Restaurant review: Shree Krishna Vada Pav

When it comes to food and drink, Reading is an especially interesting place. You may find this hard to believe at times, but it’s true.

I don’t mean all the stuff that’s obvious to you, especially if you’re a regular reader of this blog. I don’t mean our coffee culture, or our street food scene that’s the envy of towns for miles around. I don’t mean our two local breweries with taprooms, or excellent pubs like the Nag’s and the Castle Tap selling fantastic craft beer and cider. I don’t mean the jewels in our restaurant crown – places like Clay’s, the Lyndhurst, Kungfu Kitchen or Vegivores. I’m not even talking about our network of local producers and the independent shops, like Geo Café and the Grumpy Goat, which sell their stuff. You know all that already, although I suspect a lot of people who live here still don’t. 

No, I mean interesting in terms of the world outside our food-loving, indie-supporting echo chamber. Because a lot of businesses have clocked that Reading – with its university, its prosperous populace and its tech employers, just the right distance from London – is the perfect place for them to open another branch of their restaurant chain and make pots of cash. They have us down, mistakenly I like to think, as something of an Everytown, the perfect testbed for their particular flavour of the hospitality experience.

In fact, two very different types of businesses have Reading in their sights. The first, tapping into that affluent, well-educated demographic, are smaller, more targeted chains. They’ve often seen Reading as their first attempts to expand west (Honest, Pho) or east (The Coconut Tree), or just picked it as one of the first stops on a journey to nationwide ubiquity (Itsu). And this still continues, albeit to a lesser extent: we’re getting a Leon and a Wasabi this year, don’t forget.

But the second type is more interested in Reading as Everytown, and often we are the lucky Petri dish they squirt their pipette into before deciding whether to open branches elsewhere. And this is, I’m afraid, often an American thing. It’s no coincidence that Reading got one of the first Five Guys, got a Chick-Fil-A, albeit briefly, got a Taco Bell and a Wingstop and a Wendy’s and has a Popeyes on the way. Such is life: newly added to the Tube map, but somehow equidistant between London and the good ol’ United States. 

These big American chains with plenty of money are aided and abetted in their mission to slightly worsen Reading by our local media – which posted dozens of stories about Wendy’s, mainly because they were too dumb to think critically for even a split second about whether Reading getting the first Wendy’s in the U.K. was actually a Good Thing. But it also points to just how much is going on in Reading, and how interesting the battle will be between all these factions fighting it out for your money. No wonder Jonathan Nunn, the editor of Vittles, called our town a “fascinating anomaly”.

“Why is this the subject of your interminable preamble this week?”, I hear you say. I thought you’d never ask. The reason I talk about all of this is that the subject of this week’s review is that rare thing, a chain choosing to plonk a branch near the centre of town that people can get genuinely excited about. Because Shree Krishna Vada Pav, a small chain selling vegetarian Maharashtrian street food which started out in Hounslow and only has three branches outside the M25, comes here with an excellent reputation.

Eater London, which tirelessly covers everywhere worth eating outside Zone 1, has enthused about SKVP on numerous occasions. They classed it as one of London’s best Indian restaurants, and one of West London’s best value restaurants. And they said it served one of London’s finest sandwiches, on a list rubbing shoulders with greats like Beigel Bake’s salt beef bagel and Quo Vadis’ legendary smoked eel sandwich. Eater London aptly summed up what SKVP do as “carb-on-carb masterpieces”, and commented elsewhere that their dishes (carbs stuffed into a soft bap) had a “curious affinity with snack culture from the north of England and Scotland”. 

So you might not have heard of Shree Krishna Vada Pav, or you might not have known they were coming to Reading, but one way or the other this is a strangely big deal, despite the grand total of zero coverage in Berkshire Live or the Reading Chronicle. But who needs them anyway when you’ve got me, so this week I headed there on a Monday evening with Zoë to try as much of the menu as I could.

It’s at the edge of town, opposite the Back Of Beyond, and once you get past its Day-Glo orange exterior it’s fundamentally a very long thin room with a view of the kitchen and a corridor heading to the back – and presumably the loos – which seems to go on forever. (“I know” said Zoë. “I used to come here when it was Julia’s Meadow and I thought it was like the fucking TARDIS”). A panel down one wall gave a potted history of the chain which opened its first branch in 2010, although the founders go further back than that, having met at college in Mumbai at the turn of the century. I found all that oddly sweet, which is no doubt the desired effect.

Apart from that the interior was best described as functional – basic furniture, a mixture of tables for two and four and cutlery on the table. It looked very much like a fast food restaurant, albeit one with table service. The music was just the right side of overpowering, although I found I liked that.

“I don’t know how unbiased I can be” said Zoë as we took our seats. “Have we ever had a meal for the blog where I’ve been this fucking starving?”

She had a point. We got there around eight o’clock, having not eaten since a light lunch, and irrespective of how tempting the menu might be there was very much a strong urge to order nearly everything. That said, looking at the menu didn’t make that any easier. It was two things: cheap and huge, not necessarily in that order. It was split into sections, each of which contained an embarrassment of riches: a variety of pav and other bap-based dishes, some Indo-Chinese dishes, some chaat, some sandwiches and wraps, a section of “bites to enjoy” and some signature dishes marked as “SKVP recommends”. And the carb on carb struggle is real: if you want an onion bhajiya sandwich, this is the place for you.

It’s possibly an indicator of how you should eat here that the handful of curries are squirreled away in the furthest corner of the menu, and ordering any of them never occurred to me. But also the pricing positively implores you to order lots of things and share them – the most expensive dishes are around six pounds but most are less than that. I took this as encouragement to take an approach much like the numbers game from Countdown: a couple from the top and the rest from anywhere else. We ordered – please don’t judge – eight dishes in total and our bill came to just under thirty-two pounds. That didn’t include any drinks, because SKVP didn’t have any mango lassi and we didn’t especially fancy anything else: there is, unsurprisingly, no alcohol license.

I do have to say that although the set-up says fast food, ours was far from that. We ordered at ten past eight, and it wasn’t until half an hour later that food started coming to our table. That’s not a problem of itself, but it’s worth mentioning because the restaurant ostensibly closes at nine. And weirder still, the customers kept coming: we were by no means the last table seated or the last people to get their food. I’m pretty sure that SKVP has been busy from the day it opened, and on this showing that’s not going to change any time soon. I should also mention at this point that the staff were quite brilliant, although clearly under the cosh. 

We ordered a lot of food – if you go, you don’t need to order anywhere near as much as we did – and it all came to the table over the space of five minutes. Again, I’m not complaining but it was an odd approach to bring nothing for half an hour and then literally every single thing. I would have preferred a steady stream of dishes, but that might just be me. But don’t be fooled into thinking that low prices mean small portions: you’ll get very full very fast if you make the same mistake we did.

Your challenge, if you go, will be narrowing it down. We had to try the vada pav – it’s in the name, after all – and although I liked it I’m not sure I loved it or preferred it to Bhel Puri House’s version. It really is a carb overload: fried potato served in a cheap white floury bap with a variety of chutneys. I think you kind of have to have it, but I don’t know if I’d have it again – the chutneys were excellent, sharpening and and elevating it, but the potato was a little too much stodge and not enough crunch. Zoë had the version with cheese (plastic hamburger cheese, I think) and she absolutely loved it. That might be the Irish in her.

“Can you believe this only costs two pounds?” I said.

“It’s a bit of old veg though, innit?” came the response, between mouthfuls. Did I mention that we were both ravenous?

More successful (and, frankly, slightly insane) was the “aloo bomb”. I’d wanted the paneer bomb – the sandwich, incidentally, lauded by Eater London as one of the capital’s peerless butties – but it was off the menu that night so they subbed it for the aloo bomb. It’s hard to do justice to this but essentially it’s a spiced potato sandwich that has been battered and fried and it’s every bit as nuts as that description makes it sound: Glaswegians, it turns out, aren’t the only people who will batter anything. 

A portion comes in two triangles so you only need one between two but it’s well worth ordering, if only to tick it off. It struck me as a vegetarian cousin of Gurt Wings’ infamous chicken burger in a glazed donut with candied bacon on top: you’d want to try it once to say you’ve had it, but you mightn’t order it again for at least twelve months.  Who am I kidding? When I go back that paneer bomb has my name on it.

Possibly the best dish was that reliable staple, the chilli paneer. Reading has always been spoilt for this by Bhel Puri House, where the tricky decision is whether to have chilli paneer, paneer Manchurian or – as I have on occasion, again, please don’t judge – both of them. SKVP’s version is beautifully pitched between the two – a little hot, sweet and savoury all at once, staying on that highwire without putting a foot wrong. The paneer was just caramelised enough without being crispy or burnt and this was one dish where, even though we were full to bursting, we made it a personal mission to ensure that not a forkful remained.

“You could come here and have a portion of that to yourself and a vada pav and that would be you sorted” said Zoë. “You could come here for lunch when you’re working from home, you lucky bastard.”

I’d be lying if I pretended the idea hadn’t crossed my mind, although they’ve have to take less than half an hour to bring it.

If the other dishes were less successful, it was still just the difference between rather good and very good. I quite liked the onion bhajiya, I really liked the red onion studded throughout them and I adored the little fried green chillies they were festooned with. But although greaseless they were a tad dried out for my liking: what they really needed was a chutney of some kind. And fried momo were more doughy than their Nepalese cousins, and probably didn’t bring enough to the table. But once you’ve had a spiced potato masala in a deep fried sandwich and a samosa, a third carby vehicle for it is probably overkill by anyone’s standards.

The samosas, by the way, were excellent. My benchmark for these is Cake & Cream up on the Wokingham Road (where they’ve recently gone up in price to a still-ludicrous seventy pence). But I reckon SKVP’s match them nicely, with a filling flecked with chilli that starts out gently hot before going on to clear out every tube you have from the neck up. You can have them on your own – you get four for a ridiculous three pounds fifty – but we had them bundled with a really delicious, deeply savoury and soothing chickpea curry which was one of the milder, less aggressively hot dishes of the evening. Five pounds fifty for this lot, if you can believe it.

I don’t know to be impressed or faintly disgusted with myself that we ate so much of what we’d ordered but eventually we admitted defeat, although not before picking away at the last peppers and spring onions from the chilli paneer. We waddled out into the night, and headed to the back room of the Retreat for a bottle of chocolate stout and a post-meal debrief: I wouldn’t say it was the stuff of Shakespeare, as it mostly consisted of us saying “I’m so full” to one another after a suitably pregnant pause, but it was a debrief nonetheless. The pause probably seemed less pregnant than I did.

It probably won’t surprise you, now that we’ve got to the end, to scroll a little bit further down and see the rating. I loved SKVP. I didn’t care that it took half an hour to turn up, I didn’t care that I missed out on that paneer bomb and, perhaps most significantly, I didn’t care in the slightest that I’d had a meat free evening. It gets an unqualified thumbs up from me, and I imagine a lot of you would enjoy it, even if it’s just for a quickish bite to eat at lunchtime, or before the pub (good luck catching it at a quiet time, though). And I suspect that my selections from this menu were probably pretty mainstream and tame: I look forward to trying more of it.

SKVP’s closest equivalent is Bhel Puri House – which I still love, don’t get me wrong – but it strikes me as offering something very different to Reading’s other vegetarian Indian restaurants, Madras Flavours and Crispy Dosa, both of which focus their menus elsewhere. And SKVP also achieves that underrated thing which not enough restaurants succeed in pulling off: it’s fun. Fun from start to finish, fun looking through the menu, fun picking too much stuff, fun eating somewhere unlike the rest of Reading, fun eating a deep fried potato sandwich. One hundred per cent fun. It was even almost fun lying in bed that night, feeling like a python slowly digesting a mongoose it had swallowed whole. Almost.

So maybe Reading’s story isn’t written yet. And that’s an encouraging thing to realise, that with big U.K. chains to the left and bigger U.S. chains to the right we still have the chance to be stuck in the middle with our independent heroes, our restaurants and pubs, breweries and cafés, producers and shops. And in that happy place, I like to think there’s also still room for someone like SKVP – an occasional epic, incongruous, glorious curveball.

Shree Krishna Vada Pav – 8.1
97 Kings Road, Reading, RG1 3DD
07900 345120

https://skvp.co.uk

Café review: Madoo

It’s a fact of life in hospitality that restaurants open and close all the time. There’s an inexhaustible supply of plucky new businesses ready to sign a lease and try their chances, and you can almost measure how long someone has lived in Reading by how far back they remember the history of certain sites. Do you recall when Thai Corner used to be Bistrot Vino, or when the Nando’s on Broad Street was a place called Bistro Je T’aime? You’ve probably been here since the early days of the Oracle, if not longer.

In some cases a restaurant makes such a go of it that you almost completely forget the establishments that went before. Some people have long memories, and remember Mum Mum or that pretzel joint on Market Place, but for many people I imagine it feels like it’s always been Tasty Greek Souvlaki. And although I know rationally, in the back of my mind, that there used to be a great branch of Ha! Ha! on the Kings Road – and that after that it was a Turkish place, and a tapas restaurant, and a weird kind of pub that closed on Sundays – it’s been House Of Flavours so long that it’s jarring to imagine anybody else there. It’s a bit like how, after you’ve been in a relationship with a person long enough, your previous life feels as if it belonged to somebody else.

But there are some sites where you need not only a long memory but a good one, because so many restaurants try and fail to make a go of it on the same premises. The quintessential example of this is the site of the old Warwick Arms, which has been Bali Lounge, the Biscuit & Barrel, Cardamom and King’s Kitchen and currently goes by the name of the Aila. I only reviewed the first two of those, and most of the others closed before I could get round to them.

Or take Cozze’s site on the Caversham Road, which has been Chi’s Oriental Brasserie, La Fontana, Al Tarboush, Casa Roma and Maracas, all of which eventually went pear-shaped. (Incidentally, I heard a fantastic story once that when Casa Roma decided to change to a Mexican restaurant called Maracas they did it mainly because they realised they could reuse all the letters in their sign except the O: I so hope this is true.) But can there really be a god in heaven when the TGI Friday opposite has outlasted them all?

What’s behind these high-churn sites, I wonder? Is it bad judgment, bad luck or bad juju? Are they run by enthusiastic amateurs who bite off more than they can chew, or are some sites simply cursed – by lack of footfall, of parking or of access, or by the presence of better (or better-known) alternatives nearby? Or is it just that they haven’t found their forever home – or rather, their forever homeowner – yet? All that crossed my mind last weekend as I stepped through the front door of Madoo, ready for lunch.

By the standards of titans like the Aila’s or Cozze’s site, Madoo’s is only slightly hexed. It used to be a sandwich shop called It’s A Wrap which lived up to its name by closing, and then it was the ill-fated Project Pizza (pizza may be many things, but surely it should never be a project). But it’s been Madoo for a couple of years now, and it forms a Little Italy on Duke Street with delicatessen Mama’s Way opened just next door. And it has its fans – I’ve heard lots of good things about its toasted sandwiches and it even came up in conversation with my physio this week. “I love that place, it feels like being in Italy” he said. “I started going there in lockdown because it was one of the only places in the town centre that was open.”

Inside it was a lot more hospitable than you might think from trying to peer through the tinted windows. It probably seats just over a dozen people, some of them up at a bar that runs along one wall, but it had a nice feel to it. The chevrons on the floor, pallets fixed to the ceiling and lights attached to the pallets make it feel somewhat like a zone from the Crystal Maze that didn’t make the cut, but for all that I rather liked it. One other table was occupied when I turned up just after noon, but half an hour later the place was full.

You order up at the counter but along the walls are loads of tempting bits and bobs to take home – dried pasta, a small selection of cheese, sauces, biscuits and all manner of snacks. I know a few eyebrows were raised when Mama’s Way opened next door but they seem to have put some effort into not treading on one another’s toes – Madoo has the space, and sells coffee but no booze, and its neighbour is minuscule and sells booze but no coffee. Between them they make up one of Reading’s most fascinating gastronomic micro-climates.

Madoo’s menu is a symphony of toasted sandwiches. There are a couple of salads, if you want to eschew carbs, but really it’s just about picking your fillings. Some of the sandwiches are made up and behind the counter, ready to eat, or you can pick an option from the menu, or pretty much customise it however you like. But the majority of the sandwiches are variations on a classic theme – pick your meat, pick your cheese, pick your veg or salad and off you go. Everything sounds fantastic on paper and many of the ingredients here – mortadella, speck, scamorza, gorgonzola – are far more exciting than anything you’d get in another dreary soggy sandwich from Pret. It’s affordable, too, with nothing clocking in at more than a fiver.

The other main decision you have is all about the bread. The menu suggests the sandwiches all come in ciabatta (incidentally, did you know that ciabatta is a comparatively recent invention? Created in 1982 to protect Italy from the existential threat posed by the baguette apparently, my other half tells me). And Madoo’s recent social media posts suggest you can have puccia, a flattish Puglian bread, instead. But when I ordered at the counter I was given the choice between puccia and focaccio and, out of curiosity, I picked the latter.

While I waited for it to arrive, I made inroads into my latte. I’ve had coffee from Madoo once before and it was somewhere on the borderline between nothing to write home about and actively bad, so I was hugely relieved to find that either it’s improved or they were having an off day last time. It isn’t top tier, not up there with the likes of Workhouse, C.U.P. or Compound, but it’s probably comfortably in the pack with Shed and Picnic – and tellingly, it was better than the one I had recently at Raayo.

I’d chosen toasted sandwich number one, a classic combo of prosciutto, mozzarella, tapenade and rocket and it came to the table looking the part with a nice golden sheen and telltale lines from the grill. It didn’t look hugely like any focaccia I’ve had before, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t authentic: they vary widely by region and this was a long way from the oily, dimpled foccacia most people are used to. Instead it was flatter, denser and less airy – if anything, better suited to a sandwich. It was still oily, though: enough to soak through both napkins that had been put underneath it. Why do cafés still put napkins under the sandwich or cake? It’s an eternal, nearly-unsolvable mystery that not enough philosophers have tackled over the years.

There’s an art to toasted sandwiches, that fine balance of getting everything inside hot and/or melted, all those mingling flavours cross-pollinating without ending up with a charred exterior. Based on my sandwich Madoo hasn’t quite got the hang of that yet, because although the ingredients were unquestionably good, it hadn’t had long enough under the grill for the magic to happen. The mozzarella had begun to melt but not reached full glorious elasticity, and the prosciutto – again, good quality stuff – was too close to fridge-cold at the core. But the tapenade saved the day, uniting everything with that deep, pungent saltiness. It felt like there were a few intact olives in the mix, too. 

Even with all that nit picking, it was a thoroughly enjoyable sandwich – and it reminded me of many happy lunches in the early Nineties from Parmenters, a sandwich shop in Oxford. This was back when the whole town was ciabatta crazy and you could get big pillowy sandwiches full of mozzarella, sundried tomato and pesto and eat them in quadrangles across the city (I didn’t realise, back then, that even the concept of ciabatta was barely ten years old). When I go back to Madoo, I have designs on something with scamorza, or speck, or pesto – or some arguably ill-advised combination of all three. 

Because I’m greedy, and because I wanted to try out more of Madoo’s food, I’d also ordered two mini cannoli – one with chocolate, another with pistachio. Again, they were served on their own personal napkins but that aside they were a beautiful indulgence – both with nicely brittle shells and the kind of smooth, rich filling that lingers on the tastebuds for almost long enough. I ordered the chocolate one – because I’m basic like that, and that’s just what I do – but the pistachio was equally lovely if not more so. I don’t know whether Madoo makes them or buys them in, but given that they sell them for one pound twenty each I’m not going to complain if it’s the latter.

My whole lunch came to less than a tenner – and again, it’s instructive to think how little that would buy you eating in at Pret these days. And service was excellent – kind and friendly, even to a total newcomer. I felt very much the exception in that respect: I was struck by how nearly everybody else who came into Madoo that lunchtime had clearly been there before, probably had a regular order or a favourite sandwich. Two chaps came in, talking Italian, went up to the counter, got their espressos, downed them and left. A family came in towards the end of my lunch and their son was wearing a Bari shirt. 

Every table was bright with chatter, and I possibly liked it even more because with some tables I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. It’s things like that which made me fall ever so slightly in love with Madoo and this tiny corner of Italia overseas. Because restaurants and cafés are about more than just the food, or the coffee. They’re also about the atmosphere, the little bubble they create and whether they make you want to be inside it. Madoo’s toasted sandwiches are definitely better than many of their competitors – not perfect, but not too far off it, and the ingredients they use are a cut above. But also I just loved sitting in a different part of Reading to my usual, to having a different type of coffee and sampling an entirely different flavour of people watching. 

I can absolutely see why it’s always so full. And although I may not ever become a regular there – I have too many lunch places still on my list to review, it’s rather an occupational hazard – I’m certain they will see me again. It’s great to have another option, too, because some days Reading still seems a tad thin on good candidates for a quick, light lunch. And besides, I’m reliably informed that they do arancini every Friday – so if nothing else, I’ll have to drag myself away from my regular appointment with Blue Collar one week to try them out. Maybe this spot on Duke Street has found its forever homeowner, after all.

Madoo – 7.4
10-14 Duke Street, Reading, RG1 4RU
0118 9502249

https://www.facebook.com/madooitaliandelicafe

Kamal’s Kitchen Competition: the results!

I’m delighted to announce the results of the competition I ran last month with Kamal’s Kitchen. As ever, this was a writing competition and I asked entrants to give me 250 words on the Reading institution they missed the most – and this clearly triggered a tidal wave of nostalgia, not only in the competition entries but also in the feedback I got on Instagram.

Unsurprisingly, some names came up again and again – so if, for instance, you miss Dolce Vita or Mya Lacarte rest assured that you’re far from alone. But there were also a few cafés and pubs that were mentioned in despatches – Tamp Culture and the Tasting House, obviously, and Tutti Frutti come to think of it. And then there were the more niche choices that marked you out either as having distinctive taste or a long memory (or both). So award yourself a handful of internet points if you find yourself missing Sardar Palace, or Brett’s, or Café Iguana. And you get bonus points if you remember Cartoons (although, like the Sixties, if you can remember Cartoons you probably weren’t there).

I found myself thinking about all the places I miss that nobody mentioned. Bhoj, back when it was down on the Oxford Road, the proof of concept that the people of Reading were very happy with the idea of eating excellent Indian food in a room with orange walls. Ha! Ha! when it was where House Of Flavours is now: it did a chicken and chorizo pasta dish which probably offended several national cuisines at once, but back in the early Noughties I couldn’t get enough of it. Cappuccina Café on West Street with its beautiful bành mì. Santa Fé on the Riverside, with its boozy 2 for 1 cocktails and its beefburgers served in a tortilla wrap. The 3Bs. Sahara. I could go on, but if I do I’ll just get sad.

I’m delighted that I wasn’t the judge for this one, and that dubious honour went to Nandana Syamala, co-owner of Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen. Nandana runs one of the restaurants people in Reading would most miss if it vanished off the map tomorrow, but also as a relative newcomer to Reading judging the entries gave her that Bullseye “look what you could have won” feeling. I asked Nandana how she felt about judging this competition, and here’s what she had to say:

The majority of the entries talked about the hospitality industry, and I’m really glad about that. I’ve always believed that a vibrant independent food and drink scene is what gives a town its identity, and makes it a much more fun place to live. All of us in hospitality aim to make a mark the way Dolce Vita or Mya Lacarte have, and be remembered with fondness many years after closing down.

But for me personally, what I miss the most is Tuscany on the Oxford Road. During the short time they were open, we developed a ritual of going to them with a bottle of wine after closing our restaurant by 10pm on a Sunday night. And honestly, that’s where we had some of the best pizzas in the U.K. Sometimes, when it was their closing time, they would bring in their not so secret stash of some of the best Italian charcuterie, and we’d share wine and our experiences. In fact, I may have been guilty of closing the kitchen early a few times, just so I could get there and have my favourite meal of the week.

Nandana is spot on: I miss Tuscany too. Anyway, without any further ado, here are the results. Oh, and the picture below is of a takeaway I had recently from Kamal’s Kitchen: he’s on delivery apps now, and those extraordinary pressed potatoes travel surprisingly well.

WINNER: Derek Goodridge

From the 1980s through to the early 2000s, Reading had an excellent delicatessen, County Delicacies, situated on St Mary’s Butts. At this time the store was really the only place in town that you could rely on for interesting food purchases. I was a regular visitor on Saturday mornings, along with pretty much anyone else wanting to stock up on cheese, charcuterie, excellent breads from DeGustibus bakery and lots more. Almost every visit ended with purchases that I hadn’t planned but were too good to resist: perhaps Italian fennel sausages, fresh rum babas, slices of proper cheesecake or possibly a cheese I hadn’t tried before but was persuaded to try.

The store was presided over at the time by the late Chris Rogers, who managed to keep the large queue of customers happy even though sometimes on Saturday it was several deep. He was assisted by “Saturday job” part timers, one of whom I discovered later was the young Kate Winslet. I recall that each purchase would be weighed and priced, then added up by hand on the edge of the wrapping paper, possibly the last store in the town to do so. The store changed hands in 2001 and Chris retired, finally closing permanently in 2010.

I’m obviously pleased that new independent food vendors are established in the town, so it would be wonderful if they were joined once again by a quality delicatessen run by knowledgeable people. Maybe one day!

Nandana says: I had no idea Reading had such a place! Reading this has reminded me about places like that I’ve visited in Italy, some even at highway service stations, and remembering the hours spent exploring the wonderful produce they stock. It makes me imagine how wonderful it would be to have a place like this in Reading (it made me crave a good rum baba too). The town’s changing: I hope we get a great delicatessen too very soon.

RUNNER-UP: Lucy Manners

I miss Fisherman’s Cottage. I miss the cod croquettes, I miss the potatas bravas with the right amount of smoke, the plump prawns in the paella, oh the paella, and everything with a lick of punchy aioli. 

I went with friends and we laughed, grazed, chatted, grazed, gossiped and grazed some more. I walked down along the river to Fisherman’s Cottage several times with my first post divorce date for lazy sunny lunches and we talked about tapas in Spain and the future. I know why I miss it though. Not just missing the food, but the me I was when I was eating the food. After all, it wasn’t all good. I never quite ‘got’ the faux beach huts out back, and the calamari had more than a hint of elastic band the times I tried it.

Since Fisherman’s Cottage closed my then date is now by my side raising our two young children and juggling life. Lunches are often an exercise in eating quickly before a child needs you to cut more up, replenish the dip-dip, fetch another drink or asks for the bite from your plate you were saving for last. Rare meals ‘out’ just the two of us are a fiercely planned thing – on the calendar weeks in advance, locations debated with links, recommendations and menus WhatsApped during night feeds and quiet moments at the desk. I think if it was still open, Fisherman’s Cottage and a stroll down memory lane would be a contender. 

Nandana says: This is one place in Reading we were lucky enough to experience! We went a couple of times before they closed and always had really enjoyable meals. This piece captures what a great restaurant can do – trigger memories of a place, of what you were at that time, and create a longing to go back and experience or feel that all over again. I can imagine I Love Paella doing exactly that: it’s dearly missed by many, including us.

Amen to that. Huge congratulations to Derek, who wins a meal for four including drinks up to a maximum of £120, and to Lucy who wins a meal for two, also including drinks, up to a maximum of £60. And many thanks to everybody who entered – and, last but not least, to Kamal’s Kitchen for being so generous.

Pub review: Park House

I try my best, doing this restaurant reviewing lark, to visit places I think are likely to be either good or interesting, or ideally both; with a few notable exceptions, I don’t go anywhere where I think I’m definitely going to have a bad meal. And even if I have my reservations, I try to turn up with an open mind, ready to find the positives in my experience, however difficult that is. Sometimes the gods smile on me and I have a run of beautiful meals, one after the other. And that’s brilliant – exceptional meals are easier to write about, and people enjoy reading about them. Conversely, the worst thing is a run of bad meals. A succession of stinkers. That does rather break the soul.

The worst run I can remember started at the end of 2019. It began with a truly awful dinner at TGI Friday, and continued with the grisly spectacle of doner meat nachos at German Doner Kebab. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was going to the Dairy, the university bar and kitchen just down the road from the MERL. I’d always loved drinking there, especially on a hot day, but the food was bloody awful. That made three cruddy meals on the spin and nearly two months without enjoying a meal on duty: it was the kind of vale of tears that makes you seriously think about chucking the whole thing in.

Then at the start of this year, there was a surprising development: the Dairy published a completely new menu on Instagram. And it made all the right noises – beef came from the University’s farm four miles down the road, eggs were from Beechwood Farm (did you know that Beechwood Farm was run by Reading University alumni? I didn’t) and all the bread was supplied by Waring’s. Not only that, but the menu was full of the kind of things you might actually want to eat. Crispy fried chicken and pickled watermelon burger? Brisket and blue cheese ciabatta? Jerk spiced plantain and halloumi skewers? Count me in!

Something was clearly afoot at the University because a week ago Park House, its bar on campus, published a brand new spring menu. Again, it all looked distinctly tempting, and again the provenance was called out, with the beef coming from the University’s farm and name checks for the excellent Nettlebed Creamery and the Cotswolds’ Hobbs House Bakery. (Not everyone was overjoyed, mind you: I really can’t believe you won’t sell cheesy chips any more, said one comment). Park House has always been one of my very favourite places for a pint in the sunshine, but was it possible that it also offered great, affordable food under the radar? Zoë and I ventured out on a sunny spring evening to put it to the test.

It’s truly a gorgeous spot, inside and out, one of those beautiful Victorian redbrick buildings Reading so specialises in (I think I read somewhere that it’s by Alfred Waterhouse, of Reading Town Hall and Foxhill House fame: I can’t find any evidence of that, but it’s definitely in keeping). It used to be the university’s Senior Common Room, and it still has a distinctly clubbable feel inside, all dark panelled walls and solid wood floors. You could imagine trying to have an intellectual conversation in those rooms, put it that way.

And if you failed it would probably be because of the selection of beers. Park House punches well above its weight with a range many Reading pubs would envy: a dozen beers and ciders with a range of cask and keg. And again, there’s a distinctly local feel with Siren Craft, Elusive, Double-Barrelled and Phantom well represented (in fact, the most exotic drinks on the menu are from Cotswold Cider Company, a colossal 39 miles away). It doesn’t surprise me that Park House has made it onto Reading CAMRA’s Ale Trail this year and the things we tried – a couple of pales from Siren and a mild from Elusive – were yet another reminder of how well served we are in these parts for beer.

Having praised the interior, we did end up eating and drinking outside for a couple of reasons. One was that Park House was distinctly crowded: 6 o’clock on a Monday, surprisingly, seems to be peak eating and drinking time. The other, more happily, is that Park House’s outside space is a natural sun trap, and further proof – if any were needed after visiting the Nag’s Head – that there are few car parks you couldn’t improve by turning them into beer gardens. It’s a proper happy place for me, and it’s where I had my first al fresco pint last year after the longest lockdown winter of all time (14th April 2021, since you didn’t ask). So, the scene was set: was Park House going to be a surprise find, or a disappointment of The Dairy 2019 proportions? It was time to find out.

There are separate menus for breakfast and Sunday lunch, but the rest of the time Park House offers a relatively compact lunch and dinner menu – more compact than I thought, because for some reason the “Crafty Grill” section, offering burgers and hot dogs, wasn’t available. I think it’s also a Sundays only thing. So actually you have a nicely streamlined choice in front of you – less than half a dozen starters and eight mains, one of which is just a bigger portion of one of the starters. The use of “starters” and “mains” might give you the misleading idea that you can order them all at the same time to arrive at different times: don’t try this if you go there, because I just got a blank look and a polite request that you order as you go. Still, it beats the Wagamama approach of bringing anything out whenever they feel like it.

I should also add that everything is ultra-reasonably priced: most of the starters hover around the five pound mark and the vast majority of mains are less than a tenner. Laudably, they’re also trying to include calorie counts on their menu, although this seems to be a work in progress and I for one would rather they didn’t bother.

I really wanted to try the rarebit on the starters menu: Highmoor is one of Nettlebed’s finest cheeses and the thought of it bubbling away on Hobbs House sourdough – for a smidge over four pounds, into the bargain – was a delectable one. But sadly it wasn’t available, and although I was disappointed that they’d run out of either bread or cheese I was also pleased to see that they didn’t try and pass off something inferior instead.

The pick of the starters, anyway, were the smoked pork ribs. They were huge, irregular beasts that came away from the bone cleanly, and I loved the decision to give them a dry spice rub rather than slather them in sauce – so you got mustard seed, what I suspect was cumin and even some honey notes in there. They were served with a wonderfully light and clean coleslaw, and even here you could see the attention to detail, with crisp thin batons of apple and scarlet slices of chilli which added more colour than heat. Like the ribs, the coleslaw was better than it needed to be, and that’s always a winning quality.

I loved this dish, and at just under six pounds it was the kind of thing you could order just because you had a cold beer it would go perfectly with, or because the sun was out, or because it was a Monday. If only all bar food was like this. I loved it so much, in fact, that we ordered a second portion to come with our main courses: maybe there were advantages to ordering each course separately, after all.

The smoked cod croquettes were less successful, which was a pity because they leapt off the page as something I had to try. It was just weird that they came without breadcrumbs: the picture of this dish on Park House’s instagram shows the croquettes breaded, but these were lacking a coating and looked weirdly naked, as if they’d been skinned. And that had an impact in a couple of ways – it meant they didn’t have that lovely crunchy shell, but also it meant that when you cut them with a knife they sagged and deflated, like a sad party balloon.

It’s a pity, because the bones of the dish were good, with a nice whack of salt cod and a fresh and tangy tomato salsa (although again, it could have done with more heat from the chilli). Only afterwards did I realise that maybe the croquettes had no breadcrumbs for the same reason that the kitchen couldn’t serve rarebit. I daresay that if you order it, you’ll probably have better luck than I did.

Mains were uneven too but, as with the starters, the best of them showed real imagination. Confit duck salad, Zoë’s choice, was a beauty – partly because of the confit duck, which is never not good, but mostly because of what it was paired with. It could have given salad a good name, because it had so much going on – ribbons of carrot and radish for texture, segments of orange adding bright sweetness and a welcome scattering of edamame. It was all brought together by a fantastic dressing with plenty of aromatic sesame oil in the mix.

What this had in common with many great dishes from far more lauded restaurants was that every forkful could be slightly different from the last, but every bit as delicious. In an ideal world I’d have liked the duck leg to be ever so slightly bigger – so I could have tried more of it – but for less than nine pounds it was hard to fault.

I wish my fish and chips had been equally hard to fault, but it wasn’t to be. The best of it was the fish itself – beautifully cooked, the batter light, lacey and full of delicious crenellations. But the chips, which I’m pretty sure were bought in, were a little variable with a few grey patches that put me off them. There were peas, if you like that sort of thing: I don’t especially, but they were just fine. Tartare sauce was good, but there wasn’t anywhere near enough of it. And for that matter, lovely though the fish was, it was on the slender side for just over ten pounds. I couldn’t help but compare it with the colossal slab of fried leviathan you get at the Lyndhurst for eleven fifty (the Lyndhurst’s chips are miles better, too).

All in all, our meal – three starters, two mains and a pint and a half each – came to just under fifty pounds. It’s worth calling out the price of drinks in particular, too – our beers and ciders came in at around four pounds a pint, a mile away from the rarified prices you’d get in town at the Allied Arms or Blue Collar Corner.

So Park House isn’t the home run it could have been, but it was none too shabby all the same, with bags of potential. If you went there and just ate the ribs followed by the confit duck salad – Zoe’s order, but then she always picks well, present company excepted – you might well come away raving about the quality and the value. And if you went on a day when all their figurative ducks were in a row, the rarebit was on the menu and the croquettes hadn’t been flayed alive, you’d be counting the days until a return visit.

But I easily saw enough to persuade me to recommend it. The thought that had been put into the menu, the little touches in some of the dishes, the fact that they didn’t just knock up a rarebit with second-string ingredients – all of these things couldn’t help but endear me to the place. And it’s still one of the best spots, on a sunny weekend afternoon, to go with a paperback, get a drink, top up your tan and maybe accidentally-on-purpose order some ribs, because it beats yet another humdrum packet of Pipers Crisps. Are they the best bar snack in Reading? Quite possibly.

Park House – 7.3
Whiteknights Campus, University of Reading, RG6 6UA
0118 9875123

https://www.hospitalityuor.co.uk/bars-and-pubs/park-house/

Restaurant review: Tasty Greek Souvlaki

Last year, when I emerged from my cocoon and began reviewing takeaways, my first choice was Tasty Greek Souvlaki on Market Place, the thriving restaurant occupying the site where MumMum used to be. It was the natural choice: it was the first (and arguably the most interesting) new restaurant to open in 2020, and one which had quickly embraced delivery as its best chance to ride out an extremely challenging year in hospitality. So I ordered my first on duty takeaway from them, and very nice it was too (you can read about it here). 

Tasty Greek Souvlaki is essentially a carnivore’s paradise, and the menu largely revolves around different quantities of different dead animals cooked in different ways: do you want them cut into cubes, threaded on a skewer and cooked on charcoal, or would you rather go for something a little more primal like chops? Or is your preference to have them pressed into a magical revolving pillar of constantly grilled elephant leg which is then shaved off in thin slivers and fried until crispy? Would you like it in a pitta or a toasted sandwich, with or without chips?

Some people would treat that series of decisions as one disgusted shudder after another. Those people, to be honest, are unlikely to eat at Tasty Greek Souvlaki, although I’m told the falafel wrap is decent (if not massively Greek). Personally, I found it too difficult to choose for a very different reason: I kind of wanted it all, so when I ordered takeaway I went for their mixed grill platter, which gives you exactly that. It was an embarrassment of carnivorous riches, it was a wonderful way of being transported to the Mediterranean without leaving your sofa. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, a cardboard box absolutely crammed with every which kind of meat.

I loved it, and ever since then the Big Box Of Meat has been a regular fixture at my house – not too often, because I didn’t want to kill the magic, but every few months on a night when we couldn’t face the cooking. It was always hot, it always arrived quickly and it never let you down. And it cost something like twenty-six pounds, which was ridiculously affordable.

But it was bound to be far nicer in the restaurant itself, plucked from the grill, loaded on to a plate and brought to the table without delay, and so I’ve been looking forward to a proper on duty visit to Tasty Greek for a long old time. Last Saturday, Zoë and I turned up just after midday for an overdue reunion with possibly Reading’s finest meat feast.

The restaurant looks fetching inside, and they’ve done a good job with it. I don’t know how big the kitchen was when it used to be MumMum, but it must have been huge because with that taken out and the open kitchen along one wall the place is surprisingly spacious. It doesn’t feel like a place to linger, necessarily – a little like Bakery House – but then it isn’t that kind of restaurant anyway: no starters, mains and desserts here, really, and just a couple of Greek beers in the way of alcohol. But it’s a nice room, with a splash of Hellenic blue on the walls.

I sat outside, though, and I really liked their outside space. It’s all tables for two, and they’ve done that Parisian thing of putting the chairs side by side, looking out on Market Place. I suspect it’s just as popular with people drinking freddos and smoking cigarettes as it is with people having lunch, but having experienced both souvlaki culture and coffee culture in Athens I’d say it’s pretty authentic in that respect. It’s a great spot for people-watching, too: all things being equal, on a sunny day you could almost convince yourself that you’re somewhere else. We slurped on our cappuccino freddos – creamy, bitter, thoroughly Greek – and waited for our food to arrive. 

We ordered the mixed grill, as I’ve already said, but if you don’t want a symphony of grilled meats for two at a bargain price (it’s leapt up to twenty-eight pounds since last year) there are plenty of other ways to consume smaller, more discrete portions of dead animal. Pitas cost about six pounds, skepasti (toasted sandwiches) and merida (platters) are around eleven pounds; when I put it like that, perhaps you can see why the mixed grill looks like a good shout at fourteen quid a head. There are salads too, but if you’re going to a place called Tasty Greek Souvlaki and ordering a salad I’d probably class you as beyond help.

There’s only so much even I can say about a whole plate of grilled flesh, so let’s get straight to that. It was huge – so huge that it barely fitted on the table – and a fair amount of it was sitting on a glorious edible carpet of gyros meat, so however much food you thought you had turned out to be nowhere near the full amount. As we ate and ate, it didn’t feel like we made any inroads. And it can’t be denied that it really looked the part – just look at the picture and, unless you’re vegan or vegetarian, tell me that nothing about it makes you want to dive in.

And one thing I really like about Tasty Greek Souvlaki, when I ordered their takeaway and now, is that nothing is an afterthought. The pitta was beautiful fluffy stuff, perfect for wrapping up meat, chips or both and dipping in the tzatziki or the special sauce (which mainly reminded me of burger sauce). And the chips are really good: when I reviewed their takeaway I said they were good at making you feel like they make their own chips, even though I’m sure they don’t. And they were even better straight out of the kitchen – crispy, golden and flecked with oregano.

And yet, with the meats I wasn’t quite as bowled over as I expected to be. Over the last year or so I’ve become accustomed to ordering takeaway from restaurants where previously I’d have eaten in and mentally dialling down my expectations, knowing it wouldn’t be quite so good, quite so hot, quite so crispy, quite so fresh. With Tasty Greek Souvlaki I was expecting the same phenomenon in reverse, but in reality the gap between delivery and eating in was far, far narrower than I thought it would be. And in some cases that slightly exposed the limitations of the food.

So the souvlaki, for instance, taken straight from the grill without any excuses or mitigation, were a tad bland. The lack of marination showed that little bit more, the pork souvlaki in particular was slightly tough and the tzatziki had to do quite a lot of heavy lifting to make it interesting. The slab of pork belly looked decent, but in reality it lacked crispiness or caramelisation and I found, partly because of the sheer quantity of food, that I didn’t want to finish it. None of those things felt like they’d been especially seasoned, either.

It wasn’t all bad. The kofte, with a little more texture and depth of flavour, I rather liked.  And the village sausage – scored, butterflied, almost-charred on the outside – was very enjoyable: I worried it would be pink inside or homogeneous but it was one of the hits of the meal. The biggest irony is that I’m often suspicious of sausages on restaurant menus because of the mystery meat potential but Tasty Greek’s MVP, the thing it deserves to be famous for, is its gyros, the very epitome of mystery meat.

I said this last time, too, but it bears repeating – Tasty Greek’s gyros, and especially its pork gyros, is for my money far and away the best thing they do. Ribbons and shreds of chicken and pork, by turns tender, golden and brittle, dense with savoury flavour and absolutely unmissable. This was the thing I could eat morning noon and night, this is the reason to come back again and again. Tasty Greek Souvlaki? They should have called it Legendary Greek Gyros.

There was a salad, too, so I should probably mention that. It was undressed and perfectly decent if you like an undressed salad; I suppose it serves as some kind of calorie offsetting for certain diners, and I almost wish I was that kind of person. Our lunch for two came to something like thirty-two pounds, not including service, and the amount of food we got for that money was just about the right side of obscene. Service, by the way, was brilliant: bright and friendly throughout, and you got the clear impression that the restaurant was a very happy ship.

Tasty Greek Souvlaki has undeniably been an enormous success, and nothing I could possibly say in this review will detract from that. In the space of two years it’s gone from plucky newcomer to a genuine Reading institution, the kind of establishment that feels on some level like it’s always been there, like the space it’s in was always waiting to become what it is now, its best self. 

And I do honestly come not to bury it but to praise it. If my meal didn’t quite bowl me over the way I’d have liked it to, that’s also a tribute to just how well their food adapts for takeaway. None the less, it remains the perfect spot for a quick casual dinner over a bottle of Fix with friends, the sort of place you could go pre-gig or pre-theatre if you’re one of those people doing gigs and theatre now. In that niche, it easily holds its own against the likes of Honest and Pho, and it’s more affordable too. And for lunch on a summer’s day, picking up a pork gyros wrap and eating it in the Forbury is hard to beat: trust me, I’ve tried.

I would sound a slight note of caution, though. There’s never room for complacency in Reading’s restaurant scene, because someone is always waiting in the wings to open their doors, take your customers’ money and steal their hearts. The only people hungrier than restaurant-goers, it seems, are restaurateurs. And if you needed the perfect illustration of that, here it is: not long ago La’De Kitchen opened its first express branch on Market Place, literally opposite Tasty Greek Souvlaki. Another master of charcoal, another king of grilling in the centre of Reading. A falafel’s throw away, across the road.

Is this town big enough for the two of them? Let’s hope so. 

Tasty Greek Souvlaki – 7.5
20 Market Place, RG1 2EG
0118 3485768

https://tastygreeksouvlaki.com
Delivery via: Just Eat, Deliveroo, Uber Eats