Brewdog

Regular readers might remember that I first attempted to review Brewdog about three months ago, unsuccessfully as it happens. I came, I saw, I was told they couldn’t even take orders for at least thirty minutes and I sodded off. To the Real Greek instead, in fact, where I had a surprisingly enjoyable meal with my friend Steve. He still messages me occasionally just to talk about sausage (the one at the Real Greek I should say, although I think Steve has a soft spot for most sausages, so to speak).

I decided I would leave Brewdog for another day when my frustration had subsided and I’d forgotten some of the faux wackiness which had slightly got my back up – the almost illegible menu and the zany pun-ridden dish names like “Hail Seitan” and “Clucky This Time”. So I turned up with my old friend Mike on a Monday night to check it out, hoping for better luck this time.

Much was different from my last visit. In May, Brewdog had been open less than two months and there was still a huge buzz about the place. It had been fuller and louder, whereas going back now it was definitely a quieter proposition – although that might also be because I went on a Monday. Another difference was that last time I turned up on spec, whereas this time I had had already booked a table.

The site has a chequered history. It’s been the Litten Tree, a properly purgatorial chain pub known to many Reading residents of a certain vintage as the “Shitten Tree”. It’s been RYND, with beautiful interiors, rock-hard cheap seating and bandwagon-chasing knock-off American barbecue food. And most recently it’s been Public, a venue whose selling point – if you see this as a selling point – was to have board games, fussball tables and pool tables. I imagine the trendsetters went there but wouldn’t have been seen dead in the Sun, on the opposite side of the road, with its thoroughly charming bar billiards table: nowhere near ironic enough.

RYND, for all its faults, did a beautiful job of exposing the brickwork and then Public cocked it all up with cheapo tiles and wood panelling, so it was lovely to see that Brewdog had restored the room to something like its former glory. The large central room does feel like a beer hall, with long tables and – no surprises here – industrial light fittings. I’d asked for a booth, and it would have been nice to have been seated at one of the ones in the main room to feel more like part of things, but instead they put us in the smaller area off to the left, very much the overflow car park of the restaurant.

On my last visit, poor Steve and I waited at our table in bewilderment for easily five minutes before realising that nobody was going to come to ask us what we wanted. At the time, I wrote this off as my mistake, thinking that Brewdog was far more like a pub than a restaurant. But another difference with this visit was that a very friendly, smiley waitress came over and asked us what we’d like to drink. I have no idea whether that’s because it was quieter, or because we’d booked a table or for some other reason, and it slightly bugs me that I can’t tell you which of my two visits was more representative.

The menu was, well, burgers and hot dogs. And two salads. I couldn’t help thinking that Brewdog might have put more effort and imagination – albeit misplaced – into the names of the dishes than the dishes themselves. I had my eye on a burger from my extensive research – the “Jackpot”, with its winning combination of black pudding, chorizo and blue cheese – but I was also determined to let Mike pick first. I’m lucky that people want to come out on duty with me, so I always try to make sure they aren’t eating their second choice of starter or main.

“I quite fancy the ‘Chipotle Chorizo’,” said Mike, which made perfect sense: his mum is Spanish, after all.

“That’s fine” I said through gritted teeth, dying slightly inside as the prospect of sampling the Jackpot receded into the middle distance. “I’ll just have one of the chicken burgers instead. I love southern fried chicken.”

My first choice of chicken burger would have been the “Buffalo Chicken”, but we’d also decided to have some of the buffalo cauliflower, so I ended up going for the “Cluck Norris”: southern fried chicken and avocado. I had a sneaking feeling I had picked the menu’s equivalent of a chicken korma at this point, but the die was cast. Besides, why whinge about it to Mike when I could bide my time and instead complain to literally dozens of readers? Think of the delayed gratification, I told myself as I drank my pint.

I suppose I should at least attempt to talk about the beer, so here goes: there are a whole range of Brewdog beers on tap along with others in bottles and a range of other guest beers. Nearly everything crosses the five pound a pint Rubicon which, in fairness, probably stopped being any kind of meaningful threshold at some point last year; nowadays you just pay whatever they charge you and if you wince when they tell you how much your round is, you’re either in the wrong place or pubs just aren’t for you. The menu helpfully made suggestions about which beers paired well with each burger (Mike followed this advice, because he’s that kind of person and I didn’t, because I’m not).

Mike declared himself very satisfied with the Punk IPA and the Dead Pony, the latter specifically chosen to go with his burger. “They sell Brewdog on the continent”, he told me (Mike spends most of the year swanning around Europe running coach tours: I like to think he’s like a twenty-first century Robin Askwith, although the lack of stories of swordsmanship suggests this might be wishful thinking), “but it’s really expensive over there.” The punchline was left hanging in the air: I couldn’t be bothered to claim it.

My beers, from the outer reaches of the list, were more interesting I thought, although that doesn’t guarantee that my descriptions of them will be. I had a pint of Lighthouse by Windswept which I really liked, a “Kolsch style lager” (it means it’s kind of German, apparently – you know, like the Royal Family) which was crisp, clean and just the right side of the dividing line between bland and delicate. The Windswept website says it’s best enjoyed after abseiling or archery, which strikes me as a shame because it means I’ll never get to enjoy it in optimum conditions: never mind, I’ll live.

I followed it up with a pint of “#MashTag2018” which seems to be a beer that’s part crowdsourced through polls every year. The 2018 version, which presumably was chosen by Russian bots, was infused with hibiscus and yuzu and I liked it a great deal; the sharp citrus added by the yuzu made it smarter than the average beer. Mike had a sip and decided to order a pint of himself after he’d lapped me. He then decided that it was more fun to sip a little of it than to wade through a pint of it, which I figured served him right. Karmic payback for stopping me hitting the Jackpot, perhaps.

The burgers at Brewdog cost between nine and ten pounds and fries (or sweet potato fries) are extra, so in terms of price it’s probably largely on a par with Honest. It’s taken me until this point in the review to mention the H word, but they were very much in my mind as I had my dinner because, for better or worse, 2018 is the year that they’ve become the benchmark for all burgers in this town.

Here’s something you’ll rarely hear me say: the problem with my chicken burger is that it had too much chicken. It’s honestly true – the unremarkable-looking seeded brioche had two large coated chicken breasts in it. That might have been a dream come true if the coating had tasted of anything, but in fact it had almost no flavour at all. A real shame, because it looked the part and the texture was great, but in terms of taste it was like a mirage of KFC. This also meant that the whole thing was unbalanced because the things it really needed – the avocado, the coriander, the Cajun mayo – simply couldn’t put up a fight against all that bland fried chicken. With proper coating, less chicken and more of the rest it could have been world-beating, but as it was I actually left some of it. A knife stuck needlessly out of the top, Excalibur-style, and I couldn’t tell whether it was decoration or punishment.

Mike’s “Chipotle Chorizo” was better, but still unspecial. The burger itself – very much cooked medium-well – was crumbly and dry and left me, again, thinking wistfully of Honest at the other end of town. The chorizo was by far the best thing in it – coarse, juicy and piquant – but the chipotle mayo didn’t add a lot and the padron peppers felt a bit random. There was one in the burger and another impaled on top of the bun – that knife trick again. I felt like Mike had got the better deal, but only in terms of shades of meh. Speaking of meh, the fries were wan and disappointing, and I didn’t have any desire to finish them all. Mike had upgraded to the sweet potato fries – they cost fifty pence extra – and this was money well spent, although probably money better spent would have involved not having fries at all.

The bright spot was the buffalo cauliflower, which we both agreed was quite the nicest thing we ate all evening. Big firm florets in a hot, sour glaze, and easily more interesting than the feature attraction, a scene-stealing bit part. But even this wasn’t perfect – I liked the coating but I’d have liked it to be crunchier and stick to the cauliflower a bit better. And, when it came to it, we paid eight pounds for it, so it really wasn’t much cheaper than the burgers. Perhaps by this point I’d just run out of magnanimity: it’s distinctly possible. There was a vegan dip with it, which tasted like a photocopy of salad cream and might have appealed, if you were a vegan.

This is all getting a bit crotchety, isn’t it? I should perhaps focus on the service because it was properly lovely. Our waitress (or, according to the bill, “server”) was likeable and cheery without ever seeming fake or making us feel like miserable old shits, not that we needed any help in that department. Our bill for two came to just shy of sixty pounds, excluding service (and the menu, randomly, also gives you the option to buy a pint of Punk IPA for the kitchen: I’m not sure that would have improved matters, but it might have been worth giving it a whirl). At the time that didn’t feel like a lot, but looking back it feels like money extracted somewhat by stealth.

It’s probably obvious by now that Brewdog wasn’t my bag at all, but what surprises me is that I honestly expected it to be better. It has a small menu and I thought sticking to a few things might mean they did them well, especially when you think about how considered their brand is and how much attention to detail they’ve put into the building, and the fit out. So it’s disappointing that the food was so drab; if I wanted that kind of meal I’d go to Honest, and if I wanted that range of beer I’d walk slightly further out of town and make for the Nag’s Head.

Of course, it’s possible that Brewdog was aiming for the sweet spot on the Venn diagram where beer drinkers and food fans meet, but somehow I doubt it. It felt like the food was just there to tick a box rather than to properly complement the beer, and I found that a little sad. It felt a lot like a slightly less corporate Oakford Social Club, but when you strip away the beards the experience is much the same. What Brewdog really highlighted, for me, is one of the big gaps in the market left here in Reading. Since I Love Paella left the Fisherman’s Cottage, punters have been left with a pretty stark choice: you can have a fantastic range of well-kept beer or you can have brilliant food, but – for now at least – you can’t have both.

Brewdog – 6.2
11 Castle Street, RG1 7SB
0118 9568755

https://www.brewdog.com/bars/uk/reading

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Afghan

My dining companion this week is Martijn Gilbert, the outgoing (in every sense) CEO of Reading Buses. I realised Martijn wasn’t going to be your usual dining companion relatively early on in our meal at Afghan, just after we took our seats in one of the booths at the back of the room and began looking at our menus. I was looking at the menu, anyway: Martijn, on the other hand, was peering intently through the big windows out on to the Wokingham Road.

“What’s that doing there?”

“What do you mean?” I said, assuming he was talking about the presence of houmous on the menu of an Afghani restaurant.

“That bus that just went past. It’s a 14 – they go to Woodley – and this is the 17 route. If there’s a diversion in place I don’t know about it.”

“Is that a problem?”

Martijn gave me a kindly, indulgent look, as if he’d just heard something crashingly stupid but was far too nice to correct it, and said something about low bridges. It all sounded very convincing, although my mind was also whirring with other thoughts, mainly about how many main courses we could snaffle between the two of us. After all, Martijn had specifically told me he only had a salad for lunch to ensure he was in peak dining condition.

“If you don’t mind, I just need to phone the control room.”

So he did, and it turned out it was a known diversion and not some bus driver having a funny five minutes or, worse still, about to recreate Speed just outside the Early Café. But even that incident gave me an idea about what Martijn was like in work mode, and it was impressive stuff: the sort of perfectionism I also see in some restaurant owners, where they know everything about everything when it comes to their business. I aspire to that, which is why I re-read my reviews countless times before they are published on the blog – scanning for typos and needless commas, mostly – but I’m small time compared to this.

The irony about Martijn’s intervention was that I’d deliberately chosen Afghan to review with him because it was on the 17 bus route; just like the tote bag they sell in But Is It Art? says, the number 17 route is the backbone of Reading. Sometimes it seems like all human life joins and leaves that great thoroughfare at some point – whether it’s the leafy gentility of the Earley borders, the icon that is Cemetery Junction or the fleshpots of the Oxford Road. I used to commute to work on the 17, many moons ago at the dog end of the 90s, from a shared house on Talfourd Avenue where I was the only person not doing drugs, and I’ve always had a big soft spot for it; to me, as much as the River Thames, it defines the town.

It pleased me, too, that Martijn caught the number 17 to the restaurant – as did I. Martijn told me previously, during a boozy night in the Retreat, that if the number 17 route hadn’t already existed, nobody would have invented it: it simply made no sense to join up the far East and West of Reading in this way, and in any other town it would have been two separate routes. But Reading had it, and it worked, and people seemed to like it, so nobody has ever messed with it. “Our data shows us it isn’t always heavily used during the day” said Martijn, “but we’re not changing the timetable. It goes every seven minutes, without fail. That’s the 17 for you”. I loved that, another of many things to love about Reading.

Of course, I don’t just pick restaurants because of their public transport links and Afghan had come highly recommended by a number of people in the run up to my visit. One friend told me they had a real talent for cooking lamb, another friend enthused about her trip there a couple of days before my visit. My regular reader Mansoor – an expert in these things – recommended one dish in particular, telling me his wife had ordered it three times in two weeks. All that and independent and in an area somewhat lacking in decent restaurants: how could I not give it a whirl?

The room was pretty much unchanged from its previous incarnation as Lazeez – a big square, booths and banquettes around the edge and tables in the middle (I know that, because I looked up the old review for Lazeez and was struck by how much of it I could have just copied and pasted). Martijn and I were at one of the booths, which could have generously seated four but turned out to be just right for the quantity of food we ordered. The menu reminded me very much of the menu at Kobeda Palace, the Afghan restaurant at the other end of the 17 route, only a little wider and far more polished-looking: at Kobeda Palace you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a kebab house, with the preparation and cooking front and centre, whereas Afghan was more obviously a restaurant. Some dishes were more expensive, but many weren’t.

I managed to persuade Martijn to order a starter and three mains to share, and as nobody at Afghan tried to deter us I assumed that our order was deemed plucky rather than foolhardy. The first thing to arrive was a dish I’d been very excited about trying, the chapal kebab. This was the dish Mansoor’s wife had so admired, and it’s been described as the best thing to come out of the Khyber. As a die hard Carry On fan I found this difficult to believe, so I was determined to see what the fuss was all about.

A chapal kebab is quite hard to describe, but here goes: it’s sort of like a spiced lamb kofte but instead of being in your traditional cylindrical shape it comes as a flat patty more like a burger, cooked in fat and packed with onion and green chillies. When it arrived I thought it looked rather like a pair of smokers’ lungs, but from the very first mouthful I knew this was a dish to be reckoned with. How did they get the contrast between the almost crunchy outside and the juicy inside so bang on? It went beautifully with all three dips at the table – a green one full of coriander, a red number which looked like it would be diabolically hot but was more like a sweet chilli sauce, and a cooling yoghurt with mint.

“This is good” said Martijn, wasting no time setting out demolishing one of the kebabs, and I couldn’t disagree. The naan it was supposed to come with didn’t arrive until later, one of many oddities about the timing which slightly marred matters. Instead, we got the only conventional starter we’d ordered: bourani banjan, aubergine with tomato and yoghurt. Aubergine isn’t everybody’s cup of tea – often it isn’t mine – but this was a properly lovely dish and astonishingly good value at three pounds. The aubergine was sweet, sticky and beautifully cooked with none of that spongey boredom it all too often presents.

In an ideal world we’d have been left to finish that little lot before more food turned up, but that was not to be. Instead, a groaning dish of lamb biryani was brought over when we were barely halfway through. How much you’ll like Afghan’s biryani, to some extent, will depend on how you feel about meat on the bone – most of it slid off, but there was a bit of a variation in texture. I didn’t mind it, and I know that lamb on the bone is far more authentic for these things, but it wouldn’t be for everyone. The rice was well spiced (if not the best example I’ve tasted) but there was a lot of it, so the ratios felt a little off. On the other hand, this dish was nine pounds, so that feels like a quibble.

At the risk of inducing déjà vu, in an ideal world we’d have been left to finish that (not especially) little lot before more food turned up, but that too wasn’t to be. So we were partway through pretty much everything we’d ordered when a big dish of charsi lamb karahi was deposited at the table, along with our naan bread which, by that point, I’d pretty much forgotten about. The lamb karahi is ordered in multiples of half a kilo, so we’d ordered the entry level five hundred grams. When it arrived, I told myself it was okay because much of it would be bone: and, again, how you feel about this dish will partly depend on where you stand on meat on the bone. I found this a little trickier and less enjoyable – the sauce was deep, thick and peppery but lacked some of the spice and fragrance of, say, Kobeda Palace’s quite extraordinary karahi.

We had an ordinary-sized naan bread (which was meant to arrive at the same time as the chapal kebab) but we’d also ordered an “Afghan naan”, because I’d been told these were quite the talking point. And it really was – a huge thing which turned up vertically, impaled on some metal stand and brought to the table. It was so big it blotted out some of the remaining daylight outside, so big in fact that Martijn took a selfie with it for sheer novelty value. But the novelty value was the main value, I think. Getting it off its makeshift gallows was a faff, and it was a little rigid and crispy rather than soft and yielding – you could load stuff onto it, but it was much more difficult to use it for scooping. That said, the karahi was a relatively dry curry, so perhaps scooping was a bit hopeful anyway.

“It’s great that Reading has independent restaurants like this and not just lots of chains” said Martijn, grabbing another mouthful of the karahi and I sensed, not for the first time that evening, perhaps a little bit of regret at leaving his adopted town. I could see why – I mean, he might be able to actually buy a house in the North East but would he ever find an equivalent of the Maiwand Lion, or Smelly Alley, or the Nag’s Head?

“That’s the whole point” I said, pontificating on as usual before returning to more important matters. “Try some more of the chapal kebab now it’s cooled down. If anything, it’s even more delicious.”

Like quite a few of Reading’s more interesting restaurants Afghan is unlicensed, so Martijn had something fizzy and I ordered my beloved mango lassi. It was three pounds for a glass or six pounds for a jug, so I got a jug and Martijn helped me out with it, although we left a little. It never disappoints, but it did have the slightly gloopy and sweet taste of stuff that might not have been freshly made.

Dinner for two came to fifty-two pounds, not including tip, which really isn’t half bad when you consider that what we ordered probably would have easily fed three less gluttonous people. I haven’t mentioned the service, but that’s because it was pretty unobtrusive: pleasant enough, just attentive enough but nothing to write home about. The restaurant wasn’t busy on the night we went, but there were a few families and bigger groups. As so often, I was struck between the contrast of the quieter, more polished interior of Afghan and the scruffy, more boisterous Kobeda Palace. Your mileage may well vary, but I think I prefer the latter.

That comparison has weighed on my mind a lot since my visit because if you’re comparing like for like, for me at least, I think Kobeda Palace would win every time. With the exception of the chapal kebab – a delicious, intriguing dish I could gladly revisit – I thought Kobeda Palace won on points at every level. I preferred the ambience, I preferred the karahi, I preferred the naan. In fairness, Martijn was a big fan of Afghan, but I did wonder if that was because he just hadn’t been to Kobeda Palace. Perhaps just using that comparison isn’t fair, because Afghan is also in competition with Miah’s Garden Of Gulab a few doors down, or Vel, or any of Reading’s countless Indian restaurants. And on that level perhaps it fares a little better – the food I had was good, and interesting, and I saw enough on the menu to want to go back, to try the samosas, or something else from the grill.

And, of course, you also have to bear in mind that East Reading has a dearth of good restaurants: Garden Of Gulab is no great shakes, the Hope & Bear is another Mitchell & Butler pub, “Smokey’s House” looks best avoided and I Love Paella has, perhaps sensibly, left the Fisherman’s Cottage. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king and Afghan is very far from one-eyed. Maybe it has a bit of a squint, but it’s still possibly the best option in that neck of the woods.

After the meal Martijn and I wandered to the Hope & Bear for a gossip and a debrief, which gave me the opportunity to confirm my suspicions that the facelift it received when it rebranded from the Abbot Cook largely consisted of painting the whole thing green and putting new furniture in the garden. On our walk there, Martijn spotted a bus stop which wasn’t to his satisfaction, and took a photo.

“Do you think your staff will miss you randomly sending them photos of bus stops on your travels?” I said. He smiled.

“They know I keep them on their toes.”

The employees of Reading Buses might not miss it, but actually I will, and I suspect Reading might too: it’s nice to have somebody in charge who cares. We sat in the garden, pretending it was warm enough for a couple of pints, and discussed Martijn’s plans to get through all ten of the dishes on my list of Reading’s most iconic meals. I don’t think anything from Afghan will make the second edition, although the chapal kebab might scrape an honorary mention.

At the end of our evening we took the 17 together from outside the pub.

“This timetable is wrong too!” said Martijn, taking another photo. “It lists every single departure time from the stop, when our new timetables say they go every seven minutes. That’s the whole point, because we can’t be precise about exactly when a bus will go past.”

“And the newer timetables will look much cleaner, too.” I said, finally feeling like I was getting the hang of it. Martijn’s enthusiastic reaction suggested that maybe I was.

The bus pulled up and the driver let us both on, and if he was anxious about the prospect of driving the head honcho into town he kept a magnificent poker face. “I like to think they see me as one of the gang” Martijn told me, as we sat at the back and watched the Kings Road hurtle past, riding Reading’s greatest thoroughfare again. How many times have I taken this bus in my life? I wondered. It felt like the 17 had always been there, and I found myself hoping it always would be. And best of all, I got to travel back to the Village for nothing because I was taking the bus with the boss. I reflected later that it might be the only freebie I’ve ever received on duty: a freebie of which I’m strangely proud.

Afghan – 7.2
146 Wokingham Road, RG6 1JL
0118 9668802

https://www.facebook.com/afghanrestaurantreading/

Vel

I was on holiday in Bologna, buying a gigantic wedge of Parmesan in a food market of all things, when I got a message telling me that Matt Farrall had died. For those of you who didn’t know him, Matt was a raconteur, rambler, writer for the Whitley Pump and possibly the proudest Reading resident you could hope to meet.

He was one of the very first people ever to persuade me to give up my anonymity. He interviewed me for the Pump last year – we went to the Turk’s Head (back when it was good), ate food by Georgian Feast and just chatted and chatted. I kept waiting for the interview to start, and it never did – Matt seemed far more interested in speculating on the relationship status of the couple at the table next to us. Were they just splitting up? Just getting together? Not even a couple at all? It occupied us for much of the evening, as did the meatballs, the khachapuri and Matt’s inexhaustible supply of anecdotes, none of them less than uproarious.

But of course, Matt’s sly genius was that he still managed to get me to talk, the way curious people and natural writers do, and I told him many things I wasn’t expecting to: about my past, my family, all manner of information. He was smart like that. I still have the recording of that interview, and it’s more a document of a lovely evening than an interview at all; we were nearly a podcast waiting to happen.

Our paths crossed several times after that. We were both at the Hop Leaf celebrating the landlord and landlady’s tenth anniversary; to his credit, he didn’t reveal my secret identity to his pub buddies that night, at least not in front of me. We were at the same table for the first ever Saperavi Party at the Island, where he charmed the socks off my mother while eating more of the Georgian food he had come to adore. Matt was nothing if not charming: to know him was to love him, and even if you never met him you got that feeling from his writing. Good writers do that. You feel like you know them; you wish you could beetle off to the pub with them.

I went to his funeral, on a gorgeous sunny May afternoon, and the crematorium was so packed that tons of us were just standing outside, taking in the speeches, listening to the impeccable selection of music and, in my case, fanning myself with the programme. It was almost like being at a rock concert, and – not for the first time since I got the news – I found myself wishing Matt had known just how much he was missed. Matt had packed many different lives into just shy of fifty years, and I wonder if anybody knew the whole person or whether we all just got one fascinating facet. It was definitely hard to imagine a more eclectic crowd – colleagues, family, friends from way back. Glen, who runs Blue Collar. Adam from the Whitley Pump. Claire from Explore Reading. Afterwards we all went to the Back Of Beyond and drank until chucking out time, old friends and new. I like to think Matt would have approved.

I planned to put together a tribute to Matt but, for reasons I won’t go into here, it never quite happened. Nevertheless I wanted to do something to mark his passing, and I couldn’t think of a better way than to visit the venue of one of his last ever reviews for the Whitley Pump, Vel, a South Indian restaurant in his beloved Katesgrove. I took my mum, who remembered him fondly, although I did have to point out to her in advance that no, a dosa wasn’t basically a posh Findus Crispy Pancake.

Vel is described on its website as a “South Indian Kitchen & Bar” and I think what that means is that it’s made up of two rooms, with a view of the kitchen from one and the bar from the other. It’s actually quite a handsome, neutral, uncluttered restaurant – bare wood floors, tasteful bare walls, attractive muted wood panelling, nice tables and sturdy chairs. The bar is a fetching tiled affair and the kitchen – open and visible through the glass – might make for an interesting spectacle if you had a view of it (I saw a couple of the chefs putting long skewers on the grill at one stage, but that was about all I managed to catch). We took a table in the first room with the bar, close to the window so I could make the most of the natural light.

“It makes such a difference” I told my mum, herself no photographic slouch. “My food photos in winter are no good to man nor beast.”

“It’s not a bad table” my mum responded. “Good view of the wheelie bins.” I sometimes forget that my mum is more leafy Bath Road than downtown Katesgrove.

The place was almost completely empty when we arrived, but we had plenty of time to review the menu before we were approached by the waitress. They’ve made some effort to walk diners through it by breaking it up into sections – interestingly named ones, actually, from “Get Tempted” (starters) to “Get Fired” (starters from the grill or tandoor) and onwards to “Keep Calm Curry On” (which rather screams “get help”) and “Rice Rice Baby” (which is verging on “delete your account” territory).

That’s all well and good, but the next level of detail about what the dishes actually are was missing in action. For instance, the section covering dosa (or “thosai” on this menu) – entitled “Get Girdled” for reasons which escape me – had a plethora of bases and toppings or special dosa without really explaining what they all meant. Never mind, I thought. We’ll ask the waitress, that’s the whole point. What could go wrong?

“What’s the difference between a plain dosa and a ‘paper roast’?”

“One paper roast. What else would you like?”

“Err, no, we’d like to know a bit more about the paper roast.”

This went on: every time I asked about a dish I had to then explain, sometimes in excruciating detail, that I wasn’t ordering the dish but simply asking for more information. I don’t know whether it was a cultural thing, or a language barrier, or Vel having a bad day but whichever way it was I didn’t like it. It made me feel difficult, patronising or ignorant and none of those are how you want your customer to feel. I was tempted to get my mother involved, but the benefits of her cut glass diction would have been easily offset by the gathering storm of waspishness, so I thought better of it.

We got there in the end, drank our Kingfishers and, once the starters arrived things were positive. Gobi 65 is one of my go-to starters and Vel’s version was close to spot on. The bright red, almost scarlet colour was arresting and the coating was nicely spiced. The cauliflower underneath was lovely and firm and the florets were all a sensible size. But six pounds fifty felt ever so slightly on the steep side for a plate of veg and if you’re going to charge that they have to be crisp and absolutely piping hot and these weren’t quite that.

The mutton pepper fry was delicious – tender pieces of mutton in a lovely peppery sauce with just the right level of heat. But again, this was eight pounds and there wasn’t a lot of it and that did give me cause for thought. The crockery – and I don’t often talk about this in restaurant reviews – was attractive stuff with just a hint of sparkle in the glaze, but ultimately when they only put the mutton on half of a small plate and pad out the rest with iceberg lettuce I did find myself assessing the balance between style and substance.

I’ve always found dosa a bit confusing, and I’m never sure when they’re meant to make an appearance in a meal. Are they a starter? A main course? A light lunch? You might know better than me: we wanted to try one but neither of us fancied having it as the feature attraction, so we ordered one in between our starters and mains to give it a try. It looked gorgeous – a giant burnished cylinder of wafer thin pancake wrapped round some potato masala. It came with a little bowl of sambar (a sort of curried lentil stew, for the uninitiated) and three chutneys, one with coriander, one with tomato and nigella seeds and what I think was a coconut chutney.

Never having excelled at dosa I asked our waitress for some advice on how to eat it. She came out with some words and gestures and lots of smiles, but I was left none the wiser. So my mother and I just had at it, tearing off pieces and dipping as best we could. It was lovely, in truth – the masala was warming with green chilli and spring onion studded through it, the potato just the right side of firm. I loved all the chutneys, especially the tomato one, and the dosa itself was paper thin and beautifully buttery. Again, though, the pricing seemed steep – eight pounds was an awful lot more than I ever remembered paying at Chennai Dosa.

This was the point when things started to go wrong for Vel – not in terms of the food, but because of everything else. By now, two other tables were occupied and it seemed the kitchen couldn’t cope with having three sets of customers at the same time. So we waited and waited, saw food arriving at other tables, and waited some more. Our waitress brought poppadoms to our table by way of apology – a lovely thought but, really, yet more food was the last thing we needed.

It also gave us time to order more drinks, which also didn’t go smoothly.

“I’d like a half of Kingfisher please, and a prosecco.”

“A Kingfisher and a second?”

“No, a prosecco.”

A blank look. I was forced to resort to pointing at the menu and trying to speak as clearly as I could, which again was an uncomfortable experience. She wandered off and eventually returned with my half and an individual bottle of prosecco.

“I didn’t realise you wanted presco” she said. I decided to leave it there.

All told it was easily half an hour until our main course arrived, and few main courses are worth that wait. My mother had ordered the Chettinadu fish curry, having been talked out of the milder Kerala fish curry by the waitress. That almost redeemed the “presco incident”, because the sauce it came in was splendid – all the heat coming from black pepper rather than spice, but if anything even more interesting for that. The sauce, again, had lots of nigella seeds speckled in it and I also caught a note of roasted onion. The fish, which was apparently kingfish, was a cutlet with the bone in the middle and I liked that too: it broke into firm meaty flakes like a swordfish rather than being the soft mushy white fish you sometimes get in Indian curries. My mother started out a little underwhelmed by the dish but by the end I think she too was won over, if a tad full.

My chicken biryani was competent but not exciting. The pieces of chicken were well cooked and not dried out, and the rice had something about it but there were still a few bland clumps in there. There were plenty of cloves and cardamom and cinnamon, but they made the last bits of the biryani surprisingly difficult to eat as you were constantly sifting it for inedible bark and pods.

“It’s okay, but nowhere near as good as Royal Tandoori’s” said my mother. My mother is prone to compare all dishes with the best version she’s ever had, but I had to admit that she was right. The Royal Tandoori version has cashew nuts and just the right amount of mint and it did rather show this up. Even if it hadn’t, the following night I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the lamb biryani at Clay’s Hyderabadi and that – the rice fragrant with saffron and rosewater – blew this biryani squarely out of the water.

We didn’t investigate the dessert options (just as well, because looking at their menu I’m not sure there are any) so instead we settled up and moved on. Vel has been open for nearly four months, and I find it a bit dubious that it still only takes cash: for some that alone would be a deal breaker. Our meal came to sixty-two pounds, not including service. We could have spent less by ditching the dosa but, any way you cut it, this wasn’t a cheap meal for this kind of food in this kind of location. I’ve probably said enough about service already, but it would be unfair not to add that our waitress was lovely and friendly throughout, just a little wayward.

Is Vel worth a visit? You’ve probably formed your own view from reading this, and that will depend on how close you live to it, how important value for money is to you and whether you fancy paying cash and navigating some rather challenging service. Katesgrove and Whitley deserve good restaurants as much as anywhere else in Reading but, with the exception of Gooi Nara and the excellent Dhaulagiri Kitchen, I’m not sure there’s much to stop local residents making the trip into the town centre instead, despite all Vel’s interesting dishes (and, let’s not forget, attractive crockery).

Matt Farrall would tell you to give it another go if he was still with us, I’m sure, but that was Matt all over: a true local champion, a permanent optimist and a huge fan of the underdog. We saw eye to eye about a lot of things, but I never quite got his love of the likes of Sweeney Todd and Pau Brasil. The review over, my mother and I traipsed down Whitley Street behind a triptych of underdressed young ladies, their skin tone the kind of burnt orange that probably features on the Dulux colour chart as “Double Plus TOWIE”. I took her to the Hop Leaf for a pint and a debrief.

“It’s a nice pub, isn’t it?” said my mother, who – unsurprisingly – hadn’t been to the Hop Leaf before.

“Yes, I think so. It was one of Matt’s favourites.” I said.

My choice of venue had been deliberate. It’s what he would have wanted.

Vel – 7.0
73-75 Whitley Street, RG2 0EG
0118 9758551

https://eat-vel.co.uk/
jus

Soju

One question I’m often asked is: why are your reviews so bloody long?

Well, it’s a reasonable observation. When I wrote a piece for Claire Slobodian, editrix of Explore Reading and the town’s Queen Of All Media, she gave me a word count of 800 words and expressed some scepticism about whether I’d be able to stick to it. “You normally haven’t even got round to talking about the food in one of your reviews by then” she said. A fair cop, I suppose: there’s always something to be said first about the context. There’s scene-setting to do, not to mention introducing the person you’re going to dinner with. And if all else fails, I can always get on my well-worn soapbox and pontificate about Reading (although not Caversham: heaven knows I’ve learned that lesson). The first eight hundred words fly by – to write, anyway, if not necessarily to read.

The problem is that, this week, that’s harder to do than usual. After all, Soju isn’t Reading’s only Korean restaurant. It’s not even the first: Gooi Nara up on Whitley Street opened before Soju (and I had a lovely time when I went there). It’s not necessarily that unique within the gastronomic Bond villain lair that is Atlantis Village – or whatever it’s called at the time of writing – because small chain Pho opened just across the way offering Vietnamese food (and I had an okay time when I went there). So where’s the angle? There probably isn’t one, but on the other hand Soju is a genuinely independent restaurant in a prime central spot in town, and it’s traded for a while without coming a cropper. That has to be worth a visit, I thought.

I went with Zoë, who started out as a Twitter acquaintance before becoming a very good friend. Was there an angle there? Well, no: Zoë knows even more about beer than my beer friend Tim does, so really I should have taken her to Bierhaus. But neither of us really fancied schnitzel and knuckles, so we turned up to Soju on a weekday evening not knowing quite what to expect and ready to take our chances. “I’ve gone for lunch a few times and they catered a work event for me recently, will that do?” said Zoë. Probably not, I decided. So there you go – no real angle, limited preamble. Maybe I’d just have to talk about the food the way proper restaurant reviewers do.

The room, not to put too fine a point on it, was a big black box. Not in a sleek sophisticated way, but in a way that suggested it was only a lick of paint away from being a big white box. Despite the sturdy tables, each with a barbecue hot plate in the middle, and the decent-looking chairs, it felt more like a canteen than a restaurant: no soft furnishings, nothing on the walls, no whistles and bells. You could see the pass and the kitchen beyond but that back wall looked messy and cluttered.

Despite that, it was packed when we turned up at about eight o’clock. The majority of the tables were occupied, with a long table for over a dozen people right next to us, a big family function with several generations dipping in to hot pots and barbecued meats. Nearly all the other diners were either Korean or Chinese, as far as I could tell. Our table had a gadget on it with a button you pressed when you were ready to order, which I assume worked although I was never entirely sure one way or the other.

The menu was divided up into starters and mains with separate sections for hot pot and Korean barbecue. We fancied trying a bit of everything, so when our waitress came over we ordered a couple of appetisers, then some barbecue and finally a couple of rice dishes. We started drinking a Hite – Korean lager, which I found pleasant and crisp, if a tad featureless – and waited for the food to arrive.

“This isn’t bad. It tastes like a Radler, or a little like a white beer like Hoegaarden” said Zoë. I nodded sagely as if I knew what she was talking about, even though all I remember about Hoegaarden is that they used to serve it in Bar Casa, where Chennai Dosa is now, and that every time I drank it I woke up the next morning feeling like I’d been trepanned with a rusty corkscrew.

The first dish to arrive knocked it out of the park so comprehensively that I wondered whether anything would be able to match it. Dak-gang jeong, or fried chicken, was properly magnificent – tender chicken (thigh, I think), in a glorious batter and coated in a hot, sour, sticky, punchy sauce and scattered with sesame seeds. We picked away at it with our metal chopsticks, quite unable to believe our luck. First there was silence, then there were big grins and then came the superlatives.

“That might be the best fried chicken I’ve ever had – better than any Cantonese stuff” said Zoë. Coming from someone who, like me, ate at Woodley’s Hong Kong Garden a lot as a child, this compliment carried no little weight, but I think she was probably right.

“I even prefer it to KFC” I said, which was also quite the compliment (don’t judge). But not only that, it was finer than the boneless chilli chicken at Namaste Kitchen, or the tori kara age at Misugo. Better still, it improved as the meal went on and the pieces we hadn’t yet got round to cooled slightly. The remaining sauce on the plate was greedily used as a dip with anything else that came to hand. The following day, Zoë and I exchanged messages admitting that we were both daydreaming about the chicken, and it was nice to know it wasn’t just me.

The kimchee pancake was less exciting. I’d expected good things based on other reviews I’d seen but it was just stodgy and carby, with barely a hint of kimchee at all. That might have been because I ate it after the chicken by which point my taste buds had been slightly numbed, but I still expected more. It was pleasant enough, though, dipped in the sweet soy that they brought with it.

This was the point in the meal where things started to go wrong in terms of timing. I had deliberately ordered in such a way to suggest that we’d like the starters first, then the barbecue and then the mains, but in no time at all literally everything else we had ordered was brought to our table, with no rhyme or reason. This was odd in plenty of ways – firstly because it meant that there was an awful lot of food sitting in front of you with no structure, but secondly because there was no room to switch on the hot plate, which made me wonder why they’d brought the barbecued meat at all (not that we were given any advice on how to start up the barbecue or where to put the glass cover, for that matter).

Fortunately, the food was really quite something. Oh-jing-uh bok-geum, or squid in spicy sauce, was a beautiful dish, if hard to describe. The squid was tender, but what made it was the sauce, rich with garlic and chilli and also something which might have been fish sauce. It was savoury without any hint of sweetness, and somehow more interesting than any Indian, Thai or even Vietnamese dishes I’d had. And it had some heat, but it was the kind of clever heat you didn’t mind. My only frustration was that serving the dish up spread out on a low flat plate meant that it went cold quicker than I’d have liked, and that it was difficult to get all the sauce off and mix it with the plain white rice. I waxed lyrical to Zoë that rice and sauce was always the best bit of dishes like this, even though I always say that.

The chicken dolsot bibimbap, served in a hot stone bowl, was almost as good. It’s one of those dishes you assemble when it turns up, stirring the bright orange egg yolk in and letting it continue to cook in the bowl. I wasn’t sure there was enough heat in the bowl – I did manage to burn my thumb on it like the klutz I am, but there was no sizzle and none of the beautiful crispy scraped bits of rice towards the end that I associate with this dish. I probably would have liked a bit more chicken in it, too, but even so it was a gorgeous, understated thing. The hot sauce it came with added pungency and punch (and was also good with the kimchee pancake dipped in it) but the really impressive thing was how subtly it all came together, the egg binding it without being cloying and the ribbons of courgette studded through it cooling things down beautifully without being bland.

“This beer goes so well with all this” said Zoë, “You start out thinking it’s too bland but it cleans the palate so well between mouthfuls.” She was right, so we ordered another bottle each and asked the waitress ever so nicely if she’d turn our hot plate on after clearing our empty dishes away. Not the biggest issue in the world, but odd that a restaurant which gives you a whizzy gadget to summon a member of staff to your table didn’t show quite as much sophistication about when the food arrives.

We’d only gone for one Korean barbecue dish, the pyeon gal-bi, boneless short rib marinated in sweet soy sauce. This came in long sections with some mushrooms and what I imagine was sweet potato, along with some tongs to turn it on the grill and some scissors – on the blunt side, as it turned out – to cut it into long strips. We also ordered some ssam, essentially lettuce leaves to wrap the beef in before eating, along with some very thick batons of cucumber and carrot and some cloves of garlic, which we immediately lobbed on the hot plate. I wasn’t convinced by the ssam – a lot of it was stuff I didn’t want, and at five pounds fifty it felt like a bit much for what was fundamentally a naked salad.

On the grill, of course, the magic took effect and things were a very different matter. The beef was sweet and soft, there was a reasonable amount of it and it was properly delicious wrapped in the lettuce leaves and dipped eagerly in the barbecue sauce and seasoned sesame oil.

“It would be good to come back with a big group of people and properly attack the barbecue menu” I said, mindful of how much fun the long table next to us seemed to be having.

“Definitely” said Zoë, and I could already see that, like me, she was mentally assembling a guest list.

There was no dessert menu that I could see, and I was slightly too full and not quite persuasive enough to talk Zoë into my preferred dessert option, namely more fried chicken. So we finished our beers and settled up, replete and happy with our choices. Dinner came to sixty-four pounds, not including tip, which I thought pretty reasonable considering how very enjoyable the meal had been. We did tip, of course, because things have to be exceptionally bad before I do that, but service was probably best described as pleasantly distant.

Sitting at the table, waiting for our bill to arrive, we compared notes on the rating and I was pleased to see that we really weren’t very far apart: Zoë, by contrast, was positively relieved. The problem with having no real angle for this review is that the rating might take a lot of you by surprise but, really, I liked Soju an awful lot. It’s far from perfect – our food should have been staggered better, some of the pricing is a little erratic and some of the plating could be better done. And it’s in Atlantis Village, for goodness sake, which is right up there with the Oracle in terms of being the bad guys (how Dolce Vita has survived in that cut throat hotbed of capitalism I’ll never know).

But all that aside, Soju was busy and bustling, it’s properly truly independent and somehow resolutely uncommercial, despite the snazzy website and the attempt to impose sophistication mainly through the liberal application of black paint (the Rolling Stones principle, as it were). And I had a fantastic night, and ate a few dishes unlike anything else I’d had in Reading. And the fried chicken. And the fried chicken. So no clever angle this week, just a surprisingly good meal somewhere I’d like to go again. Maybe I did finally manage to just talk about the food, the way proper reviewers do. Also, did I mention the fried chicken?

Soju – 8.1
9-11 Kings Walk, RG1 2HG
0118 3348162

https://www.thesoju.co.uk/

The Real Greek

Well, you were meant to get a review of Brewdog this week, but nothing quite went according to plan. I turned up there with Steve, a long time reader of the blog who attended my first readers’ lunch at the start of the year, and right from the off things weren’t promising. We entered the cacophonous main room and found a spare table round to the left which was just about comfortable enough. Just about.

“I wish I’d brought my glasses” said Steve. Steve is wry, wise and silver-haired, knows an awful lot about food, catering and restaurants and he’s had more jobs – and stories about them – than I’ve had hot dinners. “This is the first time I’ve ever been in a restaurant and not been able to read the menu.”

I looked at the menu, all in the sort of distressed font that hints of a typewriter ribbon on its last legs. It was all burgers and dogs and puns (“Cluck Norris”, “Soy Division”) and, I’m afraid, it induced mild to moderate weariness.

“I thought it was table service here. It was when I came here for a drink the weekend it opened, but now I’m not sure.” I said.

Minutes passed.

“I’ll go up to the bar” I said.

As luck would have it, the night I planned to review Brewdog the team from Explore Reading was there to review the drinks and the food. They had a nice booth (not jealous, not at all) and were already a few beers under way. I wondered: did that make Steve and I the Jets or the Sharks? Was Steve nifty on his feet? Should I have brought backup?

At the bar, the Explore delegation told me that there had been a mix-up in the kitchen and they wouldn’t be taking food orders for half an hour. It was already eight o’clock and that, I’m afraid, is where I decided that life was too short. I looked over at the Explore table again. These were Reading’s hip young gunslingers: one of them was in her twenties, for crying out loud. I went back to our table.

“Come on,” I said to Steve, “we’re going.”

That’s how we found ourselves walking back across town as I frantically consulted my list for a Plan B and that’s how we ended up in the Real Greek, on the Oracle Riverside. I turned up, in truth, with no great enthusiasm; I hadn’t heard brilliant reports, unless you include the countless enthusiastic – and comped – blog reviews shortly after it opened last year, back when you couldn’t get in without a reservation.

But going through the doors on a midweek evening I actually found myself thinking how nice it looked – almost like a slightly more upmarket Pizza Express, with biggish tables and handsome chairs along the outside of the room and a section of sort of open booths in the middle. I wouldn’t have fancied one of those, as they seemed to be hard benches with no visible padding. I guess the sort of people who enjoyed an evening in Brewdog might have gone for them, I found myself thinking.

Steve and I persuaded the waiter to give us a round table for three, so as to improve both our views and give us the room to order everything we wanted, and had a look through the menu. It was proper small plates territory, with a range of hot and cold meze and, if you needed some inspiration, a range of suggested set menus down the right.

So far so good, but the menu also meticulously listed the calorie count for every dish on the menu. I really wasn’t a fan of this: it’s bad enough seeing the traffic lights on ready meals in Marks, without it starting to invade restaurants. Surely restaurants were meant to be a haven where you didn’t have to put up with all that? Ironically, it put me off ordering dishes at both ends of the spectrum: I like a bit of taramasalata, but when a portion was just shy of a thousand calories? And I love octopus, but if it’s only 161 calories how much of it do you really get for £7.50?

The menu recommended three to four mezes per person, so naturally – despite my niggles about calories – we ordered nine between us: Steve may run marathons, but I just knew that he was a trencherman beneath that wiry exterior. Our waiter turned up with two cold bottles of Mythos, cracked them open simultaneously and poured them at the same time into our glasses. Like all magic tricks you can’t remember how it’s done, don’t want to and, afterwards, struggle to describe it.

“That’s nicely done, isn’t it?” said Steve, which I rather felt gave me permission to be impressed.

We chatted away about our recent holidays – Porto for Steve, Bologna for me – and the first set of dishes arrived. The other gimmick at The Real Greek is that your sharing plates arrive in a tall stack, like afternoon tea. That might be your bag, it might not: I found it irksome but it was easy to take them off the rack and spread them out on the table as nature intended. If I’d been at a smaller table for two, it might have properly got on my nerves.

We started with some of the cold mezze. Revithia, which looked like a plate of lightly bruised chick peas, were delicious, singing with lemon and mint, a beautifully fresh and bright dish. The dolmades was also very good – light, crumbly and again rich with mint, not remotely claggy or glutinous. Only the Greek flatbread disappointed. It wasn’t piping hot, and it felt like maybe it had been sitting around a little too long before coming to our table. I think if I’d realised just how unlike a dip the revithia was, we wouldn’t necessarily have ordered it, and it seemed a little cheeky to charge an extra three quid for olive oil and dukkah.

Despite that, Steve and I made our way through the whole lot, waiting to be disappointed. By the end, we realised that disappointment had not come and, for the first time, I wondered if this meal was going to outperform my expectations. The waiter brought a bottle of Greek white (Makedonikos, apparently) which was fresh, not sweet and not sharp, and tasted really quite a lot like being on holiday, as some of the best wine does.

“It’s a good atmosphere in here” said Steve, taking in our surroundings. “Everyone seems to be having a nice time.”

It’s a little point, perhaps, but Steve was right. None of the tables seemed to have the grim note of contractual obligation, nobody seemed to be there because they had vouchers or had run out of ideas. Perhaps we’d just stumbled on the place on a really auspicious evening – or perhaps it was euphoria at having escaped from Brewdog – but as I took another sip of my wine I found I was really quite enjoying myself. Steve was telling me about his small granddaughter’s quest to notch up a Michelin star a year (she made one establishment make her a dish completely off menu, which makes her sound far more fearsome than any mere reviewer), and about wife number one and job number sixteen and I thought: how lucky I am that people read the blog and want to come to dinner with me.

The rest of the dishes rather came all at once, which actually was my failing rather than the restaurant’s. It’s weird how when you’re in a chain to some extent you act like you’re in a chain, and you order like you’re in a chain. If The Real Greek had been an independent place, another Namaste Kitchen, I would have ordered some dishes, eaten them, kept the menu and then ordered some more, but because it was a chain and the menu told you how many dishes to order, I ordered them all in one go. With hindsight, that was a mistake, but it didn’t stop everything we ate being good at the very least and often far more than that.

Particular highlights from the hot mezze included the pork belly, cooked so perfectly that you could almost have mistaken it for chicken thigh, all crispy skin and layers of meat, every bit of fat rendered to nothing. Steve and I did a very English equivalent of fighting over it, which involved each of us saying “no, you have the last piece” ad infinitum. We were similarly polite over the halloumi fries, salty and light and pretty close to perfect, especially dipped in the minted yoghurt. The least successful dish was the calamari, which turned up looking so much like octopus that I worried we’d ordered the wrong thing. That wouldn’t have mattered so much, but it wasn’t quite as fresh as promised and that made it harder going than either of us would have liked. When we said “no, you have the last piece”, we actually meant it.

What else? Lamb kefta was more like a single lamb burger than a kebab or meatballs, but it was still delicious and far nicer than it looked. I felt like there was a hint of feta smuggled away in it somewhere, but that could have been a trick of the light, or the white wine slightly skewing matters. Salt cod fritters were also light and delightful, with plenty of fish, not bulked out with spuds. Again, the lemon mayonnaise that came with it was spot on.

Finally, Steve’s favourite, the loukanika: three whacking great slabs of pork and beef sausage with a deep red smoked chilli relish. I had huge reservations about this, mainly because it screamed stealth spam, but it was beautiful – coarse, firm, juicy and with just enough spice. The relish set it off perfectly. Steve liked it so much he sent me a message the next day saying that he was daydreaming about eating it again (and Steve’s one of the only people I know who can send such a message without even the faintest hint of smut).

“This is really good, isn’t it? I can’t find much wrong with it.” I said, giving away I’m afraid that I had fully expected to turn up to an Oracle Riverside chain restaurant and find shitloads of issues, and that I was a tad perplexed that I couldn’t.

“Yes, it is” said Steve. Were we having a shared hallucination? Had they put ayahuasca in our Mythos?

We pressed on with dessert, because we were having too nice an evening to want to bring it to an end. That’s as noble a reason to order dessert as any, but the decision provided probably the meal’s biggest misfire in the shape of my baklava – a big stodgy slab with no real crunch or subtlety, no layers, no sticky sweetness. What you got instead was some faintly damp pastry, and a big claggy layer of crushed nuts, and the whole thing was cold and unimpressive. You got better baklava, back in the day, eating Georgian food at the Turk’s Head and (trade secret alert) I have it on good authority that they bought theirs from Costco. Steve’s chocolate mousse cake was considerably nicer, if not remotely Greek. “Not bad” he said, between mouthfuls, “but they’ve definitely bought this in.”

Service was bright and personable from start to finish. Our waiter was Italian, which led to a long conversation about my recent holiday in Bologna (I took the lead on this), football (obviously Steve took the lead on this) and where a self-respecting Italian eats in Reading (Pepe Sale, unsurprisingly). He was very proud of the food, told us what to order next time and talked with real warmth about The Real Greek, having worked for years in the Windsor branch before transferring to Reading. No smarm, no encouraging us to post reviews on TripAdvisor, just genuine enthusiasm.

Dinner for two, not including service, came to eighty-eight pounds. Not the cheapest meal in the world, and although we probably could have ordered a couple of dishes fewer it was never going to be as cheap as living it up at Brewdog. But I had such an enjoyable meal that I really didn’t mind.

Afterwards, Steve and I compared notes. I rated the meal slightly more highly than he did, and we beetled off to the Allied Arms for a debrief, shivering under the heaters and pretending it was nearly summer. But the next day, he messaged me.

“I think I might have marked it a bit low on reflection. I think you were more on it.”

“It was really decent, wasn’t it? I’m struggling to find fault.”

“The waiter definitely contributed to the whole thing. Lovely to have someone so enthusiastic – I almost thought he was called Sandra.” Steve went on, referring to Zizzi’s legendary waitress, As Seen On TripAdvisor (“the Skripals would never have been poisoned in our branch of Zizzi”, my friend Tim once said to me, “Sandra would never have allowed it.”).

I think that exchange probably sums up the verdict on The Real Greek as well as anything. It wasn’t my first choice, I went there by accident and my expectations were firmly under control. And yet, quietly and unshowily, it did an absolutely cracking job. Irritating gimmicks, iffy bread and so-so desserts aside, we enjoyed a really tasty meal in a lovely, buzzy room. Nearly everything we had was good, much was very good and some was excellent. To my surprise, I would go back again, and I can see the appeal of gathering a group of friends and trying as much of the menu as possible. So I’d encourage you to put your reservations to one side when you read the rating at the bottom, because for a certain kind of evening – with fellow diners who play nicely – The Real Greek is as good an option as anywhere you can find in town. My only tip is to dig your heels in and order little and often: it may be a chain, but that should never stop you being independent-minded.

The Real Greek – 7.7
The Oracle, RG1 2AT
0118 9952270

http://www.therealgreek.com/reading/