2021: The Year In Review

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the year Reading got a Banksy, it was the year Reading got a Wendy’s. 

And you could be forgiven, if you were a regular reader of Berkshire Live, for thinking Wendy’s was the only restaurant to open in Reading in 2021, given the huge number of puff pieces and free advertising our local webshite churned out this year. But actually, despite the most challenging year since, well, last year, we still saw a steady stream of restaurants opening here over the last twelve months. 

Many were chains slithering their tentacles towards the lucrative Thames Valley, which explains why this year Reading became host to Filipino chain Jollibee (home of the “Yumburger” and “Jolly Spaghetti”, which is made with chopped-up hot dog – count me out), Sri Lankan small chain The Coconut Tree, shouty Gordon Ramsay’s new burger place in the Oracle and Ji Chickens, a little Taiwanese-style fried chicken place which has established a Reading outpost in the mall literally nobody is calling Sykes’ Paradise. And just to show that hospitality never sleeps, our newest addition is Dutch chip specialists Chipstar who opened next to the Alehouse only last week. I’m told it’s decent.

These are the openings that will excite the council and Reading UK, because chains are what really make them lose their shit; the council’s tin-eared bid for city status this year actually celebrated the fact that we still have a Carluccio’s and a Pizza Express (which were, in their words, “forced to abandon other towns”) rather than talking about our vibrant independent food scene. That’s Reading Council for you – literally the only people still banging the drum for Pizza Express. Apart from Prince Andrew.

But I’ve been heartened that there are still independent businesses choosing to open in and around Reading. So in 2021 we saw Flavour Of Mauritius finally open on the Caversham Road, Mama’s Way offer a proper Italian delicatessen in town on Duke Street, ThaiGrr! start trading on Queen’s Walk and, a few doors down, Catford’s Compound Coffee open a second branch in the ground floor of the Biscuit Factory, our new independent cinema. Out in West Reading, Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen began cooking at the Butler, the most exciting pub pop-up since the golden age of I Love Paella and Caucasian Spice Box.

Further afield, Tilehurst got an interesting-looking new café in the shape of The Switch and new burger restaurants opened all over the place – on Cemetery Junction, on Christchurch Green, on St Mary’s Butts. Blink, and you could miss a new one. We were also graced with not one but two vegetarian South Indian restaurants – Crispy Dosa at the top of the Oxford Road and Madras Flavours further along the 17 bus route, just next to the library (for a while this was not two but forty-five different restaurants: we’ll get to that later).

Possibly the shortest-lived new Reading hospitality business was Cult Antiques & Coffee, on the Tilehurst Road. Offering, as you would expect, antiques and coffee (along with baked goods from local Wolseley Street Bakery) it was perhaps a fusion too far because by September it was shuttered again. And most of our closures this year have been cafés: Anonymous Coffee stopped trading from the Tasting House, shortly followed by the Tasting House also leaving Chain Street. And after seven years, Nibsy’s decided to call it a day on Cross Street: a new business called YayLo, also gluten free, has taken over the premises. 

And finally, another very significant closure: Tamp Culture gave up its spot on Gun Street at the start of October. Tamp had been trading, pretty much, as long as Nibsy’s had and it’s difficult years later to imagine town being quite the same without them. And when you think that in a year Reading has lost Anonymous, Nibsy’s and Tamp, that’s a real blow for Reading’s thriving coffee culture; at least it might silence all those all those “not another café” blowhards Reading seems to be afflicted with.

But having said all that, cafés seem to have been particularly hit by the ongoing effects of the pandemic. When I thought about restaurants that bit the dust in 2021, the only one that sprung to mind was Lemoni. Did you even notice? And really, the main mystery is how it limped along for so long. The company was wound up in the summer owing, among other things, nearly £300,000 in rent. And now Lemoni is running two pubs, including the Bull At Barkham, under its brand name: I can only assume they have different suppliers there.

But if 2021 was a year when most of Reading’s businesses were treading water, running to stand still, it was also the year when finally our restaurants came to the attention of the national press. It started in July when the Mail On Sunday’s Tom Parker Bowles visited Kungfu Kitchen. 

Now, I’ve always had quite a lot of time for Parker Bowles: I’ve long thought that restaurant critics fall into two categories, the ones whose articles can be summed up as Look at me! Look at me! Me! Oh, by the way, I’m in a restaurant and the ones whose reviews are more Let me tell you about this restaurant I went to. Parker Bowles is that rare national critic who falls into that latter category, and I’m not just saying that because he described Edible Reading as a “golden nugget… among the sulphurous effluence of social media” (although I’d be lying if I pretended it wasn’t a factor).

Anyway, Parker Bowles loved Kungfu Kitchen and he clearly got everything that makes the place such a gem, from the uncompromising cooking to the magical welcome from Jo (he described her as “charmingly loquacious”, which is true yet probably doesn’t fully prepare Mail On Sunday readers for the KFK experience). And best of all? Jo had absolutely no idea who he was: to her he was just some guy who obviously knew his Sichuan food and wanted to enjoy what he described, quite perfectly, as a “30-napkin lunch”.

And it wasn’t long before Parker Bowles was back on a train to Reading, because in October he reviewed Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen, a couple of months after their much-anticipated reopening. And if anything this was even more of a rave review: after making a bold attempt on the entire menu (the difficulty of narrowing down your choices is one every visitor to Clay’s understands only too well) he nearly ran out of superlatives. “I cannot tell you how much I love this place” he concluded, after, as with the menu, giving it his best shot.

Before Kungfu Kitchen and Clay’s the last Reading restaurant to feature in the national press was Thames Lido, four years ago in the Guardian. And before that? You have to go back to 2010, and a decidedly lukewarm (and entitled) writeup of Mya Lacarte in The Independent On Sunday. So for all of 2021’s drawbacks, it was the year that Reading’s food scene finally got some national attention – and what’s more, Blue Collar also featured in a piece in the Mail in October about the country’s most delicious street food. But that’s nothing: have you heard that we still have a Pizza Express and a Carluccio’s?

I was quite surprised to see my blog mentioned in the national press, but it wasn’t the only time in 2021. Back in April, when I was reviewing takeaways, I discovered that Madras Flavours, our new South Indian restaurant, was operating under multiple names on delivery apps. Tevye Markson, then at the Reading Chronicle, decided to run with the story and between us, like Woodward and Bernstein, we found a total of over 40 different brands operating from that single premises on the Kings Road, from Manchurian Magic to Indian Chimney, from Fatt Monk to my personal favourite, Soul Chutney.

The story went national and got picked up by the i, before the Sunday Times ran a full article about it with quotes from yours truly. They also featured a quote from the owner of Madras Flavours: “It’s all legal”, he began, which is an interesting way to start your justification. 

Anyway, 2021 was also the year that restaurants tried any hustle to keep afloat. In some cases that involved hiving off a section of your menu and pretending it was cooked by a different restaurant (Coco di Mama and Zizzi, for instance, or Blazing Bird and Las Iguanas). In others there was something weirder going on: did you know, for example, that if you order Gourmet Burger Kitchen on Deliveroo it’s cooked up in the kitchen at Carluccio’s? Maybe that’s why we still have a branch, rather than Reading’s eminent suitability for city status.

Being in the papers a couple of times was brilliant. But even better is that it’s been a bumper year for the blog, with more readers and page hits than ever before. At the start of the year when I decided to review takeaways – for a few months, just while I was waiting for everything to go back to normal – I had no idea it would lead to weekly reviews all year. 

I’ve tried the weird and the wonderful with an expanding cast of dining companions – whether it’s my friend Nick gamely ordering tiny snails at O Portugues, Graeme lucking out and coming with me to Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen or the welcome return of my old friend Jerry at Monty’s Café I’ve been incredibly lucky that people have wanted to come and try restaurants with me. And, of course, this is the year that my partner in crime Zoë has attained legendary status for her perceptive (and deeply Anglo-Saxon) assessment of many meals and takeaways.

It’s been a great year for food, too, and I’ve had many brilliant meals and dishes both on and off duty. Too many to mention, really, but plenty will stay with me for some time. Discovering Banarasi Kitchen’s excellent Indian takeaway down the Oxford Road, or revisiting Buon Appetito to find that at some point in the last five years it had become the best pizzeria in Reading (I still daydream about their Napoletana). Enjoying a magnificent prego steak roll at O Portugues, on the edge of Palmer Park, or the smoky, savoury joys of Chef Stevie’s jerk chicken, marinated for twenty-four hours and well worth the wait. And that’s not to mention the perfection of ThaiGrr!’s pork curry, or their crispy-skinned, garlic-studded fried chicken. Or La’De Kitchen’s beautiful pistachio encrusted lamb kebabs, another knockout find this year.

But it wasn’t just about new discoveries. A slightly greater sense of freedom this year meant the opportunity to revisit old favourites. Every single samosa from Cake & Cream, usually picked up after a mildly traumatic visit to the dentist, was a little wonder, and every portion of Gurt Wings picked up on a Friday from Blue Collar was a not-so-little wonder. Going to Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen on their reopening night was a surprisingly affecting reunion, and even if the dishes on the menu had gone up a level in terms of complexity and accomplishment it still felt like being reunited with an old friend – one who had done far more self-improvement in lockdown than I had.

I was also delighted this year, at last, to manage to get away a couple of times – which itself was about a mixture of new and much-loved places. Going to Bristol and eating again in Bravas, one of my favourite haunts, was terrific, but going to Marmo  for the very first time and eating one of my meals of the year was true bliss. Making one solitary trip to London and another to Oxford to revisit a couple of my very favourite places (Medlar and Pompette, respectively) was almost enough to make up for eighteen months away: I was relieved to see them still muddling through. And finally getting on a plane and going back to Malaga with my disgusting new blue passport made me happier than I can tell you.

My other highlight of the year was last month, when I held the first ER readers’ lunch in the best part of two years. It was at the Lyndhurst, as the previous one had been, because I’d always said that the next one would be back where we all ate pre-pandemic: not only that, but the Lyndhurst’s food (and their willingness to deliver it) has rescued many a Saturday night for me, to the point where it wouldn’t have felt right to watch Strictly Come Dancing without a TV dinner from the Lyndie. The weeks where they had skate wing in were happy weeks indeed.

The readers’ lunch, as I knew it would be, was a fantastic afternoon. It was properly emotional to see so many people – old and familiar faces – enjoying the Lyndhurst’s phenomenal food. ER readers really are a fascinating bunch, from academics to musicians, from rocket scientists to retailers, and my only regret doing the seating plan was that I couldn’t talk to everybody all afternoon (although they probably all had a far better time as a result). 

Even at the time, though, before Omicron was a Thing, I still had the same nagging feeling as I did back in March last year, that this was probably the last time I’d be out and about until the spring. After that Zoë and I went into semi-hibernation, and I thought we’d managed to beat the virus: her positive test a few weeks back, and subsequent hospitalisation, showed me that I’d spoken too soon. Fortunately she is on the mend – and we’ll both be spending the festive period taking it easy. I for one will be particularly grateful for everything I have, and determined not to take it for granted. Even before the events of this month, it’s been that sort of year.

It’s too early to know what sort of year next year will be: ever the pessimist, I think we have a challenging winter ahead. But even so, 2022 already promises more new openings. La’De Kitchen plans to open an “express” branch on Market Square and Black Sheep Coffee is taking over the old Caffe Nero site on Friar Street. We’re still promised a new Greek restaurant in the Broad Street Mall, and Blue Collar’s permanent site should open next year after an inexplicable eight months waiting for Reading Council to grant planning permission. Apparently Rosa’s Thai is going to open permanent premises on the ground floor of the iconic Jackson’s Corner. And maybe we’ll finally get that branch of Leon, many years after they used to be good.

Another interesting development will be Kamal’s Kitchen on the Caversham Road. Namaste Momo never quite lived up to the promise of Kamal’s previous restaurant Namaste Kitchen, but this time he is going it alone. If he sticks to the Nepalese classics that made Namaste Kitchen so special, and doesn’t muddy the waters with the more generic Indian food he offered at Namaste Momo, it could prove to be a big hitter. 

But who knows what else next year holds? The one thing you can guarantee, I’m afraid, is that next year some restaurants will fail, and others will be more than willing to try their chances in the same location. There will be some bandwagon-jumpers, some awful concepts, some good chains, some bad chains and, probably out of nowhere, some real gems. And I’ll do my level best to help work out which is which. 

All that remains is me to thank all of you for reading over the last twelve months. It always pleasantly surprises me how many of you come along week after week to read the reviews, comment, share and spread the word. It all counts, and it’s all contributed to this being the most successful year ever on the blog. So whether you’re an avid reader, a skeptic, a lurker or a hater I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a peaceful, happy and healthy New Year. Stay safe, and I’ll be back in 2022 with the usual mixture of takeaway reviews, restaurant reviews, ill-informed social comment and very lengthy preambles. What more could you possibly want?

2020: The Year In Review (Part Two)

Last week, in part one of my review of the year, I wrote about all the restaurants and cafés that had closed and opened in 2020. But really, the story of this year in Reading’s food scene is the story of all the restaurants and cafés that don’t fall into those two categories, the ones who have hung in by the skin of their teeth and made it to the end of 2020 – businesses that began January aiming for “thriving” but, at some point over the last twelve months, downgraded their ambitions to “surviving”.

It’s easy to forget, as we all pause for breath at the end of the year, just what a torrid time hospitality has had. This time last year, Reading was a very different place. The biggest blot on the landscape was our benighted branch of Chick-Fil-A, already announced as due to close at the end of its six month “trial” lease in March but still, for the time being, selling chicken and homophobia (only not on Sundays). I never went to Chick-Fil-A, but it’s hard to imagine a meal there could have been as diabolical as my trip to Taco Bell in February.

If you stop to play it all back, the contortions that restaurants, cafés and pubs have had to go through seem like some kind of awful fever dream. In March they were told that they wouldn’t be closed by the government, but that they would have to stay open while that same government told their customers to stay away. Shortly after, they were closed in the first of so many u-turns, but there was then an agonising wait to hear the details of the financial relief available; at least one of Reading’s more popular chains decided to lay their staff off immediately, only to hurriedly rehire them once the furlough scheme was announced. 

The furlough scheme brought some relief, as did some of the grants and business rates relief, but one thing that’s often overlooked is that a reasonable proportion of the aid package came in the form of loans: facing a deeply uncertain future, hospitality had to go into debt to gamble on its own survival. What followed was over three months when restaurants were completely closed, except for takeaway and delivery. Some restaurants decided not to even do that, some took time out to consider their options and some began making the first of many, many changes to their business model (I can’t bring myself to use the word “pivot”, especially as many of our businesses showed so much grace – outwardly, at least – that it looked more like a pirouette). 

On Kennet Island, Fidget & Bob moved to selling groceries, produce and beer along with its fantastic range of sandwiches, coffee and cake. The other side of the river, Geo Café began a veg box delivery scheme, driving to a London market at four in the morning and then doing long hours making drop-offs all across Reading: very welcome at a time when many were shielding and delivery slots were well-nigh impossible to snag (eventually they got their own van in the café’s distinctive livery – I called it the “Kete-van” after its owner, until she told me to stop).

Another notable business in the early stages of our first lockdown was Valpy Street. Some restaurants have always had their own takeaway or delivery capability, and others – especially some of our chains – have always partnered with someone like Deliveroo or Just Eat. But for places like Valpy Street which had never done takeaway, they had to build this from scratch. One of Reading’s earliest adopters, they soon got busy and before long social media was abuzz with people enjoying their fish and chips and their roasts.

One of the most sought-after delivery slots was with Kungfu Kitchen, and there were few sights in 2020 happier than co-owner Steve standing at your front door, masked up, holding a bag of goodies. I soon became an expert in ordering KFK dishes that travelled well – that deep fried spicy fish, for instance, which would remain piping hot long after it was delivered, or the Xinjiang shredded chicken which was cold, spicy and (I later discovered) perfect crammed into a baguette the following day.

A lot of people were keen to see what possibly our most high-profile restaurant, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen, did. And the answer, at first, was that Clay’s kept its powder dry. They took time out, put recipes up on Instagram showing people how to make simple versions of their dishes at home – even I tried one of them – and then quietly, without fanfare, went about donating large quantities of food to Whitley CDA. 

(They weren’t alone, either: one thing that distinguished many of our hospitality businesses is that they still, against such a terrifying backdrop, found time to feed the town’s people in real need. Only last week, the Lyndhurst provided 30 Christmas dinners to people in Whitley spending Christmas Day alone: you would need to go to the Whitley CDA Facebook page to discover that, though, because characteristically the Lyndhurst hasn’t mentioned it anywhere.)

In May, Clay’s finally made a much-anticipated decision: it had no plans to reopen but would instead deliver vacuum-packed curries customers could reheat at home. Its website crashed on launch day with the volume of orders and soon Nandana and Sharat’s car became as keenly anticipated as the arrival of Geo Café’s Kete-van: one street in Reading organised a weekly communal order which was delivered centrally and then distributed to all the residents. This was the summer of 2020, when many of us got to know our neighbours better – either through WhatsApp groups, weekly clapping or, in my case, waving to Ted from around the corner as he walked the dog daily.

Another pirouetting business in May was Nibsy’s, which started delivering its DIY doughnut kits across Reading. Of all the things I learned in 2020, one of the most surprising was that Nibsy’s cherry bakewells didn’t make me miss gluten in the slightest, although once I’d finished them they did make me miss Nibsy’s cherry bakewells. Like many cafés, Nibsy’s gradually reopened for takeaway in June, and as summer came along there was a feeling that the worst was past and a gradual reopening – rightly or wrongly – was around the corner.

One of the most significant events of the year happened at its midpoint, and has nothing to do with hospitality but plenty to do with community. Like most people I was at home on the 20th June when I got word of an incident at Forbury Gardens, and like most people I watched it unfold on social media with a real feeling of unease and horror. A friend of mine was there when it happened, on a patch of grass just along from where the attack took place, and one of his friends chased the assailant out through the cemetery and down Friar Street. He messaged me about it as it unfolded, clearly badly shaken up by the whole thing. Other friends got in touch to check that I was safe, an experience I’m sure was shared by many.

What happened at Forbury Gardens was an attack on three friends enjoying the summer sun, in possibly the spiritual epicentre of Reading, but it was also an attack on our town and on all of us. And in the days that followed, all sorts of people tried to use it to further their own agendas. It was odd to see Reading on the news, or to hear vultures like Katie Hopkins talking about us as some kind of failed multicultural experiment. But the way the community united in the aftermath of that incident, and in particular the way Reading refused to allow it to divide or define our brilliant, diverse, happy town was one of the most beautiful things about this year, a wonderful moment coming out of so much sadness. I criticise the council a lot, goodness knows, but their handling of this – dignified and measured – was note perfect.

In July, our restaurants, cafés and pubs were told they could reopen, albeit with new restrictions imposed by social distancing and the need for Covid compliance. Restaurants all said how happy they were to be seeing their customers again, with masks and visors on nonetheless, but the whole thing was tinged with trepidation. Ever the cheery soul, I said at the time that I felt restaurants were being hung out to dry and that people should pick the restaurants they wanted to survive and spend their money exclusively at those places (I may have been overly gloomy: time will tell).

In August, restaurants were the saviours of the economy, completely Covid safe and eating out was a Good Thing, as the government introduced Eat Out To Help Out. Opinion was divided on this – I know a lot of customers, especially on social media, were convinced that business was booming and that they had eaten out far more as a result of the initiative. But the restaurant owners who spoke to me almost uniformly suggested it just meant that they were busier at different times. For restaurants, that tended to mean times when customers were less likely to spend money on alcohol. 

One restaurant owner told me about a customer who turned up, spent the absolute maximum you could in order to get twice as much food, ate a tiny amount and then asked her to box it all up so they could take it home. When she expressed concern that they were circumventing the rules, she got a one star Tripadvisor review for her troubles. “I won’t miss some of the customers” she said, when the month came to an end. Others I talked to said very similar things.

The other big return of the summer was Blue Collar Street Food, which was restored to its rightful place on Market Place in June. Blue Collar had a year which you could see as emblematic of 2020 – two steps forward, two steps back. So we all celebrated in September when they took over the Friday market previously run by Chow (the right decision by Reading UK), followed by them hosting the regional heats of the British Street Food Awards later that month.

That was a wonderful weekend, highlighting some brilliant street food but also reinforcing just how strong our own street food scene had become. By this point, Blue Collar’s Glen Dinning had reinforced the market’s offering with some brilliant signings – Gurt Wings, for instance, on Fridays, doing the most terrific fried chicken and tater tots dusted with chicken salt, or Fink Street Food’s excellent mezze boxes. 

The queue for Sharian’s Jamaican Cuisine (now renamed the Bissy Tree for reasons nobody could understand) was as long as ever, but now there was more competition elsewhere in the market. And although the market had lost some of its longest-serving traders – no more Peru Sabor, or Purée’s phenomenal challoumi wrap – a degree of continuity with the past was maintained when Georgian Feast returned to the markets on Fridays and the air was thick again with the beautifully acrid hum of ajika. 

The other thing the Street Food Awards did which was so vitally important was to give Reading some civic pride, and an event people could look forward to and safely enjoy. In a normal year, we would all have been in Forbury Gardens enjoying Blue Collar’s Feastival, but this was the closest we could get. We celebrated Reading being picked to host the event, and Blue Collar’s triumph was our triumph too. Both days of the event sold out, and it went so well that Blue Collar was invited to host the final.

Another reason to be proud of Reading happened in August, when Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen finally launched a nationwide delivery scheme and we had to learn to share our treasure with the rest of the country. Positive reviews started to crop up on blogs, and with every collection you made at the restaurant, or at Fidget & Bob, Geo Café or (later) Double-Barrelled, being a Clay’s customer increasingly felt like being one of the first to know a secret that wouldn’t be under wraps forever.

All good things must come to an end, and just as it was expedient for the government to tell us all to eat out in August it became equally expedient to start to blame hospitality for the increasing rate of infection. The last weekend of October was the final of the British Street Food Awards but also the last weekend before a second lockdown took place in November. I was there with friends on Halloween and ate some absolutely beautiful stuff – a panko-crumpet scrumpet made of shredded pig’s head, topped with kimchee, a “Bangkok brunch” of spiced pork sausage with duck fat confit potato and tiny fried quail’s eggs, tacos and fried chicken. 

Sitting in the garden of the Allied Arms in the cold afterwards, enjoying one last al fresco pint, it felt like summer was well and truly over. And it was, but this lockdown was different to the last. Blue Collar continued to trade on Wednesdays and Fridays, a welcome relief from time spent at home, and restaurants had honed their delivery capabilities by then. “Here we go again”, many of them said on social media, or words to that effect. They had done everything asked of them, taken painstaking precautions, and here they were again being told to close. Meanwhile, of course, the schools remained open.

The rest of the year, as we know, ended in tiers. When everything reopened at the end of the month, Reading was in Tier 2 and restaurants could stay open but only people from the same household could share a table. Restaurants were expected to police this, to add to their burdens. “We’re so excited to see you all again” was the overall message from restaurants – but who could blame them if, this time, the smile was more of a rictus grin? By this point, fatigue had set in: many of the restaurateurs I spoke to were just hoping to make it to Christmas in one piece and take stock.

And of course it was worse for pubs, who could only open if they were offering “substantial meals” and could only serve alcohol with those meals. Pubs scrambled to work up a food offering: Double-Barrelled’s taproom, for instance, rebranded as a “street food restaurant” so it could continue to trade. Others, like the Nag’s Head (possibly the safest post-lockdown experience I had this year) were forced to close because they didn’t serve any food.

And then, of course, the final blow. Reading was moved into Tier 3, which meant that yet again restaurants could only offer takeaway and delivery. It was one pirouette too many for some, who simply decided to close for the time being and put off decisions until the new year. A farcical twenty four hours later Reading was placed in Tier 4, which was like Tier 3 but without Christmas. Conservative estimates suggest things will stay this way until the spring.

The tone of many on social media was chipper, or at least phlegmatic, but the contrast between the public face and private misgivings was often clear. Double-Barrelled, for instance, put up a picture of their logo with the words “TAPROOM” and “STREET FOOD RESTAURANT” struck through, a clear (and funny) testimony to the constant one hundred and eighty degree turns required of hospitality all year. But on her personal Twitter account, owner Luci summed up the position even more succinctly. With a string of expletives.

There was still time for a couple more twists before 2020 limped to a close, both good and bad. In November, Blue Collar announced that Reading Football Club had terminated its contract to provide the food offering outside the ground on matchday, to widespread derision. The initial reports were that Compass Group, who serve the “food” inside the ground, were taking over – bad news for customers (and for donkeys, given how many of them have died over the years to provide Compass Group with burgers and sausages). 

That was bad enough, but the suggestion that the contract would then be sub-contracted to a London street food operator to provide something similar to Blue Collar, only cheaper and less authentic, added insult to injury. The outcry that Reading FC had shafted an independent business – run by a season ticket holder, no less – in the naked pursuit of profit was loud, consistent and completely on the money.

Finally, there was a feelgood story a couple of weeks before Christmas. On the 13th December people fired up their browsers or opened their newspapers to find that Jay Rayner had reviewed Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen in the Observer. It was a Christmas miracle, for a restaurant that was struggling to get by. Clay’s blog post on the subject tells the story better than I can, but it was the result of old-fashioned persistence: owner Nandana had emailed a number of restaurant critics and food writers asking if they wanted to give her food a try, and to their credit a couple of them – the Telegraph’s William Sitwell and the Observer’s Jay Rayner – had taken her up on the suggestion.

Of course, like everyone who has tried Clay’s food, they loved it and wanted to tell everybody. It reminded me of reading the email I had received from Nandana, nearly three years ago, telling me all about the restaurant they were planning to open. I clearly remember reading it and seeing all that passion for food, for recipes, and for telling stories, and I suspected even then that their food would be very special indeed. I wonder if Jay Rayner or William Sitwell had a similar feeling when they had received their own version of that email, many years later.

Clay’s was the first Reading restaurant to get a mention in the national press for over a decade – the last before that was Mya Lacarte, also in the Telegraph – and orders went through the roof. The following week when I turned up at the restaurant to collect my own pre-Christmas order I saw a front room full of vacuum-packed curries being crammed into boxes and envelopes, labelled and ready to go out for delivery. It was a heart-warmingly military operation. “This is probably just a flash in the pan” Nandana told me: I sincerely hope she turns out to be wrong. 

This is by no means a definitive history of 2020 for Reading’s restaurants. I’m far too partisan a person to write that. And there’s so much that happened this year that I didn’t get to mention and there are so many people I left out. I didn’t talk about the stupendous deliveries I’ve had this year from the Lyndhurst, or rhapsodise about their gurnard tacos. I haven’t mentioned Bakery House or Namaste Momo, both of whom have brightened flat evenings at my house through the arrival of their wonderful food. I haven’t thanked Anonymous Coffee for teaching me to love making coffee at home, or congratulated Vegivores for managing to expand in such a difficult time.

And there’s so much that happened in the town that’s really outside the scope of this piece. The way Reading Fringe Festival managed to adapt to an online-only event, or the way that the tireless Louize Clarke did likewise with her Festival Of Digital Disruption, capitalising on Covid to land a roster of speakers you could never attract at a physical event.

I haven’t mentioned the joy I’ve received every time a Covid email arrives from the council with an increasingly ridiculous giant picture of Jason Brock looking grumpy at the top. And I never talked about the couple caught shagging in the window of the Hope Tap: surely the most fun anybody has ever had in the Hope Tap (irony of ironies, I’m reliably informed that the couple picked that spot because it was the only part of the pub not covered by CCTV, failing to clock that it was slap bang in front of the windows).

I still have a feeling that for all the difficulties of this year, next year is when we’ll say painful goodbyes to businesses and institutions that we love. And I still maintain that the best thing we can do is throw our figurative arms around the businesses we most want to see survive.

But perhaps the best thing to take away from this awful, mad year is how wonderful community can be and how it can show the best in people. Our independent businesses have been persistent, imaginative and resilient. They’ve been relentless in adapting, innovating and putting on a happy face, during months when personally I’ve sometimes found it difficult to even get out of bed. It gladdens my heart that we’ve made it to the end of the year without losing so many of the businesses that give our town its character and soul. We are lucky to have them: I hope that 2021 is the year when, as a town, we truly get to return the favour.

2020: The Year In Review (Part One)

This time of year is usually a happy one at ER HQ. Amid all the wrapping and card-opening, the chocolates snaffled from behind advent calendar doors and the frantic round of socialising in the run-up to Christmas Day, I invariably take time to sit down and write my annual awards. Who cooked the finest main course I’ve had all year? What’s the best new restaurant? Who’s really aced their social media this year? It’s a lovely thing to do, to mentally digest all those wonderful meals one more time and to celebrate everything – and there is so much – that Reading does so very well. After all, you don’t have to listen to Chris Tarrant up on stage, battered at the microphone, to be proud of Reading. Thank God.

As with everything else about this mixed-up year, it draws to a close very differently to every other year we’ve lived through. I know lots of people cautiously returned to dining out over the summer, and did so again when we entered Tier 2 with all its arbitrary restrictions, and I’m certain that Reading’s restaurants are eternally grateful for that, but I’ve stayed home and relied on takeaways and deliveries. Apart from a few drinking sessions at the exemplary Nag’s Head at the height of the summer I’ve not really been out and about; it’s hard enough to remember what having a starter in a restaurant feels like, let alone to flip through the mental Rolodex and work out which was the best one of the last twelve months.

And yet it doesn’t feel right to say goodbye to 2020, much as I know we’re all dying to, without putting something up on the blog. So this is partly a round-up, partly a reflection and goodness knows what else, as we prepare to move into an uncertain future. A vaccine is on the way and the orange knobber across the pond is on his way out but, on the flipside, we have no idea how (or how hard) we’ll get clobbered by our delectably chlorinated oven-ready Brexit.

And now we have a second strain, a third wave and, at the time of writing, a dress rehearsal for the New Year as the rest of Europe proves that it’s actually quite easy to close your borders and take back control. They say it’s the hope that kills you, but I can’t imagine anybody dying of that next year. Let’s look at many of the reasons to be cheerful instead: it’s the season for it, don’t you know.

Goodbyes, but fewer than you might think

(Do you like the headings? Neat, aren’t they. A few people have told me I should use this sort of thing more often to break up the interminable text, and who am I to argue: let’s see if they catch on.)

Obviously it’s very sad when restaurants close. That should go without saying, even this year when we’ve all had to become a bit numb to Bad Stuff. It’s especially sad when an independent closes, or a restaurant you like, or a restaurant that seemed to be doing well, but even when it isn’t the end of somebody’s dream, when it’s a faceless chain, it still leaves people – some of them really good at what they do – looking for new jobs. I still think the real damage will be felt next year but for now, we can at least take comfort in the fact that the number of closures this year was far smaller than you might expect.

Most of the casualties have indeed been chains and often it’s been the second branch of a chain where Reading has more than one: the Kings Road Zizzi; the Broad Street Prêt; the St Mary’s Butts Pizza Express. In the latter case it’s a far nicer place than the one in the Oracle, but at least if you have an emotional attachment to the brand you can still get your Pollo ad Astra without leaving town (do consider Papa Gee, though: they’re on Deliveroo and everything).

One restaurant even came back from the dead: I’m not a diehard fan of Carluccio’s but I still felt sad when it closed early in lockdown as a result of the chain collapsing. And even though it isn’t high on my list of places to visit next year I found it heartwarming nonetheless when it reopened in September. I’ve had enough really enjoyable evenings there (including, surreally, my last restaurant meal before the first lockdown) that I wanted to feel like another one was at least possible. And, for now at least, it still is.

A couple of restaurants changed their names while doing the same kind of food in such a way that you couldn’t really be sure whether they had closed at all. So I honestly don’t know whether Persian Palace is to Persia House what Snoop Lion is to Snoop Dogg, or if Spitiko is in any way a different beast to Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus (probably not, though, given that the restaurant’s Facebook page is now called “Ketty’s Spitiko”).

I certainly couldn’t venture an opinion on whether Gulab Indian Kitchen is any different to Miah’s Garden Of Gulab and I definitely couldn’t speculate as to whether it has anything to do with previous attempts by the owner of Garden Of Gulab to get round losing his alcohol licence by making a new license application under a different name. All I will say is that if you’re part of the very niche section of my readership that just can’t get enough of Indian restaurants with the word “Gulab” in their name, 2020 hasn’t been as complete a bin fire for you as it was for the rest of us.

Probably the most high profile independent closure has been announced but won’t happen until next year, when we say goodbye to one of Reading’s longest-running restaurants, Standard Tandoori on Caversham Road. Standard Tandoori, which has been open for forty years, is closing in the spring as the owners want to retire, so those of you addicted to their (locally) famous “super dry fry” will have to look elsewhere for a new favourite dish.

It does make you wonder which old-timer restaurants might not make it to the end of 2021 – could it be the year we say goodbye to the Bina and Rafina Lounge? Part of this, of course, is down to the circle of life in hospitality – for new restaurants to open, existing restaurants have to close, and indeed a new restaurant is already lined up to open in the Standard Tandoori site following refurbishment (more on that later). Speaking of new restaurants…

In with the new

Opening a restaurant is a brave thing to do at the best of times, in the best of years. It takes a long time to start to recoup your initial costs and approach a break even point, and a fair amount of restaurants don’t ever get that far: it’s hard to find a consensus online about the percentage of restaurants that fail in their first year, but even on conservative estimates it’s high enough that hospitality is not a business for the faint-hearted. That makes it all the more surprising that quite a lot of new restaurants have opened in 2020 – again, more than you might expect – with more still in the pipeline.

Some are trying to turn around what could charitably be described as cursed sites – the kind of buildings that seem to be on ley lines guaranteed to ensure the failure of hospitality businesses. Take the old site of the Warwick Arms on the Kings Road, for example. It rebranded as Bali Lounge, and when that closed it reincarnated as a gastropub of sorts called the Biscuit & Barrel. Then, like some hyperactive Doctor Who of the Reading restaurant world, it became Cardamom, the second branch of a mini-chain of Indian restaurants (the other one’s in Pangbourne) before very quickly rebranding again – this time as King’s Kitchen, also an Indian restaurant.

That takes us up to early 2020, but later this year it changed its name yet again, becoming The Aila, a Nepalese restaurant and bar. By the time a vaccine has been rolled out and I am ready to review restaurants again I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it has changed its name again. Possibly twice.

Another new opening in a cursed site is Madoo, an Italian coffee shop which has opened on Duke Street opposite the Oxfam music shop. You may know this site better as the boarded up shop that used to be Project Pizza or, if your memory is longer, the boarded up shop that used to be It’s A Wrap.

But in fairness, the reports I’ve had so far (including from Reading’s resident Sicilian in exile, Salvo Toscano) suggest that Madoo might be a dark horse. The toasted gorgonzola sandwich is meant to be decent, they use scamorza in quite a few of their toasties and they sell some goodies – cake and biscuits – to take away (if they stock any giandiuotti I shall have to pay them a visit sooner rather than later). Let’s hope Madoo manages to make a go of the site – it may benefit, sadly, from the closure of Panino (another long-standing Reading business) on the other side of the road.

One last ill-starred spot is the old Colley’s Supper Rooms site on the Wokingham Road, up by Palmer Park. This was reborn as Bart’s, a steakhouse that left me a little unmoved, before closing and reopening as the salubrious-sounding Smokey’s House, a restaurant described by Get Reading as Cheap and cheerful family grub. Perhaps unsurprisingly given that glowing writeup, Smokey’s House failed to catch fire and now, in its place, we have O Português, a – yes, you’ve guessed – Portuguese restaurant.

This could be a wonderful thing, if it’s done well. I’ve been to Portugal a fair few times and it’s very much the unsung hero of European food, with dishes and wine that can easily match anything in Spain. And it’s some time since Reading had a Portuguese restaurant (Nando’s doesn’t count: it’s South African), the last one being O Beirão up on the Basingstoke Road. O Português must be pretty confident, anyway, as so far they’ve dispensed with a website or even having a menu up outside the restaurant. I had to go on Just Eat to get a look at what was on offer: one section of the menu is entitled “Vegetarian & Children”, which rather gives the wrong impression.

O Português’ menu is, at least, available somewhere online. That’s more than you can say about Raayo, the new cafe which has opened on Friar Street just along from Hickies. They have set up a website, but the nicest thing I can say about it is that it feels a tad underdeveloped. The menu is lacking in the kind of detail especially fussy customers might want – what dishes are available, how much they cost, that kind of thing. And what’s Raayo’s USP? We use fresh ingredients to make our food very tasty and yummy says the website, which will leave all of Reading’s dastardly restaurants and cafés using stale ingredients to make their food rubbish or middling quaking in their boots.

I know this might sound unkind, but it comes from a place of genuine concern. Raayo, like all hospitality businesses, is going to need all the help it can get in a crowded, competitive marketplace to stay alive; in 2020, and especially in 2021, this kind of approach just won’t cut it. I imagine they’ve had some quiet days since they opened – you’d think they would have offered plenty of opportunities to at least get busy on social media.

Also new, also a café and also on Friar Street, albeit at the less attractive end down by German Doner Kebab and the Hope Tap, we have Bru. Instagram announced that they opened their doors for the first time last week, although they haven’t updated their website to reflect that (isn’t it always the way?). Bru serve their own gelato, handmade by them in Leicester, so if that turns out to be good – and especially if it turns out actually to be gelato – that could be a real addition to town. Their menu also offers a “Grinch hot chocolate” which is a really disconcerting shade of green and something called a “wafflepop”, which I assume is like a normal waffle but hundreds of times more twee.

Other cafés have been far more polished. The Collective has opened just opposite the Griffin and is an altogether more well-realised affair: very Caversham and very chic, with a stripped-back, almost Nordic look. The name is about the only Marxist thing about it: part-café, part lifestyle shop and part grocer, it will be interesting to see whether they manage to do more with that concept than their spiritual predecessor, Siblings Home. The Collective has already been featured in Muddy Stilettos, which probably tells you more about it and the market it is aiming at than I possibly could. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll probably like that sort of thing.

One restaurant, although not new per se, has pursued such a different direction that it might as well be a completely new establishment. The Corn Stores, which underwhelmed me last year as an upmarket steak restaurant, made a dramatic switch this year when it hired Liam Sweeney, previously sous chef at Nottingham’s Michelin-starred Alchemilla. The complete revamp involved moving to a compact, regularly-changing tasting menu, a clear statement of intent that owner Rarebreed Dining was shooting for central Reading’s first Michelin star. The decision to start using sourdough bread from RGBread, the bakery run by Geo Café, was another sign of Sweeney’s ambition. Speaking of the Corn Stores…

The idea is you put the headings between the sections

I did wonder what would happen to restaurant reviewing this year. I’ve taken nine months off, and you all have the withdrawal symptoms to prove it, but Reading’s influencers tend to be younger and braver (and, I would guess, with no underlying health conditions). They’re a lean and hungry bunch. But just as the pandemic has made many of us reassess our values, would it change their views about how they reviewed restaurants and which restaurants to review? The early signs were that it might, with at least one local blogger musing about whether it was right to take free food in the middle of a global crisis, or to support chains.

That didn’t last very long, as a number of comped reviews and enthusiastic Instagram posts have cropped up since then. Movie night at the Last Crumb was just too hard to resist it seems (maybe they were showing Weekend At Bernie’s, in which case who can blame them) as was an opportunity to scoff free grub at the new and improved Corn Stores. Oh well. Times are hard and who can begrudge people the chance to cut down on their weekly expenses: won’t somebody think of the influencers?

Anyway, I can’t bring myself to entirely complain about people getting free meals at the Corn Stores, because it introduced Reading, and the world, to possibly the finest restaurant reviewer writing today in English. I am of course speaking of Hugh Fort: I think we all knew he had talent, but none of us could have predicted just what a towering giant he would become in 2020. My friend Sophie told me last week that she decided to eat at the Corn Stores on the night before the start of the second lockdown entirely on the basis of Fort’s masterful review for Berkshire Live.

“I knew that if Hugh Fort didn’t like it, it was probably the place for me.”

“It’s not that he didn’t like it, more that he just didn’t understand it.”

“Yes, that’s exactly what it was.”

Where to begin? There’s so much to enjoy about the review that I doubt I can do it justice. Someone on Twitter described it as “accidental Partridge”, but it’s so authentically him that I suspect Alan Partridge might instead be an accidental Hugh Fort. Fort wrote incredulously about eating Liam Sweeney’s food in a way that suggested even a Harvester might be a tad fancy for him. And it wasn’t just the food, either. Fort doesn’t drink, and he writes about booze as if he doesn’t understand that either. A sniff of his girlfriend’s cocktail “suggested to me it was the sort of thing that you could drink a lot of without realising it was full of potent liquor, which seems to be the point of cocktails.” Has anyone ever seen him and Viz‘s Mr. Logic in the same place?

But it was when talking about the food that Fort really came into his own: his uncle is Great British Menu judge Matthew Fort, but the apple has fallen a long old way from the tree. I loved the way he put mocktails and palate cleanser in inverted commas, as if to say “this is what the kids are calling them, apparently”. Fresh oysters and Reading town centre were apparently “two terms that aren’t exactly associated with each other” – why am I not surprised that Fort had never heard of London Street Brasserie? – but Fort gamely gave them a bash, before “wolfing down” “a couple of tasty potato croquettes”.

The Corn Stores put a picture of that dish up on Instagram a week or so later, patiently explaining that they were in fact pig’s head croquettes, no doubt involving painstaking cooking and assembly. But never mind that, because they clearly didn’t touch the sides for our roving gourmand (perhaps he didn’t even chew). That Fort couldn’t tell the difference between dense shreds of perfectly-cooked pig and, err, mashed potato might be my single favourite thing about him.

The most quoted section was Fort’s baffled encounter with duck liver parfait and brioche. “The idea is you put the parfait on the brioche” he explained, possibly more to himself than the rest of us. I’d like to imagine that an earlier version of the review also contained a paragraph reading “the idea is that you cut the food into smaller pieces using the knife and fork provided, before placing it in your mouth, chewing it with your molars and swallowing in order to allow the process of digestion to take place”. But of course that would mean some editing or proofreading had taken place, and this is Berkshire Live we’re talking about.

And what did Fort make of it? “I quite liked it… I think someone more generally into parfaits would really enjoy it.” “Fine dining anywhere often takes you out of your comfort zone” he added, although Fort’s comfort zone might well begin and end at Gregg’s, or one of those Rustler microwaveable burgers. You know, really fancy shit.

I think it was the Guardian‘s John Crace, or it might have been the Independent‘s Tom Peck, who said that 2020 was the year that satire died. You no longer have to come up with anything yourself, you just have to become a stenographer because the stuff virtually writes itself. So much as I could carry on dissecting Fort’s erudition, I suspect nothing I could say will top the experience of reading it in its entirety.

I’ll leave you to enjoy the rest, including his shock at eating a steak without chips and his girlfriend’s exciting main course, apparently “duck with Aylesbury duck”. That part reminded me of another blinding passage I read in a restaurant review this year, which said “the fish had light and crispy batter which was dusted underneath with Indian spices from the Indian spices. This gave it a subtle spicy flavour, but nothing too spicy”: somebody probably needs to ask Santa for a thesaurus this year.

Some artists create one perfect piece of work and then walk away, knowing they will never top it. I fear Hugh Fort may be such an auteur: I keep looking, but there is no sequel. I’ve read his blistering piece about “the new Hena spice ketchup everybody’s been talking about” (spoiler alert: I don’t know anybody who’s even heard of it) but it’s just not the same.

In it, Fort reviews a curry sauce which, it turns out, you can’t buy in supermarkets in Reading to see if it’s as good as McDonald’s curry sauce which, of course, you can’t buy in supermarkets in Reading. To cut a long story short, Fort thought the one you can’t buy in Home Bargains was slightly nicer but that neither of them was as good as ketchup – and he used the phrase “to be honest” twice, so you know it’s the real deal. Let’s hope 2021 brings more restaurant reviews from Fort: even the fact that the food was free does nothing to tarnish his brilliance.

In with the new (continued)

Sadly we don’t know what Hugh Fort would make of the other new restaurants to open in Reading this year (just imagine, though), and our influencers haven’t bothered with them yet, presumably because they haven’t been offered the chance to do so for nothing.

Quite a few of them, though, are starting to build some good word of mouth reports. A prime example is Banarasi Kitchen, an Indian restaurant trading out of the Spread Eagle pub on Norfolk Road, between the Oxford and Tilehurst Roads. A friend tells me she has gone there pretty regularly this year and has given it rave reviews, and it coincides with the Spread Eagle starting to make a bit of effort on Instagram: I shall be making my way there to check it out at some point in 2021.

Another pub with a chequered relationship with food is the Fisherman’s Cottage, down by the Kennet on the edge of New Town. It’s most famous for having played host to the superb and badly-missed I Love Paella – they left in acrimonious circumstances in summer 2018 and this summer the old management left the pub. It has now reopened under chef and restaurateur Cigdem Muren Atkins, who was born in Turkey and has run hospitality businesses in the Dominican Republic and Bodrum before pitching up at the Fisherman’s Cottage.

It has real potential – the pub can be a lovely spot, especially in summer – but time will tell whether Muren Atkins can keep enough craft beer available to keep the previous clientele happy while working on a food offering to win over diners. Her current menu feels quite generic, with a mixture of curries, stir fries and standard pub fare (yes, burgers). Personally I’d like to see a few more Turkish dishes on the menu – Reading has never quite anywhere that captures how beautiful that cuisine can be, and you need to head to Zigana’s Turkish Kitchen in Didcot for that.

Or it may be that La’De Kitchen, which opened this year in Woodley, will save me from the questionable pleasures of a train trip to Didcot. Although the blurb describes it as a Mediterranean restaurant the menu on their rather glossy website has loads of Turkish dishes on it – borek, pide, guvec and of course a myriad of kebabs. It turns out that this is La’De’s third branch, the slightly incongruous final part of an unlikely threesome: Muswell Hill, Pangbourne, Woodley. I have several readers who have thoroughly enjoyed takeaway from the Pangbourne branch, despite the slightly sharp pricing, so I shall look forward to trying it for myself.

And you don’t need to head out to Woodley to try a plethora of grilled meats: Tasty Greek Souvlaki opened on Market Place in May, in the old Mum Mum site. Again, I’ve heard plenty of good reports of their food (albeit with one or two detractors) with the giros particularly worth trying, by all accounts. I was on the verge of heading there for an al fresco lunch on one of the last warm weekdays of the year – and writing it up for the blog – when we went into a second lockdown, so it just wasn’t meant to be. Hopefully it will still be trading next year when I return to reviewing in earnest.

A new establishment to file under “hmm” is one of the victims, along with HRVY off of Strictly Come Dancing, of the Great Vowel Shortage Of 2020. MNKY Lounge – whose name somehow fails to combine the glamour of Donna Karan New York and the prosaic quality of Alto Lounge – has opened on Erleigh Road where the Fruitbat Bar (and more recently vegan café bar Vego’s) used to ply its trade.

Will this fare any better? I’m not sure. Every time I’ve went past over the summer the tables outside were packed with people drinking but life in Tiers 2, 3 and 4 (let alone the Tier 14 we’ll probably be in by mid-January) may be a different matter. I went on to Just Eat to scout out their menu (their website – yes, it’s another one of those – simply announces that it’s “coming soon”) and I didn’t see anything that looked like it couldn’t have fallen off the back of a Brakes lorry.

Before taking my leave of you, it’s worth reminding you that there are always, always new cafés and restaurants in the pipeline. Nothing ever stands still. So in the New Year we can expect to see Chaiiwala, sometimes apparently described as “the Indian Starbucks” opening on the Wokingham Road just up from I Can’t Believe It’s Not The Garden Of Gulab Gulab Indian Kitchen. Mansoor, my man in the know who introduced me to Cake&Cream and its magic samosas, tells me that Chaiiwala is worth a visit for its karak chai and its chicken kebab rolls: that is recommendation enough for me.

We’ll also see Flavour Of Mauritius opening in the Standard Tandoori’s current location on Caversham Road. Currently a mobile caterer, Flavour Of Mauritius hit the news over the summer when, like a number of other local businesses, they chose to donate free meals to NHS staff, the emergency services and charities helping those in need. I’ve heard positive noises from ER readers who have ordered takeaway from Flavour Of Mauritius in lockdown, so fingers crossed they will revitalise the site and bring something new to Reading’s restaurant scene.

Oh, and Wendy’s is allegedly opening on Friar Street: place your bets on whether we’ll see any enthusiastic Instagram posts about square burgers, the word AD squirrelled away at the very end. And that reminds me that Tortilla has opened on Broad Street, near the Oracle entrance – I should have remembered earlier, but somehow it feels hard to care.

And another Turkish restaurant opened down the Oxford Road in between me starting to write this round-up and hitting the publish button. We also may or may not get a branch of LEON, just like we were meant to get branches of Byron and Busaba a few years ago. If this year has taught you anything, it’s that nothing can be guaranteed to go completely according to plan.

Anyway, that completes the first section of my round-up of 2020. Come back next week for Part Two, when we’ll see if I can sum up how Reading’s restaurants have survived the year without using the word “pivot”. Maybe we can turn it into a drinking game.

Feature: Less than a tenner

Is it me, or did New Year used to be a bit less, well, preachy? Nowadays we’re bombarded with things you ought to do – eat vegan food for a month, or quit drinking, or drink lots of local beer to compensate for everybody who’s quitting drinking. It’s a hard enough month at the best of times – back at work, no longer allowed to eat chocolate whenever you like. Depressed by the scales, depressed by the sales not selling anything you fancy, and it’s so bloody dark all the time. The last thing anybody needs in January, if you ask me, is a sermon.

So I’m not going to do a feature about vegan food in Reading, or where you should go to try beers from our many excellent local breweries, or which tap room is the best. Instead, this piece covers the one truly universal thing about January whoever you are: it’s a long time since the last pay day, a long time until the next and everybody is on a budget. So this feature is about the best food you can get in Reading for not much money, something I hope we can all get behind.

I’ve tried to limit this to genuine stand-alone items. Obviously I could have included plenty of starters, but nobody turns up to a restaurant, orders a starter and leaves. So, ideally, every item on this list could be eaten on its own as the feature attraction, and every one costs less than ten pounds. That does tend to push it more in the direction of lunch than dinner, but there are still at least half a dozen items on this list that you could happily eat for an early evening meal.

Having already decided which dishes I’d include I posed the question on Facebook and got a raft of answers which reminded me just how much good food in Reading didn’t quite make the cut for me. I was sad not to be able to make room for anything from Blue Collar’s Peru Sabor, for anything from Perry’s, Franco Manca, Kings Grill, Bakery House or Sapana Home. That so many good places are excluded, I hope, shows how tricky making this selection was.

Anyway, I hope this comes in handy – all of them have been extensively road-tested by me, and all come highly recommended. Happy budgeting, and good luck if you are forgoing meat, booze or indeed anything else this month. Rather you than me!

1. Chilli beef nachos, the Lyndhurst

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first: no surprises here, especially after I awarded it Starter Of The Year in my end of year awards. But, as I said then, it’s substantial enough to eat in its own right, or to snack on with drinks. Anyway, I’ve said quite enough about these nachos lately, so instead I’ll quote my occasional dining companion Martin: after he had them for the first time last month he said “All I can say is now I realise everyone else is doing chilli wrong. And doing nachos wrong too. Fantastic dish!” And he knows what he’s talking about, because he’s the poor sod who had to endure the unique gastronomic experience of the doner meat nachos at German Doner Kebab. I’ll save you the effort of scrolling down: they don’t feature later on in this list. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG)

2. Jerk chicken, rice and peas, Sharian’s Cuisine

I’ve never been a fan of CHOW, the Friday street food market run in conjunction with Reading’s shadowy Business Improvement District. I’ve always thought it was a shame the market isn’t run by the better, more imaginative, more Reading Blue Collar Food who operate on Wednesdays in the same location. But what CHOW does have – which always generates huge queues – is Sharian’s Cuisine, and their jerk chicken, rice and peas is a thing of wonder. The chicken is spiced, charred and smoky, you get tons of it and they tell you, ever so nicely, that you’re being a wuss if you opt for the milder of the two hot sauces on offer. The weather isn’t quite conducive to eating it al fresco right now, but just you wait. (Market Place, RG1 2DE, Friday lunchtimes only)

3. Chilli paneer, Bhel Puri House

One of Reading’s iconic dishes, and one I’ve been raving about for the best part of six years. Caramelised cubes of paneer, crunchy peppers and spring onion and powerful green chillies lurking in there if you feel especially brave. I went through a phase of cheating on the chilli paneer with the saucier, stickier paneer Manchurian, I even went through a particularly depraved phase of ordering both of them at once. I dallied with the vada pav, too, but I always go back to the chilli paneer. It never lets you down. (Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF)

4. Ajika chicken wrap, Geo Cafe

There are many contenders for Reading’s finest sandwich: more than a few of them feature in this list. But, for my money, Geo Café’s chicken wrap is arguably the best. Georgian food tastes like nothing else you’ve ever eaten, and Georgian flavours transform this dish completely. The combination of fiery spice from the ajika and the pungency of baje (a Georgian sauce made from walnuts) is both otherworldly and habit-forming.

Chicken features quite heavily in this list, but this – made with free-range corn-fed chicken thighs from Vicar’s – is stupendous stuff. A wrap will set you back six pounds. Many would argue that Geo Café’s khachapuri, flat soda bread stuffed with an ingenious blend of three cheeses, should be in this list too, to which I can only say that making these decisions is harder than you might think. (10 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG, daytime only)

5. Curry night, The Lyndhurst

The Lyndhurst make this list twice because this is simply too good, in terms of quality and value, not to include in its own right. Every Thursday they offer a choice of three different curries, rice and a naan bread and a pint for nine pounds and ninety-nine pence (as you can see, when I went they threw in an onion bhaji in for good measure). The curries are all interesting and miles from kormas and bhunas, with dishes from Mangalore, Goa, Kerala and Sri Lanka, among others. I loved my visit last year, and it won’t be long before I’m back there – so much better than spending a similar Thursday in Wetherspoons making the tills ring and the microwave ping. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG, Thursday evenings only)

6. Tuna Turner, Shed

Another entry which will surprise nobody, and another dish which will probably make the cut if Reading Museum ever does an exhibition on iconic Reading food, the Tuna Turner is a truly legendary toasted sandwich and one of the very best things you can eat of a lunchtime. Superior tuna mayo, sweet slivers of red onion, plenty of cheese and jalapeños – very much the secret weapon – all conspire to be so much more than the sum of their parts. I think it’s something about the way the cheese melts, somehow seeps through the gaps in the sourdough and then forms a beautiful, glistening, caramelised crust.

If you’re there on a Friday lunchtime, and Shed is doing the Saucy Friday with scotch bonnet chilli chicken, rice and peas, macaroni cheese and coleslaw that dish, also far less than a tenner, runs the Tuna Turner pretty close. (8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT, daytime only)

7. Lamb kothey momo, Namaste Momo

Namaste Momo is in a funny little spot on the border between Woodley and Earley, an area not blessed with its restaurants. Only one bus really runs that way from the town centre, and after a certain time it only ventures out once an hour. But, for all that faff, I highly recommend a pilgrimage there because their momo are worth it.

They are made by hand and in all their forms – in a hot, thickened chilli sauce, steamed or deep fried – they justify the journey. For me, it’s when you pan fry momo that you get that bang-on midpoint of taste and texture, the contrast of char and chew and the gorgeous filling inside. Speaking of fillings, the minced, spiced, seasoned lamb is my favourite – if it was served as a slider you could sell out any hipster gaff in the town centre. But we all know better than hipsters, don’t we, and these momo are perfect just the way they are. (392 London Road, RG6 1BA)

8. Scrambled eggs, Fidget & Bob

I’ve had some truly terrible scrambled eggs in my time. I once stayed over with a then-friend in Chichester and she microwaved eggs into grey pellets – I gamely ate the lot, because I didn’t want to seem rude, but really it could have been polystyrene and I might have had a better meal. I’ve tried to learn to make them myself, with guidance from the sainted Delia, and they come out okay but not great. The truth is that Fidget & Bob have ruined me for all other scrambled eggs. For five pounds you get three golden-yolked Beechwood Farm eggs, scrambled with probably more butter than I’m comfortable knowing about (that’s the great thing about eating in restaurants: ignorance is bliss) and certainly with more skill than I can manage.

They come with plenty of buttered seeded toast although extras – hash browns, nicely crispy back bacon, that legendary slab of sausagemeat loaf – are all available. They shouldn’t push the price over a tenner unless you’re really going loco, either due to gluttony or a hangover. Another great way to spend less than ten pounds in Fidget & Bob, every Tuesday night, is to go for their quite wonderful char siu pork. (The Piazza, Whale Avenue, RG2 0GX, Tuesday to Sunday)

9. Sweet chilli chicken, Kokoro

One of my very favourite things to eat for an early solo dinner or a particularly indulgent lunch, Kokoro’s chilli chicken is a crunchy, sticky, fiery, garlic-studded tub of one hundred per cent fun. A regular sized portion is pretty big and a large portion (which costs a princely additional pound) is absolutely gigantic: both come in comfortably below the ten pound mark.

The quality varies – some batches make your eyes water and your nose run, some are milder. Sometimes you get smaller, crunchier bits of chicken, sometimes they are huge, plump things (but always with that wonderful coating). But even on a relatively bad day, Kokoro’s chilli chicken is a miraculous thing. It comes with rice or noodles – I’ve always found the noodles a bit too much like hard work, but your mileage may vary. Writing this has made me seriously consider having it for lunch today, which I suppose is almost as bad as laughing at your own jokes. (29 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY)

10. Challoumi wrap, Purée/Leymoun

To do the confusing bit first: for reasons I don’t completely understand, sometimes Sam Adaci runs a street food van called Purée, sometimes it’s called Leymoun. Purée operates out of a distinctive green van, Leymoun is more nondescript. I don’t know the rhyme or reason of why there are two different names and two different vans. He is at Blue Collar in the market square every Wednesday and CHOW in the same place on Fridays, and sometimes you can find the Purée van parked on Broad Street at other times. But if you’re ever near either van at lunchtime, join the queue and order a challoumi wrap. They cost six pounds, they are absolutely crammed with wonderful stuff and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

The chicken is spiced and cooked on the griddle before being finely chopped, and the halloumi is salty but not too squeaky (for a while Sam was having his own Brexit-proof halloumi specially made in London: not sure if he still does). Add the pickles, and the chilli sauce, and the garlic sauce and you have an overstuffed messy marvel of a sandwich where every mouthful gives you something ever so slightly different and you always want there to be another mouthful. “Purée/Leymoun” is also a bit of a mouthful, come to think of it, but it remains a must-eat at lunchtime, even if the van can be a tad elusive. They also do freshly-made falafel which are a beautiful meat free alternative. (Market Place, RG1 2EQ, Wednesday and Friday lunchtimes only. Also on Broad Street: times vary)

11. Com chien, Pho

I quite like Pho, even if I’ve never managed to learn to love the eponymous dish: soup plus noodles just isn’t for me. This means I’ve never developed the fervour for it that other restaurant bloggers seem to manage. But they do have an absolute ace up their sleeve in the form of their com chien, a generous fried rice dish with shreds of chicken, chewy little savoury dried shrimp and many, many flecks of chilli. This dish, sort of a Vietnamese nasi goreng, is wonderful for blowing away cobwebs. You can tell it’s hot because when you order it, the staff invariably ask if you’ve had it before – with the same trepidation barbers used to show when they asked if I really wanted a grade two all over. You can top it with an optional fried egg, but I like it just fine as it is. (1 King’s Road, King Street, RG1 2HG)

12. Samosas, Cake & Cream

I was tipped off by Mansoor, a regular reader, about this place that sold the best samosas in Reading. It is called Cake & Cream, and it’s off the Wokingham Road, just after the row of shops and before the Three Tuns. Their main thing is big, impressive-looking cakes, but they also have a little whiteboard near the front detailing the savoury stuff they sell. Samosas are about 75 pence each, and they also sell pakora, paneer pakora and bhajis by weight, almost like a savoury sweetshop.

The samosas really are everything Mansoor promised they would be: full of a rich and surprisingly spicy potato masala, the pastry spot on and the whole thing piping hot and utterly addictive. They come with a sauce which is tangy, sweet and hot in equal measures, although they’re just as magnificent without it. The service is very friendly and the chap always seems thoroughly surprised to see me – oh, and the pakora are also tremendous. There are tables at Cakes & Cream, and I’m sure some people eat there, but I always take my bag and scarper onto the first 17 bus I can find, counting the minutes until I can tuck in back at home. You get jealous looks from your fellow passengers, although that might just be my imagination. (11-13 St Peters Road, RG6 1NT)

Feature: The 2019 Edible Reading Awards

Can you believe it’s that time of year again? Hopefully by now you’ve bought all your Christmas presents (even if, like me, you’ve not necessarily wrapped them yet). Hopefully you’ve sent and received all your cards – if you still do that sort of thing – and reflected on the new names on the list and the people you’ve finally pruned. You’ve probably had your work do, and been out with your friends. You may even be on roast dinner number four or five by now. We all have our festive traditions and one of mine, for the last five years, has been sitting down and writing this, my end of term report on Reading’s restaurant scene. Was it an “exceeds expectations” or a “must try harder”? Hmm. Let’s find out.

I initially thought it had been a quiet year for restaurants in this town but actually, on reflection, there has been a fair bit of movement. No big-name openings like 2018 – no Lido, no Clay’s, no Corn Stores – but instead a steady succession of new places vying to capture your spend and your affection. So 2019 was the year when we said hello to Argentine steakhouse Buenasado and Greek white elephant Lemoni in the Oracle, the Pantry in the Town Hall, Vegivores and the Last Crumb out in Caversham and countless other new kids on the block.

Some existing restaurateurs moved to new premises: Tutu shifted her Ethiopian Table from the Global Café to Palmer Park, and Kamal (of Namaste Kitchen) finally opened new restaurant Namaste Momo on the edge of Earley. And there’s always a new restaurant just around the corner – the first of 2020 may well be Osaka, the new Japanese restaurant due to set up shop in the old Café Rouge site, but I doubt it will be the last. We’re also allegedly getting a Taco Bell, presumably to compensate us in some Newtonian sense, for the forthcoming closure of bigoted poultry purveyor Chick-Fil-A.

Not that we haven’t had enough restaurants close this year. The saddest, for me, was Tuscany, the fantastic independent pizzeria down the Oxford Road. I was also disappointed that Vibes, the Caribbean restaurant on Queens Walk, closed before I paid it a visit. We also lost two Reading institutions in the form of China Palace and Beijing Noodle House – although, to be euphemistic, both had seen better days.

Town centre Vietnamese restaurant Mum Mum and Alona, serving Lebanese food down the Wokingham Road, also closed their doors for the final time. Neither got to celebrate their first birthday. Nor did Bench Rest, which stopped serving in the Tasting House after less than a year: Reading’s original nomad moved on again, and is apparently leaving the country next year.

In terms of reviewing, it’s been a year of highs and lows. I experienced the worst nachos in the world, activated charcoal-flavoured ick, food that came all at once, John Lewis tablemats, albino carbonara and comically laissez faire service. But I’ve also had astonishing sausage rolls, eye-opening pasta, the warmest of welcomes and seen familiar faces in new places. Every now and then I’d have a run of meals so bad, or so bla, that I started to feel discouraged, but the next superb meal was never too far away. Trips abroad made sure I never fell out of love with eating out, especially one holiday where the food just blew me away.

It’s been a fantastic year in terms of the blog – a record-breaking one, with more visitors than ever before. As always, I’m incredibly grateful to all of you who read, like, comment, Retweet, share or just lurk, whether you do so smiling, laughing, tutting or grimacing. I’m grateful to everybody who’s come out on duty with me this year – friends, readers, my terrific family and of course Zoë, my partner in crime and regular dining companion. And I’m also grateful to everybody who has come to one of the five readers’ events I’ve run this year – all at some of Reading’s finest independent restaurants, each of them offering a special one-off menu. I’m not sure 2019 will be topped, but of course I’ll try my best to next year.

With all that said, it just remains for me to hand out the gongs in this, the 2019 Edible Reading Awards. It’s been harder than ever to reduce the long list to a short list, let alone pick the winners, and any of the honourable mentions this year could easily have taken top spot instead of the eventual winners. We’re lucky to live in a town that makes these decisions so difficult, so if you disagree with any or all of the winners I can hardly blame you: on another day, I might have disagreed too. Anyway, that’s quite enough preamble: let’s announce some winners, and you can tell me what I got wrong in the comments.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Chilli nachos, The Lyndhurst

It was pretty much love at first sight when I ordered the Lyndhurst’s chilli nachos for the first time, and none of my subsequent encounters have dimmed my ardour. A wonderful chilli made with slow-cooked, shredded beef (a chilli which doesn’t appear elsewhere on the menu in the mains section), robust hand-made tortilla chips, a healthy helping of well-made guacamole and some cream cheese, a lettuce leaf if you want to pretend to be a better person than you actually are. A perfect starter to share, or to snaffle on your own, or a dish to eat with a few pints just for the sake of it, because it’s so perfect. I’m a huge fan, and I live in constant fear that they’ll either take it off the menu or price it slightly less generously (seven pounds twenty-five pence, would you believe it). Superb stuff.

I know that not picking a starter from Clay’s will be controversial here – one Twitter follower suggested I should have a separate award for the best Clay’s starter (and that too would be an incredibly tough one to call). Clay’s does deserve an honourable mention though for their cut mirchi chaat – a sort of stuffed and battered chilli dish that is difficult to describe and even more difficult to resist (yes, I know: but what about the chicken 65, the kodi chips, the squid pakora, the duck spring rolls, and basically all the other starters. Enough already). Another honourable mention goes to Zest for their triple-cooked pork belly with XO sauce, a dish I’ve thought about on pretty much a daily basis since I had it at the start of the month.

CHAIN OF THE YEAR: Honest Burger

Chains are all about consistency, and in my experience Honest has gone from strength to strength this year, becoming the place to go if you want a quick, enjoyable, reliably superb meal. It helps that they’ve swapped out their local special – the indifferent jerk chicken burger has given way to a gorgeous new option with Waterloo cheese and bearnaise butter – but it’s just that they never put a foot wrong. My stepfather is so impressed with their vegan burger that he picks it over a conventional beefburger, some of the specials this year have been absolutely knockout (especially when they involve fried chicken) but really, it’s just that it’s regularly, unspectacularly excellent. Reading still has far too many burger joints, and I wouldn’t shed a tear if the rest closed down. But Honest is another matter altogether.

The two runners-up in this category also deliver the kind of consistency and comfort you want from a visit to a chain restaurant. Pho continues to offer an excellent range of dishes (I don’t think I’ll ever really see the appeal of the eponymous dish itself, but I’m evangelical about their com chien) and Kokoro has done me a turn on many an early evening when I can’t be bothered to cook and on a few hungover Sunday lunchtimes. Their sweet chilli chicken is a particular favourite of mine, although I know the katsu curry also has its fans.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob

Yes, on this occasion lunch probably means brunch and yes, Fidget & Bob is out of town which means that for most people it’s a weekend lunch option. But nevertheless, most of my happiest lunches this year have been at Fidget & Bob and they invariably involve a variant of their phenomenal brunch menu which they serve all day. You can have a breakfast wrap, or the “hangover” (a sausage, bacon and egg sandwich) but I always seem to go for their golden, gorgeous scrambled eggs, served with crispy back bacon and a slice of their sausage loaf. Other dishes – sandwiches, panini and their home-made noodle pots – are available, but the trick is to save room for cake. I am hooked on the kouign amann – hopelessly indulgent Breton pastries made with plenty of salted butter (they missed a trick not calling them “Breton butter pudding”) but the salted caramel brownies are also phenomenal.

Picking a winner in this category wasn’t easy, limiting the runners-up to just two was equally difficult. An honourable mention goes to Caversham’s Geo Café which has spent 2019 completing its transformation from Nomad Bakery and, along with a beautiful array of cakes, still serves one of Reading’s finest sandwiches in the form of the ajika-spiced corn-fed chicken wrap. Also highly commended is Shed – which is every bit as good as ever and continues to serve Reading’s best golden, cheese-laden, comforting toasties.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Lamb with cumin, Kungfu Kitchen

In a year of wonderful main courses – far too many to list here – KFK’s lamb with cumin was the one I kept coming back to. I had it on my second ever visit, and it’s been a struggle not to order it every time since. The lamb – sliced wafer-thin, as it is for the hot pot – is so deep and rich. It tastes properly of lamb – which might sound like a silly thing to say, but somehow lamb is so often a pale copy of how it ought to taste. “This is how kebabs should be” said my other half the first time she tasted this dish, and I can understand what she meant. The whole thing, flecked with sesame seeds and tumbled with onion and coriander, stalks and all, is the kind of intensely savoury dish you daydream about long after you have eked out one final mouthful. KFK does so many excellent dishes but, in the lamb with cumin, it has one unforgettable one.

It is a tribute to how strong a field it is that many of the dishes on my long list could easily have won this award: Fidget & Bob’s char siu pork, for instance, or Namaste Momo’s spellbinding lamb kothey momo. But there’s only room for two runners-up. First, the chinta chiguru from Clay’s – terrific, tender chicken thigh in a striking, sharply elegant tamarind sauce (very much the unsung hero of the Clay’s menu, in my book). And secondly, Bakery House’s boneless baby chicken with vegetable rice and beautifully dressed salad, possibly Reading’s most complete main course.

OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Mio Fiore, Newbury

I so loved my visit to Mio Fiore this year, and I’m long overdue a return trip. There was just something magical about it – so unprepossessing and yet getting everything right, serving dishes that are so often unspecial in chain Italians and reminding you just how superb they can be in the right hands. It came around the same time as I had a brilliant holiday in Bologna and a bloody horrendous meal in Cozze, and the fact that the standard was so much closer to the former than the latter put a huge smile on my face. If you go, the spaghetti puttanesca (pictured above) is pretty damn close to perfection.

Honourable mentions have to go to Goring’s Miller Of Mansfield, a special occasion restaurant which will leave you wanting to invent more special occasions, and Oxford’s Pompette, a truly spectacular French neighbourhood restaurant which I’d dearly love to pick up and drop somewhere in Reading. In fact, since I can’t do that, I’m literally lunching there again today.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob

I stopped giving an award out for Tweeter of the year this year, because Fidget & Bob won it every year. They may as well keep the trophy. But this year, eating there more often, I discovered that how they were on Twitter probably came so naturally to them because it was just an extension of how they were in real life. Their welcome is always warm but perfectly-judged, not faux-matey, never too much. They seem to know literally everybody who eats in their little café – who they are, what they like, how they’ve been, the comings and goings of their lives. I suppose it must be easier to do when you run a small venue and there are only a couple of you, but that doesn’t stop it being extremely impressive – or bloody hard work, however easy Shu and Breege make it look.

An honourable mention has to go to Mio Fiore, who also have that perfect balance spot on in a far bigger venue, and I also have to single out the inimitable Jo at Kungfu Kitchen. Her service is a constant joy to me – the conversation, the recommendations, the gossip, the way she always seems delighted that you’ve come back. There’s no welcome quite like it in Reading, and once you’ve tried it you’ll know exactly what I mean.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Chocolate custard with sesame tuille, The Miller Of Mansfield

So beautiful, so elegant and so delicious: the Miller’s chocolate custard is a smooth, glossy thing somewhere between the texture of a ganache and a mousse. It looks almost as beautiful as it tastes, with a salted sesame tuille on top perfect to break into little shards, the whole thing artfully dotted with microherbs and little dabs of vivid orange. It was by far the best dessert I’ve had this year: when I went on duty I shared it with my dining companion, but when I managed to engineer a return visit a few weeks later I made sure I got one all to myself.

Honourable mentions go to Zest’s excellent white chocolate and Bailey’s cheesecake – a big old slab of heaven – and the timeless simplicity of Mio Fiore’s tiramisu.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: The Lyndhurst

I was very sad when the Lyndhurst closed in June, the landlord went off to pastures new and at least one of the chefs moved on to the Fisherman’s Cottage. And I had my doubts when it reopened the following month – there was a hesitancy about the whole thing, and on the opening night the team seemed more than a little fazed about what they had taken on.

Well, over the months that followed they have, if anything, surpassed their predecessors with an interesting and exciting menu which constantly changes. I tried a beautiful dish of oxtail there, rich shreds of meat wrapped up in the embrace of a cabbage leaf. Weeks later, it had vanished from the menu like a mirage, never to return. The picture above is of a stunning rabbit dish – stuffed with chicken liver, wrapped in prosciutto, a dish which kept popping back into my mind at random moments, normally when I was eating something nowhere near as good. I think they served that dish for less than a week, and I haven’t seen it on the menu since.

One staple, though, is the curry night on Thursdays – a choice of three curries, all miles from the generic stuff, with rice, a bhaji, a pint and a naan, all for a tenner. The ever-present katsu chicken burger is always worth ordering, too, with some of Reading’s best chips – and then there’s the small matter of their chilli nachos, as I’ve already said.

The tables have got busier, the “reserved” signs more frequent, and I for one am delighted to see them doing so well. And the hesitancy hasn’t exactly vanished: it’s more that it’s morphed into a really charming humility. They don’t ever sing their own praises, which is even more reason why it’s my pleasure to do it for them by awarding them my Newcomer Of The Year award.

Some people would have expected Kungfu Kitchen to win this award, but they opened in October last year so aren’t eligible (and, personally, I was delighted to dodge another incredibly hard decision). I do, however, have to mention the two runners-up in this category. Buenasado really surprised me when I visited it on duty – I had low expectations of a small restaurant popping up in the Oracle in the site vacated by CAU, but they did a really creditable job (and their lunchtime steak frites offer is not to be sniffed at, either). An honourable mention also goes to Namaste Momo, the new outpost from Kamal, the man behind Namaste Kitchen. It’s a little out of the way, and the execution of the menu is still slightly uneven, but the hand-made momo are literally worth the price of admission alone: not only that, but Kamal will absolutely charm the socks off you.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Kungfu Kitchen

This was absolutely the hardest decision of all. Just think, for a second, about how lucky we are to live here. Here are some of the restaurants that didn’t even make my shortlist: Fidget & Bob; Pepe Sale; Geo Café; The Lyndhurst; Namaste Momo.

And then look at my runners-up. Bakery House is a superb, consistent, brilliantly run Reading institution where you can take pretty much anyone you know and guarantee that you’ll have a superb meal. You can go with vegetarians and go crazy with the mezze, or take your carnivorous friends and rejoice in the chicken livers, the little spiced sausages, the shawarma and the chicken fresh from the grill. I can’t remember them ever disappointing me.

And then there’s Clay’s. How could I not give the award to Clay’s, you might quite reasonably ask? If anything, their second year has been stronger than their first: look at all that game on their menu at the start of 2019, the quail, the rabbit and the pheasant. And then, just when you think their food couldn’t get any better, they pivoted again: amazing baby squid, like some hybrid of Hyderabad and Andalusia, a crab fry dish which has left so many diners speechless. They’ve even got me to eat baby corn, something I’d previously thought was impossible. I know full well that not picking them as 2019’s winners will leave many of you questioning my judgment this year (and possibly next).

But this is a decision made with the heart, not the head, and Kungfu Kitchen has been my restaurant of this year. From the very first visit I was wondering when I could go back, and on every visit I’ve faced that agonising tug of war between ordering a dish I know and love or venturing deeper into the menu. It never feels too much like a leap into the unknown, largely because of the magnificent Jo who always acts as a sherpa, taking you just far enough out of your comfort zone without ever leaving you high and dry (with possibly one exception: she once made me order a boiled beef and chilli oil dish which was a challenge, more a dish you survive than finish). She is a force of nature, and a huge part of what makes Kungfu Kitchen so enjoyable and so welcoming.

The food really is marvellous – whether it’s the fried fish in spicy hot pot, the sweet and aromatic wonder of the fish fragrant pork, the piquant kung pao chicken, the glorious pork belly, boiled, sliced super thin and then stir fried with Chinese mushrooms and plenty of heat, the salt and pepper tofu – yes, tofu – or one of my very favourites, the Xinjiang-style shredded chicken which almost literally takes your breath away with the heat before gradually releasing its grip on your larynx. That makes it sound awful but honestly, it’s exhilarating.

The conventional wisdom is to go to a place like Kungfu Kitchen in a big group so you can try more dishes, and that’s partly true. I’ve been at a birthday party there where they effortlessly served about twenty people, they did a bang-up job (complete with karaoke!) at one of my readers’ lunches earlier in the year. But I’ve also been here with smaller groups of friends, on quiet nights with my other half and, on occasion when I’m at a loose end, I’ll walk up the hill on my own and order just the one dish – such a hardship – and a beer and have dinner for one watching the toing and froing, the bustle and the banter. The welcome is never less than perfect, and the food is never less than gorgeous. It truly is a happy place.

It’s been a real joy to watch Kungfu Kitchen spreading its wings on social media, and to see so many ER readers go there and fall in love with the place, as I did. And so it seems appropriate to end 2019 by giving them this award and by wishing them – and all my winners and runners-up, and just as importantly all of you – a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.