Kungfu Kitchen

I love lists, to an extent which probably verges on unhealthy. At any given time I have several on my phone: things to do; shopping to get; household chores to finish; people to see. I enjoy the feeling you get – and if you’re wired like me, you’ll understand what I’m talking about – when you add something to a list for the sole reason of immediately ticking it off. Really, I ought to have a list of all my lists where I rank them in order of preference, but even I know that might be taking things too far.

Anybody with a to do list will also know that there’s always at least one thing on any to do list that you keep shunting to the bottom. You look at it, you’d like to be the kind of person who tackles it right away, but in the end you know you’re really the sort to leave it to another day. Some days, every item on your to do list looks like that: those are the days when personally, I’d rather just stay in bed.

Kungfu Kitchen, the Chinese restaurant on Christchurch Green, has been on my reviewing to do list all year without ever getting to the top. There’s a website, which is stunningly uninformative, and a Facebook page which has a couple of decent-looking photos but nothing more. They’re on Twitter, but they haven’t Tweeted this year. (N.B. Following this review Kungfu Kitchen has updated its website with a full menu – the link is at the end of this review – and has become much more active on Twitter.) The menu looked on the authentic side, as far as I could tell, but the Tripadvisor reviews were mixed to put it lightly. So my regular accomplice Zoë and I walked up the hill towards the university area with a certain degree of trepidation, not at all sure what to expect.

The restaurant operates out of the old Café Metro site on that row of shops, although confusingly it appears that Kungfu Kitchen may offer the old Café Metro menu until mid-afternoon. It was almost obscured by scaffolding on the night we visited, but it still looked very much like Café Metro, an establishment I never had the pleasure of visiting. Inside the tables still had vinyl on them, some of it listing various kinds of coffee, and there were sachets of sugar on the table (as you’d expect from a café, I suppose). You could be forgiven for thinking you hadn’t walked into a restaurant; only the big group of Chinese diners on the central table, gleefully attacking a hot pot, gave the game away.

This could have seemed intimidating, but our welcome was immediate, warm and genuine. The owner bounded to the front of the restaurant and ushered us to a table for two, before pushing the adjacent table up to it (“to give you more room”). She then asked a question not enough people ask in restaurants.

“Is this your first time here?”

We said it was and she went off to get menus, explaining that one was more of a lunch menu (all noodles and dumplings) and the other was more conventional, main courses and rice. She also told us that two main courses would be more than enough for the two of us.

“We may need a little help picking” I said, aware of previous visits to more traditional Chinese restaurants where help from the staff had been far from forthcoming.

“I can definitely do that”, she smiled. “You just tell me what meat you want and then I can give you advice on which dishes to pick.”

“Thank you. We’ll probably want to stay away from chicken feet, intestines, that sort of thing.”

Another smile. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t make you eat that. Not on your first visit.”

From that point onwards I felt completely in safe hands, a feeling which lasted for the rest of the meal; I’m so used to getting indifferent service on duty that it was a real joy to find someone who was so enthusiastic about the food and so interested in explaining it to a complete amateur.

“She reminds me of Keti at Geo Café” said Zoë as the owner went to get us a couple of bottles of Tsing Tao (she had nodded approvingly when we said we’d like to dispense with glasses – “that’s how we Chinese drink beer”, she said). By this point a handful of other diners had arrived and the owner managed somehow to seat them without really breaking her conversation with us. She told us that they had been open for around six months and that things were going well so far. They got quite a few students in looking for advice, she said, so sometimes it felt half-restaurant and half-community centre.

Most of the dishes ranged between ten and twelve pounds, and we asked the owner to take us through her recommendations across the whole menu. If we wanted lamb, she said, we should either have the lamb in cumin or the lamb with enoki mushrooms and pickled cabbage (“we get the best pickled cabbage, from Thailand”). If we were happy with chicken on the bone she recommended the Szechuan fried chicken or the ‘stewed chicken with three cups sauce’ – “I can get them to make that for you boneless if you like”, she added. Or, if we wanted boneless chicken, she recommended the kung pao chicken.

“Isn’t that quite a common item on Chinese menus?” I asked, probably naively.

“The oil we use for ours is made up of thirteen different ingredients” she said, proudly. That was enough to make that decision for us. We were also tempted to get the lamb in cumin, but the owner told us about a shredded pork dish which wasn’t on the menu (“I’ll be printing a new menu next week” she told us. “I don’t think the English translations are accurate enough”) so we went for that.

“I’ll just bring one egg fried rice over, okay?” she said. “If you need more we can get you more but I don’t want you ordering too much food.”

Again, I was reminded of what good restaurateurs and good service do which bland, robotic, disinterested service never achieves: it’s not about having a transaction, it’s about building a relationship. It’s about sending you away satisfied, not exploited, and about making sure there’s a next time. God, I hope the food is good I thought to myself. I really wanted it to be.

I don’t feel like wringing out the suspense: it was. It really, really was. Our food arrived quite quickly – probably quicker than I would have chosen, but it was so good that after the first mouthful I felt like I’d spent quite enough of my life already not eating it.

The pork dish was made with minced rather than shredded pork and was quite exquisite, in a crimson sauce with long thin slivers of sweet onion and red pepper (“I think you call it capsicum”, the owner had explained). There was heat – the owner had asked us beforehand how much we were comfortable with, and of course we’d said “medium” – but after an initial catch in the throat I found it built slowly, almost symphonically. Best of all was the coriander strewn throughout, stems and all, giving it a fragrance and complexity that I completely adored. Who am I kidding? I can’t describe it in any more detail than that because I ate it, and the other dish, in some kind of euphoric daze.

If the pork was great, the kung pao chicken was if anything even greater. The sauce was thicker, glossier, slightly fruity without being sweet, slightly sour without being sharp and truly superb. It was an extremely generous helping of tender chicken and more crisp red pepper, elevated still further by plenty of crunchy, barely-cooked celery.

We spooned it into our little bowls, on top of a bed of pitch-perfect egg fried rice (you got just enough for two for a crazy two pounds fifty) and Zoë and I ate it in companionable, mute bliss, punctuated only by the occasional expletive. By the end, when we’d eaten practically everything, I resorted to picking off the remaining celery with my chopsticks like a sniper, dragging it through the remaining sauce before popping it in my mouth.

The owner asked if we liked it, although I suspect she already knew that we did. She had the sort of serene confidence which only comes from knowing that your restaurant serves fantastic food. “When that table up there saw your pork going past they changed their order to have some”, she said, and she did the same trick with us, walking past with the fried Szechuan chicken so we could make a mental note of it for next time. And of course we did, because after a few mouthfuls of my dinner I was already wondering when I could come back (“not without me you bloody don’t”, said Zoë).

Our dinner came to thirty-three pounds, not including tip, and as she was taking our payment the owner asked us if we’d put a review on TripAdvisor. She got some poor reviews, she said, from people who complained about the pricing and didn’t seem to understand that the restaurant was offering authentic Chinese food rather than bright orange takeaway fare. Another review said the restaurant was “blind to the only two white guys” – especially strange as all the other diners there on my visit were Chinese and I hadn’t felt anything but welcomed. I said something noncommittal about how I’d do what I could.

Partway through my meal, Zoë had said to me “this is the most excited I’ve seen you on a visit for the blog”, and she was right. Kungfu Kitchen is exactly the sort of under-the-radar gem that you long to discover every week writing a restaurant blog, but of course their comparative rarity is part of what makes them so special. It’s unpretentious, charming, low-key and undemonstratively superb. It doesn’t brag on Instagram, it doesn’t shout about its food anywhere, it just does what it does extremely well.

The last time I was this animated about a new restaurant discovery was when I reviewed Namaste Kitchen, nearly two years ago. So I did what I did that time: to ensure that Kungfu Kitchen was as good as I thought it was, I went back. A couple of days later, with Zoe in tow again, I schlepped up the hill to try more of their food. The owner wasn’t there on that occasion, but we sat down and placed our order, drank our Tsing Tao and waited to see what happened. And then she came through the front door, seemingly back from some kind of errand. She recognised us immediately.

“You were here two days ago!” she said.

“We couldn’t stay away.”

“What did you order this time?”

“We’ve gone for the lamb in cumin, the braised pork belly and the Szechuan fried chicken.”

“Those are good choices. I nearly picked the lamb for you last time. And the pork belly melts in the mouth, you will like it. Have the fried chicken with your beer, not with the rice, that makes the most of the flavour. But you have ordered too much food. I would have told you, if I’d been here.”

In this, as in everything else, she was one hundred per cent correct. It looks like I may have a new favourite restaurant.

Kungfu Kitchen – 8.4
80 Christchurch Road, RG2 7AZ
07587 577966

https://kungfureading.co.uk

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Revolución de Cuba

Let’s get this out of the way straight away: it’s not a typo, you don’t need to adjust your set and you definitely don’t have to pay Specsavers a visit. This really is a review of Revolución de Cuba, Reading’s Latin American bar slash (chain) restaurant.

You might wonder what possessed me. Here’s what – I’ve been complaining for some time about Reading lacking a good tapas restaurant, a feeling which was compounded by a holiday in Granada at the start of the month. I returned even more bereft that I couldn’t find somewhere good to eat jamon, manchego, croquetas or chorizo in cider (let’s not dwell on the fact that in Granada you get something free with every beer: one step at a time).

On my first day back in Reading I sat in the courtyard outside Workhouse Coffee and ate paneer from Bhel Puri House while enjoying a crisp Estrella from the hotel bar next door, and it made a decent substitute but I still found myself wishing Reading had somewhere more suitable. That’s when the idea of trying the tapas menu at Revolución de Cuba entered my head.

After all, it might have been a chain but it was hardly a big one: less than twenty branches across the UK. And although it was part of the same group as Revolution, I’d been pleasantly surprised when I went to Revolution on duty back in 2015 (that said, I’d never been back, probably assuming that lightning never strikes twice in the same place). So on a Monday night I mooched over to Friar Street with my regular dining companion Zoë, wondering if my expectations would be surpassed.

My first impression was that it’s a striking – and gigantic – space. It used to be the old HMV building (I have plenty of happy memories of those days) and Revolución de Cuba waited a long time to open here, initially applying to take over the site in late 2014 and wrangling with the council before eventually opening two years later. The fit out had been nicely done – the long bar down the left looked especially inviting – and the room went back a very long way indeed, gradually getting darker and more conspiratorial.

Actually, that was probably my second impression. My first impression was that I wasn’t sure if I was in a bar or a restaurant, whether I could just plonk myself at a table or wait to be seated and whether it was bar or table service. We stood waiting near the front like lemons for some time before a solitary waitress told us to sit anywhere, before going on to explain that the two areas nearest to the front were probably more suitable for dining.

That might have been a more useful distinction at weekends when the place was busier, but when I went the place was pretty dead; there was a couple sitting at the tables nearest to the window, but the only thing they seemed to be eating was each other (in broad daylight on a Monday evening: I didn’t know whether to be appalled or impressed). Gladly they put their coats on and left seconds later – headed for the nearest Travelodge, I imagine – so we took the table next to where they’d been sitting. Was it my imagination, or did the banquette reek of sex?

The menu looked nice enough, although I don’t think it was the thing that had got them so frisky. It was divided into tapas and main plates, and was a mixture of Spanish, Tex-Mex and general 2019 box-ticking (halloumi, pulled jackfruit and so on). The tapas tended to come in around the six pound mark with three for fourteen pounds, so we decided to go for that, along with a couple of sides. While we waited for our food to turn up I had a pint of Angry Orchard which was just what I needed and not too dry (albeit oddly named: why so cross? Had it been reading the BBC website?) and Zoë had a bottle of Pacifico Clara, a serviceable crisp lager not that distinguishable from Modelo.

We’d asked for some guacamole and tortilla chips while we made up our mind, so this was the first thing to come out. A sign on the wall said it was freshly made, and although I wasn’t entirely sure it had been made to order it was decent, with just a little heat lurking in there. The previous week I’d been to Wahaca on the South Bank and their guacamole was better (as I had expected it to be) but not by a country mile. The tortilla chips were a little wan and not quite up to the job of dipping but again, for three pounds I was hardly devastated.

The tricky bit is what happened next: all the rest of our food was brought out at once. This wasn’t a problem in itself: god knows I’ve been known to bitch about the likes of Wagamama bringing out dishes as and when they’re ready, but for tapas this style of serving seems much more appropriate. But the real problem was that although the dishes were all brought out at the same time, some of them had clearly been sitting around a while. So much of what should have been piping hot was verging on tepid, and in many cases that made a world of difference.

Take the chorizo in red wine and honey, for instance. Done well, this is a superb dish – I had something very similar in Granada – but Revolución de Cuba’s version was cold. Not fridge-cold, but cooked-some-time-ago-cold. It came in a terra cotta pot without any steam or sizzle, and the pot was cold to the touch. So, pretty much, was the chorizo which made me wonder if it had spent any time in the sauce or just been introduced to it right at the end like some kind of super-awkward culinary blind date. It had been cut into weirdly-shaped segments by somebody who appeared never to have seen or eaten chorizo before.

The patatas bravas – a staple of any tapas menu – were also distinctly underwhelming. They had been placed on the mat in the middle of the table as if they’d be scorching hot, but again they weren’t. There just wasn’t the crispiness I was hoping for, and the helping of spicy sauce and aioli was both disappointing and miserly: there should have been more of it, but I wasn’t especially sad that there wasn’t.

Better were the pork belly skewers, which were well cooked, all fat melted away and a crispy-crackling layer on top. I’m not sure I got the “signature spicy rum sauce” which had apparently been used, but I wasn’t complaining. These reminded me of the pork belly at The Real Greek, which is higher praise than it might sound.

I also enjoyed the jerk fried chicken, although that says more about my love of fried chicken than of Revolución de Cuba’s version. It was nicely seasoned, if a little too crunchy, and it didn’t need the rum mayo I didn’t dip it in. But even here it could have stood with being hotter, and although the texture was a long way from mechanically recovered meat, they didn’t feel like single pieces of coated chicken. Make of that what you will.

The more Latin American dishes we’d ordered were the ones that really fell flat. Chicken quesadillas might have been average if they’d been served hot but they arrived much closer to room temperature, wan anaemic things it was difficult to get excited about. We’d also ordered pulled beef tostadas, but the beef itself was claggy, bland and lukewarm. You didn’t get much of it before the dish gave way to the (cheaper) guacamole underneath and the tortilla shell, which pretty much made it the dish we’d started the meal with. The Cuban term for this beef is ropa vieja, which it turns out doesn’t translate as old rope: a shame, as it would have been apt.

Finally, we also had some crispy fried courgette. Well, two out of three anyway: it was indeed courgette but cut thick enough that getting it crispy was always going to be a challenge. I didn’t mind this, but even as I ate it I was aware of how many places do it better (especially Papa Gee). It was apparently served with Cuban gremolata, although barely enough to be noticeable, and if it had been fried in “Mojito batter” you really wouldn’t have known that either.

“This is a menu that reads much better than the food looks or tastes, isn’t it?” I said to Zoë as we surveyed the plates (mostly empty, although neither of us had shown much interest in the insipid chorizo).

“I’m afraid so. I’d come back for the guacamole, the chicken and the pork belly but that’s it.” I thought about it and tended to agree: three out of eight wasn’t exactly a stellar hit rate. I reflected on the other reviews I’d seen of Revolución de Cuba, so breathless, so enthusiastic, so positive. So comped, come to think of it. We decided to skip the churros (no doubt described somewhere on the internet as “yummy”) and asked for the bill. The whole lot – six tapas dishes, two sides, a pint and two beers – came to just under fifty pounds, not including tip. That’s not an expensive meal by most standards, but even at that price point your money would go much further in a many other places.

So far so meh, but I do have to say a word about the service. Georgina, who looked after us (and, seemingly, everyone else in Revolución de Cuba that night) was lovely – personable, polite and likeable. She came over halfway through – mid-mouthful, as wait staff always do – to check if our food was okay and we both muttered the usual pleasantries. But when she came with the bill she asked more than once, as if she actually wanted to know. So we told her. The food all came out at the same time because that’s how the kitchen did it, she said. We explained that it might be better not to and that some of the food had been cold as a result. She promised to feed that back, and I believe she did (every bit as much as I expect that feedback fell on deaf ears).

In conversation with Zoë, who tends to ask lots of questions, Georgina told us that she was studying for a Masters in criminology (a part-time job which involves looking out on Friar Street on a Friday and Saturday night probably forms part of her dissertation, come to think of it). It can be rare in chain restaurants to feel looked after rather than processed, and Revolución de Cuba would have got a lower mark if it wasn’t for the service. I wanted to tip her extra, just for enduring the canoodling couple from earlier on (“it was definitely heavy petting”, said Zoë later, “you’d get kicked out of a swimming pool for that”).

I never saw Revolución de Cuba as the kind of place I might eat on a Friday or Saturday night – I’m far too old and unfashionable for that – but I did hope it might be a serviceable small plates restaurant for a school night, or a spot of lunch on the weekend. Sadly, I think it doesn’t quite hit that level either. Some of the dishes are decent enough, but you can get them better elsewhere – Mission is better for tacos or burritos, The Real Greek better for small plates and Bhel Puri House better still. Whenever I ask what chain restaurant people would most like to see in Reading the response is overwhelming: people would love a Wahaca to open here. Based on my visit to Revolución de Cuba that gap in the market is still there. My own personal gap in the market also remains empty: if I want to feel like I’m in Andalusia, I’m going to have to get on a plane.

Revolución de Cuba – 6.6
138-141 Friar Street, RG1 1EX
0118 2077016
https://www.revoluciondecuba.com/bar/reading/

Da Village

I remember being irked when Comptoir Libanais opened in its fancy new space on the Oracle Riverside. It felt like such a lazy attempt to steal custom from my beloved Bakery House: didn’t the people going there know that just across the IDR you could get much better, far cheaper Lebanese food from a proudly independent restaurant which had been there for years? Was being able to drink really enough consolation for such underwhelming food?

In reality, perhaps I was just peeved by another chain opening in a town which really doesn’t need any more. I certainly wasn’t so annoyed when Bakery House itself opened, when there was already another Lebanese restaurant in town (La Courbe, which did good food but never quite transcended being a big glass box that did good food). This crossed my mind this week when I decided to visit Da Village, an Afghan restaurant which opened in January on the Oxford Road, literally a handful of doors down from Kobeeda Palace, an Afghan restaurant on the Oxford Road. Couldn’t they have opened somewhere else? I remembered when I first got reports of it opening, at the end of last year. “Oh God” people on Twitter said, “Kobeeda Palace must be closing.”

“I suppose there can only be a few possibilities” I said to my friend Yasir as he drove us to the nearby Tesco car park. “Either there’s such a big Afghan community that it can support two restaurants, or they’re really going after Kobeeda Palace, or they’ve made a huge misjudgement.”

“I guess so” said Yasir, pulling into an empty space. I’ve known Yasir for years – we first worked together over fifteen years ago, and in the intervening time both of us have done a very patchy job of growing up. Yasir’s family are from Islamabad, not that far from the border with Afghanistan, and he knows that cuisine better than most people I know. Not only that, but he makes some of the best kofte kebabs I’ve ever tasted. If anybody was the right person to test out Da Village with, it was Yasir.

“By the way, when you say the words ‘Da Village’, do you think of…”

“…Ali G? Definitely.”

The windows of Da Village are tinted so you can’t see in, so I was surprised when we went in to find it was a pretty nice space, pleasingly spacious with pretty big tables. The chairs looked comfy too, although when I tried to pick it up by the handle at the top of the backrest it came away in my hand: impressive going for a restaurant barely three months old.

But anyway, it was a nice room. There were some hanging plants breaking the room into smaller sections, tasteful lighting and some art along one wall – a selection of pictures of landscapes, a quote by Alexander the Great saying “God must have loved Afghans because he made them so beautiful”. That was superimposed over the classic National Geographic portrait Afghan Girl, which I’d seen many times but not realised was connected to Afghanistan.

“I’ve seen that photo before somewhere.” I said.

“Oh yes, it’s basically the Afghan Mona Lisa” said Yasir. “It’s a very famous image.”

The eyes followed you round the room, which was no mean feat when you were in the same seat throughout the meal.

The other thing that wasn’t a hundred per cent clear was whether Da Village was a takeaway or an eat in restaurant. The menu blazed away on big screens above the counter but when we asked the waitress ushered us to sit down, so it transpired that it was both. The menu was wider than that at Kobeeda Palace, with kebabs and wraps, burgers, food from the grill, curries and biryanis. Yasir and I quickly came to an agreement to eat three meals between two and pretend one of them was a starter, the by now traditional approach of passing off greed as research. We slurped at a mango lassi each as we waited for our food to arrive – pretty good, but I wished you could buy a jug of the stuff, like you could at Kobeeda Palace for not much more money.

I’d really wanted to try Da Village’s interpretation of chapli kebabs, having enjoyed other versions in the past. It’s a dish technically from the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan – flattened, fried lamb kebabs absolutely studded with chilli – and I had a good feeling about them as soon as they reached the table.

I wasn’t wrong: if I’d liked them before, I truly loved them this time. They managed to marry the outer crunch perfectly with the firm, coarse centre, tender without being dry. They came with salad, a naan and three dips and assembling mouthful after mouthful was so enjoyable that I only realised partway through how effectively the heat had crept up on me and started dabbing my nose with a second napkin.

One dip was a deep red hot sauce, with a little smoke and pungency, but better was the verdant green dip which combined sweet mint and a little chilli. The naan was suspiciously circular and lacking in bubbles or airiness, and that made it difficult to use to scoop and dip, but it tasted nice enough. We happily ploughed through a kebab each but in the back of my mind I was thinking that I would gladly come back and have a couple to myself, especially for the princely sum of eight pounds.

“These are as good as any I’ve had in Reading” said Yasir, whose capacity for heat was unsurprisingly greater than mine. We also had a starter, “Da Village hot potatoes” which was simply some cubed fried potatoes served in the same red sauce that came with the chapli kebabs. They were okay, but the potatoes were waxy, too firm and a little undercooked, without enough of the texture of a really good fried potato.

“There are a lot of desis in this restaurant” said Yasir. “That’s a good sign.”

“What are desis?”

“You know – Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis… it’s a general term.”

“That’s useful to know – I always worry about saying there are lots of Indians in a restaurant in case it sounds a bit, I don’t know, colonial.”

Yasir looked at me as if I’d said the stupidest thing on earth.

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with saying a restaurant is full of Indians.”

“Isn’t there?”

“No, not at all.”

“It feels like such a minefield. I’ve been criticised in the past for that kind of thing. And anyway, you’re always joking about taking bombs on holiday and you refer to anybody who isn’t a Muslim as an ‘infidel’. Are you the best judge of these things?”

He grinned wolfishly. “Possibly not.”

Yasir’s main course was a double kobeeda kebab – a kofte, as it’s otherwise known. As a Muslim, Yasir can only eat halal meat but, for reasons best known to him, he refuses to eat most meat because he doesn’t like the texture. Or, as he used to put it when we worked together, “I can’t have solid meat in my mouth but I do love mince” (and if at this point you’re imagining Larry Grayson I’d say you’re not a million miles from the truth).

He generously let me try some of his kofte and I liked it very much – very firm and coarse and perhaps not as wet and pappy as it might be at other establishments. Ironically, that’s why Yasir preferred the kobeeda from a couple of doors down: it takes all sorts, I suppose. It needed more sauce (and perhaps we should have asked for some, given that we’d used most of ours on the chapli kebabs) but it was still tasty and excellent value at nine pounds. The rice it came with was pleasant enough, but not in the same league as at, say, Bakery House.

I had chosen the karahi chicken, as my reference dish in Afghan restaurants. It came to the table with all the sizzle and steam you could hope for, and it looked the part. But it was, on some levels at least, all mouth and no trousers: the sauce lacked depth and complexity and was more peppery than spicy. I would have liked some ginger in it, or heaps of coriander, but instead it was a very glossy and extremely oily sauce that did all its shouting up front without enough to back it up.

The meat was on the bone and some of it was very easy to get off – some pieces, on the other hand, had so little meat that it hardly felt worth the bother. They brought another naan with the karahi and this dish was where it really disappointed – not enough lightness or flexibility to allow for the proper scooping that would have transformed the experience.

Our mostly-empty plates sat in front of us for some time after we admitted defeat, during which time the restaurant started to fill up with friends and families. Our waitress, who had been lovely all evening, rather forgot about us at this point, although she did eventually bring the bill when we waved her down and boxed up some leftover kobeeda and chapal kebab for Yasir’s lunch the next day. We didn’t mind: it was nice to catch up, to gossip and to reminisce. Around us plenty of buddies were doing the same, and if they thought we were misfits they certainly didn’t let on. Our dinner for two – more food than we could eat and a couple of mango lassis – came to thirty-three pounds, not including service.

“I wish I could have the chapli from this place and the kofte from Kobeeda Palace in a single restaurant” said Yasir. “And the sauces from Bakery House! I really love their orange chilli sauce, I could eat that all day.”

“I love the chapli here too, but I preferred the kobeeda here. But the karahi chicken at Kobeeda Palace is miles better.”

We argued the toss a little longer – designing our own little Top Trumps deck of Reading restaurants – and not for the first time I found myself thinking that restaurants are often about compromises. You rarely get everything you want in a single package, but that’s even more complicated when your closest competitor is literally the closest – a few doors down and offering the same dishes, in a slightly different way and at a slightly different price.

I can imagine there are people out there who have never been to Kobeeda Palace and might chance upon Da Village first, drawn in by the slightly fancier exterior. Maybe they would like it better, because you never forget your first love. Maybe they’ll be the Coke and Pepsi of Reading’s Afghan restaurants, and everybody will have a different favourite. I liked Da Village a lot, and some of its dishes are definitely better than their Kobeeda Palace equivalents. But I’m a sentimental soul, and will I ever really stop at Da Village when I could walk another minute down the Oxford Road and go to the original and best? I don’t know: maybe two or three times out of ten, and maybe not. Perhaps we should just be glad that Reading has two decent Afghan restaurants, even if they could be a little more helpfully spaced out.

On the walk back to the car park we went past Kobeeda Palace. The lights were on, you could see through the windows and the place was buzzing and packed. Rather unworthily, my instinctive reaction was to smile. That’s right, you show them, I thought to myself.

Da Village – 7.0

387 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA
0118 4378657

https://www.facebook.com/pg/Da-Village-Restaurant-Reading-274014666628458/about/

Persia House

This is my second attempt to review Persia House, the new Iranian restaurant tucked away on the other side of Caversham Bridge, and it differs from my first attempt in one important respect: I turned up when the restaurant was actually open (nearly six years writing this blog, and still so amateurish at times). I’d wanted to go for some time – Iranian food sounded fascinating and exotic, and from my research I hoped to have my head turned by a new favourite cuisine, the way it had been by Georgian or Hyderabadi food. Read an article like this and you’ll see what I mean: tell me it doesn’t make you hungry.

My dining companion for the first, unsuccessful, visit was Dr Quaff, author of Reading’s excellent pub blog Quaffable Reading, and he graciously agreed to overlook my ineptitude and accompany me again second time round (although he did still say “are you sure it’s open today?” as we were nursing a pre-dinner pint in the Crown: bloody cheek).

Going through the front door we were greeted by a very large and almost completely empty restaurant. I’m so used to saying “it’s a long thin room” about restaurants that it’s quite a relief to be able to say something different for a change: Persia House is huge. By the windows looking out on to the road there were some low tables where you sit cross-legged (possibly authentic, definitely for people who’ve done a lot more yoga than me) but the rest of the restaurant was more conventional and there really were an awful lot of tables. The bare wood floor was broken up with the occasional rug, there was art on the bare brick walls and some of the tables at the far end looked out over the river. I quite liked it, but it did feel cavernous.

We took a table by the window – close to the only other pair eating in the restaurant – and flipped through the menu. I’d researched it online, but the Persia House website is so user-unfriendly that trying to work out what I might order filled me with a sudden desire to throw my laptop at a wall with great force. We had no trouble picking a mixture of starters but we were undecided about our main courses: our waiter said that was absolutely fine and took that order, along with a bottle of red.

We’d also enquired about the rather bling oven you see as you enter the restaurant, so our waiter invited us over to see our naan breads being made. It was an incredible contraption, hotter than the sun (and not even running at full whack, as he proudly demonstrated by turning it up: it’s a miracle that Dr Quaff and I still have eyebrows). We watched as he stretched, rolled, and shaped the dough for the naan before effortlessly flipping it on to the roof of the oven for mere seconds before taking it out, cutting it up and putting it in a basket ready for our starters. All very impressive.

He said that he was from Afghanistan, although the owner was Iranian. The restaurant had been running for nearly six months and all was going well, he said, although he added that it was normally busier than tonight (only one other pair of diners arrived while we were there, not long after the other two customers had left).

By the time we returned to our table from that little culinary detour, our starters had arrived. The menu divides the starters into cold and warm appetisers and we’d picked from both sections, although I didn’t discern any noticeable difference in temperature. The best of them was the baba ghanoush, which really did have a smoky taste (you could picture the charred skin being taken off the aubergine before the flesh was combined with everything else). But the dolmades were deeply unspecial – the rice in them was claggy and dense, and they didn’t taste of much. The decision to serve them with a little pot of what looked like balsamic glaze but which I assume was pomegranate molasses might have been to conceal the lack of flavour, but it seemed an odd choice. I would have thought these were shop bought but one of them was so saggy and lacking in filling that I think they probably were made by hand.

“You can have the last one” I said to Dr Quaff, which obviously translates as I don’t like these much.

“No, I insist” he replied, or in other words I don’t like them either.

The last of the dishes was called halim badenjan, a stew of aubergine, tomato and braised lamb. We both quite liked this – although again, not enough to fight over the last few mouthfuls – but it didn’t knock my socks off. The lamb was in soft strands, the aubergine was tasty enough but it didn’t really feel like anything I hadn’t had before (the yoghurt on top, though, added a nice contrast).

By now, you’re hopefully wondering if that naan I saw being baked in front of my very eyes was any good. Well, I’m afraid no, not really. It might just be me, but I found it a bit thin and nothingy – despite being bubbled it had no fluffiness and no real texture. It might as well have been crackers, and by the end the last few pieces were hard enough that they pretty much were.

A mixed bag, then, and as our waiters took the plates away Dr Quaff and I sipped our wine and decided on our next move. We’d ordered a Malbec for twenty-two pounds and although it got better as the evening went along (what booze doesn’t?) it felt a bit thin and weedy to me, with nowhere near the depth or complexity I’d expect from Malbec: with hindsight, it might have been emblematic of the whole meal.

The main courses were split into three sections – kebabs, stews and other Persian specialities. Dr Quaff had decided to test out the grill, and I was torn between a traditional stew or the Persian biryani, a dish called lubia polo. I asked another waiter, and he said the stew was a “good choice” but that he’d had the lubia polo earlier in the evening and that it was very good. He also said that you couldn’t get these dishes anywhere else in Reading (which, come to think of it, may or may not have been a good thing). Like all the people who looked after us that evening he was friendly, smiley and engaging, and so I was won over and took his advice.

The problem with taking advice from people you don’t know, like reading reviews from people you don’t know I suppose, is that you take them on trust. So it’s possible that the Persian biryani is the best meal that waiter has had in a while, but if it is I think he rather needs to eat out more often. It was one of the most disappointing dishes I’ve had in a restaurant for a while – not specifically bad, but so failing to live up to its potential that it might as well have been.

It was rice, tomatoes, lamb and green beans and it tasted of rice, tomatoes, lamb and green beans. No real discernible depths of flavour, no nuance, no wow factor, no heat and no spice (Dr Quaff thought he detected cinnamon in it: I think he’s being charitable). I expected so much more – I wanted it to open my eyes to something new but instead it made me want to roll them or, worse still, close them for some time. Even the texture didn’t work; the lamb was nicely soft but so were the green beans. The latter had the feel of beans which had either come from a tin or been cooked so long that they might as well have done.

Dr Quaff had opted for the mixed grill for one, pretty much, the kebab bakhteari (“it sounds like bacteria” he said to the waiter, a tad ominously). It was a skewer of kofta, a skewer of chicken shish and a skewer of lamb shish, served with some rice with a little yellow hat from the saffron, an underwhelming-looking salad and – completely randomly – an individual portion of butter from a catering pack (what for? we both wondered).

“What do you think?”

“With lamb, you want the lovely caramelised exterior and for it to be pink in the middle” said Dr Quaff. “This is just grey”.

He generously let me try some of each of the kebabs, although once I ate them I realised he wasn’t really being generous, it’s just that he wasn’t fussed. The chicken was the best of them I thought, but all of them were middling at best. This dish cost eighteen pounds, a full five pounds more than the equivalent dish at Bakery House. There you get beautiful yellow rice, a perfectly dressed salad and all the garlic and chilli sauce you want. Here you get cross.

“It’s not as good as Bakery House, is it?” I asked.

“It’s nowhere near as good as Bakery House.”

You probably have the general idea by now. I really didn’t rate Persia House, I think there are dozens of better ways to spend your money in Reading and several better ways to have similar food – at Bakery House, at Kobeeda Palace, even at Clay’s if you want a biryani. And if your response to that is to say “but they’re not Iranian food” then fine, I agree – but based on what I experienced at Persia House I wonder if that’s Iranian food either. It didn’t feel distinctive or authentic to me: apart from the lamb stew with aubergines, we didn’t have anything you couldn’t get elsewhere, and that dish didn’t make me desperate to try the rest of the menu. I hoped for fireworks, I got a sputtering tealight.

What’s a little sad about it, though, is a couple of things. One was the service, which was unfailingly nice and polite – although, to be fair, we made up fifty per cent of the clientele for the duration of the visit. The other was that when we asked for the bill they brought some little sweet pastries and a beautiful black tea, poured into tiny glasses which tasted quite lovely sweetened with a little sugar. Such a nice touch, but too little too late. Dinner for two – three starters, two mains and a bottle of red – came to seventy pounds on the nail, not including service.

I wondered about how to end this review. Originally I was going to say “I hope Persia House does well”, but that too feels inauthentic. No, I hope Persia House does better. God knows, they easily could, but I suspect this is the kind of food they want to serve and the restaurant will either succeed or it won’t. Caversham is not blessed with loads of good restaurants, so perhaps novelty value will keep them afloat for some time yet. But at those prices, for that quality, it’s not a place I could recommend. In any case, what do I know? A few doors down Picasso – one of the most uninspiring meals I’ve ever had writing this blog – continues to ply its inexorable trade, years after many places I’ve adored have closed their doors for the final time.

Persia House – 6.4
2 Bridge Street, RG4 8AA
0118 9470222

https://www.persiahouse.co.uk/

The Corn Stores

Writing the only restaurant blog in Reading can feel like a lonely pursuit at times, but if you really want a lonely pursuit it’s this: writing a review where you say that the Corn Stores is a distinctly mediocre restaurant. The only reviews of the Corn Stores I could find online were comped, so they were all breathlessly enthusiastic and gushing. But, that aside, I know quite a few people who have been to the Corn Stores, and they’ve all raved about it. Some of them, and I know they read this blog, have been back more than once since it opened in December. So I was really hoping not to be the lone voice, the sore thumb, but I went there this week and I really didn’t get it at all.

All the blogs and Instagrammers will tell you what an amazing job the Rarebreed Dining Group did of refitting the Corn Stores when they took over the derelict building and turned it into a bar, restaurant and private members’ club. They used local company Quadrant Design, and I agree that they’ve breathed life beautifully into a lovely but unloved space (one I largely remember from lunch breaks with my brother in 1996, when we used to sneak across from our McJobs in Apex Plaza opposite for a rushed pint or two). He wouldn’t recognise it now: the restaurant, on the first floor, is superbly done out, with bare brick walls, leather-banquetted booths and tables with dusky-pink, scallop-backed chairs. I was there with my other half Zoë rather than my brother (mainly because I have also gone up in the world somewhat since 1996).

As we were shown to our table – past the display cabinet full of aged beef – our waitress explained the concept, that they butcher and age their own meat. There was a certain pride about it which I respected, and it made me look forward to dinner: I knew from researching the menu beforehand that the Corn Stores was an expensive restaurant, but I was hoping for a showstopper, the special occasion restaurant Reading has been missing for many years.

Our table was one of the booths, and I was impressed by how spacious it felt for two people: CAU, back in the day, would have tried to seat four people at a booth that size (the other tables for two felt a little more poky: I’m not sure how much I’d have liked one of those). The restaurant was nicely buzzing and pretty full on a weekday night, and it exuded that glow of satisfaction you get when surrounded by people who are happy they’ve made a right – and exclusive – choice (the Nirvana Spa effect, you might say). “My mum would like it here” said Zoë, adding the Corn Stores to her mental list of places to take her mum to.

We ordered a couple of pints of Meantime lager while we decided what to order: it’s kept in tanks onsite so you get it fresh, unfiltered and unpasteurised. I thought it was cold, crisp and clean and I loved it – Zoe less so, because she detected a bitter finish. I’ve already said that the Corn Stores is an expensive restaurant, and I fear this is a point we may return to often throughout the rest of this review: starters are just shy of a tenner and some of the mains are just the right side of twenty pounds, although if you order a steak you’re highly likely to pay far more than that. Oh, and there was a “whole baked sourdough” for six pounds fifty, which has to be the most expensive bread I’ve ever seen on any menu anywhere (you get “your choice of butter”: really, for six pounds fifty you should get to try them all, I reckon).

There was also a specials menu with other options including a Barnsley chop, a pork tomahawk, smoked sirloin on the bone – and a chateaubriand with lobster and some other gubbins which cost the grand total of ninety-five pounds (I know people who have ordered this, and they raved about it, but really: you could eat Michelin-starred food for that money). None of that especially appealed, but also I wanted to judge the place on their standard fare – the meat and potatoes, you could say – so we stuck to the normal menu. At the table next to us, three well-to-do ladies chatted away as their main courses, completely untouched, went cold in front of them: Zoë and I exchanged looks.

We started with the “Rarebreed Board”, a sharing selection of interesting options. It was the most expensive starter on the menu (twenty six pounds, in fact) but I figured it gave us an opportunity to try out lots of different things. It came on a sort of folding trestle table which left us limited room for our side-plates, but you couldn’t deny it looked appealing: five different beef dishes, designed to be shared between two.

Much of the sharing board was sort of a symphony of mince, so you got steak meatballs, miniature burgers and “beef and pepper sausage” – which was more like sausagemeat, on account of there being no casing. They were all quite nice, but much of a muchness – the main variations being in coarseness, but the overall texture was very similar.

We both liked the sausage best, with there not being a huge amount to choose between the burgers and the meatballs. Even at this stage though, the execution was lacking. The burgers came with lettuce and tomato in naked brioche, no cheese, no sauce (the pepper or tomato sauce in a little metal dish made a useful dip). The meatballs were apparently served with red wine gravy, but the thin lake of liquid at the bottom of the dish was largely ineffectual. Perhaps you were meant to dip the accompanying toast in it, but it was pretty hard when it arrived and, by the time we got round to it, it was even worse.

There were three burgers and three meatballs, which was odd and just made sharing trickier – I’d rather those two dishes had been better and smaller, and the price had been nudged down a little. I liked the other two dishes on the board better – the steak tartare (served, somewhat randomly, in a jar) had some real tang and pungency from the Worcester sauce, but Zoë found it too vinegary and couldn’t finish it. Similarly, the salt beef on flatbread worked beautifully for me, but amid the mustard there was also a vinegary tang that put Zoë right off it. Even in this dish there was the oddity of little segments of potato – double carbs, and extra bulk, but totally unnecessary.

By the time we finished our starters the table next to us had eaten half of their main courses, if that. One lady had cut her cod burger very precisely in two and looked like she was considering, possibly before the evening was out, embarking on eating the second half (it never occurs to me that some people go to restaurants for the company, or to see and be seen, but that might be just me). I got a second pint of Meantime and Zoë tried the Curiouser & Curiouser, a beer by Kentish wine producers Chapel Down – it tasted of grapefruit and citrus and I really liked it, although Zoë seemed less convinced.

We’d decided to tackle different ends of the menu, so we went for one of the pricier and one of the more affordable main courses. Zoë’s burger – wagyu beef, with Ogleshield cheddar and bacon – looked lovely, and the bite I had wasn’t half bad. But it cost nineteen pounds, and it didn’t feel, to me, like a nineteen pound burger (I’m not sure what a nineteen pound burger tastes like, but not this).

“It’s really nice” said Zoë.

“Better than Honest?”

“No, not really.”

I agreed with that – even when unadorned, Honest burgers have a lovely crust to them from the grill, and there’s a bit of salt in there. This was almost as good, but it cost nearly twice as much as its equivalent over on King Street.

I had gone for a two hundred gram fillet steak, served rare, with béarnaise sauce. The Corn Stores website boasts about how they baste their meat with aged beef fat and cook it on a Robata grill, getting loads of flavour into even lean cuts like fillet.

This was, it’s safe to say, not my experience: they’d managed the impressive combination of serving a steak where there was almost no char at all while simultaneously overcooking it. It was meant to be rare, but it was probably medium at best: just about pink in the middle, but with no juices oozing out as you made your way through it. I couldn’t face sending it back, because I really wanted to eat dinner at the same time as Zoë and I knew that sending it back guaranteed that wouldn’t happen. Besides, by then the damage was done – if you’re a steak restaurant, and one charging that kind of money, cooking the steak right first time was the entry level requirement.

That wasn’t all, though, because really the steak didn’t taste of very much. I didn’t get any seasoning, I certainly didn’t feel like it had been anointed with glorious, salty beef fat, nothing of the kind. The béarnaise didn’t help matters, being a little on the thin side, heavy on the vinegar (bit of a theme emerging there) and light on the tarragon. It was also a pretty mingy helping of béarnaise, because the Corn Stores seems to have missed the memo that béarnaise sauce should be as much for your chips as your steak. The salad it came with was pleasant enough, but it rankled with me that you got a big pile of salad for free but had to pay for your chips – by contrast, chips came free with the burger.

This brings us on to the chips – beef fat chips, no less. I had high hopes for these, but they were also deeply ordinary. They didn’t have the crunch-fluff ratio of a perfect chip, they were exceptionally salty and some of mine had grey patches which should have failed the most elementary quality checking. Dipped in the béarnaise they were okay, but no more, and they weren’t much better with the mayonnaise we’d asked for (which came in two minuscule pots which looked as if they had housed lip balm in a previous life). I looked round and everybody seemed to be having such a lovely time. What was I missing?

We’d asked our waitress for recommendations for a side dish and she had recommended the baked flat mushrooms, so we went for those. Four pounds got you three rather small flat mushrooms which had a meaty texture but again, didn’t feel like they’d been exposed to much in the way of butter. If I’d had them in a Beefeater I’d probably have been pleased, but here in the Corn Stores it just felt like another way of extracting funds. There was the ghost of a sprig of thyme on top, as if to say Look, we did do something with them.

By this point we were on to our third drink – a serviceable glass of Pinot Noir for me and Chapel Down’s cider (which I really liked) for Zoë, and positively planning our escape. The waitress took our dishes away and half-heartedly asked if it had been good, and we half-heartedly replied that it had been fine. The fact that both of us had half-heartedly half-left our chips didn’t seem to register. That was service in general at the Corn Stores – smiling, efficient, a little robotic. I didn’t get any real warmth or personality.

Dinner for two – a sharing starter, two mains, some chips, a side and three drinks apiece – came to one hundred and thirty pounds, including a not-that-optional 12.5% service charge. I’m almost tempted to leave that sentence to do the work on its own, but really: one hundred and thirty pounds! When I think of all the amazing meals you could buy in Reading for a fraction of that price – or all the exquisite meals you could buy in London for that money – I felt like I’d cheated rather than treated myself.

“I don’t think I would take my mum here, you know” said Zoë, unsurprisingly.

“I know. Normally with places like this I say I’d only go if someone else was paying, but in this case even if someone else was paying I wouldn’t let them take me here.”

That might sum it up, for me. I couldn’t shake the feeling, throughout my meal, that I was paying for the refurbishment, or helping Rarebreed pay off their investor (the interestingly-named Havisham Group), but I didn’t feel like I was paying for a truly luxurious experience in a terrific special occasion Reading restaurant.

The talk about the Corn Stores’ pride in their meat and butchery is all well and good, but the main thing my meal did was make me miss CAU. I think, actually, I had no better or worse a meal at Miller & Carter, where I paid a lot less money. Worst of all, I went to the Southcote (a Beefeater) last year and although it wasn’t as good as the Corn Stores it was a lot closer than the huge disparity in price would have you believe (and their béarnaise, damningly, was probably slightly better).

Anyway, it doesn’t matter what I say: I have no doubt that the Corn Stores will do really well, but I felt like if it had been half as good as it thinks it is it would be twice as good as it actually is. But what do I know? I read some lifestyle bloggers recently, and they tell me the emperor looks fantastic in that outfit.

The Corn Stores – 6.7

10 Forbury Road, RG1 1SB
0118 3246768

https://www.thecornstoresreading.co.uk/