Café review: Madoo

It’s a fact of life in hospitality that restaurants open and close all the time. There’s an inexhaustible supply of plucky new businesses ready to sign a lease and try their chances, and you can almost measure how long someone has lived in Reading by how far back they remember the history of certain sites. Do you recall when Thai Corner used to be Bistrot Vino, or when the Nando’s on Broad Street was a place called Bistro Je T’aime? You’ve probably been here since the early days of the Oracle, if not longer.

In some cases a restaurant makes such a go of it that you almost completely forget the establishments that went before. Some people have long memories, and remember Mum Mum or that pretzel joint on Market Place, but for many people I imagine it feels like it’s always been Tasty Greek Souvlaki. And although I know rationally, in the back of my mind, that there used to be a great branch of Ha! Ha! on the Kings Road – and that after that it was a Turkish place, and a tapas restaurant, and a weird kind of pub that closed on Sundays – it’s been House Of Flavours so long that it’s jarring to imagine anybody else there. It’s a bit like how, after you’ve been in a relationship with a person long enough, your previous life feels as if it belonged to somebody else.

But there are some sites where you need not only a long memory but a good one, because so many restaurants try and fail to make a go of it on the same premises. The quintessential example of this is the site of the old Warwick Arms, which has been Bali Lounge, the Biscuit & Barrel, Cardamom and King’s Kitchen and currently goes by the name of the Aila. I only reviewed the first two of those, and most of the others closed before I could get round to them.

Or take Cozze’s site on the Caversham Road, which has been Chi’s Oriental Brasserie, La Fontana, Al Tarboush, Casa Roma and Maracas, all of which eventually went pear-shaped. (Incidentally, I heard a fantastic story once that when Casa Roma decided to change to a Mexican restaurant called Maracas they did it mainly because they realised they could reuse all the letters in their sign except the O: I so hope this is true.) But can there really be a god in heaven when the TGI Friday opposite has outlasted them all?

What’s behind these high-churn sites, I wonder? Is it bad judgment, bad luck or bad juju? Are they run by enthusiastic amateurs who bite off more than they can chew, or are some sites simply cursed – by lack of footfall, of parking or of access, or by the presence of better (or better-known) alternatives nearby? Or is it just that they haven’t found their forever home – or rather, their forever homeowner – yet? All that crossed my mind last weekend as I stepped through the front door of Madoo, ready for lunch.

By the standards of titans like the Aila’s or Cozze’s site, Madoo’s is only slightly hexed. It used to be a sandwich shop called It’s A Wrap which lived up to its name by closing, and then it was the ill-fated Project Pizza (pizza may be many things, but surely it should never be a project). But it’s been Madoo for a couple of years now, and it forms a Little Italy on Duke Street with delicatessen Mama’s Way opened just next door. And it has its fans – I’ve heard lots of good things about its toasted sandwiches and it even came up in conversation with my physio this week. “I love that place, it feels like being in Italy” he said. “I started going there in lockdown because it was one of the only places in the town centre that was open.”

Inside it was a lot more hospitable than you might think from trying to peer through the tinted windows. It probably seats just over a dozen people, some of them up at a bar that runs along one wall, but it had a nice feel to it. The chevrons on the floor, pallets fixed to the ceiling and lights attached to the pallets make it feel somewhat like a zone from the Crystal Maze that didn’t make the cut, but for all that I rather liked it. One other table was occupied when I turned up just after noon, but half an hour later the place was full.

You order up at the counter but along the walls are loads of tempting bits and bobs to take home – dried pasta, a small selection of cheese, sauces, biscuits and all manner of snacks. I know a few eyebrows were raised when Mama’s Way opened next door but they seem to have put some effort into not treading on one another’s toes – Madoo has the space, and sells coffee but no booze, and its neighbour is minuscule and sells booze but no coffee. Between them they make up one of Reading’s most fascinating gastronomic micro-climates.

Madoo’s menu is a symphony of toasted sandwiches. There are a couple of salads, if you want to eschew carbs, but really it’s just about picking your fillings. Some of the sandwiches are made up and behind the counter, ready to eat, or you can pick an option from the menu, or pretty much customise it however you like. But the majority of the sandwiches are variations on a classic theme – pick your meat, pick your cheese, pick your veg or salad and off you go. Everything sounds fantastic on paper and many of the ingredients here – mortadella, speck, scamorza, gorgonzola – are far more exciting than anything you’d get in another dreary soggy sandwich from Pret. It’s affordable, too, with nothing clocking in at more than a fiver.

The other main decision you have is all about the bread. The menu suggests the sandwiches all come in ciabatta (incidentally, did you know that ciabatta is a comparatively recent invention? Created in 1982 to protect Italy from the existential threat posed by the baguette apparently, my other half tells me). And Madoo’s recent social media posts suggest you can have puccia, a flattish Puglian bread, instead. But when I ordered at the counter I was given the choice between puccia and focaccio and, out of curiosity, I picked the latter.

While I waited for it to arrive, I made inroads into my latte. I’ve had coffee from Madoo once before and it was somewhere on the borderline between nothing to write home about and actively bad, so I was hugely relieved to find that either it’s improved or they were having an off day last time. It isn’t top tier, not up there with the likes of Workhouse, C.U.P. or Compound, but it’s probably comfortably in the pack with Shed and Picnic – and tellingly, it was better than the one I had recently at Raayo.

I’d chosen toasted sandwich number one, a classic combo of prosciutto, mozzarella, tapenade and rocket and it came to the table looking the part with a nice golden sheen and telltale lines from the grill. It didn’t look hugely like any focaccia I’ve had before, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t authentic: they vary widely by region and this was a long way from the oily, dimpled foccacia most people are used to. Instead it was flatter, denser and less airy – if anything, better suited to a sandwich. It was still oily, though: enough to soak through both napkins that had been put underneath it. Why do cafés still put napkins under the sandwich or cake? It’s an eternal, nearly-unsolvable mystery that not enough philosophers have tackled over the years.

There’s an art to toasted sandwiches, that fine balance of getting everything inside hot and/or melted, all those mingling flavours cross-pollinating without ending up with a charred exterior. Based on my sandwich Madoo hasn’t quite got the hang of that yet, because although the ingredients were unquestionably good, it hadn’t had long enough under the grill for the magic to happen. The mozzarella had begun to melt but not reached full glorious elasticity, and the prosciutto – again, good quality stuff – was too close to fridge-cold at the core. But the tapenade saved the day, uniting everything with that deep, pungent saltiness. It felt like there were a few intact olives in the mix, too. 

Even with all that nit picking, it was a thoroughly enjoyable sandwich – and it reminded me of many happy lunches in the early Nineties from Parmenters, a sandwich shop in Oxford. This was back when the whole town was ciabatta crazy and you could get big pillowy sandwiches full of mozzarella, sundried tomato and pesto and eat them in quadrangles across the city (I didn’t realise, back then, that even the concept of ciabatta was barely ten years old). When I go back to Madoo, I have designs on something with scamorza, or speck, or pesto – or some arguably ill-advised combination of all three. 

Because I’m greedy, and because I wanted to try out more of Madoo’s food, I’d also ordered two mini cannoli – one with chocolate, another with pistachio. Again, they were served on their own personal napkins but that aside they were a beautiful indulgence – both with nicely brittle shells and the kind of smooth, rich filling that lingers on the tastebuds for almost long enough. I ordered the chocolate one – because I’m basic like that, and that’s just what I do – but the pistachio was equally lovely if not more so. I don’t know whether Madoo makes them or buys them in, but given that they sell them for one pound twenty each I’m not going to complain if it’s the latter.

My whole lunch came to less than a tenner – and again, it’s instructive to think how little that would buy you eating in at Pret these days. And service was excellent – kind and friendly, even to a total newcomer. I felt very much the exception in that respect: I was struck by how nearly everybody else who came into Madoo that lunchtime had clearly been there before, probably had a regular order or a favourite sandwich. Two chaps came in, talking Italian, went up to the counter, got their espressos, downed them and left. A family came in towards the end of my lunch and their son was wearing a Bari shirt. 

Every table was bright with chatter, and I possibly liked it even more because with some tables I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. It’s things like that which made me fall ever so slightly in love with Madoo and this tiny corner of Italia overseas. Because restaurants and cafés are about more than just the food, or the coffee. They’re also about the atmosphere, the little bubble they create and whether they make you want to be inside it. Madoo’s toasted sandwiches are definitely better than many of their competitors – not perfect, but not too far off it, and the ingredients they use are a cut above. But also I just loved sitting in a different part of Reading to my usual, to having a different type of coffee and sampling an entirely different flavour of people watching. 

I can absolutely see why it’s always so full. And although I may not ever become a regular there – I have too many lunch places still on my list to review, it’s rather an occupational hazard – I’m certain they will see me again. It’s great to have another option, too, because some days Reading still seems a tad thin on good candidates for a quick, light lunch. And besides, I’m reliably informed that they do arancini every Friday – so if nothing else, I’ll have to drag myself away from my regular appointment with Blue Collar one week to try them out. Maybe this spot on Duke Street has found its forever homeowner, after all.

Madoo – 7.4
10-14 Duke Street, Reading, RG1 4RU
0118 9502249

https://www.facebook.com/madooitaliandelicafe

Pub review: Park House

I try my best, doing this restaurant reviewing lark, to visit places I think are likely to be either good or interesting, or ideally both; with a few notable exceptions, I don’t go anywhere where I think I’m definitely going to have a bad meal. And even if I have my reservations, I try to turn up with an open mind, ready to find the positives in my experience, however difficult that is. Sometimes the gods smile on me and I have a run of beautiful meals, one after the other. And that’s brilliant – exceptional meals are easier to write about, and people enjoy reading about them. Conversely, the worst thing is a run of bad meals. A succession of stinkers. That does rather break the soul.

The worst run I can remember started at the end of 2019. It began with a truly awful dinner at TGI Friday, and continued with the grisly spectacle of doner meat nachos at German Doner Kebab. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was going to the Dairy, the university bar and kitchen just down the road from the MERL. I’d always loved drinking there, especially on a hot day, but the food was bloody awful. That made three cruddy meals on the spin and nearly two months without enjoying a meal on duty: it was the kind of vale of tears that makes you seriously think about chucking the whole thing in.

Then at the start of this year, there was a surprising development: the Dairy published a completely new menu on Instagram. And it made all the right noises – beef came from the University’s farm four miles down the road, eggs were from Beechwood Farm (did you know that Beechwood Farm was run by Reading University alumni? I didn’t) and all the bread was supplied by Waring’s. Not only that, but the menu was full of the kind of things you might actually want to eat. Crispy fried chicken and pickled watermelon burger? Brisket and blue cheese ciabatta? Jerk spiced plantain and halloumi skewers? Count me in!

Something was clearly afoot at the University because a week ago Park House, its bar on campus, published a brand new spring menu. Again, it all looked distinctly tempting, and again the provenance was called out, with the beef coming from the University’s farm and name checks for the excellent Nettlebed Creamery and the Cotswolds’ Hobbs House Bakery. (Not everyone was overjoyed, mind you: I really can’t believe you won’t sell cheesy chips any more, said one comment). Park House has always been one of my very favourite places for a pint in the sunshine, but was it possible that it also offered great, affordable food under the radar? Zoë and I ventured out on a sunny spring evening to put it to the test.

It’s truly a gorgeous spot, inside and out, one of those beautiful Victorian redbrick buildings Reading so specialises in (I think I read somewhere that it’s by Alfred Waterhouse, of Reading Town Hall and Foxhill House fame: I can’t find any evidence of that, but it’s definitely in keeping). It used to be the university’s Senior Common Room, and it still has a distinctly clubbable feel inside, all dark panelled walls and solid wood floors. You could imagine trying to have an intellectual conversation in those rooms, put it that way.

And if you failed it would probably be because of the selection of beers. Park House punches well above its weight with a range many Reading pubs would envy: a dozen beers and ciders with a range of cask and keg. And again, there’s a distinctly local feel with Siren Craft, Elusive, Double-Barrelled and Phantom well represented (in fact, the most exotic drinks on the menu are from Cotswold Cider Company, a colossal 39 miles away). It doesn’t surprise me that Park House has made it onto Reading CAMRA’s Ale Trail this year and the things we tried – a couple of pales from Siren and a mild from Elusive – were yet another reminder of how well served we are in these parts for beer.

Having praised the interior, we did end up eating and drinking outside for a couple of reasons. One was that Park House was distinctly crowded: 6 o’clock on a Monday, surprisingly, seems to be peak eating and drinking time. The other, more happily, is that Park House’s outside space is a natural sun trap, and further proof – if any were needed after visiting the Nag’s Head – that there are few car parks you couldn’t improve by turning them into beer gardens. It’s a proper happy place for me, and it’s where I had my first al fresco pint last year after the longest lockdown winter of all time (14th April 2021, since you didn’t ask). So, the scene was set: was Park House going to be a surprise find, or a disappointment of The Dairy 2019 proportions? It was time to find out.

There are separate menus for breakfast and Sunday lunch, but the rest of the time Park House offers a relatively compact lunch and dinner menu – more compact than I thought, because for some reason the “Crafty Grill” section, offering burgers and hot dogs, wasn’t available. I think it’s also a Sundays only thing. So actually you have a nicely streamlined choice in front of you – less than half a dozen starters and eight mains, one of which is just a bigger portion of one of the starters. The use of “starters” and “mains” might give you the misleading idea that you can order them all at the same time to arrive at different times: don’t try this if you go there, because I just got a blank look and a polite request that you order as you go. Still, it beats the Wagamama approach of bringing anything out whenever they feel like it.

I should also add that everything is ultra-reasonably priced: most of the starters hover around the five pound mark and the vast majority of mains are less than a tenner. Laudably, they’re also trying to include calorie counts on their menu, although this seems to be a work in progress and I for one would rather they didn’t bother.

I really wanted to try the rarebit on the starters menu: Highmoor is one of Nettlebed’s finest cheeses and the thought of it bubbling away on Hobbs House sourdough – for a smidge over four pounds, into the bargain – was a delectable one. But sadly it wasn’t available, and although I was disappointed that they’d run out of either bread or cheese I was also pleased to see that they didn’t try and pass off something inferior instead.

The pick of the starters, anyway, were the smoked pork ribs. They were huge, irregular beasts that came away from the bone cleanly, and I loved the decision to give them a dry spice rub rather than slather them in sauce – so you got mustard seed, what I suspect was cumin and even some honey notes in there. They were served with a wonderfully light and clean coleslaw, and even here you could see the attention to detail, with crisp thin batons of apple and scarlet slices of chilli which added more colour than heat. Like the ribs, the coleslaw was better than it needed to be, and that’s always a winning quality.

I loved this dish, and at just under six pounds it was the kind of thing you could order just because you had a cold beer it would go perfectly with, or because the sun was out, or because it was a Monday. If only all bar food was like this. I loved it so much, in fact, that we ordered a second portion to come with our main courses: maybe there were advantages to ordering each course separately, after all.

The smoked cod croquettes were less successful, which was a pity because they leapt off the page as something I had to try. It was just weird that they came without breadcrumbs: the picture of this dish on Park House’s instagram shows the croquettes breaded, but these were lacking a coating and looked weirdly naked, as if they’d been skinned. And that had an impact in a couple of ways – it meant they didn’t have that lovely crunchy shell, but also it meant that when you cut them with a knife they sagged and deflated, like a sad party balloon.

It’s a pity, because the bones of the dish were good, with a nice whack of salt cod and a fresh and tangy tomato salsa (although again, it could have done with more heat from the chilli). Only afterwards did I realise that maybe the croquettes had no breadcrumbs for the same reason that the kitchen couldn’t serve rarebit. I daresay that if you order it, you’ll probably have better luck than I did.

Mains were uneven too but, as with the starters, the best of them showed real imagination. Confit duck salad, Zoë’s choice, was a beauty – partly because of the confit duck, which is never not good, but mostly because of what it was paired with. It could have given salad a good name, because it had so much going on – ribbons of carrot and radish for texture, segments of orange adding bright sweetness and a welcome scattering of edamame. It was all brought together by a fantastic dressing with plenty of aromatic sesame oil in the mix.

What this had in common with many great dishes from far more lauded restaurants was that every forkful could be slightly different from the last, but every bit as delicious. In an ideal world I’d have liked the duck leg to be ever so slightly bigger – so I could have tried more of it – but for less than nine pounds it was hard to fault.

I wish my fish and chips had been equally hard to fault, but it wasn’t to be. The best of it was the fish itself – beautifully cooked, the batter light, lacey and full of delicious crenellations. But the chips, which I’m pretty sure were bought in, were a little variable with a few grey patches that put me off them. There were peas, if you like that sort of thing: I don’t especially, but they were just fine. Tartare sauce was good, but there wasn’t anywhere near enough of it. And for that matter, lovely though the fish was, it was on the slender side for just over ten pounds. I couldn’t help but compare it with the colossal slab of fried leviathan you get at the Lyndhurst for eleven fifty (the Lyndhurst’s chips are miles better, too).

All in all, our meal – three starters, two mains and a pint and a half each – came to just under fifty pounds. It’s worth calling out the price of drinks in particular, too – our beers and ciders came in at around four pounds a pint, a mile away from the rarified prices you’d get in town at the Allied Arms or Blue Collar Corner.

So Park House isn’t the home run it could have been, but it was none too shabby all the same, with bags of potential. If you went there and just ate the ribs followed by the confit duck salad – Zoe’s order, but then she always picks well, present company excepted – you might well come away raving about the quality and the value. And if you went on a day when all their figurative ducks were in a row, the rarebit was on the menu and the croquettes hadn’t been flayed alive, you’d be counting the days until a return visit.

But I easily saw enough to persuade me to recommend it. The thought that had been put into the menu, the little touches in some of the dishes, the fact that they didn’t just knock up a rarebit with second-string ingredients – all of these things couldn’t help but endear me to the place. And it’s still one of the best spots, on a sunny weekend afternoon, to go with a paperback, get a drink, top up your tan and maybe accidentally-on-purpose order some ribs, because it beats yet another humdrum packet of Pipers Crisps. Are they the best bar snack in Reading? Quite possibly.

Park House – 7.3
Whiteknights Campus, University of Reading, RG6 6UA
0118 9875123

https://www.hospitalityuor.co.uk/bars-and-pubs/park-house/

Restaurant review: Tasty Greek Souvlaki

Last year, when I emerged from my cocoon and began reviewing takeaways, my first choice was Tasty Greek Souvlaki on Market Place, the thriving restaurant occupying the site where MumMum used to be. It was the natural choice: it was the first (and arguably the most interesting) new restaurant to open in 2020, and one which had quickly embraced delivery as its best chance to ride out an extremely challenging year in hospitality. So I ordered my first on duty takeaway from them, and very nice it was too (you can read about it here). 

Tasty Greek Souvlaki is essentially a carnivore’s paradise, and the menu largely revolves around different quantities of different dead animals cooked in different ways: do you want them cut into cubes, threaded on a skewer and cooked on charcoal, or would you rather go for something a little more primal like chops? Or is your preference to have them pressed into a magical revolving pillar of constantly grilled elephant leg which is then shaved off in thin slivers and fried until crispy? Would you like it in a pitta or a toasted sandwich, with or without chips?

Some people would treat that series of decisions as one disgusted shudder after another. Those people, to be honest, are unlikely to eat at Tasty Greek Souvlaki, although I’m told the falafel wrap is decent (if not massively Greek). Personally, I found it too difficult to choose for a very different reason: I kind of wanted it all, so when I ordered takeaway I went for their mixed grill platter, which gives you exactly that. It was an embarrassment of carnivorous riches, it was a wonderful way of being transported to the Mediterranean without leaving your sofa. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, a cardboard box absolutely crammed with every which kind of meat.

I loved it, and ever since then the Big Box Of Meat has been a regular fixture at my house – not too often, because I didn’t want to kill the magic, but every few months on a night when we couldn’t face the cooking. It was always hot, it always arrived quickly and it never let you down. And it cost something like twenty-six pounds, which was ridiculously affordable.

But it was bound to be far nicer in the restaurant itself, plucked from the grill, loaded on to a plate and brought to the table without delay, and so I’ve been looking forward to a proper on duty visit to Tasty Greek for a long old time. Last Saturday, Zoë and I turned up just after midday for an overdue reunion with possibly Reading’s finest meat feast.

The restaurant looks fetching inside, and they’ve done a good job with it. I don’t know how big the kitchen was when it used to be MumMum, but it must have been huge because with that taken out and the open kitchen along one wall the place is surprisingly spacious. It doesn’t feel like a place to linger, necessarily – a little like Bakery House – but then it isn’t that kind of restaurant anyway: no starters, mains and desserts here, really, and just a couple of Greek beers in the way of alcohol. But it’s a nice room, with a splash of Hellenic blue on the walls.

I sat outside, though, and I really liked their outside space. It’s all tables for two, and they’ve done that Parisian thing of putting the chairs side by side, looking out on Market Place. I suspect it’s just as popular with people drinking freddos and smoking cigarettes as it is with people having lunch, but having experienced both souvlaki culture and coffee culture in Athens I’d say it’s pretty authentic in that respect. It’s a great spot for people-watching, too: all things being equal, on a sunny day you could almost convince yourself that you’re somewhere else. We slurped on our cappuccino freddos – creamy, bitter, thoroughly Greek – and waited for our food to arrive. 

We ordered the mixed grill, as I’ve already said, but if you don’t want a symphony of grilled meats for two at a bargain price (it’s leapt up to twenty-eight pounds since last year) there are plenty of other ways to consume smaller, more discrete portions of dead animal. Pitas cost about six pounds, skepasti (toasted sandwiches) and merida (platters) are around eleven pounds; when I put it like that, perhaps you can see why the mixed grill looks like a good shout at fourteen quid a head. There are salads too, but if you’re going to a place called Tasty Greek Souvlaki and ordering a salad I’d probably class you as beyond help.

There’s only so much even I can say about a whole plate of grilled flesh, so let’s get straight to that. It was huge – so huge that it barely fitted on the table – and a fair amount of it was sitting on a glorious edible carpet of gyros meat, so however much food you thought you had turned out to be nowhere near the full amount. As we ate and ate, it didn’t feel like we made any inroads. And it can’t be denied that it really looked the part – just look at the picture and, unless you’re vegan or vegetarian, tell me that nothing about it makes you want to dive in.

And one thing I really like about Tasty Greek Souvlaki, when I ordered their takeaway and now, is that nothing is an afterthought. The pitta was beautiful fluffy stuff, perfect for wrapping up meat, chips or both and dipping in the tzatziki or the special sauce (which mainly reminded me of burger sauce). And the chips are really good: when I reviewed their takeaway I said they were good at making you feel like they make their own chips, even though I’m sure they don’t. And they were even better straight out of the kitchen – crispy, golden and flecked with oregano.

And yet, with the meats I wasn’t quite as bowled over as I expected to be. Over the last year or so I’ve become accustomed to ordering takeaway from restaurants where previously I’d have eaten in and mentally dialling down my expectations, knowing it wouldn’t be quite so good, quite so hot, quite so crispy, quite so fresh. With Tasty Greek Souvlaki I was expecting the same phenomenon in reverse, but in reality the gap between delivery and eating in was far, far narrower than I thought it would be. And in some cases that slightly exposed the limitations of the food.

So the souvlaki, for instance, taken straight from the grill without any excuses or mitigation, were a tad bland. The lack of marination showed that little bit more, the pork souvlaki in particular was slightly tough and the tzatziki had to do quite a lot of heavy lifting to make it interesting. The slab of pork belly looked decent, but in reality it lacked crispiness or caramelisation and I found, partly because of the sheer quantity of food, that I didn’t want to finish it. None of those things felt like they’d been especially seasoned, either.

It wasn’t all bad. The kofte, with a little more texture and depth of flavour, I rather liked.  And the village sausage – scored, butterflied, almost-charred on the outside – was very enjoyable: I worried it would be pink inside or homogeneous but it was one of the hits of the meal. The biggest irony is that I’m often suspicious of sausages on restaurant menus because of the mystery meat potential but Tasty Greek’s MVP, the thing it deserves to be famous for, is its gyros, the very epitome of mystery meat.

I said this last time, too, but it bears repeating – Tasty Greek’s gyros, and especially its pork gyros, is for my money far and away the best thing they do. Ribbons and shreds of chicken and pork, by turns tender, golden and brittle, dense with savoury flavour and absolutely unmissable. This was the thing I could eat morning noon and night, this is the reason to come back again and again. Tasty Greek Souvlaki? They should have called it Legendary Greek Gyros.

There was a salad, too, so I should probably mention that. It was undressed and perfectly decent if you like an undressed salad; I suppose it serves as some kind of calorie offsetting for certain diners, and I almost wish I was that kind of person. Our lunch for two came to something like thirty-two pounds, not including service, and the amount of food we got for that money was just about the right side of obscene. Service, by the way, was brilliant: bright and friendly throughout, and you got the clear impression that the restaurant was a very happy ship.

Tasty Greek Souvlaki has undeniably been an enormous success, and nothing I could possibly say in this review will detract from that. In the space of two years it’s gone from plucky newcomer to a genuine Reading institution, the kind of establishment that feels on some level like it’s always been there, like the space it’s in was always waiting to become what it is now, its best self. 

And I do honestly come not to bury it but to praise it. If my meal didn’t quite bowl me over the way I’d have liked it to, that’s also a tribute to just how well their food adapts for takeaway. None the less, it remains the perfect spot for a quick casual dinner over a bottle of Fix with friends, the sort of place you could go pre-gig or pre-theatre if you’re one of those people doing gigs and theatre now. In that niche, it easily holds its own against the likes of Honest and Pho, and it’s more affordable too. And for lunch on a summer’s day, picking up a pork gyros wrap and eating it in the Forbury is hard to beat: trust me, I’ve tried.

I would sound a slight note of caution, though. There’s never room for complacency in Reading’s restaurant scene, because someone is always waiting in the wings to open their doors, take your customers’ money and steal their hearts. The only people hungrier than restaurant-goers, it seems, are restaurateurs. And if you needed the perfect illustration of that, here it is: not long ago La’De Kitchen opened its first express branch on Market Place, literally opposite Tasty Greek Souvlaki. Another master of charcoal, another king of grilling in the centre of Reading. A falafel’s throw away, across the road.

Is this town big enough for the two of them? Let’s hope so. 

Tasty Greek Souvlaki – 7.5
20 Market Place, RG1 2EG
0118 3485768

https://tastygreeksouvlaki.com
Delivery via: Just Eat, Deliveroo, Uber Eats

Café review: Raayo

Picture the scene: I found myself in the town centre on Sunday around noon with the afternoon to myself, and I figured it was the perfect time to try one of the many lunchtime options on my to do list. This is, it turns out, something of a growth area. Despite last year being a challenging one for hospitality, there was no shortage of relatively new places for me to explore – Italian café Madoo on Duke Street, Bru at the skanky end of Friar Street, Yaylo where Nibsy’s used to be on Cross Street, Chipstar next to the Alehouse. I used to complain frequently about Reading not having enough places for lunch, but I felt distinctly spoiled for choice.

And actually, wandering round town I discovered new lunch places I’d not even considered or known about. My Warsaw, a Polish street food hole in the wall, has opened on the ground floor of Kings Walk, and Bánh Mì QB, a place selling the Vietnamese sandwich of the gods, looks set to open a few doors down in the not too distant future. 

Meanwhile, over on West Street where Beijing Noodle House used to be, there’s a little Nepalese place called Chillim Kitchen and, right next door, an establishment called Cairo Café that does common or garden panini and wraps but also serves “Egyptian Street Food” and something called the “King Tut Breakfast”. Where had all these places come from? I guess if we had a local media worth speaking of we’d all know about these by now, whereas instead you have to rely on me mooching round at the weekend. Sorry about that.

Anyway, I figured everywhere on my list would be quiet. After all town, or at least my social media echo chamber, was completely swept up in Blue Collar Corner mania: every couple of minutes I saw another Instagram story of someone enjoying our brand new street food Mecca down Hosier Street (“it felt like I was in Ibiza” was Berkshire Live’s verdict. That’s nice). So I just assumed everybody would be there checking out all the bright shiny new things and I would have my pick of the empty cafés. 

It was a great plan, but it didn’t survive its first bruising collision with reality: Madoo was rammed and, out on Broad Street, the handful of stools in Chipstar were all occupied. As so often, Reading’s Twittersphere wasn’t a perfect reflection of town, so back to the drawing board it was. With uncanny timing, the heavens opened and I took shelter outside M&S, half tempted to abort my mission and just review a takeaway this week. And then I remembered Raayo, just down from Hickies and opposite what’s left of the Harris Arcade. 

I’d never been, and in fact I’d been a little waspish about them in my roundup at the end of 2020: at the time they had an underdeveloped website, now I’m not sure they even have a website. But I seemed to remember hearing from Zoë that some people from her work had been there and quite liked it. As I passed, it was as empty as empty could be. That didn’t raise my hopes that I was going to have a fantastic lunch, but it did make me feel for them a bit – I’ve always been drawn to the underdog – so I decided to chance my arm, and my lunch, and in I went.

It’s basically a small, open plan room which makes full use of its floor to ceiling windows looking out on to the pavement. There’s a bar alongside the window, and handsome stools to perch on, but apart from that it’s just a case of going up to the counter and placing your order. From the size I’d imagine much of their business would normally be takeaway, but as there wasn’t a soul in sight it seemed the apposite moment to try it out.

The menu, if I’m honest, looked a tad generic. There was a range of sandwiches and toasties all involving various ingredients kept under the counter, à la Reading institutions Pierre’s and Shed. A couple of sandwiches had interesting-looking components – scamorza in one, pickled fennel in another – but nothing leapt out (and seeing one of my favourite cheeses misspelt on the blackboard as “Parmsean” made my heart go out to them again – that underdog thing, I imagine). But when I asked the owner behind the counter what he recommended he pointed to their special, the pulled pork, and so I went for that.

It took just long enough to arrive, wrapped in foil like a burrito, and I found myself pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Unlike many toasties, especially at chain cafés, it was edible without being hotter than the sun, and the pulled pork was really very good. At its worst, pulled pork is a mulchy, soggy mess and usually the standard-issue barbecue sauce it tends to be paired with makes it a sickly, mulchy, soggy mess. But not so here – the pork wasn’t bone dry (as it is, for instance, at the Nag’s Head) but the balance had been struck nicely. And the barbecue sauce had a properly pleasing heat to it, without masses of sweetness. At four pounds fifty it was very generous and excellent value, and although my photo makes it look like a symphony of beige I hope you’ll take my word for it that it was a find. 

I had misread the menu, which offers plenty of extras you can put in your pulled pork sandwich. I thought they all came as standard, whereas in reality you have to pay for them. If I’d known, I’d be talking right now about the sharpness and crunch of gherkins, and the delightful texture from the crispy shallots. But sadly, I didn’t: although in some respects that might be for the best because this sandwich could stand on its own two feet without the extras. With them, next time, it could be worldbeating. 

But I was quite happy as I was, so I ate my sandwich on my stool, looking out the window at the sights of Friar Street, lost in the moment, pondering some of the great mysteries of life: why are we here? Do I eat so much nice food to distract myself from some gaping spiritual void in my life? And, perhaps most significantly, does anyone actually drink in Wild Lime? There I was, the only living boy in Raayo: behind me I could dimly make out the sound of the owner, AirPods in, chatting to somebody on his phone, vaguely audible above the hum of the fridge. All seemed right with the world, and the rain had even stopped.

I went up to order some coffee and a cookie for afters and I told him how much I’d enjoyed my sandwich. He sounded really proud of it, and he told me his story: he’d opened eighteen months ago, and it had been a really challenging time. People were starting to come back into town at last, and the weekends were surprisingly busy. He told me that he made everything himself, that the pulled pork and the barbecue sauce were both to his recipe and that although it was described as a special it was on the menu every day. I was so glad that my food hadn’t been rubbish, although of course I didn’t put it that way when I was talking to him.

The coffee isn’t great though – if you go, you might find it disappointing. It was below that top tier of Workhouse, C.U.P. and Compound, with a slightly scorched bitter note that needed more sugar to conceal it than I was prepared to put in. But it didn’t matter, because my chocolate and coconut cookie was a chewy treat – part biscuit, part macaroon, all delicious. I was so keen to eat it that I started without taking a picture, which means that the photo below is the only one in nearly nine years of writing this blog of my tiny toothmarks. He had a meal deal going so I got the coffee and a cookie for three pounds thirty – I asked him to charge me full price but he just wouldn’t. In total my sandwich, my cookie, a coffee and a soft drink cost me under a tenner: good luck getting so much stuff at Pret A Manger.

I wish I could give Raayo the kind of score that would send literally a handful of people flocking to it. But this isn’t that kind of review, and Raayo isn’t that kind of place. It’s too shy and unassuming – back to that lack of a social media presence again – and it needs to be slightly bolshier. I worry for it, a little. But then maybe if it was gobbier it would lose some of what made it such a quietly lovely place to have a peaceful, serene lunch when it felt like all the world was somewhere else. But I would recommend you try it if pulled pork is your thing, and I’ll definitely go back to try it again. 

It’s somehow hugely comforting to know that Reading still contains these little surprises, like a small hole in the wall sandwich shop where the owner makes his own pulled pork and it’s thoroughly decent. It’s good to know these places still thrive amid all the Caffe Neros and Costas that so dominate the centre of Reading, like flowers through cracks in the pavement,. And it’s a timely reminder, on an apt weekend, that you should never completely let the next big thing blind you to what’s already here, toiling away, waiting for that lucky break.

Raayo – 7.0
155 Friar Street, Reading, RG1 1HE
0118 3273418

https://www.facebook.com/Raayo155
Delivery via: Deliveroo, Uber Eats

Restaurant review: ThaiGrr!

Regular readers will know that my reviews last year, like much of life in 2021, could best be described using that quintessentially post-pandemic word, “hybrid”. Unlike most years, when I’d traipse to a restaurant fortnightly and write about it, last year was a mixture of all sorts – takeaways, from new restaurants and old favourites, a first (unsuccessful) dabble with restaurant DIY kits and later, as the weather improved, “proper” restaurant reviews. 

Even those were an eclectic bunch. I made a point of revisiting some of the earliest restaurants I’d reviewed, with varying results. Some, like Pepe Sale and London Street Brasserie, held up nicely despite eight intervening years. Others, like Buon Appetito, had been transformed. And then there was Zero Degrees: pants then, pants now. I also reviewed a couple of places outside Reading, making it as far as Bristol and London. By 2021 standards, that was exotic stuff.

Then there were the new places in Reading. I tried to tick off as many as I could but timing, the vicissitudes of life under Covid and my personal approach to risk meant that many were al fresco visits. That made for a lovely time in the sunshine at O Português, a sublime meal at Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen and, towards the end of the year, a game attempt at shivering away outside Gordon Ramsay Street Burger

But it also meant that my first introduction to some of Reading’s most interesting new places was as takeaways – and however good a takeaway is, it can’t match eating in the restaurant. Part of that’s the atmosphere, the hubbub and people watching. But, more prosaically, there’s the basic fact that your food comes straight to your table from the kitchen, arranged on plates by someone who isn’t you, looking all nice.

So some of last year’s big names are still waiting for a “proper”review. I’m yet to eat at Tasty Greek Souvlaki, for instance, and I feel that’s long overdue. I managed to eat at La’De Kitchen once last year, back in early May when you could only sit outside and it wasn’t yet warm enough to comfortably do so, however many blankets they brought out. But I didn’t review it: I was happy just to be there at all. And, for that matter, too cold.

One of the most noteworthy of the Class of ’21 that I haven’t visited in the flesh is ThaiGrr!: I had their takeaway last May and was blown away by it all. They put so much thought into how they packaged for delivery that I wasn’t sure the gap between eating in and having takeaway would be as marked as it was for, say, Greek or Turkish food. But I was educated on this subject by a regular reader of mine who I bump into most weeks at Blue Collar. 

“You need to eat in” he said. “However good you think the fried chicken is at home, it’s miles better in the restaurant.” Given how much I’d liked it from the comfort of my own sofa this was a powerful incentive to pay ThaiGrr a visit, so on a Saturday lunchtime Zoë and I swung by to try it out. It’s in the less fashionable part of town round the back of the Broad Street Mall, on the same strip as Pepe Sale and Bierhaus. I don’t know about you, but it feels to me like the Broad Street Mall has been up and coming for as long as I can recall without ever having upped and came, so to speak. 

Perhaps the people who make these claims feel that the arrival of a Taco Bell, along with (at the other end of the spectrum) an independent cinema justify that assessment. But it still feels to me like there’s much to do. The bandwagon-chasing street food market they tried in 2020 closed without fanfare, and now it’s just another abandoned pound shop in an area well served by pound shops. The contrast will be further heightened from this weekend with the opening of Blue Collar Corner, Glen Dinning’s permanent (and very snazzy) street food site; in a year, he’s done more to lift that area than the Broad Street Mall has managed in far, far longer.

Anyway, that carping aside, the ThaiGrr site is really rather appealing. It manages to strike the right balance between being neutral and being sterile: everything is white and clean, but it isn’t soulless. The blurb on the tables explains that ThaiGrr is modelled on a style of restaurant popular in Thailand, and geared around quick meals, whether that’s a lunch break or a grabbing something pre-theatre. That also explains the model, in that a large part of their menu is ready and pre-cooked behind the counter. 

In that sense it’s similar to Kokoro I suppose – but ThaiGrr offers more of a restaurant experience, because its specials and sides are cooked to order and everything comes on proper crockery rather than in a cardboard tub. Just as ThaiGrr has thought hard about how to offer takeaway, it has a clear idea of what kind of restaurant it wants to be. As I was to discover, that clarity of purpose largely carried through to the food.

It’s an attractive menu, too. Most of the regular dishes come in two sizes, medium and large with a faintly ridiculous one pound price difference between the two, much like Kokoro. None of them costs more than seven pounds fifty. Again, this is structured in such a way as to be a brisk experience compared to eating in most restaurants: although some of the dishes would clearly be classed as starters elsewhere, here they are are billed as sides. The idea is that you order (and eat) them at much the same time as your main course, and although the food is brought to your table, you order at the counter. It feels – that word again – distinctly hybrid.

I was torn between ordering the dishes I’d so loved the first time round and striking out into undiscovered sections of the menu. In the end, we did a bit of both although our selection was strongly influenced by a couple of things: not being able to miss out on that fried chicken for one, and Zoë’s insistence that she wanted the pork belly dish I’d ordered when I popped my ThaiGrr cherry last year. “I’m having that pork”, she said, with a look I knew all too well: there was no way around it. 

Still, no matter. It gave me an incentive to try something different, but looking back all I can see on the menu are other dishes I wish I’d tried. It really is that sort of menu: however carefully you read it the first time, every time you look at it after that you spot at least two more things you would have ordered, on another day. Our order – two mains, three sides and a couple of mineral waters came to thirty-four pounds, which struck me as thoroughly decent value. ThaiGrr doesn’t have an alcohol licence, another pointer that it’s not a place to necessarily linger.

I was told our food would take five to ten minutes, and ten minutes later the dishes started coming to the table, all at once, an embarrassment of riches. The fried chicken was indeed even better than I remembered – six generous pieces of jointed chicken, the skin a brittle, salty delight and the meat underneath beautifully tender. It went nicely with the accompanying sweet chilli sauce, but you were just as well rending it from the bone with your bare hands and properly going for it, Henry VIII-style.

As you can probably tell, despite my understated description, I was a fan. In fact, for my money, this is one of the most joyous things you can order anywhere in Reading right now, and if it even remotely sounds like your kind of thing I think a pilgrimage to ThaiGrr is in order at your earliest convenience. My only regret is that we didn’t order one each: I know that sharing is caring but sometimes, in my book letting someone have a portion to themselves is how you really show love.

The other sides weren’t as good as the fried chicken – but you could apply that description to most of the food I’ve eaten this year, so let’s not hold it against them. The vegetable spring rolls were nicely hefty, greaseless things that managed not to be stodgy and still had a good crunch in a filling that hadn’t been steamed into submission. I don’t seem to be able to talk about spring rolls in a review without mentioning how good they are at Pho, and this week is no exception, but they were still pretty good. They also came with sweet chilli sauce – in fact all the side dishes did – and although I liked it a little variety might have been nice.

Last but not least, the squid wasn’t as impressive as I remembered. But again, that didn’t stop it being better than practically all the squid dishes on offer in Reading (shamefully, my reference for this has always been London chain Busaba’s ‘Thai calamari’, the sole reason I’m sorry they never opened a branch in Reading after all). It was crispy and beautifully cooked, and if it didn’t have the tenderness of truly fresh squid I found that surprisingly easy to forgive. Besides, when dunked in a little sweet chilli sauce those quibbles melted away.

Back in May last year I’d been decidedly smug when I ordered the moo pad prik – the pork belly dish – while Zoë had slummed it with a green Thai curry. This week she got her revenge by picking it, and I was allowed to taste just enough to remember how magical it is. The combination of flavours here was the biggest sign that ThaiGrr was more imaginative and more complex than a lot of Thai restaurants – that blend of heat and citrus, sweetness, sharpness and chilli. The softness of the pork belly, the crunch of the green beans and that sauce, clinging to everything. I did think it wasn’t quite as amazing as that first time, the meat perhaps a tad less tender.

But was that nostalgia talking, or just a coping strategy to fend off food envy? Possibly the latter because my main course was good but not great. I’d chosen the pork pad kra praw, arguably Thailand’s most famous stir fried dish. This was minced pork with holy basil, soy and fish sauce, served with steamed rice and a fried egg, yolk still nicely liquid, on top. I expected great things from this, and perhaps that was the problem – the texture was good, and it had a nicely savoury note from well-judged use of that fish sauce, but I expected a bit more depth, more of a eureka moment. 

When I thought how much the other pork dish had wowed me, I expected something similar from this and it just wasn’t there. Sometimes it’s all about timing: if this had been the first dish I’d ever eaten at ThaiGrr I’d probably have been delighted, but sadly they’d raised the bar too high by then. Next time I might bite the bullet and try their laab gai, which I suspect will have all the complexity and intensity the pad kra praw was missing (and, no doubt, some ferocity too). But then again, there are about half a dozen dishes on my hit list, and only so many chances to eat them. And one misfire in a meal – by which I mean that it was quite nice rather than amazing – is no bad going.

The thing that makes ThaiGrr difficult to sum up, let alone rate, is that nowhere in Reading is quite like it. Fast food, with the exception of street food, tends to have negative connotations, as if you’re prepared to make concessions because you’re in a hurry. And if you’re spending more you tend to want to take longer, make an event of it. I would unhesitatingly suggest ThaiGrr if you wanted to eat very good food in a rush, and it’s hardly priced as special occasion food, but the fact remains that the nature of the restaurant makes it slightly on the functional side.

I suppose what this all amounts to is that ThaiGrr is properly great, but ever so slightly niche. The only real comparisons I can think of, in terms of no-frills restaurants doing quick food that’s better than it needs to be, are places like Mission Burrito, Sapana Home and Bhel Puri House. That’s not exactly bad company to be in, and ThaiGrr easily holds its own among those restaurants. 

Lots of you won’t be bothered by that, and on many occasions I wouldn’t be either. But the food is so enjoyable that it feels a bit incongruous to be out of the door in half an hour or so wondering what to do with the rest of your evening. And that is possibly the only reason this review isn’t an out and out rave. None the less, next time I’m in a rush or I get off the train from work and can’t be bothered to cook, I know exactly where I’m going. And I’m having that fried chicken, all to myself.

ThaiGrr! – 7.9
1D Queens Walk, Broad Street Mall, Reading, RG1 7QF
07379636771

https://thaigrr.co.uk
Delivery via: Deliveroo, Uber Eats