The Hero Of Maida, Maida Vale

Despite the name, over six and a half years I’ve reviewed lots of restaurants which aren’t in Reading. To paraphrase David Brent, my world doesn’t end with these four walls. When I’m finished with Reading, there’s Henley, Windsor, Wokingham. You know. Newbury. Goring. Because I am my own boss.

Bracknell.

But I’ve always steered clear of reviewing London restaurants. I suppose part of that is analysis paralysis: how would you even go about picking which restaurants to visit? There are hundreds of London restaurant bloggers (not to mention influencers) swarming around all the hottest new restaurants, all the must-visit openings, so it’s hard to imagine anybody would be interested in my (provincial) opinion. And how useful would it be to my regular readers? You might be in London from time to time, but how likely would you be to go out of your way to try somewhere on my say-so? That’s why I’ve always stayed in my lane, remaining local with the occasional foray further afield on the train.

So what changed? Well, recently one of the restaurant bloggers I read wrote a review of a little Malaysian restaurant just round the corner from Paddington Station. It did what, in an ideal world, all restaurant reviews would do: it made me feel like checking the place out. After all, I’m in London reasonably often, I nearly always come home via Paddington and having decent food options to explore while I wait for an off peak train would be a very welcome development. I Retweeted the review, plenty of people showed an interest and at that point I decided: there would be no harm in adding the occasional review of venues in and around Paddington, to help out if you are in London and want to try out a good restaurant before coming home.

I picked Maida Vale for my first London review because that area has always been one of my favourite parts of the city. You leave Paddington by the exit that takes you right out onto the Grand Union Canal, turn left and meander past all the boats and the offices of Paddington Basin, the fancy gleaming bars and restaurants that have sprung up to cater for all those workers. Cross one of the pretty bridges you come to and you’re in Little Venice, ten minutes’ walk or a single Tube stop from Paddington but a world away in all important respects.

It’s loveliest in summer, but at any time it’s a house envy-inducing stroll. The Warwick Castle, tucked away on a sidestreet, is a lovely mews pub and not far from there is the equally gorgeous Formosa Street with the Prince Alfred, a cracking public house with little booths where you have to duck under a low door to pass from one to the next. If I didn’t have such a magnificent local already, I might well spend my days wishing it was mine.

The Hero Of Maida is just a little further out, on the border between Little Venice and Maida Vale, and in a previous incarnation it used to be called the Truscott Arms. I had a friend who worked in London and I used to go down after work on a Friday afternoon to meet her for a boozy dinner in that neck of the woods. We’d always stop for one last snifter at the Truscott Arms – it closed later than other establishments – before weaving back to the station and drunkenly going our separate ways, me on the Burger King Express back to Reading and her on a terrifying-sounding night bus to Tooting.

I was sad when the Truscott Arms closed but when I heard it had reopened as the Hero Of Maida under the supervision of Henry Harris (of legendary Knightsbridge restaurant Racine) offering a take on classic French cooking, I made a mental note to visit one day. So on a sunny weekday lunchtime my friend John and I paid it a visit, to finally break my London reviewing duck.

It’s a very handsome, light, airy room that instantly draws you in – tasteful muted tones, an attractive wooden floor, gorgeous tiles and a long, curving zinc bar. There’s a separate restaurant area upstairs (open in the evenings but not at lunchtime) but I didn’t feel I was missing out. Lovely tables, too, with button-backed banquettes looking out. It was quiet when we turned up, with a solitary customer plugged in and tapping away on his computer. We sat at the front by the windows, making the most of the afternoon light, although I did wish after a while that we’d grabbed a banquette. On the plus side it means my photographs are better than usual, but the drawback was that poor John was caught in a direct shaft of sun for some of the meal and had to keep shuffling his chair to one side.

The menu changes regularly and on the day we visited it was compact and appealing – just five starters, four mains and a sharing dish (pie for two, an offer I always find hard to refuse). A blackboard behind the bar offered a few other dishes, and although they were listed as bar food they seemed equally restauranty to me. Crucially, one was the same pie in an individual portion: a great relief, because it meant I didn’t have to implore John to change his mind. On another day I would have gone for another special: crispy lamb breast with salsa verde, six almost unimprovable words. “It’s National Pie Week”, our waiter told me, and in the end that made my decision for me.

There was a good selection of beers and we were slightly early for our booking so we started with a pint. My Notting Helles was pleasant enough, if not the most imaginative choice, but John enthused about his pint of Peckham Rye, a very nice-looking amber ale. Later I wished I’d gone for the coffee stout by Magic Rock, but we’d moved on to wine by then. It was a pretty decent wine list too, with plenty available by the carafe, but we settled on a chardonnay from the Languedoc which came in at just over thirty pounds for a bottle. It sounds odd to praise a wine based on all the things it wasn’t, but at the risk of sounding like Goldilocks it somehow seemed appropriate: not too dry, not too sweet, not too oaky, not too expensive. The list said it was a good alternative to a white Burgundy, and I thought that was spot on.

I’d been sorely tempted by the steak tartare, but with a pie on the way I decided to balance light and shade a bit by choosing a more delicate starter. Ibériko tomatoes with burrata felt more a test of sourcing than cooking, but even so I really enjoyed it.

The tomatoes weren’t as good as ones I’d rhapsodised over in Spain but they were close enough, with plenty of freshness and a judicious spot of salt. The burrata felt more like mozzarella to me – completely firm in the middle without any of the glorious creamy messiness of a good burrata – but that struck me rather than irked me. The salsa verde brought it all together, as did some greenery which wasn’t listed and which I didn’t recognise. It had a slightly vinegary bite but I couldn’t place what it was – not samphire, not salty fingers, not (I think) monk’s beard, but a perfect match in any event. Winning enough to overcome a couple of slight missteps: a dish, in many ways, emblematic of the whole meal.

John had chosen grilled mackerel with ‘nduja which, again, is a combination that sat up and begged to be chosen. I thought it looked fantastic, with a generous whack of the fiery, brick-red good stuff. John liked it, but not without reservations.

“I like the skin to be crispy, and this is a bit, well, flaccid. Flaccid is never a good word, is it?”

“No, it’s like damp. ‘Moist’ can be a good thing, but ‘damp’ never is.”

“There’s always ‘wipe down with a damp cloth’, I suppose” said John, equably. “Something else about this dish isn’t quite right. This stuff.”

That’s how we discovered that John, like me, is not a fan of radicchio – although, as a man who gets a vegetable box weekly, he’s very fortunate to only just be figuring that out. I understood though – again, the radicchio wasn’t mentioned on the menu and it did slightly skew the dish. I didn’t get to taste it, but from the look of the plate, also strewn with wild garlic and capers, I think I would have enjoyed it. John did find a few sizeable bones which had escaped the filleting process, though, another glitch that rankled.

John was properly delighted with his main course, though. Guinea fowl came two ways, with a hefty piece of the breast and a gorgeous-looking thigh complete with crispy skin. It was all on top of some silky celeriac puree, along with a big, coarse wedge of smoked Morteau sausage – we Googled it to make sure it was nothing like andouillette – and, apparently, “tropea onion”.

“This is lovely. I’m usually more of a starters man and main courses can feel like a bit of a let-down, so it’s a real pleasure to get such a good main course. And it’s a really big portion of guinea fowl, I wasn’t expecting that.”

I thought that was a good point – this didn’t feel like a little, cheffy plate assembled with tweezers but a proper, hearty dish put together with the diner firmly in mind. Good value at nineteen pounds, too.

My pie was, as so often, more a casserole wearing a hat and the pastry lacked the indulgence of a good suet crust. But underneath, you hit paydirt: a sticky tangle of slow-cooked lamb shoulder and a rich, savoury sauce, punctuated by coarsely chopped garlic and carrot. The greens that came with it were nice enough taken for a swim in the pie filling, but hardly the feature attraction. The whole thing was delicious but it just didn’t feel as much like a proper pie as I’d hoped; it was best described as high-ceilinged, with plenty of breathing space between the filling and the crust.

Many of these niggles were redeemed by the Hero Of Maida’s chips, which were as good as any I’ve had – huge, ragged-edged things, all crunch and fluff. I was initially dubious because they came skin-on, but even that didn’t detract. They were four pounds a portion, and I was relieved that John and I had the foresight (or greed) to order one each. I used mine to absorb every last molecule of the sauce left in my pie dish.

The dessert menu was also compact – just the four options – but we were on a roll and had no intention of letting that stop us. The list of dessert wines was equally streamlined, but we found a Coteaux de L’Aubance on it which was stunning, the colour of late summer afternoons with a clean, poised sweetness. The first sip was one of those little heavenly moments you want to remember for ages: our food so far had been lovely, the only plans for the rest of the day were a bimble from pub to pub talking about all sorts and, in my mind, I was an honorary resident of Maida Vale already.

Desserts were inconsistent in the same way as the starters, but the kitchen had garnered enough brownie points by then to earn some latitude. So for instance, my lemon posset was all out of kilter: far too big, and too cloying without the sharpness it badly needed to cut through. Instead, it felt like a big bowl of something very close to clotted cream and the crumbled amaretti biscuits all over it didn’t do enough to counteract that. It wasn’t what I ordered, or what I really wanted, but on the other hand there are worse things to do in life than eat a large bowl of clotted cream and, when push came to shove, I found I didn’t mind at all.

John’s rhubarb and custard pavlova sounded terrific on paper but again, wasn’t quite there. The rhubarb, John said, was delicious and he really enjoyed the hazelnut praline which played an equally starring role. “But this meringue”, he said, “I hate to say this but it feels shop-bought.” I saw him struggle to break it up and it seemed to be lacking any of the chewiness which would have made the dish perfect. Even so, I looked at his dessert and thought that I would gladly have ordered it myself.

Service, from one chap who seemed to be doing everything that lunchtime, was friendly without being faux-matey, knowledgeable and happy to talk about the dishes and offer recommendations. Again, it might be that if you came to the Hero Of Maida of an evening or on a busy Sunday lunchtime you might have a different experience, but I thought we were really well looked after. Three courses, a couple of pints, a bottle of white wine and two glasses of dessert wine came to just over a hundred and fifty pounds, including that old chestnut the “optional” twelve and a half per cent service charge. You could eat here for less, but I thought it was decent value.

You’ll have read all of this and you’ll already have an idea about whether the Hero Of Maida is the kind of place for you. You might think it’s ever so slightly too far from Paddington or a little too expensive, but I really enjoyed the place. And to save you the effort of questioning my verdict, I’ve already asked myself: was I being charitable because I was having such a nice afternoon? Was I letting the restaurant off the hook when, closer to home, I might have been harsher?

I don’t know. It’s possible. Maybe I was looking at the world through dessert wine-tinted glasses but if so, all I can say is that I thoroughly recommend doing so. Next time you’re in London and you’re on an off-peak ticket you could do a lot worse than booking the Hero Of Maida, especially when summer comes, and crossing the canal to treat yourself to something different before riding the rails back to Gare du ‘Ding. Make sure you get some chips: you’ll thank me for it.

The Hero Of Maida – 7.5
55 Shirland Road, London, W9 2JD
020 39609109

https://theheromaidavale.co.uk

Sen Sushi

I’ve always, I think, been a contrarian at heart. I really don’t like being told what to do. Few things irk me more than people using that Twitter trope “Retweet if you agree” (often I do agree, but I never Retweet). Or when someone tells you to “drop everything and read this”. I used to have a very opinionated friend who was always telling me what I should listen to or read: weekends away at his house in Kent were a bit like being in the musical equivalent of North Korea, being educated in whatever records 6 Music had told him to like that month.

The contrarian in me is why you get a review of Sen Sushi, the little Japanese restaurant at the Three Tuns end of the Wokingham Road, today. I know everybody wants to read a review of Osaka, the gleaming new Japanese restaurant in the Oracle. I completely understand why – the fit out looks superb, the menu has an impressive range and the buzz so far has been good. But something in me thought: what about Sen Sushi? It’s been there a few years, I had it recommended to me recently, and if not now, when would I go? So I hopped on a number 17 bus with my partner in crime Zoë to see if Reading had an undiscovered gem I hadn’t got round to visiting yet.

It’s a little restaurant that can probably seat less than twenty people. The front room has stools up at the window looking out, and a low table complete with tatami where you can sit cross-legged, provided you take your shoes off first. The back room has about half a dozen seats up at the counter where you can watch your sushi and sashimi being prepared. Behind the counter are a fryer and a gas range with four big weathered-looking woks, shiny with oil. That’s where we decided to sit, close to the action, and we had our pick of seats as we were the first customers that evening.

At this point, I pontificated to Zoë about how in many restaurants, being able to see the kitchen up close was considered a positive selling point. However (as we shall see) as the evening went on I started to wonder if it was such a good thing after all.

The menu was pretty big and covered all bases – hot starters, sushi and sashimi, rice and noodle dishes. We decided to try a bit of everything, but started with sushi and sashimi. Our waitress was lovely and polite but giving her our order was an interesting convoluted affair – she then went into the other room, printed off a ticket and came back to put it on the counter for the two chefs doing the cooking and prep. Admittedly, this made more sense when I realised that Sen Sushi also gets a fair amount of takeaway orders which also join the queue.

It really was fascinating watching as one of the chefs flattened the rice on the mat and cut strips of tuna, rolling the whole thing in front of us. Or seeing a beautiful piece of salmon come out of the fridge and be precisely cut into slices with an ultra-sharp Global knife. The wonderful thing about sitting at the counter is that there’s no hiding place in the kitchen: I found myself quite transported by the whole affair, and could have gawped at it for ages. I was possibly more transfixed than Zoë, who by this point was wondering why they hadn’t switched the heater on and was considering wandering over to the coat rack to retrieve her scarf.

The salmon sashimi was easily the nicest thing I ate at Sen Sushi – a really fine piece of salmon, beautifully marbled, soft and buttery. It was better than any sashimi I’ve had in Reading and probably up there with my favourite Japanese restaurants. The spicy tuna maki and avocado maki were fine but no more than that – initially they forgot that the tuna maki were meant to be spicy so they were whisked away and topped with a blob of sauce and a sprinkling of what I think was togarashi. Zoë thought they were a little ragged and lacking in uniformity, I was inclined to be a bit more charitable. Those reserves of goodwill got used up throughout the rest of the meal.

For our second round, we went for chicken gyoza, karaage (Japanese fried chicken) and, just to break up the chicken motif, some soft shell crab maki. The problem with sitting at the counter is that there’s no hiding place in the kitchen, so we saw a chef retrieve a tupperware container full of dumplings and another full of chicken nuggets – I thought it was from the fridge, Zoë reckoned the freezer – and put them in the fryer. Only the soft shell crab was done there and then, battered and then put in the fryer.

All three dishes were moved between the two fryers at what felt like random intervals, so I’m not sure how Sen Sushi would keep, say, vegetarian gyoza separate from the fried chicken. That’s especially ironic because I’m pretty sure they gave us vegetarian gyoza by mistake. They were oddly claggy, and the filling felt bulked out with something stodgy like potato. Zoë generously said I could have her last one and I said “no, I insist”, a sad inversion of how those discussions are meant to go with good gyoza.

Ignorance is bliss, and I wonder how I would have felt about the fried chicken if I hadn’t seen it being decanted from tupperware in front of my very eyes. I probably would have liked it more – the edges were nicely gnarly and crispy, and the meat was tender enough. But normally karaage comes with mayonnaise on the side, whereas Sen Sushi slathered the whole thing with wasabi mayo and a fruity sauce. Wasabi is strong enough, and enough of an acquired taste, that they should have left that choice to the diner: I found it off-putting. “You should have the extra piece, you’re hungrier than I am” I said to Zoë: a transparent attempt to dress up my lack of enthusiasm as gallantry.

Soft shell crab is one of my favourite things, so I was sorry that Sen Sushi’s maki also fell short. They looked the part, a fairly generous portion, the rice studded with tobiko, but putting both cucumber and avocado in with the crab and then drizzling the whole thing with mayonnaise and fruity sauce crowded out the flavours and felt like overkill. They were poorly rolled, too – half of the rolls weren’t closed off properly and fell apart when we tried to pick them up with chopsticks. I saw the chef struggling with rolling them: he had a couple of attempts and then clearly thought Fuck it and had one last half-hearted stab at massaging the sushi rice into the gap. Again, there’s no hiding place in an open kitchen.

What I was also quickly discovering about sitting next to an open kitchen was that it was impossible to have an honest conversation with your dining companion about whether the food was any good. “What do you think?” said Zoë. “Mmm” I replied, non-committally and in earshot.

Being overheard was even more of a problem when the mains turned up, because they were the low point of the meal. Zoë’s teriyaki udon noodles with char sui came in a high-sided, thick rimmed ceramic bowl. She whispered something to me which I couldn’t make out but which I was later told was “dog bowl”. And it’s true, it did look like a dog’s bowl. “I expected to get through it and see a picture of a bone on the bottom” she told me.

But there was no danger of getting through it, because it wasn’t nice at all. The noodles were thick, slippery and strangely oleaginous, the sauce bland and thin. And the char siu was nothing of the kind. Fidget & Bob’s exemplary char siu is so beautifully cooked that it falls apart when prodded with a spoon, and comes to the table anointed with a stunning sticky-sweet sauce. Sen Sushi’s char siu, by contrast, is three thick slabs of pre-cooked pork taken out of yet another tupperware container and chucked in the wok at the end to warm through. It was hard even to tear apart with your teeth, and not worth the effort.

My dish wasn’t cooked until after Zoë’s had been served up – an odd course of action in a kitchen with multiple woks and indeed multiple chefs. I had a rice bowl with braised Taiwanese pork and again, it was an unsettling thing to eat. Disturbingly uniform little cubes of pork were served in a dark sauce which managed not to be sweet, or spicy, or even savoury, just a sort of dark brown white noise. There were a few bits of spring onion scattered on top, but they just left me wishing for more food without that mushy texture.

I didn’t want to draw the parallel, but although Zoë’s dish had come in what looked like a dog’s bowl mine – chunks of meat in a thick but strangely flavourless gravy – was the one that felt like it belonged there. I ate as much as I could face. We weren’t asked why we’d left so much of our main courses, which meant that I didn’t have to fib about how full we were. That said, something about those last two dishes did make you feel unpleasantly full: they didn’t sit easily, and it wasn’t until much later the following day that I felt like eating again.

It’s a shame the food was so iffy in so many places, because the service – from the waitress and the chefs – was pleasant, friendly and attentive for most of our meal. Nice enough that I feel like a bit of a shit for slating the food, but not so nice that they asked whether we were happy with everything, or so nice that I volunteered that information. Sen Sushi does a few desserts (mostly mochi and a matcha ice cream) but we felt like we’d given them enough money already, so we paid and made our escape.

Dinner for two – all that food, two bottles of Kirin and two cans of San Pellegrino – came to just shy of sixty pounds. Perhaps I’m a traitor to the cause for pointing out the inconvenient truth that chain doesn’t necessarily mean bad and independent doesn’t necessarily mean wonderful, but I’m afraid you would get a far better return on that sixty pounds eating at Wagamama or Yo! Sushi than you would at Sen Sushi. You’d also be better off eating at Sushimania, or Kokoro, or taking the train to Windsor and eating at Misugo. And I don’t know how good a cook you are, but you’d probably also have a better meal at home doing a stir fry.

One of my favourite Japanese restaurants is a little place called Chez Taeko in Paris. It’s part of the Marché des Enfants Rouges in the Marais, and it’s just a few little benches and tables and a small menu, on a chalkboard, of sushi, bento boxes and rice bowls. All the food there is beautiful, and when I went there last winter I sat uncomfortably close to my fellow diners, under a heater, with limited elbow room in a little temporary structure like a gazebo enjoying terrific crispy chicken and rice, maki and then concrete-grey sesame ice cream, like edible Brutalism. I honestly couldn’t have been happier.

At the end when I went round the corner to pay the bill I saw the tiniest kitchen, the staff in it working flat out, serving up terrific dish after terrific dish to the lunching Parisians. I so wanted Sen Sushi to be like Chez Taeko, to have the potential to become a happy place, but it didn’t even come close.

“It really did look like a dog bowl” said Zoë when we were safely ensconced back in our house, the meal an uncomfortably recent memory. “If my mum or dad had been there when they served that up they would have wet themselves.”

“You didn’t like it at all, did you?” I said. My initial thoughts had been that the sushi was pretty good and perhaps mitigated the disappointment of the other dishes, but the more time passed, the more I felt that I was being too kind.

“No, I really didn’t. I wouldn’t go back. And it was so cold in there – they had a heater on the wall, why the fuck didn’t they switch it on? And what about the gloves?”

“The gloves?”

“Sometimes the chef was wearing blue gloves and sometimes no gloves at all. What was that about?”

“Well, he wore gloves when he was handling raw fish though, didn’t he?”

There was a pause: Zoë was clearly deciding whether to break bad news to me.

“Not always. And I didn’t appreciate one of the chefs taking a fag break while we were eating our main meals with the back door open, so I had my dinner with a side of Benson & Hedges.”

Again, I hadn’t noticed that.

“It’s a real shame,” she went on “because I wanted to like them, but that char sui was just… it wasn’t good at all.”

“You’re right, I’m afraid.”

Zoë’s accompanied me on nearly twenty reviews by now: I’m starting to think she deserves some kind of promotion (or time off for good behaviour, at the very least). As for me, I’m sure I should learn something from this whole experience. But I fear I’m far too contrarian for that.

Sen Sushi – 6.0
199 Wokingham Road, RG6 7DT
0118 9664636

https://sen-sushi-japanese-restaurant.business.site

Taco Bell

N.B. As of August 2020, Taco Bell has reopened.

I know many people scroll to the bottom of my reviews to check the rating and the summary, the tl;dr equivalent of slogging all the way through my deathless prose. I know, too, that some people think my reviews are too long; God knows how many people make it to the end of the middle section where I (finally) get round to telling you what the food tastes like.

Well, this will confuse plenty of those people – let’s start at the end for once. Taco Bell is bloody awful. Truly. Don’t eat there. I can’t think of a single good reason for visiting Taco Bell unless you’ve never been to one before and are genuinely curious about what it’s like. That was me before I did this review, so I tell you what: I’ll satisfy your curiosity and then you can save your money, your calories and your dignity and have a better meal somewhere else. Sound all right to you?

Although I hadn’t been before, both my two dining companions for this visit had eaten at Taco Bell. Dr. Quaff (author of the excellent Quaffable Reading: other pub blogs are available, but they’re not as good) and Graeme had both been while on trips to the States, something I didn’t know until we queued up.

“Did you like it when you had it over there?” I asked.

“No, it was terrible” said Dr. Quaff, and Graeme concurred. Were they being public-spirited or suckers for punishment in choosing to accompany me?

I genuinely was curious, though. I’m not averse to fast food or junk food if done well, and one thing that’s fairly indisputable is that American cuisine does specialise in both those things. And Taco Bell opening in Reading was noteworthy: there aren’t that many of them in the U.K. yet, and there’d been a certain amount of noise in what passes for our local media these days.

So I really did turn up with no axe to grind, which means that all of you can say I told you so in the comments: it is one of life’s great pleasures, after all. Also, I know many of you – lurkers, fans and haters alike – particularly enjoy reading about me having an appalling meal. If that’s you, this one should give you a special thrill.

Taco Bell is along the side of the Broad Street Mall, Reading’s second favourite mall (a title it has achieved through all but two of the malls in Reading closing). Inside it looked like a slightly lower-rent McDonalds, with some tables and chairs and a bar with uncomfortable stools to perch on (fun fact: the following day I was nervous about the prospect of a very different kind of uncomfortable stool).

There are a couple of those big terminals where you can key in your order, like at McDonalds or KFC: on our visit only one was working, which makes them more like the spectacularly useless ticket machines in Reading Station. Failing that you go up to the counter and try and find something on the menu you can feel enthusiastic about. The dishes on offer are broadly similar to the U.S. menu, so it’s a choice of tacos, burritos and quesadillas. We tried to cover all angles, so I had the grilled chicken burrito, Graeme ordered a quesadilla and Dr. Quaff had the fajita burrito. Dr. Quaff also got a bonus taco because he’d signed up for something online. This is typical of him, a man who has one of those whizzy cameras attached to his doorbell so he can watch people delivering pizza to his kids while he’s down the pub.

He’s also a man, for that matter, who spent some time in the pub afterwards explaining how he’d used an API from Reading Buses to measure the average lateness of the number 22 bus. It’s three and a half minutes, in case you’re interested – and I know that because I double checked with Dr. Quaff in the course of writing this review and he told me, although not before saying “let me just fire up my data science workbench”. Dr. Quaff is the kind of man who says “let me fire up my data science workbench”. Graeme, on the other hand, is the kind of man who says “what’s an API?”

I think you can tell, from these diversions, that my companions were both more interesting and palatable than the food. Let’s get this bit out of the way. My burrito was flat with brown marks from the grill which looked more like stains, as if it had been sat on by somebody who hadn’t wiped properly. Inside was a mush of tasteless pap – you could make out the constituent parts by sight and by texture, but not by anything else. Apparently it had a blend of three cheeses, although how they found three cheeses that all tasted of nothing I’ll never know. “There’s just enough cheese that it’s stretchy”, said Dr. Quaff, “but that’s it.”

The chicken was in regularly shaped pieces that made me think it was precooked and came out of a catering pack. It had parallel dark lines on it as if to give the impression of chargrilling, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d been added with a Sharpie. When I placed my order I was told that they didn’t have regular grilled chicken, just Mexican chicken. “It’s more spicy”, the lady told me: God only knows how bland the normal chicken would be.

There was rice, too. At least it looked like rice.

“It reminds me of the microwave rice you get” said Dr. Quaff.

“What, like Uncle Ben?” I said.

“I was thinking Tilda, but same thing” he said kindly: I forgot for a second that he lives in Caversham Heights.

Dr. Quaff’s fajita burrito was equally cruddy but with flavourless peppers instead of flavourless beans. “It doesn’t look like the picture, does it?” he said, showing a masterful flair for understatement. His taco with minced beef looked, if anything, less appealing than the burrito. I would say my photo below does it justice, aesthetically speaking. “It’s okay”, he said, but it’s sort of been piped in.” Piped in, like Muzak. Or sewage.

Hard to believe, but we were the ones who got off lightly. Graeme’s quesadilla was a greasy, sweaty thing in a body bag with a mingy smear of that not-very-Mexican chicken and more of the triple threat cheese. He felt queasy eating it, queasy walking to the pub afterwards, queasy in the pub and, as he later told us, queasy the next day. “Goodness that food was rough” he said. “Thanks for taking one for the team” replied Dr. Quaff, magnanimous as ever.

All the orders come with Mexican fries which were dusted with red seasoning that tasted almost pleasant. The fries, though, were hot and stale to begin with and cold and stale soon after. Dr. Quaff ended up trying to suck the seasoning off the fries and said it tasted like tomato flavoured Cup-A-Soup before you add the hot water, but the whole spectacle was a little too Leslie Grantham webcam, so we had to ask him to stop.

The only way to make the food taste of anything was to use the sachets of sauce available. They came in Mild, Hot and Fire which, translated, mean Bland, Mild and Equally Mild But In A Slightly Different Way. Somewhere on the packaging it also says “You’ve Got This” – I imagine if you eat there a lot they’re probably referring to scurvy. On the plus side, you get bottomless cherry flavoured Pepsi Max, but you could just buy a bottle of the stuff and save yourself roughly four pounds. Our meals came to a total of just over sixteen pounds – cheap, but not good value. Cheap and nasty is closer to the truth.

We beetled off to the Nag’s Head after that where we drank – mostly to forget – and Dr. Quaff bought some Scampi Fries and Mini Cheddars. Both were tastier, and infinitely better value, than the meal we had just endured. Still, at least we had survived – and if it had been an iota worse we might have wound up getting matching tattoos. When I got home from the pub, around midnight, my other half was waiting up for me.

“So is it worse than Mission Burrito?” she said.

“Yes. It’s nowhere near as good as Mission Burrito. Or McDonalds. Or KFC. Or pretty much everywhere.”

You know how this review ends, because I told you at the beginning. But the other thing I got from visiting Taco Bell was a realisation: as long as people still queue round the block to get into Taco Bell in the weeks after it opens, my work here isn’t done. Not that any of those people read my blog, of course, but you’ve got to have faith. And, despite the fact that it was a meal that stayed with me in all the wrong ways, I still don’t regret visiting Taco Bell at all. Sometimes, counterintuitively, you need to go to places like this, just to understand how lucky we really are.

Taco Bell – 3.9
207 Broad Street Mall, RG1 7QH
0118 9597213

https://locations.tacobell.co.uk/reading/207-broad-street-mall.html

Vegivores

N.B. As of August 2020, Vegivores has reopened

Vegivores was probably the most keenly-anticipated opening of last year, and certainly one of the restaurants I got asked to review most often. Not only that, but it also probably received more buzz online in the last couple of months of 2019 than anywhere else: everywhere I looked, on Twitter and Instagram, I saw people raving about the food, be it brunch or dinner. It’s no-reservations, and I heard frequent reports that it could be difficult to get a table there; the first few months are often incredibly difficult for a new restaurant, but Vegivores clearly got off to a flying start.

The buzz makes perfect sense to me. Vegivores is a proper success story – a journey (so sorry for using that word) from serving street food at Reading’s markets, every Wednesday and Friday in all weathers, to taking on permanent residence in Caversham’s precinct. That they’ve opened their plant-based restaurant next to gammon specialists the Caversham Butcher gives me enormous pleasure, even if I’m not sure whether it’s a happy coincidence or good old-fashioned epic trolling (I always get in trouble for talking about politics or Caversham, so let’s leave it at that).

And then, of course, there’s the meat-free factor: Vegivores is one of Reading’s only entirely meat free restaurants – along with Bhel Puri House and the Global Café – and that’s a sizeable market with very few players in it. It’s entirely a coincidence that I happened to review them in a month when many people are choosing to go vegetarian or vegan, but I’m sure many people doing that would have actively considered a visit to Vegivores.

I can imagine there would be many more natural people to review Vegivores than me. A proper vegetarian or vegan, for a start: I’ve never made a secret of being a meat-loving omnivore, and although I’ve been known to order meat-free starters it’s very rare for me to pick a vegetarian main course. I went through a phase a few years ago of deliberately ordering a vegetarian main course once a month when on duty, and although it definitely exposed the paucity of options for vegetarians and vegans it didn’t leave me itching to make changes to my diet. Nonetheless, I headed over to Caversham on a wet and miserable weekday evening with my other half Zoë to see whether Vegivores would change my mind about plant-based food.

The room was long, thin and nicely done – pretty intimate, with the counter and the open kitchen down one side and the tables along the other. There was plenty of tasteful almost-Scandi bare wood, although the chairs and the wooden banquette weren’t the comfiest. I liked it, even so – it probably had about 30 covers, so I can see it could easily fill up, and even on a truly dismal evening the place was about half-full. It was also nice to have a view of the kitchen, and the pass is under very fetching spotlights which means you can see other people’s food about to to be taken to their tables (and adjust your own order accordingly to have what they’re having).

The evening menu was nicely compact, with a small selection of starters and nibbles (most around the six or seven pound mark) and eight main courses, with an additional special on the night we visited. There was a bit of duplication – a couple of the starters appeared as larger versions in the main courses – but even so I felt like it was a decent range and I easily could have ordered numerous dishes in both sections. If you’re used to being confined to the one token plant-based dish on the menu in restaurants, seeing this might well make you drop to your knees and weep salty tears of gratitude.

The menu doesn’t specifically list items as vegetarian or vegan, and Vegivores’ website doesn’t use either V word, so it wasn’t entirely clear to me whether the yoghurt, mayonnnaise, ice cream and so on were vegan, although I assumed they were. It was a good drinks list, too – wines were all organic, there were some excellent bottled beers and ciders (most either organic or local or both) and a couple of local beers on draft. I had a Santo by Siren Craft – priced at three ninety-five for two thirds of a pint – and Zoë had a bottle of alcohol-free Riedenburger. It didn’t make her feel any happier about being on antibiotics.

Zoë and I both picked starters which could also be ordered as mains, to try and give a better view of the full range of the menu. Mine was the “fishless cakes”, a vegan take on fishcakes with smoked tofu instead of cod or haddock, and some nori to boot. The presentation was attractive, with the three cakes bookended with lemon slices and topped with what was meant to be caper salsa but contained a grand total (I counted: I’m sad like that) of one caper.

As a dish I found it problematic – the taste was pleasant, although the smoke didn’t come through strongly, but the texture let it down. It was so crumbly that it didn’t hold together at all, and that lack of structure meant it didn’t feel like either a fishcake or a potato cake, instead being strangely mealy. I very much liked the dill mayo, which had a sharp taste reminiscent of salad cream, and I would have liked more capers to add acidity.

Zoe’s dish had similar challenges. Tofu skewers came with a ramekin of satay sauce, and although the satay itself was delicious with plenty of depth and complexity the tofu needed more by way of texture, even if it was going to inevitably lack flavour of itself. Interestingly, if you order this as a main course the skewers come covered in the sauce: that might be a better way to serve the starter. Zoë’s favourite bit of the starter was the pickled ginger cabbage which came with it, and I agreed – it suggested the kitchen’s strengths might lie with plants rather than meat substitutes.

I think I would have been disappointed by either of those dishes as a main course, which is why I was so relieved that our main courses, when they arrived, stepped things up considerably.

I had changed my order after seeing the barbecue jackfruit burger up at the pass, and it was a very interesting dish. I’d managed to make it to 2020 without ever eating jackfruit (although I’ve heard it described as the vegan answer to pulled pork many times) and it’s definitely an ingenious substitute. I enjoyed its fibrous texture, married with a slightly-sour barbecue sauce, and it played perfectly against the smashed avocado underneath. But, as with the fishless cake, it didn’t quite hold together as a patty which made for an even messier, sloppier experience than, say, an Honest burger. I liked the creole slaw it came with, dry and mayo-free with a faint hint of something like chipotle, but I wasn’t convinced by the herby potatoes where the texture hinted of being pan-fried without enough oil to properly bring them to life.

Zoë on the other hand adored her main – makhanwala, a vegetable curry with salad, chutney, yoghurt and rice. I only got a forkful but I tended to think she had ordered better than me: it had heat and plenty of depth, the cauliflower was terrific and had a little bite and the decision to use brown rather than white rice made the whole thing substantial, warming and hugely comforting. It was a wonderful thing to eat as the rain lashed the precinct outside and, crucially, it was the only savoury course that didn’t make me slightly miss meat. Zoë also ordered (but didn’t really need) a side order of bread: the four slices felt a little unspecial for £2.50 and I’ll take a lot of convincing that there’s a satisfactory vegan alternative to butter.

The dessert menu was pretty compact, but we both managed to find something on it to order. My melon and prosecco sorbet was a clever idea and beautifully presented with berries, mint and edible flowers, and it tasted fresh and clean. I would have liked the prosecco to come through more, but the real issue was the texture, with big ice crystals in each scoop. I liked it, but I’m not sure I six pounds liked it. Vegivores has a pretty decent selection of dessert wines, so I had my sorbet with a glass of golden passito: it could have been lovely, but it needed to be served chilled. I didn’t mention that at the time because I didn’t think they could have fixed it, and I’d rather have slightly cold dessert wine than no dessert wine at all – in any case, the sorbet was quite cold enough to make up for it.

Zoë was far happier with her brownie with vanilla ice cream. I know there’s some debate about whether brownies belong on a dessert menu (I have a friend who likes to say it’s not a dessert, it’s a cake: it’s a hill he’d gladly die on). That philosophical debate aside, I also thought the brownie was decent but – again – texture was an issue. It tasted good, but was crumblier than a truly great brownie should be. I didn’t know whether the ice cream was vegan or not – that cryptic menu again – but it was possibly a good sign that I couldn’t tell.

Service was excellent all evening – engaged, friendly, interested and clearly passionate about Vegivores. Our server had been working there since it opened in October and she was obviously very proud of what they’d achieved in a short space of time. Our meal for two – three courses and a couple of drinks each – came to seventy-two pounds, not including tip: decent value, overall.

Writing restaurant reviews is a funny thing: the act of mentally digesting your meal can carry on long after you’ve left the place. Sometimes the passage of time makes you appreciate just how good a meal was, sometimes the initial enthusiasm fades away and distance removes enchantment. In the case of Vegivores I thought about it far longer than I normally do, because it involved considering other angles: should I be comparing it with other plant-based food, or with everything I’ve eaten? Did it have to be “good for vegan” or good full stop?

I got assistance from an unlikely source. Vegivores’ co-owner Kevin Farrell was interviewed in November by the excellent Bloody Vegans Podcast (even if you’re not a vegan it’s worth checking out their interview with Tom Bursnall, the owner of Miami Burger: eye-opening doesn’t begin to do it justice) and listening to the interview helped enormously when trying to decide how to approach Vegivores.

In it, Kevin said that not using the V word was a deliberate choice because of the connotations often attached to that word (only last year the Guardian of all places published an article simply entitled “Why do people hate vegans?”). So although everything is suitable for vegans – vegan mayo, vegan yoghurt, vegan ice cream, oat milk as the default in all hot drinks – that explained why the menu didn’t expressly say so. I sort of understand the reasoning, but I still think it wouldn’t do any harm to be clearer.

He also said that he wanted not only to offer an entirely plant-based menu but to show that eating a plant-based diet could be healthy as well as tasty (no doubt with other restaurants like Miami Burger in mind). So, for instance, Vegivores is proud of not deep-frying anything. Again, it makes perfect sense, but it also might explain why my fishless cakes lacked a bit of structure and my herby potatoes were a tad wan.

But the thing that struck home most was Kevin saying that the restaurant gets, and is keen to attract, an omnivore clientele as well – so not just vegans and friends of vegans but presumably people who are considering a vegan lifestyle or simply want to cut down their meat consumption, whether that’s for environmental reasons, health reasons or of course unease about the way animals are treated.

That’s the point where I realised that rating them as a vegan restaurant, rather than a restaurant pure and simple, was missing the point. Patronising, too: I remember many years back when I reviewed Nibsy’s tying myself in knots deciding whether to talk about gluten. I admire Vegivores for wanting to be thought of as a restaurant that happens to be vegan (although they would no doubt use a different term) rather than a vegan restaurant, with the many associations attached to that phrase.

So did Vegivores do enough to convert this omnivore? Not quite, I think. Much of the time they were close on flavour, and I do think it’s impressive to offer a vegan mayonnaise or vegan ice cream which don’t feel like they involve any compromises. But food is also about texture, and that’s where I felt Vegivores fell down somewhat, whether it was crumbly fishcakes, that brownie, or jackfruit that didn’t really hold together. It still felt to me like something was missing and – with the exception of the vegetable curry, probably the most conventional and “authentic” dish we tried – none of it was quite powerful enough to make me feel like constraining my choice by eating there.

You may well disregard this as the preconceptions of an omnivore who is too much of a carnivore to be completely open-minded. Perhaps that’s true, but at least I acknowledge that possibility. Many people whose opinions I respect love Vegivores – Zoë enjoyed her meal far more than I did, for instance – so I may have to accept that this is one occasion where I just don’t quite get it. I love their story, I admire what they’re trying to build but it’s difficult for me to envisage an occasion when Vegivores would be my first choice. Not that it matters: there’s huge integrity to what they’re doing and I’m sure they will do extremely well.

I will say this, though – whether or not I fully appreciated Vegivores, they are one of the most significant restaurants to open in Reading for a very long time. It’s a clear statement of intent to every restaurant – in Caversham and in the rest of Reading – that pays lip service to meat-free food just for the sake of having an item on the menu, or to exploit the vegan pound. Vegivores is coming for those restaurants: if they carry on doing that, Vegivores will take their customers and their business and go from strength to strength. Even though they weren’t quite my cup of tea, they’ll absolutely deserve to.

Vegivores – 7.1
41 Church Street, RG4 8BA
0118 9472181

https://www.wearevegivores.com

Zest

N.B. Zest reopens on Monday 14th September and will be open for lunch Monday to Friday.

How good is your memory for faces? I was in Brighton over the summer, sitting outside a particularly patchouli-scented café in the Lanes, when I thought I recognised the woman walking past my table and nipping inside. It bugged me for about five minutes until I realised where I knew her from: she’d served me in Workhouse Coffee what must have been a couple of years ago. Reading is a small town, and the longer you live there the more chances you get to accumulate memories, or scraps of memories, and to spot people you dimly recognise from your past: that person used to work at the same office as me a few years ago; that person was briefly my housemate in 2001 and never used the shower; there’s a friend I lost in the divorce.

The reason I mention this is that when we turned up at Zest on an icy winter’s evening, the owner recognised me immediately as a former customer of hers. I used to eat at Zest’s town centre sibling restaurant, the sadly-missed LSQ2 (where Handmade Burger is now), but even so it was an impressive feat of recall: I frequented LSQ2 the best part of ten years ago, and I expect she has seen hundreds of diners since then. And yet here we both were – her still trading nicely out at Green Park and me a few pounds heavier, far older and greyer (if not necessarily wiser) but still alive and kicking.

LSQ2 closed in 2012 (the GetReading article announcing the news tried to suggest that every cloud had a silver lining because Cosmo was about to open on Broad Street) but Tony and Sally Cole’s first restaurant, since rebranded as Zest, has been operating at Green Park for fifteen years, offering a combination of classic modern British food and dishes which reflect their time spent in Australia and New Zealand. I still remember a dish of sashimi-grade tuna with a slick of sesame that LSQ2 used to do – I ordered it every time I went there, until they took it off the menu because they felt the tuna wasn’t sustainable.

There are a few reasons why I’d never got round to reviewing Zest before now. It never quite made it to the top of my to do list, and I think that’s because I always got the distinct impression that it was more intended for people working on the business park, and corporate diners, than members of the public. The opening hours, not entirely clear from the website, didn’t help. It’s only generally open Monday to Friday, but you get mixed messages – in one place on the site it says it’s open 5 until late, in another it says their menu is served until 9pm and if you try to book online the latest table it will give you is at 8pm (with a clear instruction that you need to place your order by 8.15, because the kitchen closes).

Arriving at half seven with my other half Zoë didn’t necessarily alter that impression – there were a few tables occupied, one of them a large booking, but all seemed to be coming to the end of their meals: we were the last new customers that evening. Zest is actually quite an attractive space, all dark wood and big windows looking out over water. In the thick fog, with light trying to break through from the nearby offices and car parks, it was all a bit Blade Runner, and if the furniture felt slightly chain hotel it didn’t put me off. The lighting, as you’ll see from the photos, was a little more intimate than I’d like, although it didn’t help that a few bulbs were out.

Zest was running a reduced à la carte menu alongside a Christmas menu when I visited, although the prices weren’t unreasonable for either and you were allowed to mix and match. The only real difference was that mains on the Christmas menu were a few pounds more expensive and came with roasted vegetables and Brussels sprouts, whether they went with the dish or not (but more of that later).

In general starters were seven or eight pounds and, if you visit outside the festive season, most mains will cost you around fifteen. It was a very good menu with more than a few tempting choices, and I’m glad to say that no compromises were made in bringing you this review. There’s definitely an Asian influence to an otherwise modern European menu with Thai and Indonesian dishes sitting alongside more traditional ones – we tried a little from both, in the interests of balance.

My starter was one of the nicest things I’ve eaten this year. Pork belly (triple-cooked according to the menu, although I saw no real evidence of that) came in generous cubes with tender meat and glossy fat, all coated in a gloriously funky, fishy XO sauce, with pak choi, spring onion and big, fragrant coriander leaves. There was a lime aioli advertised, and something that looked like that was definitely drizzled over the pork, but it couldn’t break through the stronger flavours in the dish, not that I cared in the slightest.

The only misfire was the crackling on top, which left me fearing for my fillings. A lighter touch would have been better, and in honesty the dish wouldn’t have missed it: it also ruined the picture below, or at least that’s my excuse. In any case, I was too delighted with everything else to mind. I let Zoë try a couple of pieces, partly because it was the season of goodwill but mainly because food that good deserves to be shared, regardless of whether it’s December or June.

I had a sneaking suspicion that I’d won at starters, but Zoë was very happy with hers. “I want to try the Scotch egg because I’d had a few to compare it to”, she said, and it was a very attractive specimen, served on what was called “curry mayonnaise” but felt to me more like a katsu sauce, more fruity than fiery. It could have done with more of the advertised coriander salsa verde but even so I thought it was a really good example – what felt like panko breadcrumbs, beautiful texture, peppery sausagemeat and yolk at just the right consistency.

“Is it better than the Lyndhurst’s?” I asked Zoë.

“Better than the one they do now, and up there with the one the previous owners did” was the reply.

The wine list at Zest may reflect the fact that most of their diners drive home afterwards, with a compact selection: most of it is available by the glass, and only a couple of bottles north of thirty pounds. We had a very drinkable French pinot noir for twenty-eight pounds which I thoroughly enjoyed – although our waiter intervened to stop me pouring it myself, which felt a little unnecessary. He was the only person looking after us all evening and I couldn’t quite shift the fear that he resented us for making him work late: nice enough, but a little distant and slightly lacking in warmth.

Our main courses, both from the Christmas menu, came out a little quicker than I might have liked, adding to the feeling that we were keeping staff from their loved ones. It’s never easy, I suppose, for a kitchen to sit on their hands when they only have two dishes left to prepare, but I do wish they’d left it a little longer.

However, again, that felt like a minor quibble once I started eating the food. My beef rendang was truly beautiful. My previous experience of this dish had been at Newbury’s now-defunct Wau, and at the time I thought I’d had a very good rendang. This, though, was streets ahead – not sickly-sweet and overreliant on coconut but complex and aromatic, shot through with hints of star anise. Similarly, the beef hadn’t been cooked into mush – it was still in distinct pieces which only fell apart when you tried to load them onto a fork. Again, there was plenty of coriander and the sharp crunch of ribbons of lightly pickled carrot on top was an excellent touch.

This was a marvellous dish, perfect on a Baltic Reading evening, and I am pretty sure it is usually on Zest’s à la carte menu, so try it if you go. As it was on the Christmas menu it was served with a fair few roasted heritage carrots (many of them a pleasingly deep shade of purple), and although they didn’t go in the slightest with an Indonesian curry it didn’t stop them being delicious.

Zoë’s lamb shank was a more conventionally Christmassy affair, and very good it was too – a gigantic piece of meat, cooked into soft surrender. The sauce was deep, with a little sweetness from balsamic vinegar and soft onions and the mash was suitably creamy and smooth. This went much better with the roasted vegetables and with the surprisingly good Brussels sprouts, sliced thinly and served with cream and a little speckle of pancetta. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this dish also features on the menu all year round, and it’s well worth ordering. I would have liked the advertised mint salsa to make an appearance, but the dish managed fine without it.

It took a while for the waiter to ask us if we wanted to look at the dessert menu, and I felt guilty about saying yes: he asked in the same way that I ask Zoë if she wants help hanging the laundry out i.e. hoping against hope that the answer will be no. But if they don’t want people to order dessert, Zest will have to make the menu a lot less tempting – even the usual suspects had twists that made you want to find out how they looked off the page and on the plate. It’s also worth mentioning that Zest’s cheeseboard is a veritable Greatest Hits of local cheeses – Barkham Blue, Waterloo, Wigmore and Spenwood, all for eight pounds fifty.

My dessert was probably the weak link of the meal. Chocolate tart with meringue and Clementine sorbet sounded beautiful, and the flavours were all present, correct and harmonious. But the texture was wrong – the chocolate was not the solid ganache I was expecting, but a molten pool, as if it had escaped from a fondant. It didn’t stop it being enjoyable, a rarified Terry’s chocolate orange encased in light buttery pastry, but it wasn’t quite what I had hoped.

If I’d won out on starters, Zoë drew level with dessert. I feared a white chocolate and Bailey’s cheesecake would be too sickly but actually it was sweet but not excessively so, a big block of indulgence heavy on filling and light on base. The passionfruit curd underneath stopped the whole thing being too one-dimensional, but given that I was only allowed one small forkful it’s hard to comment further, beyond wishing that I’d ordered it myself.

Dinner for two, including a pre-added 10% service charge, came to just over a hundred pounds – and actually, ordering off the á la carte isn’t any more or less expensive than the three-courses-for-thirty-pounds festive menu. To my mind, that makes the latter remarkably generous and I left the restaurant with a full stomach, a spring in my step and a couple of money off vouchers for next month which I may well end up using.

It’s easy to get jaded when you review a restaurant every fortnight, easier still when it’s a Cozze, a Lemoni or a Pantry. So I’m delighted that, even if by accident rather than design, I’ve saved one of the best meals of 2019 until almost the very last. I didn’t come away from Zest convinced that they were necessarily packed on most weekday evenings, and that lack of clarity probably goes some way to explaining why the pacing of the meal was a little rushed and the service sometimes felt a tad diffident.

But – and this is far more important – I did come away from Zest wishing I had visited a long time ago, and convinced that I might have unearthed one of the best local restaurants you’ve never considered going to. It’s easily accessible by bus from the town centre, it’s affordable by taxi on the way home and it serves delicious, interesting food (it’s as if they’ve been doing it, without much fanfare, for the best part of fifteen years). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Zest that a buzzier room full of more customers wouldn’t solve – and personally, I plan to play my own small role in helping with that in the New Year. I suspect if you went you’d find it memorable: chances are, they’d come to remember you too.

Zest – 8.0
Lime Square, 220 South Oak Way, Green Park, RG2 6UP
0118 9873702

http://www.zestatlimesquare.co.uk/home.html