I saw.

It may be a version control problem, it may be that they’ve decided to slash their prices to be competitive, but the overall impression is confusing. On the plus side, it makes eating in a comparative bargain – and good for them, I guess, for not taking a huge hit on their Deliveroo orders: heaven knows the delivery companies take a hefty, almost punitive share for doing not a lot.

The thing I was drawn to on the starters section was the “selection imperiale”, a range of cheese and charcuterie to share for two people. When I ordered this at the counter, the lady told me I could pick three of each and I looked at the embarrassment of riches under the counter, almost unable to choose. It looked, to me at least, like as wide a selection of cheese and cured meats as you’d find anywhere in Reading, and although the Grumpy Goat does something similar they limit your choice to a fraction of the cheeses they sell.

Prose is all very well, but sometimes you need a picture: just look at what we got.

How appetising does that look? I was truly impressed by the quantity and range and sipping a glass of white wine, watching this gradually take shape behind the counter, I wondered whether the small bar I’d always wished Reading had, serving wine, cheese and charcuterie, had been here all along. The wine, incidentally, was a wonderful Italian chardonnay straight out of the fridge and newly opened, with just enough freshness and complexity for everything that followed.

Everything we had was excellent, and most of it was truly great. I’ve had Mama’s Way’s finocchiona – fennel salami – before, so it was a known quantity but one I found hard to resist. Their coppa was also terrific, dry, salty and superbly savoury. And I was drawn to the speck, a smoked ham made close to the Austrian border, but then I spotted the culatello – one of the very best of the best of Italian salumi – and my decision was made.

Even in this company it was outstanding, sliced almost thin enough to be translucent and quite extraordinary. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve eaten cured meats, even at places like the Tasting House that prided themselves on such things, with that glossy sheen of something kept in captivity, sandwiched between environmentally unfriendly leaves of plastic. This, by contrast, was absolutely the real deal, and I felt extremely fortunate to find it in Reading.

But the cheeses, if anything, were even more exquisite. First up, Fiore Sardo, a hard Sardinian cheese a lot like pecorino. I didn’t realise this was a smoked cheese, and nothing prepared me for that whack of woodsmoke. It felt like being catapulted back to winter, wandering through the Village, seeing my breath in the air and smelling the woodburning stoves of my more prosperous neighbours.

I loved it, but the other two were even better. Caciobufala was hard, moreish and studded with pistachio, and we liked it so much that Zoë picked some up afterwards to take over to her mum as a present; it does make you think, that the Italians put pistachio and truffle in their cheese and we have to settle for Wensleydale with fucking cranberries. And last of all, a really indulgent buffalo milk cheese from Lombardy which reminded me of a triple cream, the core still firm and fresh but a million miles from bland. We broke off shards of music bread, we loaded cheese or meat on to them, we sipped our wine and we thanked our lucky stars.

And here’s the crazy bit – all of that was something like fifteen pounds. The menu also says it’s for two people, but at that price I think you could do a lot worse than grab a stool, order a drink, order this and treat yourself; I’m already wondering when I could get away with doing so. Before this, the best sharing board I’d found in Reading was Buon Appetito’s, but although I still absolutely love that place Mama’s Way utterly puts it to shame.

Even if our mains had been a let-down, this would still be a positive review. But here’s the thing: they weren’t at all. Zoë had gone for the low carb option, pollo Milanese, and it was more than respectable – two pieces of chicken breast, beaten flat, coated, cooked and served with a well-dressed pile of leaves. I’ve had a lot of pollo Milanese which is dried out and entombed in a thick permacrust of breadcrumbs. This, on the other hand, was light and tender, subtle and delicate. The menu says that it’s baked rather than fried, which I can believe; I didn’t order it, but I tried to trade as much of my pinsa as I could for another forkful. Eight pounds fifty, would you believe: again, there could be worse sunny evenings than sitting at that ledge with this and a crisp white wine.

On to the pinsa. Now, I have to be honest and let the cat out of the bag: as we were sitting there a delivery man came through the front door carrying a big cardboard box with the words PINSA ROMANA on it, so we can be pretty sure that Mama’s Way aren’t making these bases in their kitchen out back. But I also have to be honest and say that when they’re as enjoyable as this I don’t give two hoots. The base genuinely did have the airy fluffiness I was hoping for, and stayed light throughout. I think it helped that I’d chosen a white pinsa, not soggy with tomato, but it genuinely was a pleasure from start to finish.

I’d gone for smoked provola, Italian sausage and potato, a combination I first encountered a couple of doors down in Madoo’s fantastic panuozzo, and it really didn’t let me down. The cubes of potato added a floury joy to proceedings, the dense nuggets of sausage, resplendent with more fennel, gave little spikes of porky delight. And the smoked provola – well, it wasn’t quite as intense as the Fiore Sardo I’d had before but it cast a spell on the whole affair, bringing it together. You could imagine that the potatoes, the sausage had been cooked in the same fire, infused with the same smoke.

This was something like twelve pounds, and again perfect for sharing, thoughtfully cut into rectangles. I absolutely adored it: my favourite pizzas have always involved the holy trinity of tomatoes, anchovies and capers, but if anything could displace them in my affection it would be this.

Just as Mama’s Way is the smallest place I’ve eaten, that also means it has the highest concentration of serving staff to customers: one to two is a ratio that could easily beat any Michelin starred restaurant you care to name. And the woman looking after us was just fantastic – so friendly, enthusiastic and attentive, so skilled at juggling these two oddballs perched at their window ledge, the steady stream of punters buying goodies and the occasional driver turning up, giant Deliveroo coolbag on his back, ready to take their food out beyond the town centre.

Everything we ate, along with those two glasses of wine, came to something like forty-seven pounds, not including tip. And our server seemed genuinely surprised when we did tip, which in turn took me aback and, in truth, slightly saddened me. Excellent service is not proportionate to the distance you have to travel from the kitchen to the table, and the welcome we got at Mama’s Way put countless larger venues to shame.

I had a proper warm glow from eating at Mama’s Way, and I was kicking myself for leaving it so long after that tip-off from Glen Dinning. He may regret telling me, and I may regret telling you, because if there’s any justice in this world the occasions where I walk down Duke Street and see those seats vacant may get scarcer and scarcer in the months ahead. But really, I hope they do. I can’t think of anywhere like Mama’s Way in Reading, anywhere so fun and free-spirited, anywhere that, rather than wanking on about how carefully they source their produce just, well, does it.

In an ideal world, Reading would be a very different place. Clay’s would occupy the space that’s wasted on Bill’s, Tampopo would never have been sent packing from the Oracle. The 3Bs would never have left us, and we certainly wouldn’t have the Pantry there. The Market House site would have been properly done and occupied by someone who actually wants to serve decent food. We would have said farewell to John Sykes instead of Dolce Vita. And in that ideal Reading, Mama’s Way would be the size of Veeno and Veeno the size of Mama’s Way. We don’t live in that Reading, I’m sorry to say. But a Reading where Mama’s Way exists – small, plucky, eccentric and crammed with beautiful things – is definitely the next best thing.

Mama’s Way – 8.2
10-14 Duke Street, RG1 4RU
0118 3273802

https://mamasway.co.uk