Restaurant review: The Imperial Kitchen

I’ve had meals in some weird and wonderful places in the course of writing this blog, but I’m not sure many can top spending a night in Genting Casino, the gambling den near Rivermead. Getting off the bus just outside the Moderation, I trudged down the Richfield Road with a vague feeling that I wasn’t sure where I was going and no idea what to expect. On the other side of the road, I spotted the glowing lights of a purgatorial Toby Carvery. Some consolation, I thought: at least it was unlikely that I was about to visit the worst restaurant in the neighbourhood.

Inside the casino, at the front desk, I handed over my passport and filled out some forms – you have to do that to become a member, to be able to eat here. The rather taciturn man behind the counter seemed to take delight in drawing this process out for as long as possible. Had I ever been to their Southampton casino, he asked. When I said no, he seemed nonplussed. Was I sure? I did try to explain that I’d never been to Southampton full stop, but it took a full five minutes before he was convinced that I had some weird south coast doppelgänger, rather than being part of some sort of Oceans Eleven style conspiracy to defraud multiple branches of the Genting casino chain.

By this point my friend Sophie had turned up, and went through the same palaver. The main thing I was struck by was that her passport – full of stamps and visas from her many work trips to Eastern Europe, spoke of a life more fully lived than mine. Once we were given our cards – which you don’t have to swipe or seemingly ever use again – we were free to wander to the restaurant.

The inside of the Genting Casino is a very strange place. With no natural light and the phosphorescent hum of slot machines, you could almost be anywhere at any time. It could be a Wednesday afternoon or the small hours of a Sunday morning and you’d be none the wiser: it’s open until 4am, and even on a Monday night there was a steady stream of punters shuffling to the card tables. You could imagine stepping outside and finding yourself on the Strip in baking heat, as opposed to on the edge of an industrial estate in that part of the world neither Caversham nor west Reading wants to claim as its own.

Not that the place was Casino Royale, by any stretch of the imagination. I had turned up shabby, my default sartorial choice, but I didn’t feel especially underdressed. The place has a dress code – no shirts, no football shirts, although a lot of the big screens were showing the football – but nobody looked like they’d made much effort, with the exception of my dining companion. Many of the customers were Chinese, which explains a lot about why I found myself there in the first place.

So why was I at the Genting Casino, and why had I dragged Sophie there to eat with me on a Monday evening? Well, it all comes down to a throwaway Tweet a couple of weeks ago from Clay’s. “Another amazing meal at the Imperial Kitchen located inside the Genting Casino” it said. “It’s definitely the best Chinese food we have in Reading.” It went on to rave about the crackling on their belly pork, and the photos looked good – a huge spread of dishes, clearly for a big group.

I remember Nandana told me once that back when Clay’s was opening on London Street and the builders were doing their work she ate at Bakery House and Namaste Kitchen all the time. Well, from the sound of that Tweet she’d clearly found an equivalent close to their new site to have dinner at after a hard day of supervising. So when I read that I had to go and try it for myself: when the owner of one of Reading’s best restaurants says that a restaurant is even better than another of Reading’s best restaurants, how can you not?

The restaurant itself is a fairly beige and anonymous space, up some steps and set away from the card tables. Certainly tasteful and muted, but not desperately exciting, with little splashes of colour from the paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling. When we got there it was doing a reasonable trade, though not absolutely rammed, but we were solemnly told we could choose from two tables (although none of the ones we weren’t allowed to sit at were subsequently occupied). But all that said it was a pleasant, and curious place to have dinner. It does feel separate from the casino, which makes sense, but the rubbernecker in me wished it hadn’t been.

One tip from Nandana was to ask for the Chinese version of the menu, and that was the first challenge because our waitress brought us the conventional menu. Now, at this point I must confess that if my interactions with her were a bit awkward that wasn’t entirely her fault. She had a strong accent, and was wearing a mask, but to complicate matters I was pretty deaf in one ear, the consequence of a heavy not-Covid cold I was only just recovering from. That lent proceedings a certain pantomime air as I lost count of the number of times she didn’t understand me and I didn’t understand that she didn’t understand me. How we got through the evening I’ll never know: if Sophie found it hilarious (and why wouldn’t she?) she was too civilised to let on.

So for instance when I asked for the Chinese version of the menu she effectively said “are you sure? Lots of our Chinese customers order from this menu” and when I insisted it felt like she was peeved to have been overruled. But when it arrived I knew we’d done the right thing. The conventional menu moves around too much, with a section of Thai curries, some “curry samosa”, crispy seaweed and the conventional Anglicised dishes you can get anywhere. By contrast, the proper menu doesn’t waste time with that but dives into the jellyfish salad and the chicken feet.

“It’s closer to the Kungfu Kitchen menu, isn’t it?” I said, seeing some dishes I recognised.

“It is” said Sophie, “but Jo’s menu has a lot more offal on it.” I knew this was true: I’d gone to Kungfu Kitchen with Sophie and her fiancé once and they’d made a beeline for the gizzards, so to speak.

“Well there is this: Deep Fried Red Fermented Bean Curb Intestines. How does bean curd have intestines?”

“Maybe it’s something to do with the wokerati we’ve heard so much about.”

Anyway, it was an extensive menu and I could see why Nandana had told me it was best to go in a big group. It didn’t bother with starters so got straight to the point, and the dishes ranged from about ten to twenty pounds. On any day I could easily have chosen three or even four dishes and this review would have been completely different, but I’d taken some recommendations from Nandana ahead of the visit, so we largely stuck to those.

This in itself caused some difficulties, I think. Nandana’s order was the order of someone who knew their food well, whereas the waitress took one look at me and reached the conclusion, not entirely unreasonably, that I might have chosen by closing my eyes and sticking a pin in the menu. One dish in particular, the clay pot chicken with salt cod, prompted an intervention. I was too deaf to understand it, but I think it boiled down to are you absolutely sure? This is a very authentic dish. Unable to even hear my own voice clearly I just boomed that it would be okay and she wandered off, probably thinking that I was nuts.

Another strange thing about The Imperial Kitchen is that you order your food at the table but they don’t serve you drinks. Instead you have to wander off to the adjacent bar, order there and pay as you go. They have an extensive gin menu (their drinks list refers to it as a “Gindex”) so both of us tried something from there – a Jinzu for me, with notes of yuzu and sake which I rather enjoyed and a gin from Kent’s Chapel Down for Sophie. “It’s very reasonable, actually” she said, bringing back a couple of nicely dressed and finished G&Ts. “A double and a single came to twelve pounds.”

The first dish to come out was the one Nandana enthused about in that Tweet. The Imperial Kitchen’s barbecue dishes are on a special section of the menu, and only available Sunday to Tuesday. Initially we’d ordered barbecued duck and belly pork but while Sophie was at the bar the waitress came over and brusquely told me that they’d run out of duck, so pork it was. First things first: Nandana was absolutely right about the belly pork. It was braised to glossy softness, all of the fat smooth and moreish; I often find an overdose of fat in pork belly offputting, but this was marvellous. And the crackling on the belly pork was truly magnificent – feather-light and hyper-crisp, an impressive technical feat.

“This is so good” said Sophie, “and there’s no danger of doing your teeth any damage”. As someone who’s lost fillings to a slice of bread more often than I care to remember, I was with her on that. The barbecued pork was perhaps more workaday, but it had that good sweet-savoury coating and a decent fibrous chew. I liked it, but what it really did was make me miss Fidget & Bob’s splendid char siu, back in the day. With both dishes, I found myself wishing they’d been hotter: they were on the warm side when they arrived but they seemed to cool down very quickly indeed. Eighteen pounds for this lot – not cheap, I guess, but if I knew somewhere that did this as a bar snack I might well stump up the cash.

The beef ho fun was more variable. I find the texture of beef can often be problematic in Chinese restaurants, but these were big, tender pieces of gorgeous beef and they went well with the coated, flat noodles. But aside from a slight hint of smoke and sesame, I found it curiously underpowered. Had I accidentally picked a really subtle dish, or was the kitchen dialling down the contrast? Some of this was left on the plate when we finished – possibly from politeness on Sophie’s part, but indifference on mine.

Last but not least, another dish Nandana had raved about, the clay pot chicken and aubergine with salt fish. It looked beautiful – that deep, shiny sauce hugging pieces of chicken thigh and big claggy cubes of aubergine – and spooning it onto the rice I had that feeling that I was about to eat something special.

“You can see why they warned us off it though”, said Sophie. “That taste of fish is probably jarring for English customers – it has that taste of sardines, or anchovies, that they probably struggle to get their head around with chicken.”

“We do seem to have a problem with fish in this country, don’t we?”

“Apart from salmon, the fish for people who don’t like fish.”

Sophie may have been right, but for me this dish fell between two stools. The note of fish, which was a little like sardines come to think of it, did stick out like a sore thumb. But really, I wanted more from it: I love anchovy and the savoury depth it lends to a dish, and I love salt cod, but this dish didn’t have the courage of its convictions. What was especially odd was that occasionally I had a mouthful that was pure, concentrated flavour: one with shedloads of vibrant ginger, another with that deep, dark saltiness that was missing elsewhere. But overall I was surprised that a dish with so much going for it on paper tasted of so little. I liked the chicken – chicken thigh is always a winner – but masses of mulchy aubergine with nothing to bring it all to life made it a slog. Had they toned it down because they thought we’d ordered it by mistake? Why was everything so well-behaved?

In some respects, I wish I’d been in a bigger group so I could have staged a many-pronged assault on every section of the menu. But on the other hand, I hadn’t had a proper catch up with Sophie in as long as I can remember, so she ordered some tea (it turns out that they do hot drinks, just not alcoholic ones) and we chatted about everything and nothing in that weird, timeless space as the gamblers wandered past, just out of sight.

“The tea’s nothing special” said Sophie, who knows about these things, but the staff kept coming and topping up the hot water and were generally really lovely. An older lady came over and was especially interested in how we’d found our meal, and I wondered if she was the owner. We settled up and our bill – for the food and the tea – came to about fifty-two pounds, not including tip. Trying to get them to take a tip by card was challenging, so it’s just as well Sophie was carrying cash.

“I think a lot of people would be put off coming here by having to become a member. Ed” – that’s Sophie’s fiancé – “certainly wouldn’t want to be giving his data to a casino.”

“I know what you mean. I’ve only ever been to one before, and I think that was a stag night.” I don’t have good luck with stag nights: I once had to feign illness to get out of paintballing and zorbing in a single weekend in Bournemouth, a place I’m not falling over myself to revisit.

“The weird thing is that casinos often have really good restaurants” said Sophie. “When I went to Las Vegas I stayed in the Bellagio. They make so much money on the casino that the hotel and the restaurant are often good value, as a way of keeping you there.”

I’d never been to Vegas, so I lowered the tone by telling Sophie that I’d watched Showgirls recently. It was the only contribution I could think of (and if you’ve never seen Showgirls, don’t: I have a soft spot for films that are so bad they’re good, but Showgirls is so bad it’s worse).

“So what’s your verdict on this place?” I said, trying to rescue matters.

“It’s okay, but I wouldn’t choose it over Kungfu Kitchen. And if I was having friends down I’d still take them to Jo’s.”

Sophie has summed it up so perfectly that I could have ended the review there. But as Sophie slipped into a black cab (“I’m not walking home down Cow Lane late at night” she said, quite sensibly) and I ambled back into town I found myself thinking about it some more. Because The Imperial Kitchen, despite its rather Day-Glo setting, is polite and restrained. Even eating off the Chinese menu, it felt like everything had been toned down. The clientele is largely Chinese, but if some of them order off the more mainstream menu maybe that tells its own story about how adventurous the diners are.

And that’s what made me think about the chaos and charisma of Jo, and of her crazy little restaurant by the university. Because she has created an establishment very much in her image: unapologetic, authentic and unrepentantly Jo. And that reflects everywhere: in the menu, in the offal, in the “no, you don’t want that, you should order this” approach and, more than anything, in the foot to the floor, balls to the wall flavours that feel like a paradigm shift from any Chinese restaurant you’ve eaten in anywhere else.

The Imperial Kitchen might suit some people, but I found it too nice, too shy, too – and I’m afraid I can’t think of a better way of putting this – not-Jo. The best Chinese food in Reading? For me, that position is taken, and it will take more than this to knock Kungfu Kitchen off its throne. Still, it could have been worse. I could have ended up in the Toby Carvery.

The Imperial Kitchen – 7.0
18 Richfield Avenue, RG1 8PA
0118 9391811

https://www.gentingcasinos.co.uk/casinos/genting-casino-reading/#restaurant

Advertisement

Restaurant review: The Biryani Lounge

The hardest bit of writing restaurant reviews, I’ve always found, is the start. It’s the bit where you have to find a hook to hang all the other words on. Why this place? Why this week? Why should you care? It’s especially hard when, after the meal, I ask myself some of those questions – or, even worse, what was I thinking? Or you can try to be topical, but I didn’t fancy writing about the week’s events, eating something lettuce-themed or shoehorning in a reference to exploring new pork markets. The news is depressing enough as it is.

I’ve started a couple of reviews in the last few months by talking about the unlikely food trends of 2022, or singing the praises of the number 17 bus. And this week we get the unholy love child of the two, as I delve into the world of Reading’s biryani restaurants. Because yes, it’s a thing, and a comparatively recent one at that. Biryani has always been there, on the fringes of the menu at most Indian restaurants, and I used to go leftfield from time to time and order one: I had a soft spot for Royal Tandoori’s lamb biryani, for instance. 

But in 2018, out of nowhere, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen opened on London Street and elevated the dish to signature status. Their clay pot biryanis – meat always on the bone, cooked sealed and ceremoniously opened at the table – became a talking point. Customers could take the pots home with them afterwards, and photos cropped up on social media of them as plant pots, or utensil jars. And then, around the start of this year, not long before Clay’s announced that it was upping sticks and moving to Caversham, biryani restaurants started cropping up all over the place.

Well, not quite everywhere, but certainly in very specific parts of Reading. In West Reading, on the Oxford Road, we have Biryani Boyz – it actually has two zs, but I can’t bring myself to type both of them – and Biryanish. In the centre where ASK used to be, there’s Biryani Mama, which I mainly remember from their ill-advised job advert back in January desperately seeking a “Bartender Cum Waitress”: just imagine that on your cv. And then on the Wokingham Road there’s a second branch of Biryani Boyz and The Biryani Lounge, the subject of this week’s review. 

And what ties them together, of course, is that from west to east they can all be reached on the number 17: we may not have a Silk Road, but we can boast a Biryani Bus Route. So what prompts the decision to put biryani front and centre in these restaurants’ offerings, to make it eponymous? I decided it was worth further investigation.

I picked The Biryani Lounge for several reasons. One was that I’d already tried Biryani Boyz’s takeaway earlier in the year and I wasn’t seized by an insatiable curiosity to meet a bartender cum waitress. Another was that it has a nice backstory – four friends who met at college and university, opening a restaurant together. I also felt for it, given that rivals Biryani Boyz have opened a few doors down.

Last of all, the Google reviews were intriguing – all from Indian customers. And that’s the thing about biryani: it might be a curveball choice for many of us in a conventional Anglicised curry house, but it occupies an exalted place in Indian cuisine and everybody has strong opinions about what biryani should be like (and, for that matter, how much it should cost).

To describe The Biryani Lounge’s space as basic is probably being charitable. It’s a very bare room with a handful of neutral black tables and standard issue Tollix chairs, and menus up at the counter. Nobody was behind the counter when I got there, but after a couple of minutes someone came out.

“Do you do eat in?” I asked, because nothing apart from the sheer number of tables suggested that this was an option. After a pause, the lady confirmed that they did, so I placed my order. 

“It will take a while” she said, and I said that of course that was fine. They didn’t have any mango lassi, always my default in places like this, so I said some water would be fine (the water, by the way, never arrived). I took a picture of the room and sent it to my other half, who was sitting at home waiting for her Papa Gee to arrive courtesy of Deliveroo. It looks like a doctor’s waiting room she said, and I had no idea how right she would prove to be. It would be over forty minutes before I saw any food.

In that time I got to read the menu several times, so I can tell you all about it. There is a big biryani section, most of them costing six or seven pounds, but actually there were plenty of other dishes including a bunch of curries, tandoori dishes, starters and so on. The most expensive dishes were a tenner, but most things were far cheaper. I’m no judge of how authentic, or how authentically Hyderabadi, any of it was but it was interesting to see dishes on there – like cut mirchi, or Andhra chicken fry – that I’d only previously experienced in their rarefied forms at Clay’s.

During the forty minutes I was sitting there like a lemon, the main thing I saw was people coming in, picking up bags bulging with biryani and leaving. In some cases they’d clearly ordered ahead, in others they turned up, placed their order, paid and still hightailed it out of there before I was served. Nobody was eating in, although about half an hour in a group of gents turned up, placed a big order, paid cash, tried to split the change exactly and plonked themselves at the next table. I saw three plastic containers up at the counter, which could have been mine, but I assumed they must be part of a takeaway order that hadn’t been completed yet.

That time also gave me a chance to read, in full, the blurb occupying the whole of the opposite wall. Spices play a significant role in the way we cook and consume food around the world it said, quite laudably, before going on to list the health benefits of various spices. And that’s lovely in theory, but reading that star anise is “widely used in flatulence or gas like conditions”, that bay leaves can “treat digestive disorders such as heartburn or flatulence” or that cinnamon “Helps Fight Bacterial And Fungal Infections” doesn’t necessarily put you in the mood for a hearty dinner. It was less infomercial, more sponsored Facebook ad. Or what Holland & Barrett would be like if they were obsessed with farting.

About ten minutes after those plastic containers arrived on the counter, a member of staff realised they might have been mine. “Are you eating in?” he asked, in a way that suggested this rarely happened. When I said I was he gave me a tray and quite a lot of plastic spoons and forks. He then asked if I wanted a plate, which funnily enough I did, and a couple of minutes he brought me one.

I only say all this to illustrate that I don’t think The Biryani Lounge views itself as an eat in restaurant. That it has the feel of a waiting room is probably deliberate, nearly everyone probably collects and takes it home and that’s absolutely fine with me. Because although it felt deeply random to eat my dinner in that bare room, looking out at a big red Biffa on the Wokingham Road though the open door from plastic tubs with plastic cutlery, I’ve eaten in enough unlikely places to know that none of that matters an iota if the food is exquisite.

And I so wish it had been, so this could have been another one of those amazing finds. After all, some of the best meals I’ve had have been in places every bit as unprepossessing as The Biryani Lounge. But that’s where, sadly, the dream evaporated. Because my food was okay, I suppose, but nothing to get excited about.

A lot of the reviews I’d read criticised the biryani for being more like a pilaff and not like a biryani at all. And eating it I could see what they meant. I’d committed heresy by going for the “special chicken biryani” – special, in this context, meaning boneless – and it very much felt from the look of it like the chicken and the rice had been introduced at the last minute, a culinary Married At First Sight. The rice was pleasant enough, and comforting I suppose, but it lacked any complexity. It also lacked onions, mint and all the things I’ve been spoiled into thinking should be a feature of any good biryani. The chicken, on top, was in hard pellets with a curiously orange hue.

I’d chosen Andhra chicken fry because, foolishly, it had been one of my favourite things about Clay’s new menu. And although it was my favourite dish on the night it bore no resemblance to that. The chicken was on the bone – which was fair enough – but it didn’t want to leave the bone any time soon, and trying to ease it off with a plastic spoon and fork was beyond my powers of persuasion.

I didn’t see any evidence that any of it had been fried, but what rescued it was the gravy – hot, complex and shot through with curry leaves. This on its own with some plain rice would have been better than anything else I ate from The Biryani Lounge, if it wasn’t for the fact that more than once I had to spit out another shard of bone. Even so, the sauce was great: like a great movie star carrying a shit movie, I loved it but I wished I’d seen it in something else.

Last of all, the biggest disappointment, the gobi Manchurian. Again, this can be a wonderful dish and what makes it is a combination of three things: cauliflower with a bit of firmness, coating with a good crunch and a sauce that’s hot, sour and sweet all at once (and yes, Clay’s has perfected all three). The Biryani Lounge’s fell short across the board. Maybe it was that extra time spent steaming up at the counter in its plastic sarcophagus but, by the time I ate it, it was a mulchy, soggy affair with a sauce which had a little garlic and chilli heat but was nothing like the captivating dish it can be.

Quantities, by the way, were huge. My three dishes could easily have served two and came to just under seventeen pounds. I probably got halfway through all three of them before I thought nah, snapped the plastic lids back on, put them in a tote bag and headed off. I took the bus, but my nose ran all the way home. Back at my house I decanted a little more to see if it was any better in the comfort of my living room, and it wasn’t. I got the rest of the meat off the Andhra chicken fry and enjoyed the sauce, but that was it.

Sometimes, when I review restaurants, I get a very clear idea that I’m just not the target market for them. That’s all well and good: it doesn’t make them terrible restaurants or me a terrible customer. And I think The Biryani Lounge is a good example of that. I suspect it’s mainly a takeaway with a few tables just in case, and I don’t have any issue with that. Nor did I really mind the sterility of the room: it is what it is. The problem here is the food.

Because even if you strip out the ambience, and forget about whether something is or isn’t authentic, the food just didn’t soar. I would eat in pretty much any room if the food bowled me over, and although The Biryani Lounge’s food might be good by the standards of Reading’s biryani restaurants, it wasn’t for me. I like to think that isn’t solely because I’m a gentrified ponce who has had his head turned by the food at Clay’s, but I can’t rule out that possibility: if you read this blog, you probably can’t rule out that possibility either.

So if this review made you curious, by all means try it out. But I would say get it delivered, or turn up and collect. You may find you prefer eating it on your own sofa. Have the Andhra chicken fry, and devote the time to getting all the meat off those bones before you get stuck in. And order the Apollo Fish – for the name alone, because it’s an amazing name and I wish I’d ordered it for that exact reason. But for most of us, I think The Biryani Lounge mightn’t be our cup of tea, and I doubt that will bother them one bit. The only thing I do take issue with, slightly, is the name: why call yourself The Biryani Lounge if you aren’t a place people want to spend plenty of time, in comfort?

The Biryani Lounge – 6.2
89 Wokingham Road, RG6 1LH
0118 3757777

https://thebiryaniloungeonline.co.uk

Restaurant review: Thai Corner

If I asked you to rattle off Reading’s longest-running restaurants, the chances are you’d mention London Street Brasserie. The Bina and Quattro too, over in Caversham. I’d expect you to talk about Pepe Sale, that’s a given. You might get bonus points for remembering McDonalds – the Friar Street one has been going since the Eighties – or for saying “of course, until recently there was also the branch of Pizza Hut in the Oracle”. Perhaps you’d bring up cafés like the Gorge or Rafina: the latter, in particular, is one of the last signs of pre-Oracle Reading, and hasn’t changed a huge amount in the intervening years. And, naturally, many of you might namedrop Sweeney & Todd, which has been trading for an incredible forty-four years, longer than some of you have been alive.

But would you remember Thai Corner?

The reason I ask is that often it slips my mind. It’s one of those places that feels like it has been there forever, and will be there forever, but that means it can fade into the background when you’re deciding what to eat, or talking about what Reading used to be like. By my reckoning it’s been open for nearly twenty years; I remember what was there before, an unspecial French place called Bistrot Vino, and I went there once for a Bohemian Night spinoff, but other than that it’s been Thai Corner for, well, forever.

I reviewed it back in 2014, when my blog was a mere six months old, and even then it was an old stager, having celebrated over a decade at the top of West Street. And by the time I reviewed it, it had probably already achieved that feat of fading into the background. Thai food has always been a reliable go to in this country – probably inauthentic, never amazing, rarely terrible – but it’s never had a moment where it was the hot new thing. And so Thai Corner, for those ten years and the eight that followed, has just carried on doing what it did best, whether you noticed or not.

Back before I started this blog it was a proper happy place for me, as frequently visited as the likes of Dolce Vita, and somewhere I could go on date nights or with friends visiting Reading for dinner. I had my staple dishes I always ordered – weeping tiger, sirloin steak with garlic and coriander, or pla chuchi, salmon steak with red curry sauce – and a red wine I always drank, and I never went away less than full or happy. It was a sure thing, in that way people think chains are, and I loved it there.

Anyway, the years moved on, and by the time I reviewed it for the blog I was a lapsed member of the congregation. I liked it just fine, although it didn’t knock my socks off, and my review at the time was full of faint praise in a way which, with hindsight, looks a tad condescending (so unlike me, I know). Haven’t you done well not to be closed yet? it seems to say. 2014 me had forgotten, I think, how much 2004 me liked the place. And 2022 me looked back at that and thought it was high time to go again. 

Besides, I ended my previous review of Thai Corner saying “a big part of me would be disappointed if they weren’t still around in another ten years”. Why wait until 2024, especially when you can’t guarantee any hospitality business will survive until then? So I headed there with Zoë one evening for an early dinner, to see what I made of it.

It remains, as it’s always been, a handsome, grown-up looking room. The furniture is all dark wood, light-coloured pillars break up the space and in the middle is a surprisingly tasteful water feature, with flowers floating in it, which in no way resembles a birdbath. The tiled walls are tasteful, the colour palette is muted and chic. Zoë summed it up better than I could: “it looks like a hotel restaurant”, she said, and it does. We nabbed a table in the window, to make the most of the remaining daylight, but the truth is that this is a room for after dark, for cosiness and conspiracy. It will come into its own in the coming months.

The menu was also largely as I remember it, and if the prices have nudged slightly since I was last at Thai Corner they were still on the reasonable side. Starters were seven or eight pounds, curries and stir-fries start at eleven. As I sat looking out on the room I saw a member of staff coming down from upstairs with a huge plastic sack full of vivid red prawn crackers. 

And looking at the menu had that Proustian effect, as I remembered all the things I’d ordered here over the years, and the people I’d ordered them with. Birthday celebrations, Friday nights out or just evenings when you finished work in the town centre, young and carefree, and wanted somebody else to take care of you. It felt, at the time, like most of my thirties were made up of those evenings. I remembered all those meals with friends no longer in my life, but all connected by the invisible thread of this restaurant.  

It’s a running joke that I have a failure of imagination in Thai restaurants and usually kick off by ordering the mixed starters, something I usually defend by saying that it’s a great way to try as many dishes as possible. Well, why change the habit of a lifetime? I have to say though that the rewards were much greater this time around, with most of the starters having experienced a step-change in my time away. 

Spring rolls had a good greaseless crispness, and it was an interesting choice to have them full of vermicelli noodles rather than the standard issue carrots and beansprouts – still not at the standard of Pho’s (although little is) but not half bad. Chicken skewers had good texture and colour and went nicely with a deep peanut sauce. On previous visits the mixed starters had included Thai fishcakes, which I know aren’t universally loved (“spongy mattress” isn’t a texture to everybody’s taste) but these had been swapped out for crispy squid, and if they weren’t super-tender they still represented a significant upgrade. 

But best of all were the golden prawn toasts – huge, irregular, bronzed specimens, far more prawn than bread, with a tantalising carpet of sesame crunch on top. Next time, I’d be sorely tempted to order some to myself. Eight pounds per head for this little crash course felt like good value, and I imagine in bigger groups it would also present significant horse trading opportunities.

To try and atone for my predictable starter choice we also asked for some larb gai,  minced chicken salad, to come at the same time. The one thing I know about “authentic” Thai food, which I suspect I’ve never tried, is that it’s hot. Really hot. Face-meltingly, agonisingly so: if you go somewhere like Paddington’s The Heron or Hammersmith’s Khun Pakin you’re likely to find yourself eating something that dives into the grey area between pleasure and pain. The only dishes I’ve found in Reading’s Thai restaurants that even approach that are the salads, and Thai Corner’s larb gai is a great example.

It starts innocuously, and you appreciate the clean complexity of it. The freshness of the minced chicken, the healthy whack of lime and what feels like a little funky saltiness – from fish sauce, I imagine.  You notice the slight nutty crunch of the ground rice running through it, too. And you get a tingle of heat, but nothing you can’t manage. And it probably stays that way for a minute or so, and then you realise you’re heading into trouble. A few forkfuls later you can feel the sharp spikes of chilli on the tip of your tongue – not a numbing, benevolent heat like, say, Kungfu Kitchen’s shredded chicken, but a stabbing, vengeful heat. Strategic pauses don’t help it subside, and nor do water or beer. 

And at this point you do one of two things: you abandon it, as Zoë did (“that’s too fucking much” were her exact words) or you press on, knowing that it hurts in a compelling, completely alien way but that you also don’t want it to end. For all I know Thai Corner’s larb gai is also on the mild side, watered down slightly for a Reading clientele. If so, a big part of me hopes I never bump into its evil twin in a dark restaurant somewhere. But it was astonishing, and I’m so glad I ordered it: if you go to Thai Corner, and you feel brave, try it too. As our waitress took away the empty dish I tried to tell her how much I’d enjoyed it, with what little voice I had left. She probably took one look at me and thought I’d ordered it by mistake but was too polite to say.

This is probably a good time to mention what we drank, because the second of the two mocktails (yes, I know) I tried had a beautifully cooling effect in the aftermath of Hurricane Salad. The “Cocolada” was a soothingly tropical mixture of coconut, cream, vanilla and pineapple and it might well have saved my life – and quite aside from that, it tasted exquisite. I also tried a “Sand Island” which was like a classy Lilt (although, to be honest, I quite like good old-fashioned unclassy Lilt) and was also extremely nice. They put some work into these, and for a fiver each they felt like an interesting way to stay off the units.  

Mains came out a little more swiftly than I’d normally choose, but the restaurant was quiet and I didn’t mind the meal being a little rushed. Pla chuchi, that dish I’d ordered so many times all those years ago, was almost exactly as I remembered – a single, crispy piece of salmon which broke apart easily, smothered in a glorious, glossy red curry sauce. I found it hugely comforting that it had barely changed, and in Zoë it found a new convert (“I’m coming here again, and I’m having one of these to myself when I do” she pronounced between mouthfuls). If I’m being critical I’m not sure what the random florets of broccoli were doing there, and with a dish where sauce is king it would have been nice to have a deeper bowl to make it easier to scoop it all up. If they’d brought a spoon to do the scooping that would have been nice, too.

Our second dish was their chilli lamb, which by weird coincidence I also ordered the last time I reviewed Thai Corner. Was it reassuring or unsettling that it too had changed so little? I couldn’t make up my mind, but I’d enjoyed it last time and I really enjoyed it this time too. The sauce had a nice savoury depth, there was plenty of lamb and all of it was tender, the green beans lent texture and firmness. It was, I’d say, a better looking plate of food than its 2014 ancestor, but again it needed a deeper bowl to make the last of that sauce easier to get to. We poured it onto our coconut rice (always my favourite accompaniment to Thai food, though I miss the days when Thai Corner served it in a slightly ersatz coconut shell). 

One thing I would say is that neither of these dishes packed much in the way of heat. That may be because my taste receptors had been brutally battered into submission by what went before, but I don’t think so. And what’s more, the chilli lamb had two chillies next to it on the menu, that larb gai only one, which suggests an even more inconsistent approach to rating than Shirley Ballas (and if you’re watching Strictly this year, you’ll know that’s saying something). 

So yes, if you go expecting authentically spicy Thai food Thai Corner may not be for you, or you may need to make a point of asking them not to hold back. If you did, I’m sure they would do it, because the service from all three wait staff who looked after us was top notch – smiley, pleasant and attentive. Service has always been good there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if at least a few of them had served me before. Although Thai Corner has expanded its dessert menu (the days of the laminated card of frozen delights including the interestingly named “Funky Pie” are a thing of the past) the only dessert I fancied, mango with sticky rice, was off the menu that night. So we paid our bill – ninety-four pounds for two, with a 10% service charge included – and headed out into the evening.

More than usual, I find it difficult assigning an arbitrary mark to this particular restaurant. You can try and rob yourself of your preconceptions, with mixed success, but you can’t wipe out your memories, Eternal Sunshine style. What would I think of Thai Corner if I’d never been? I’m not sure, and all I’m left with is the warm glow of nostalgia, which would push a mark up, and an equal and opposite feeling that I’ve seen it before, which would have the converse effect. I asked Zoë, who doesn’t have my history with the place, and she rather enjoyed it and would like to go back. 

As for me, I find one thing hasn’t changed since 2014: I am happy Thai Corner is still going strong, I am grateful for that part it’s played in my life, if not necessarily my gastronomic education, and I fully hope it will still be trading in another eight years, whether I am reviewing restaurants by then or not. I do wonder, though, whether they ever daydream about dialling down the flavours a little less and letting the almighty wallop of that larb gai spread across the rest of the menu. But what do I know? You don’t trade for the best part of two decades by taking non-stop risks. I can’t help but admire that.

Thai Corner – 7.3
47 West Street, RG1 1TZ
0118 9595050

http://www.thaicornerreading.co.uk

Feature: Reading’s best…

There’s a new trend in Berkshire Live which drives me absolutely crackers. Having moved on from a steady emetic trickle of “X’s quiet life in [insert name of Berkshire village here]” articles (translation: here’s somebody who used to live in Berkshire and that’s literally all we know about them) their latest form of copy and paste gonzo journalism is one where they knock up madlibs-style reviews of restaurants which – and you could bet your life savings on this – the “journalist” has never visited.

The new trend – or do I mean new low? – is to churn out articles that say “the X restaurant so good you’ll think you’re in [the most famous city in country X]”. It’s so witless it could almost be amusing. So if you eat in l’Ortolan, for instance, you could imagine you’re in Paris (I’ve been to Paris: l’Ortolan is nothing like it). If you have tapas in Wokingham’s Sanpa you could believe you’re in Madrid, allegedly, and never mind the pesky detail that tapas is from Andalusia, miles away to the south. 

Oh, and if you eat American barbecue in Blue’s Smokehouse – and it’s great, so maybe you should – guess what? Close your eyes and you could be in the Big Apple. Again, it’s not noted for its barbecue but details are for pedants, apparently. It goes on: Quattro is just like Rome, some Chinese restaurant in Cookham is the spitting image of downtown Beijing, Sapana Home is like dining in the Himalayas (they call out the “momo dumplings” at Sapana, which is like saying I very much enjoyed the chips potatoes). I thought they couldn’t get more laughable but the latest says that afternoon tea at the Forbury Hotel “will make you feel like you’re dining with the King”. Stay classy, Berkshire Live.

But that isn’t enough, so to pad out the article – and to further pull the wool over your eyes – they like to add a bit of bumf from the restaurant’s website and those all important customer opinions. After all, in Berkshire Live’s own immortal words, “Recent years has brought more people online as it gives them an easy way to choose somewhere to eat. One place most of us look is the reviews – what do people really think about where we want to eat? We decided to list the last three reviews all less than a month ago to see what people have said.” 

Maybe people are looking online because local papers have died and been replaced by moronic clickbait? Just a thought. But yes, the rest of their extensive research consists of firing up Tripadvisor and copying and pasting the three most recent reviews. But Berkshire Live doesn’t care about that. In their mind, everybody wins: they hit their targets for pumping out meaningless content to sell ad space and you get a “review” which tells you nothing about the restaurant, Ctrl-C and Ctrl-Vd by somebody who has never been there and, for all we know, has never even left their home office (are Reach plc staff affected by the train strikes? It seems unlikely). Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt and keema, as they say, is your nan.

So this is what passes for journalism these days and the most insulting thing is that they’re so cretinous they think nobody will notice. How times have changed. In the old days, local newspapers used to sneak ads into the paper and not tell readers that money had changed hands and many people, myself included, were outraged about that. Nowadays they’re so desperate for content that they publish what are effectively full length ads without even being paid for the privilege. It makes you wonder who pumps out more sewage: the water companies or Reach plc?

Anyway, by contrast this week’s feature – no review, because I’m away this week – is one of those lists everyone likes with one crucial difference: they’re my opinions, born of going out there and trying as much of Reading’s food and drink as I can. So this article might come in handy if you can’t be arsed to schlep through any of my lists, or to comb through the blog but just want to know, in my entirely subjective opinion, where to get the best coffee, pizza, sandwich and so much more in Reading. Read, enjoy, share, comment and – of course – disagree, because if you don’t disagree with a single thing on this list I’ll be very surprised indeed.

Apart from my (entirely subjective, don’t forget) guarantee of quality I can promise you one other thing. None of these places will make you feel like you’re in Naples, New York or Nagoya. Because, as we’ve established, that is utter, utter bollocks. Besides, they’ll go one better than that: they’ll make you glad you’re in the Ding.

Reading’s best breakfast – Dee Caf

Dee Caf’s breakfast isn’t a looker, and nothing about it is built for Instagram. But in terms of midmorning indulgence on a plate it is probably unparalleled in Reading and well worth a meander out in the direction of Tilehurst. Bacon and sausages AND black pudding, all from a local butcher? Hash browns and properly buttered toast too, on an enamel plate which is only just big enough to contain all that bounty? Count me in. When I went the only drawback was the coffee – they’ve now switched to Anonymous, which is a very smart move. (Montague House, 12 Spey Road, RG30 4DG)

Honourable mention: The Switch

What is it with West Reading and good breakfasts? The smashed avo with bacon at The Switch is unashamedly high-end, and priced accordingly, but shows what a good dish it can be in the right hands. (19 The Triangle, RG30 4RN)

Reading’s best burger – Smash N Grab

Smash N Grab is quietly doing great things down on Cemetery Junction and their inimitable take on smashed burgers easily justifies a trip out of the centre. These are indulgent, overloaded burgers – messy, stuffed, deeply sinful things, and you will feel replete, satisfied and a little ashamed of yourself at the end of one. The chips still need work, and the cake shakes are a little artery-hardening for me, but the burgers are still unbeatable. If it’s on the menu, the MacBook Pro (topped with a slab of breaded, deep-fried macaroni cheese) is every bit as so-wrong-it’s-right as it sounds. (124 London Road, RG1 5AY)

Honourable mention: Honest Burgers

Reading’s branch of the small chain is the best town centre option and very rarely has a bad day at the office. The burger, served pink, is reliably terrific and the monthly specials mix things up nicely. They’ve just added a buffalo fried chicken burger to their menu, if beef isn’t your bag. (1-5 King Street, RG1 2HB)

Reading’s best coffee – C.U.P.

C.U.P. just edges it for me, and both its Blagrave Street and Reading Minster outposts have a lot going for them. Blagrave Street is great for people watching passers-by, and the seats outside Reading Minster are great for people watching your fellow customers. Either way, although the latte is superb the signature here is the mocha, made with an awful lot of real chocolate – a dessert, a pick me up, a treat and a necessity all crammed into a single takeaway cup. (7 Blagrave Street, RG1 1PJ/53 St Mary’s Butts, RG1 2LG)

Honourable mention: Workhouse Coffee

The eminence grise of Reading’s coffee culture, Workhouse is superb and reliable for latte and my espresso-drinking friends swear by their espresso. It’s a shame the greed and neglect of the Mercure Hotel has robbed them of what was one of town’s best and sunniest al fresco spaces, and the interior feels like it needs a bit of love. But the staff are great and the coffee remains top notch. (10-12 King Street, RG1 2HF, also 335 Oxford Road, RG30 1AY)

Reading’s best fish and chips – Finn’s

I know nobody will agree with this unless they live near Finn’s, and I can’t remember the last time I had fish and chips at Wing’s, or Deep Blue, or that other place you like. But I maintain that Finn’s, the pride of east Reading, does wonderful fish and chips with a light, crispy batter and chips that have the perfect balance of floury stodge and crunchy shrapnel. I must work up the courage to try their masala cod one cold winter’s evening. (42b Erleigh Road, RG1 5NA)

Runner-up: The Lyndhurst

The Lyndhurst serves up the epitome of pub fish and chips, an excellent portion of battered leviathan and some of Reading’s very best chips. Those of you who like mushy peas will enjoy these, and those of you who tend to leave them have something in common with me. Spoiler alert: this is not the Lyndhurst’s only appearance on this list, you may not be surprised to hear. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG)

Reading’s best fried chicken – The Lyndhurst

See? Told you. The Lyndhurst’s chicken karaage has been tweaked and tinkered with steadily since it first appeared on their menu last year. They took it off the menu just as I was developing a serious karaage habit (forget ketamine: this is the real K hole) and then this year I was overjoyed when they brought it back. The texture is unbelievably crunchy and gnarly, the portion size is so generous that you won’t mind offering your companions a piece and making them jealous and the little shards of fried kale add an extra savoury note. What was a kewpie mayo has now been swapped – another tweak – for a wasabi mayo which adds just enough sinus-clearing power. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG)

Runner-up: ThaiGrr!

You could hold a piece of fried kale between this and the Lyndhurst’s karaage, that’s how little separates them in terms of quality. ThaiGrr’s chicken is a ridiculously generous six jointed pieces on the bone with shatteringly crisp skin, tender meat and little slivers of garlic sprinkled on top. It comes with some very pleasant sweet chilli sauce, and you can spend all six pieces wondering if it needs the dip without ever reaching a conclusion. (1d Queens Walk, RG1 7QF)

Reading’s best pizza – Buon Appetito

One of my favourite discoveries of the last year has been the revitalised Buon Appetito at the end of Chatham Street which, for my money, knocks out the very best pizza in town. The base, a puffy-crusted, leopard-spotted delight, is next level good and the range of toppings is just wide enough without getting ridiculous. I am a huge fan of their Napoli which comes strewn with anchovies, olives and crispy fried capers, but there’s also a lot to be said for the Blue Parma, with twenty-four month aged Parma ham and a fair old whack of gorgonzola. It helps that Buon Appetito is one of Reading’s very best al fresco spots: they mix a mean Aperol spritz or negroni, too. (146 Chatham Street, RG1 7HT)

Honourable mention: Papa Gee

The other side of the river on Prospect Street, Papa Gee has nearly twenty years of experience of dough-slinging and it really shows. My latest visit was extremely recent, so I’m delighted to have extremely fresh memories of how good they are. The base maybe doesn’t quite have the quality of Buon Appetito’s, but you can expect pizzas topped by a man who doesn’t enjoy saying “when”. The iconic dish here, the pizza Sofia Loren, comes with pepperoni, beautiful coarse nuggets of sausage, red onions, chilli and my unqualified endorsement. (5 Prospect Street, RG4 8JB)

Reading’s best sandwich: Madoo

This is an incredibly difficult category, and I think I’ve only been able to narrow it down to two with a little cheating – wraps get their own category, and technically a burger is a sandwich too. But, to get off the fence, at the moment I’m not sure anyone can top the toasties at Madoo. Made with a variety of focaccia and pretty much customisable however you like, they are a carby, cheesy miracle on Duke Street. On my most recent visit, on the day of the big funeral, I had pancetta and scamorza in a focaccia topped with onion and thin slices of potato: try being sad after scoffing one of those. (10-14 Duke Street, RG1 4RU)

Honourable mention: Shed

Shed is still the godfather of Reading’s sandwich scene. Its lunch scene in general, to be honest. Their Tuna Turner – all tuna mayo and oozing cheese, studded with jalapenos, the bread bronzed and burnished – should earn them a blue plaque one day (other sandwiches are, of course, available). (8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT)

Reading’s best street food: Gurt Wings

Gurt Wings is a street food player with a national profile and, luckily for us, a soft spot for Reading. From their regular presence at Blue Collar’s Friday markets they took on a permanent pitch at Blue Collar Corner in March, and if the recent announcement that they’re leaving Blue Collar Corner has caused gloom and withdrawal symptoms across the land, the pill has been slightly sweetened by the news that they’re returning to the Friday markets again.

Everything they do is magnificent but the tenders, smothered in hot and sour buffalo and sharpened with a little blue cheese sauce, are truly fantastic. I also absolutely love their JFC – popcorn chicken with a hyper-punchy gochujang sauce and a smidge of sriracha mayo. About once a year they do a chicken burger in an iced doughnut topped with candied bacon – it has to be tried to be believed, but once is probably enough. (Market Place, RG1 2DE, Fridays only)

Honourable mention: Purée

Although Blue Collar is synonymous with street food in Reading, one of Reading’s finest street food options is Purée, the distinctive green van on Broad Street near our smaller, less attractive branch of Boots. Sam Adaci’s van took a sabbatical during Covid and a lot of us were very worried that it might not return, but gladly he is there most lunchtimes dishing up some of the best – and best value – lunches in town. The real winner here is the challoumi wrap – jammed full of glorious chicken and halloumi with hot sauce, garlic sauce, pickles, the works. (Broad Street, RG1 2AA)

Reading’s best sushi – Intoku

I had a rather hit and miss visit to Intoku earlier this year: the service was slapdash in all kinds of ways, but I also saw enough to convince myself that in terms of quality we finally have a restaurant in Reading that can approach the likes of Miyazaki in Maidenhead or my all-time favourite, Windsor’s Misugo. The soft shell crab rolls are an absolute dream, the maki are precise and nicely done and although the sashimi isn’t Reading’s best, it’s good enough. The fact that they also do gorgeous bao and possibly the best crispy squid I’ve had in town is just a bonus. (30a Chain Street, RG1 2HX)

Honourable mention – Sushimania

I know Osaka and Oishi have their fans, but I have a real soft spot for Sushimania, on that slightly grim brutalist corner overlooking the Hexagon. It’s all you can eat but made to order, and you can get most of the core menu that way, an inexpensive treat on a week night with a bottle of Asahi. They ration you on the salmon sashimi and the eel nigiri – make sure you get your full quota of both, because they’re bloody great. (9 Queens Walk, RG1 7QF)

Reading’s best wrap: Cairo Cafe

Go to Cairo Cafe and order the chicken shawarma wrap. Marvel at what comes out, hotter than the sun, perfectly assembled, crisped on the outside, gooey with cheese, the meat singing with spices and mint. Eat it in that peaceful place, looking out the window at the comings and goings of the grittier end of town, and tell me there’s a better wrap in Reading. And no, you don’t feel just like you’re in Cairo: you feel like you’re on West Street, because you are.

There’s a lot of chicken in this list, isn’t there? Reading really needs another restaurant reviewer who likes chicken a little less than I do. (13 West Street, RG1 1TT)

Honourable mention: Geo Café

Time for the disclaimer I put up every time I talk about Geo Café – unlike most restaurant owners in Reading, I would class Keti and Zezva as friends, and so you are absolutely free to disregard this, or take it with a pinch of salt, or say I should have picked someone like Mission Burrito instead. But you would be missing out if you hadn’t tried Geo Café’s wraps – either the chicken, pungent with almost acrid ajika and walnut sauce, like nothing you’ve ever tasted, or filled with aubergine, sliced thin, fried and rolled around more of that walnut sauce. Everyone I know who’s tried Georgian food comes away saying Why don’t more people know how good this is? and I couldn’t agree more: it may be the best cuisine you’ve never tried.

So yes, by all means ignore this tip but believe me – if it wasn’t for the fact that they’re my friends, Geo Café might well have topped this category. (10 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG)

Restaurant review: Papa Gee

As a restaurant reviewer, however assiduously you do your research, however good you think you are at reading the runes of a menu to try and figure out whether a Brakes lorry regularly pulls up outside the crime scene, however much you trawl through Tripadvisor or other blogs – good luck finding those, by the way – restaurants always retain the capacity to surprise. 

You can expect somewhere to be good, all the signs can say it will be, but there’s always a possibility that you’ll wind up with an underwhelming meal if you’re lucky, an out-and out-duffer if you’re not. This is especially the case when hype is involved. Or plain gratitude that a place has opened at all, either because a big name is gracing a town with its presence or because the town in question is a wasteland for decent places to eat. 

The more refreshing phenomenon is when it happens the other way round, when you go to an unspecial-looking restaurant with no particular expectations only to discover that you have a proper find on your hands. That realisation that dawns gradually throughout the meal, that sense of hold on, this is really good, is one of my favourite things about restaurants, and about reviewing them. It’s happened to me a fair few times, but one that’s always stayed with me was the March evening over seven years ago when I crossed the threshold of Papa Gee. 

Papa Gee, back in 2015, was an Italian restaurant on the Caversham Road, on the ground floor of the Rainbows Lodge Hotel. I’d never heard of anyone who had been to Papa Gee, and at the time I knew people who lived in Little Wales, the maze of streets on the other side of the Caversham Road named after Cardiff, Swansea, Newport. Every time I walked past Papa Gee, probably en route to a booking at Mya Lacarte, the place seemed closed. 

Inauspicious was putting it lightly. So nobody was more surprised than me when I found Papa Gee wasn’t some kind of white elephant but was instead a hugely creditable little restaurant doing belting pizzas, rather nice pasta and antipasti, a family business with owner and Neapolitan Gaetano Abete, the eponymous Papa Gee, in the kitchen. I had a splendid evening, although arguably the cherry on the cake was not having to stay in the hotel upstairs afterwards.

I walked away with my faith in the world somewhat restored, and it turned out to be one of the most delightful curveballs of the very early days of this blog. And the weird thing is, people definitely went to Papa Gee before I reviewed it. It’s not as if I discovered the place: it had decent writeups on TripAdvisor and had been trading for over ten years. It’s just that I’d never met a Papa Gee customer, back then. Maybe they didn’t want the rest of us finding out.

I was worried about Papa Gee after that, because the owners of Rainbows Lodge sold the building to the Easy Hotel chain a couple of years later and the restaurant was out on its ear. But then they announced what, with the benefit of hindsight, was a perfect move – and in October 2017 they took over the old Mya Lacarte site on Prospect Street, closer to the action in Caversham. 

It was a brave move to open slap bang opposite Quattro, Caversham’s long-serving Italian restaurant, and the conditions got even tougher a couple of years later when the Last Crumb, also offering pizza, opened at the top of the road where the Prince Of Wales used to be. And yet here we are in 2022 and, post-pandemic, Papa Gee is still going. 

And that’s partly why they’re the subject of this week’s review. The thing is, I’d never visited them in their new home and I was starting to feel bad about that; I didn’t want them to be continually on my to do list only to find, one day, that they’d closed before I’d got round to visiting. So I made my way there with Zoë on a Friday evening, post work, the weekend stretching out ahead waiting to be filled with units and calories. Like the very first time I visited Papa Gee, a lifetime ago, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.

It was weird setting foot in the room where I’d had so many great meals when it was Mya Lacarte, but at the same time it felt completely natural to have Papa Gee in that spot. It helps that it’s a lovely dining room. It’s double aspect with windows on both edges of the street corner; someone long ago made the very sensible decision to move the entrance to the side of the building, and it really helps to create a lively, convivial space. 

And I needn’t have worried about Papa Gee because, at half seven on a Friday night, almost every table was already occupied. It made me think: how long was it, in Reading at least, since I’d visited a really busy restaurant? I’d almost forgotten the atmosphere of one, all the life and celebratory excitement contained in a dining room on one of the busiest nights of the week. Restaurants are not an exact, empirical science: you can judge menus, rooms and dishes all you like, but when a place is full of happy diners a magical transformation happens and the whole thing is infinitely more than the sum of its parts. 

That was very much in full swing as we took our seats – big groups of friends, couples sitting by the window on dates, people catching up, or celebrating, or just rejoicing that the working week was over: all Caversham life was there. And it didn’t seem, from the easy way the customers had with the staff, that anybody there was a newcomer to Papa Gee. 

Speaking of service, there was another happy reunion in store because the first member of staff I saw was Ihor. Now, back when I first visited Papa Gee Ihor was running the front of house at Kyrenia and, to my mind, did as good a job of front of house as anybody in Reading at the time. Then Kyrenia got sold and became Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus (but the menus and the website and the sign on the front still said Kyrenia) and now it’s called Spitiko. And somewhere during that slightly chaotic transition Ihor parted company with them. 

I’d heard he was working at Papa Gee since they relocated but it was still a joy to see him – still slim, moustachioed and apologetically friendly, seemingly not having aged a day since our paths crossed six years ago. And again, it just felt like he was exactly where he was meant to be: of course Papa Gee would end up on this Caversham street corner, and of course Ihor would wind up working here. It made a kind of innate cosmic sense. It felt right.

Now all this wouldn’t mean much if the food turned out to be bobbins, but fortunately we weren’t in that territory at all. Zoë’s starter of spaghetti carbonara – a good reference dish in any Italian restaurant – was streets ahead of most that I’ve tried. It showed up the albino monstrosity at Cozze and while eating it, enjoying the crispy nuggets of guanciale, Zoë muttered darkly about the awful meat-free carbonara she’d been tricked with at Sonny Stores, Bristol’s darling of the broadsheets. This, a starter portion, was far bigger and about half the price. They gave Zoë the option of having it with or without cream and for my money she chose wrong: but even diluted with cream it still had that golden colour, although the flavour was a bit dialled down for my liking.

It probably pipped my starter though, the polpetto al sugo. The meatballs are billed as homemade and they definitely had the irregularity of ones rolled with gusto in the kitchen. They had a perfect coarse texture, too – no disturbingly smooth homogeneity here – but I would have liked a little more seasoning. That said, they were cosseted by a beautiful, sticky, reduced tomato sauce which did much to improve matters, along with a couple of slightly pointless slices of toasted ciabatta, assembled like a makeshift toast rack. Some surprisingly intense and welcome basil leaves finished things off. Put it this way: I’m glad I tried it, but if I’d gone for the larger portion, or had them in pasta, I think I’d have found it a bit monotonous.

Our mains turned up a little more briskly than I’d have chosen, ten or fifteen minutes after we’d dispatched our starters. But in my experience extremely busy restaurants tend to go one of two ways: they either take ages or bang things out with military precision. Papa Gee was very much the latter, and we’d barely finished our Aperol Spritzes when our mains were brought to the table. But again, I found I didn’t mind. There’s a certain magic in being in a nice room where everybody seems to be having a marvellous time and as I’ve already said, the last two and a half years haven’t had enough of it. 

Zoë’s pollo al gorgonzola was delicious. It’s another reference dish (she had it, for instance, when we visited Newbury’s charming Mio Fiore) and you can argue that it’s a pretty basic choice but there’s still an alchemy to doing it well. Everything was present and correct here: a generous chicken breast, cooked spot on, some crispy-edged potatoes and the thing it’s all about – an awful lot of creamy sauce chock full of mushrooms and honking with the salty funk of blue cheese. 

Done well there are few nicer things to eat on a Friday night, and this was definitely done well. It was decent value at eighteen pounds, too, although it could have stood to lose the unnecessary salad. We’d ordered some courgette fries on the side, but for my money they were a little limp and lacking the crispness they needed.

Ordinarily I’d make a beeline for my usual, a pizza with anchovies, capers and olives. But I wanted to renew my acquaintance with arguably Papa Gee’s most iconic dish, the pizza Sofia Loren (there’s a picture of her on the wall, along with one of Maradona, Napoli’s favourite adopted son). It comes topped with red onion, crumbled sausage meat, pepperoni and red onions and it truly is a force of nature, as far as a dish can be. 

Every element on it worked perfectly together – the sausage lent a little nip of what I thought was fennel, the pepperoni was the workhorse, all crisped at the perimeter, dimpled with a little dab of oil in the middle, the onions had exactly the right amount of sweetness and bite. There was chilli in there, too, and it felt like it had been mixed with the tomato base to give a slowly building heat rather than chilli bombs all over the place. I sense that Papa Gee spent some time getting this pizza right and the remaining fifteen years or so not fucking with it at all, and I liked it a great deal. 

I also liked how haphazard it was – Papa Gee tops pizzas as he would like to eat them, a gastronomic “do unto others”, and there’s no margin counting or rationing like you’d see at the likes of Franco Manca, with your regulation six pieces of chorizo spaced at regular intervals. To continue with the comparisons, I’d say Papa Gee’s pizza is up there with Buon Appetito, its West Reading peer. Although Buon Appetito’s base maybe has the edge, even if Papa Gee’s menu charmingly says that the dough is “left to levitate for 24 hours!”

Desserts were slightly anticlimactic, though by no means terrible. Zoë enjoyed her tiramisu – more boozy, more sponge-heavy than many we’ve tried lately. But I still enjoyed it, and I got to try more of it than usual because she was replete with carbs. My cannolo was probably the most disappointing bit of the meal – the shell was all bend and no snap, and it felt a little bit past its best. Maybe that’s what happens when you order one at nine o’clock at night. But the core of ricotta, chocolate and a few nubbins of candied orange still had a lot going for it, as did the shot of amaro I sipped away at afterwards.

Although I’ve singled out Ihor – possibly just because it was so nice to see him again – service at Papa Gee is definitely an ensemble effort. There were three wait staff looking after a relatively compact room and they clearly work as a team with good humour and an impressive work ethic, and I felt from start to finish like they had many returning customers. They charmed the socks off them, so it’s hardly a surprise: I fully expect I’ll be a returning customer too. Our bill for three courses each, a couple of aperitivi each and mineral water came to just over a hundred pounds, and I had no argument with that.

This feels like the second time in quick succession that I’ve ended a review talking about central Reading’s much-missed Dolce Vita. Sorry about that. But it’s appropriate, because Papa Gee feels like the spiritual heir to Dolce Vita, more than anywhere I’ve been in Reading since it closed. Some of the food is very good, most of the rest is quite good and the worst of it is not bad. But I review restaurants, not meals, and to talk only about the dishes would be missing the point.

Because places like Papa Gee, and Dolce Vita for that matter, are about much more than food. They’re about the room, the welcome, the feelings they create and the memories they make. They’re about being part of something bigger than your table for one, for two or for four. All restaurants are, really. They should be, anyway. And that’s where Papa Gee comes into its own, because they’ve built something wonderful there. Of course they have: they’ve had over fifteen years to get really, really good at it. So perhaps Papa Gee has lost the capacity to surprise that it had when visited it back in 2015 but on my latest visit, as on my first, I left the restaurant wanting to tell all and sundry about the brilliant time I’d had. 

On the way out, in the hallway, I saw two framed pictures one above the other: paintings of the old and new premises, the past and the present. Silly perhaps, but it gave me the feels.

Papa Gee – 7.9
5 Prospect Street, Reading, RG4 8JB
0118 9483000

https://www.papagee.co.uk