Restaurant review: The Imperial Kitchen

I’ve had meals in some weird and wonderful places in the course of writing this blog, but I’m not sure many can top spending a night in Genting Casino, the gambling den near Rivermead. Getting off the bus just outside the Moderation, I trudged down the Richfield Road with a vague feeling that I wasn’t sure where I was going and no idea what to expect. On the other side of the road, I spotted the glowing lights of a purgatorial Toby Carvery. Some consolation, I thought: at least it was unlikely that I was about to visit the worst restaurant in the neighbourhood.

Inside the casino, at the front desk, I handed over my passport and filled out some forms – you have to do that to become a member, to be able to eat here. The rather taciturn man behind the counter seemed to take delight in drawing this process out for as long as possible. Had I ever been to their Southampton casino, he asked. When I said no, he seemed nonplussed. Was I sure? I did try to explain that I’d never been to Southampton full stop, but it took a full five minutes before he was convinced that I had some weird south coast doppelgänger, rather than being part of some sort of Oceans Eleven style conspiracy to defraud multiple branches of the Genting casino chain.

By this point my friend Sophie had turned up, and went through the same palaver. The main thing I was struck by was that her passport – full of stamps and visas from her many work trips to Eastern Europe, spoke of a life more fully lived than mine. Once we were given our cards – which you don’t have to swipe or seemingly ever use again – we were free to wander to the restaurant.

The inside of the Genting Casino is a very strange place. With no natural light and the phosphorescent hum of slot machines, you could almost be anywhere at any time. It could be a Wednesday afternoon or the small hours of a Sunday morning and you’d be none the wiser: it’s open until 4am, and even on a Monday night there was a steady stream of punters shuffling to the card tables. You could imagine stepping outside and finding yourself on the Strip in baking heat, as opposed to on the edge of an industrial estate in that part of the world neither Caversham nor west Reading wants to claim as its own.

Not that the place was Casino Royale, by any stretch of the imagination. I had turned up shabby, my default sartorial choice, but I didn’t feel especially underdressed. The place has a dress code – no shirts, no football shirts, although a lot of the big screens were showing the football – but nobody looked like they’d made much effort, with the exception of my dining companion. Many of the customers were Chinese, which explains a lot about why I found myself there in the first place.

So why was I at the Genting Casino, and why had I dragged Sophie there to eat with me on a Monday evening? Well, it all comes down to a throwaway Tweet a couple of weeks ago from Clay’s. “Another amazing meal at the Imperial Kitchen located inside the Genting Casino” it said. “It’s definitely the best Chinese food we have in Reading.” It went on to rave about the crackling on their belly pork, and the photos looked good – a huge spread of dishes, clearly for a big group.

I remember Nandana told me once that back when Clay’s was opening on London Street and the builders were doing their work she ate at Bakery House and Namaste Kitchen all the time. Well, from the sound of that Tweet she’d clearly found an equivalent close to their new site to have dinner at after a hard day of supervising. So when I read that I had to go and try it for myself: when the owner of one of Reading’s best restaurants says that a restaurant is even better than another of Reading’s best restaurants, how can you not?

The restaurant itself is a fairly beige and anonymous space, up some steps and set away from the card tables. Certainly tasteful and muted, but not desperately exciting, with little splashes of colour from the paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling. When we got there it was doing a reasonable trade, though not absolutely rammed, but we were solemnly told we could choose from two tables (although none of the ones we weren’t allowed to sit at were subsequently occupied). But all that said it was a pleasant, and curious place to have dinner. It does feel separate from the casino, which makes sense, but the rubbernecker in me wished it hadn’t been.

One tip from Nandana was to ask for the Chinese version of the menu, and that was the first challenge because our waitress brought us the conventional menu. Now, at this point I must confess that if my interactions with her were a bit awkward that wasn’t entirely her fault. She had a strong accent, and was wearing a mask, but to complicate matters I was pretty deaf in one ear, the consequence of a heavy not-Covid cold I was only just recovering from. That lent proceedings a certain pantomime air as I lost count of the number of times she didn’t understand me and I didn’t understand that she didn’t understand me. How we got through the evening I’ll never know: if Sophie found it hilarious (and why wouldn’t she?) she was too civilised to let on.

So for instance when I asked for the Chinese version of the menu she effectively said “are you sure? Lots of our Chinese customers order from this menu” and when I insisted it felt like she was peeved to have been overruled. But when it arrived I knew we’d done the right thing. The conventional menu moves around too much, with a section of Thai curries, some “curry samosa”, crispy seaweed and the conventional Anglicised dishes you can get anywhere. By contrast, the proper menu doesn’t waste time with that but dives into the jellyfish salad and the chicken feet.

“It’s closer to the Kungfu Kitchen menu, isn’t it?” I said, seeing some dishes I recognised.

“It is” said Sophie, “but Jo’s menu has a lot more offal on it.” I knew this was true: I’d gone to Kungfu Kitchen with Sophie and her fiancé once and they’d made a beeline for the gizzards, so to speak.

“Well there is this: Deep Fried Red Fermented Bean Curb Intestines. How does bean curd have intestines?”

“Maybe it’s something to do with the wokerati we’ve heard so much about.”

Anyway, it was an extensive menu and I could see why Nandana had told me it was best to go in a big group. It didn’t bother with starters so got straight to the point, and the dishes ranged from about ten to twenty pounds. On any day I could easily have chosen three or even four dishes and this review would have been completely different, but I’d taken some recommendations from Nandana ahead of the visit, so we largely stuck to those.

This in itself caused some difficulties, I think. Nandana’s order was the order of someone who knew their food well, whereas the waitress took one look at me and reached the conclusion, not entirely unreasonably, that I might have chosen by closing my eyes and sticking a pin in the menu. One dish in particular, the clay pot chicken with salt cod, prompted an intervention. I was too deaf to understand it, but I think it boiled down to are you absolutely sure? This is a very authentic dish. Unable to even hear my own voice clearly I just boomed that it would be okay and she wandered off, probably thinking that I was nuts.

Another strange thing about The Imperial Kitchen is that you order your food at the table but they don’t serve you drinks. Instead you have to wander off to the adjacent bar, order there and pay as you go. They have an extensive gin menu (their drinks list refers to it as a “Gindex”) so both of us tried something from there – a Jinzu for me, with notes of yuzu and sake which I rather enjoyed and a gin from Kent’s Chapel Down for Sophie. “It’s very reasonable, actually” she said, bringing back a couple of nicely dressed and finished G&Ts. “A double and a single came to twelve pounds.”

The first dish to come out was the one Nandana enthused about in that Tweet. The Imperial Kitchen’s barbecue dishes are on a special section of the menu, and only available Sunday to Tuesday. Initially we’d ordered barbecued duck and belly pork but while Sophie was at the bar the waitress came over and brusquely told me that they’d run out of duck, so pork it was. First things first: Nandana was absolutely right about the belly pork. It was braised to glossy softness, all of the fat smooth and moreish; I often find an overdose of fat in pork belly offputting, but this was marvellous. And the crackling on the belly pork was truly magnificent – feather-light and hyper-crisp, an impressive technical feat.

“This is so good” said Sophie, “and there’s no danger of doing your teeth any damage”. As someone who’s lost fillings to a slice of bread more often than I care to remember, I was with her on that. The barbecued pork was perhaps more workaday, but it had that good sweet-savoury coating and a decent fibrous chew. I liked it, but what it really did was make me miss Fidget & Bob’s splendid char siu, back in the day. With both dishes, I found myself wishing they’d been hotter: they were on the warm side when they arrived but they seemed to cool down very quickly indeed. Eighteen pounds for this lot – not cheap, I guess, but if I knew somewhere that did this as a bar snack I might well stump up the cash.

The beef ho fun was more variable. I find the texture of beef can often be problematic in Chinese restaurants, but these were big, tender pieces of gorgeous beef and they went well with the coated, flat noodles. But aside from a slight hint of smoke and sesame, I found it curiously underpowered. Had I accidentally picked a really subtle dish, or was the kitchen dialling down the contrast? Some of this was left on the plate when we finished – possibly from politeness on Sophie’s part, but indifference on mine.

Last but not least, another dish Nandana had raved about, the clay pot chicken and aubergine with salt fish. It looked beautiful – that deep, shiny sauce hugging pieces of chicken thigh and big claggy cubes of aubergine – and spooning it onto the rice I had that feeling that I was about to eat something special.

“You can see why they warned us off it though”, said Sophie. “That taste of fish is probably jarring for English customers – it has that taste of sardines, or anchovies, that they probably struggle to get their head around with chicken.”

“We do seem to have a problem with fish in this country, don’t we?”

“Apart from salmon, the fish for people who don’t like fish.”

Sophie may have been right, but for me this dish fell between two stools. The note of fish, which was a little like sardines come to think of it, did stick out like a sore thumb. But really, I wanted more from it: I love anchovy and the savoury depth it lends to a dish, and I love salt cod, but this dish didn’t have the courage of its convictions. What was especially odd was that occasionally I had a mouthful that was pure, concentrated flavour: one with shedloads of vibrant ginger, another with that deep, dark saltiness that was missing elsewhere. But overall I was surprised that a dish with so much going for it on paper tasted of so little. I liked the chicken – chicken thigh is always a winner – but masses of mulchy aubergine with nothing to bring it all to life made it a slog. Had they toned it down because they thought we’d ordered it by mistake? Why was everything so well-behaved?

In some respects, I wish I’d been in a bigger group so I could have staged a many-pronged assault on every section of the menu. But on the other hand, I hadn’t had a proper catch up with Sophie in as long as I can remember, so she ordered some tea (it turns out that they do hot drinks, just not alcoholic ones) and we chatted about everything and nothing in that weird, timeless space as the gamblers wandered past, just out of sight.

“The tea’s nothing special” said Sophie, who knows about these things, but the staff kept coming and topping up the hot water and were generally really lovely. An older lady came over and was especially interested in how we’d found our meal, and I wondered if she was the owner. We settled up and our bill – for the food and the tea – came to about fifty-two pounds, not including tip. Trying to get them to take a tip by card was challenging, so it’s just as well Sophie was carrying cash.

“I think a lot of people would be put off coming here by having to become a member. Ed” – that’s Sophie’s fiancé – “certainly wouldn’t want to be giving his data to a casino.”

“I know what you mean. I’ve only ever been to one before, and I think that was a stag night.” I don’t have good luck with stag nights: I once had to feign illness to get out of paintballing and zorbing in a single weekend in Bournemouth, a place I’m not falling over myself to revisit.

“The weird thing is that casinos often have really good restaurants” said Sophie. “When I went to Las Vegas I stayed in the Bellagio. They make so much money on the casino that the hotel and the restaurant are often good value, as a way of keeping you there.”

I’d never been to Vegas, so I lowered the tone by telling Sophie that I’d watched Showgirls recently. It was the only contribution I could think of (and if you’ve never seen Showgirls, don’t: I have a soft spot for films that are so bad they’re good, but Showgirls is so bad it’s worse).

“So what’s your verdict on this place?” I said, trying to rescue matters.

“It’s okay, but I wouldn’t choose it over Kungfu Kitchen. And if I was having friends down I’d still take them to Jo’s.”

Sophie has summed it up so perfectly that I could have ended the review there. But as Sophie slipped into a black cab (“I’m not walking home down Cow Lane late at night” she said, quite sensibly) and I ambled back into town I found myself thinking about it some more. Because The Imperial Kitchen, despite its rather Day-Glo setting, is polite and restrained. Even eating off the Chinese menu, it felt like everything had been toned down. The clientele is largely Chinese, but if some of them order off the more mainstream menu maybe that tells its own story about how adventurous the diners are.

And that’s what made me think about the chaos and charisma of Jo, and of her crazy little restaurant by the university. Because she has created an establishment very much in her image: unapologetic, authentic and unrepentantly Jo. And that reflects everywhere: in the menu, in the offal, in the “no, you don’t want that, you should order this” approach and, more than anything, in the foot to the floor, balls to the wall flavours that feel like a paradigm shift from any Chinese restaurant you’ve eaten in anywhere else.

The Imperial Kitchen might suit some people, but I found it too nice, too shy, too – and I’m afraid I can’t think of a better way of putting this – not-Jo. The best Chinese food in Reading? For me, that position is taken, and it will take more than this to knock Kungfu Kitchen off its throne. Still, it could have been worse. I could have ended up in the Toby Carvery.

The Imperial Kitchen – 7.0
18 Richfield Avenue, RG1 8PA
0118 9391811

https://www.gentingcasinos.co.uk/casinos/genting-casino-reading/#restaurant

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City guide: Montpellier (new and improved!)

“Montpellier? Not again. Didn’t you write about it back in March?”

Come on, you’re probably thinking it even if you’re not saying it out loud. And yes, you’re right. I wrote about the city in the Spring off the back of an impromptu visit prompted by a random conversation at an ER readers’ lunch with Phil and Kath, longstanding readers of the blog. And you can read that guide, if you want, and a lot of it still stands. It is an incredible city, a mixture of the old and the new, of biscuit coloured, sun-bathed houses and quaint little squares but also of craft beer and hipster joints.

It has beautiful green spaces, a very grand art gallery full of paintings of Jesus, pastoral scenes and tableaux from mythology, and a photographic gallery which, on my visit, was full of grainy black and white portraits of supermodels. But it also has street art everywhere, and street food to go with it. I read a stat somewhere that something like fifty per cent of the population of Montpellier is under thirty, and it feels like that: a city with more energy than almost any I’ve visited. It’s France’s eighth largest city, and yet nobody seems to know much about it. Well, I do now, and if you make it through this piece you will too.

Why an updated list so soon? Well, for no reason other than this: I went back. I spent a very happy week there on holiday earlier this month. And normally I would just make a few tweaks to my old article and leave it at that. But I ate so well, and drank so well, in so many places that never featured in my first guide (many of which surpassed the – already extremely good – meals I had back in March) that, rather than tinker around the edges, I decided to put together a mostly all new guide to the city. It is one of the best places I’ve ever been for loafing, for good food, for culture and to get a real feeling of a city as a living, breathing thing.

So if that even remotely sounds like your idea of a good time, have a read and maybe this will nudge its way on to your city break to do list for 2023. I know at least one reader of the blog found herself near Montpellier earlier this year and made a detour to the city, because she messaged me on Instagram to tell me she’d had a very enjoyable time working her way through my recommendations. Even if that happens just the once as a result of this piece, to me it will have been worth writing it. I can’t help it: I’m evangelical about the place now, you see, and it’s all Phil and Kath’s fault.

Where to eat

1. Abacus

Abacus is a tasteful, almost ascetic-looking restaurant on the edge of the Écusson, the old city. The dining room is gorgeous, but on our visit we sat outside on rue Terral enjoying the last of the evening sun and hearing the hum of the passing trams – and the following morning we had the insect bites to prove it.

The menu has a stripped-back simplicity to it too, with a choice of two, three or four courses and only a couple of options per course. I loved my tuna, barely even seared and full of clean mineral flavour (and the novelty value of hearing a Frenchwoman using the words Granny Smith – it was topped with crisp batons of apple – isn’t going to fade any time soon). Even better was a crisp pastry cigarillo crammed with rich roasted lamb, reminiscent of briwats I had many years ago in Marrakech, in another life.

Abacus
26 rue Terral
http://abacus-restaurant.fr

2. Des Reves Et Du Pain

Just at the edge of the old city, near Montpellier’s copy of the Arc du Triomphe, this bakery was my go-to for a morning pain au chocolat. A little place which only admits two customers at a time, the queue stretched up the street, particularly on Saturday morning when it felt like the whole city was there stocking up on bread for the weekend. 

But it was always worth joining. Even compared to the pastries elsewehere in Montpellier this was next level, with world-beating buttery lamination. Everything in there was beautiful – madeleines, danishes, focaccia and a glorious slab of pissaladiere topped with sweet, reduced onion and spiked with wrinkled, pitted black olives and strands of anchovy. Montpellier, like the rest of France, has the same density of good bakeries as Reading has Costa Coffees. Where did it all go wrong for us?

Des Rêves Et Du Pain
10 rue Eugène Lisbonne
https://desrevesetdupain.com

3. Ébullition

Ébullition was probably my pick of the new restaurants I discovered on my second visit to Montpellier, a peaceful space where everything – the room, the welcome, the food, the wine and the service – were close to unimprovable. This felt like food a whisper away from Michelin star status, a real mixture of skill and imagination and a level above most of what I ate in the city.

My starter, a symphony of tomatoes from confit to sorbet, all sweetness and summer, was one of the finest things I’ve eaten in a long time. Veal, breaded and rolled like flamenquin but with the genius addition of citrus, was an absolutely beautiful dish, served with a rich jus with the tiniest savoury hit of liquorice. They leave the jug of jus at the table so you can add more (which you do – repeatedly, unless there’s something wrong with you), something not enough restaurants do.

Ébullition
10 Rue du Pila St Gély
https://restaurant-ebullition.eu/en/english/

4. Green Lab

Green Lab is a falafel joint with two branches, one just off Place de la Comédie and my preferred one on rue de la Université. I associate top notch falafel with France after many happy meals at Paris’ legendary L’As Du Fallafel and Green Lab didn’t let me down. It offers a relatively compact menu of falafel pitas and platters with variations on a theme; my choice, the Silvergreen, was a beautiful Meditteranean take on falafel, with a pesto tahini and a goats cheese tzatziki. 

And if you think that sounds like cultural appropriation or vandalism, I’d say don’t knock it til you’ve tried it. It was a beautiful, multi-layered, ridiculous bargain of a thing bursting with enjoyable mouthfuls. A particular thumbs up goes to the sticky caramelised aubergine dotted throughout: is any vegetable more delicious in the right hands or more awful in the wrong ones?

Green Lab
2 rue de la Université
https://www.greenlab-mtp.fr/home

5. Hop Smash Burger

You might think it’s a bit naff to have a burger in Montpellier, and you might have a point. But I was there for a week and that meant seeking out a variety of lunch options, and after walking past Hop Smash Burger a few times and looking enviously at their Instagram feed I decided to go for it. I was rewarded by possibly the best smashed burger I’ve ever had, and given the options in Reading that’s high praise. 

My burger had two beautiful smashed patties with savoury, slightly crispy, crinkled edges, excellent bacon and whole grain mustard (which I’ve never had with a burger, but worked brilliantly). Oh, and cheddar, because we’re in France and so they don’t bother with plastic American cheese. Paired with some fries dusted in Cajun spice and topped with crumbled feta – another brilliant combo which was new to me – and a NEIPA made specially for the restaurant by a local brewery it was about as perfect a lunch in the sunshine as there is.

Hop Smash Burger
9 Rue du Puits du Temple
https://hop-smashburger.fr

6. JB & Co

A little hole in the wall on rue des Étuves with a solitary table outside, JB & Co is a very good example of how to succeed in business doing just one thing very well. It’s all about the jambon beurre here, and all you have to choose is which bread you want and which of their hams you want in it. The bread, as everywhere in France, is phenomenal. The ham, prominently displayed and sliced wafer-thin for you, is a joy. And of course there are just enough sharp, crunchy cornichons to bring the whole thing together. Yours for something like five Euros, and a better lunch on the run is difficult to imagine: I chipped a filling eating mine, but it was still worth it. Afterwards, they brought out a coffee and a little piece of freshly baked cake for us on the house, a great little touch. 

Back in Blighty a couple of weeks after my first visit to Montpellier I picked up a jambon beurre from Pret on the run for my train. I always used to enjoy them, but JB & Co has ruined them for me.

JB & Co
17 rue des Étuves
https://jbandco.fr

7. Le Couperet

On the first night of this trip to Montpellier, we planned to eat in a place called Rosemarie. It occupies possibly one of the prettiest squares in the old city and every picture they put on social media makes it look like an enchanting place to eat dinner under the stars. But they never responded to our attempts to book a table, so we cut our losses and ended up at Le Couperet, a French take on an American smokehouse, and I’m so glad we did.

They do two sittings every evening (including Monday, a night when many restaurants close) and they offer a menu which is delicious but limited. But you only need to find a handful of dishes you want to order, and that was no problem at Le Couperet. A selection of houmous and smoked artichoke dips started us off nicely and then they brought out a board groaning with the good stuff. Pulled lamb was terrific, especially with their homemade tomato relish, but the star of the show was a blackened pork rib, the bone dispensed with and the whole thing meltingly soft and tender. Le Couperet even smoked the potatoes used in their potato salad – how can you not love a place like that?

Le Couperet
3 rue des Tessiers
https://www.instagram.com/lecouperet/?hl=en

8. Les Freres Poulards

On my first visit to Montpellier, while drinking at the splendid Discopathe (more on that below) I spotted a rotisserie chicken restaurant opposite called Les Freres Poulards. If I ever come back here, I thought to myself, I’m having dinner there. Well, I did, and I did, and it was fantastic. A starter of coarse salami, sharp cornichons and agricultural terrine set me up nicely but the chicken was the feature attraction – a superb red label chicken cooked perfectly with tons of tender meat and crispy, gleaming skin. Add a little pot of sauce, juices and lardons and a hefty helping of potato dauphinois and all that’s left is to eat and luxuriate.

A British couple slightly older than us had taken the table next to us, and at the end of our meal we briefly got talking. They were here for a couple of nights passing through on their way back to their home in Spain. “What do you think of the city?” they asked and they were taken aback when we started waxing lyrical. It’s not very nice, one of them said, gesticulating at one of my favourite Montpellier streets. They were staying in what she described as the “Arab quarter” and they were wondering where the nice parts of Montpellier were. We directed them to the picturesque bits of the old city but, replete with beautiful chicken, looking at the beer festival taking place in the bar opposite, I couldn’t help feeling the whole place was wasted on them. 

Les Freres Poulards
27 rue du Faubourg du Courreau

9. Les Glaces MPL

Les Halles Laissac is one of Montpellier’s two covered markets, and although it has a plethora of food stands selling wine, charcuterie, cheese and all that jazz I was drawn to Les Glaces MPL which sells profoundly good ice cream. A massive array of flavours is on offer, and I can personally vouch for the salted caramel and my personal favourite, a stunning black sesame ice cream. Zoë went for chocolate and Nutella, although I think she slightly envied my more leftfield choices. 

On my second visit to the city I visited Les Glaces MPL most days and my favourite thing there was a strawberry confection shot through with mint and basil, summer in a cardboard cup. My only regret was that their tomato sorbet wasn’t on sale that day. The big names also have a foothold in Montpellier – I saw a branch of Amorino on my travels in the city – but I’d pick this place any day of the week.

Les Glaces MPL
Place Alexandre Laissac
https://www.lesglacesmpl.fr

10. Lipopette

Just down the street from Les Freres Poulards (above) and Le Discopathe (below) is Lipopette, another place on my hit list from visit one which I finally got round to on visit two for lunch on my final day. If I’d known how good it was I’d have bumped it up to an evening meal and really gone for it, because the menu was very clever and extremely wide ranging: you’d have called it fusion food if that term wasn’t so wanky. So Zoë had phenomenal croquettes to start, and I had crisp tempura prawns in a moat of black pudding purée leavened beautifully with something like lemongrass. The overall effect was baffling but profoundly brilliant. 

And then my main, the single best plate of food of my trip, played it far more trad with a creamy risotto, handfuls of the first deep amber girolles of the season and – oh happy day! – chicken thighs cooked to yielding with a perfect, brittle, crispy skin. If I could have got away with it, I’d have ordered it twice. Dessert was a dish called Hmm, c’est trop choco, là! which was, I’m delighted to say, chocolate upon chocolate upon chocolate.

Lipopette
7 rue du Faubourg du Courreau
https://www.facebook.com/barlipopette

11. Pastis

Michelin-starred Pastis is a simple but superb restaurant in the old city. I had lunch there on my first visit, in a very tasteful dining room that I would say is possibly the most beautiful beige space I’ve ever seen, the acceptable face of taupe. The menu here’s a surprise one (no swaps, unless you have allergies) but every one of the surprises was joyous. My highlight here was a dish made with local duck, served simply but accompanied with a bread roll hollowed out, stuffed with coarse, herby confit duck and then liberally soaked with rich, sticky jus. I left full and happy (and slightly smudged, after also putting paid to a knockout bottle of white Corbieres).

Pastis
3 rue Terral
https://pastis-restaurant.com

12. Reflet d’Obione

Arguably I’ve left the best til last: Michelin-starred Reflet d’Obione is the one restaurant I visited on both of my visits to Montpellier and each time the tasting menu with wine pairings, by no means the kind of thing I normally go for, blew me away. It’s a small, comfortable, hushed restaurant with the kind of attention to detail (and attention to customers) that gets you a star, although it’s only held one for a couple of years.

Chef Laurent Cherchi – young, intense and moustachioed – comes over to every table and the rest of the time bosses a young, extremely talented brigade. On my second visit we had a table in the front room, overlooking the kitchen, which gave you a fascinating insight into just how much work goes into delivering perfection. But the front of house is every bit as accomplished and polished, talking through the dishes and the wines with charm and enthusiasm with perfect English (although every thank you is greeted with a whispered je vous en prie).

Every dish I had, across two visits, was stunning and provenance was given reverence, with all the ingredients and all the wines being completely from and of the area. Highlights included the most stunningly executed fish with a gratin of pumpkin and a Day-Glo orange sauce, a langoustine brushed with the deepest, most umami civet sauce and served with a tangle of wild mushrooms and a magnificent dessert of figs served something like five different ways with a divine cream spiked with green anis. Rarely do I love a dessert this much which doesn’t involve chocolate; it came paired with a local vermouth which had notes of pine and rosemary (if you ask me) or canard de toilette (if you asked Zoë).

Reflet d’Obione
29 rue Jean Jacques Rousseau
https://www.reflet-obione.com

Where to drink

1. Bear’s House

In many other cities Bear’s House would be the craft beer bar in town and in that sense, it’s rather unlucky to be in Montpellier. A small bar on the northern edge of the old city, it had some decent outside space, enthusiastic and knowledgable staff and a good range of local beers on tap. They also have an impressive selection of cans and bottles from further afield, and I even spotted a few UK breweries in the mix. If you do happen to go to Montpellier as a craft beer fan – and I’ve not been to many small cities better for beer fans – you should definitely pay it a visit. Zoë is still rueing the fact that we missed a tap takeover by Cantillon while we were in town.

Bear’s House
26 rue de la Université
https://bearshouse.fr

2. Broc Café

Broc Café is a beautiful cafe on a street opposite the botanical gardens, and on my first trip to Montpellier it was very hard to walk past it without stopping for a drink. On my second visit I didn’t even attempt to do so, and we had a thoroughly agreeable couple of hours sitting on the terrace watching Saturday night come to life in the city. Unusually for this kind of venue they have an impressive selection of craft beer from local breweries along with wine and aperitivi, and a special mention has to go to the staff who are brilliantly helpful and friendly, very proficient at suggesting drinks you might not have considered and work like absolute Trojans.

Broc Café
2 boulevard Henri IV
https://broccafemontpellier.fr

3. Cafe BUN

Cafe BUN was my favourite coffee place in Montpellier with a great spot just off Place de la Comédie and plenty of outside space for watching the world go by. It was the trailblazer (Montpellier’s answer to Workhouse, I suppose) opening in 2013 as the city’s first speciality coffee house. I grew very fond of it during my first trip, and a morning visit there to plan the day ahead over a grand crème became a very happy fixture of my second trip to Montpellier. They roast their own coffee – I brought some home with me – and their latte was easily the nicest I had on my holiday. 

Café BUN
5 rue des Étuves
https://cafebun.fr

4. Coffee Club

I also enjoyed Coffee Club, a tiny place on rue Saint-Guilhem with a little space inside and a nice spot at the top of the hill. This felt a little more expat than Café Bun – it’s owned by a Brit, which may explain that – but it was still a really good choice if you wanted a morning off café au lait and to try something similar to coffee closer to home. Also worth mentioning, further down the hill, is the splendidly named Maisons Régionale des Vins et des Produits du Terroir, which has a faultless selection of local wine, beer and other delicacies so you can take a little bit of the Languedoc home with you when you leave.

Coffee Club
12 rue Saint-Guilhem
https://www.facebook.com/coffeeclubmontpellier/

5. Coldrip

Coldrip, on the northern side of the old city, is in another absurdly pretty little square and also gets plaudits online for its coffee. Having perched at a table outside I can completely understand why – my latte was wonderful, and Zoë reckoned her mocha (complete with a little ramekin of Chantilly cream) was up there with C.U.P.’s, something I didn’t previously think was possible.

The brunch menu owes more to Australia than France – lots of smashed avocado, halloumi and the like – and watching it turn up at other tables tested my resolve. But they had a crispy chicken burger on their specials menu the first time I visited and it turned out to be a perfect final day lunch, really nicely done with a deceptively tasty coleslaw full of brightness and crunch and a delightful seeded brioche bun. We made a beeline there for lunch on my return to the city and I had the most incredible pancakes topped with salty, crispy bacon. They bring a jug of maple syrup and leave it at the table, which strikes me as both very civilised and very decadent.

Coldrip
4 rue Glaize
https://coldrip-food-and-coffee.business.site

6. Couleurs de Bieres Nord

Couleurs de Bières Nord is a cracking little bar in, as the name suggests, the north of the city. It’s opposite the exotically named Stade Philippidès, and there’s something about watching people running round the track that really puts you in the mood for a cold, crisp beer. The list here skewed little more Belgian, but there were a couple of beers on tap by ZooBrew, a local brewery, and it made for an eminently suitable pre-prandial spot.

Couleurs de Bières Nord
48 rue du Faubourg Saint-Jaumes
https://www.couleursdebieres.fr/front-page/cdb/nord

7. Hopulus Brewpub

Often, and I don’t mean this unkindly, craft beer places (like craft coffee places) can feel a bit thrown together on a budget. The stools are uncomfortable, the interior is death by chipboard and we all convince ourselves that that’s absolutely fine because we’re purists. Going to Hopulus I was reminded that it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s a stunning space in the old city, all vaulted stone ceilings, like a cellar bar that happens to be on the ground floor. Like the next entry, La Barbote, they brew their own beers on the premises in a variety of styles and, also like La Barbote, they have a happy hour which will make you very happy indeed. I tried a Belgian-style quadrupel here and a blond lager and both sent me on my way with a spring in my step. They also do cheese, charcuterie and all the other wonderful things that just make beer that tiny bit better, and – crucially on a muggy September day – they have outstanding aircon.

Hopulus Brewpub
8 rue Collot
https://www.facebook.com/hopulus/

8. La Barbote

La Barbote was round the corner from my hotel on trip number two, it was the first place we stopped for a drink and I think we ended up there most nights for a snifter before venturing forth to our restaurant of choice. And actually, although it was perfect for that my biggest regret is that we didn’t stay there longer. It’s a microbrewery and they brew on the premises, offering a menu of a dazzling dozen or so beers at any one time. Everything I tried from them knocked it out of the park, from Tête Gourmande, their sweet but sharp pastry sour to their NEIPA Set The Controls, from a DIPA called Cortez to a thick impy called De Profundis with a nicely caffeinated bite.

It’s deceptively big and it filled up pretty much the moment people quit work every day, possibly because of an insanely good happy hour where a pint of anything costs you five Euros max until seven o’clock. Looking round it was a better advert for craft beer than so many equivalent places in the U.K. with a young and diverse crowd: if they have someone in the corner ranting about the Good Beer Guide I never saw them. They also do food in the evenings and I got to try their karaage chicken – it was magical, by the way – and some equally good, if messy, fish tacos. If you want a casual meal and a really good drink on the trip to Montpellier you’re surely planning by now, make a pit stop here: “it’s how Zero Degrees would be if it wasn’t shit” was Zoë’s verdict.

La Barbote
1 Rue des deux Ponts
https://www.facebook.com/labarbote/

9. Le Canotier

Le Canotier (the boater, apparently) is a little wine bar in the old city and we stopped there for pre-dinner glasses of Viognier and Minervois which I enjoyed very much. I felt thoroughly French sitting outside, sipping away and watching revellers wandering past in either direction, although that might have just been because of the sheer amount of passive smoking I was doing. Either way, I wish I could have stayed longer (and, possibly, inhaled less). 

Le Canotier
7 Rue des Trésorier de la Bourse
https://le-canotier-lounge.business.site

10. Le Discopathe

Le Discopathe was one of the happiest discoveries of my first visit to Montpellier. The walk from the old city back to our B&B went down Rue de Faubourg du Courreau, a scruffy, lively street reminding me of Waterloo’s Lower Marsh, and it quickly became one of my favourite parts of the city. Much of that was down to Le Discopathe, a vinyl and craft beer shop that sold records by day and served more of Montpellier’s excellent local beer by night. 

You grab a spot at one of the trestle tables outside, get yourself a pint of something hazy, a bière d’ici, and just enjoy that feeling of being part of a buzz and bustle bigger than you. Sacrilege and Brewing Bears are well represented – more on them below – but I also had a beautiful IPA from Brasserie le Détour. We became regular visitors during our holiday, and it was one of the happiest places in a city full of happy places.

On our second visit we got to explore some of the nearby restaurants (Les Freres Poulard and Lipopette, above) and when there’s a third visit there’s a nearby pizza joint called Pousse that I firmly have my eye on. But I also managed to fit in a couple of visits to Le Discopathe: it’s also worth noting that it’s one of Montpellier’s only craft beer bars that opens before about 5pm.

Le Discopathe
28 rue du Faubourg du Courreau
https://lediscopathe.com

11. Le Reservoir

Many cities have some kind of craft beer scene, and the template is a well-trodden one: some big warehouse either in an industrial estate or near the docks, on the edge of town, usually requiring a taxi to get to (our own Double-Barrelled follows in that proud tradition). Le Réservoir is not quite like that. It’s on the outskirts of the city, and our Uber driver, who turned up in an impressively over the top lipstick-red Tesla, had never heard of the place. But it feels properly in the middle of nowhere, with the distinct whiff of agriculture from its neighbours. 

It’s relatively new, and had the feel of a place built in anticipation of demand, rather than because of it. But inside it was positively splendid, with twenty taps nearly all of which are devoted to local beer. The space is shared by two breweries – Brewing Bears, which does more conventional IPAs, and Sacrilege who specialise in mixed fermentation beers and saisons with all sorts of interesting fruit and weirdness going on. We tried a bit of both, and had a really fantastic afternoon doing it. I’m sorry I didn’t get to go back on my second visit for an afternoon of craft beer and pétanque – apparently you can play it on the premises.

Le Réservoir
55 rue de Montels Saint-Pierre
https://www.instagram.com/lereservoirmontpellier/?hl=en

12. O’Petit Trinque Fougasse

This was a brilliant spot for a few glasses of wine, some cheese and charcuterie and a spot of people watching, along with a welcome opportunity to rest our feet after an afternoon of retail therapy. There are something like four reds and four whites available by the glass, ranging from thoroughly decent to bloody marvellous, and the small plates include sliced saucisson with a mild hum of offal, a gorgeous burrata with pesto, all manner of local cheeses and of course the eponymous fougasse studded with olive, which is flaky, indulgent and worth the price of admission alone. For beer lovers there’s a really well curated shop a few doors down called Deli Malt which offers an extensive introduction to Montpellier’s burgeoning craft beer scene and has plenty for you to squirrel away in your suitcase for the rueful journey home.

O’Petit Trinque Fougasse
12 Boulevard Ledru Rollin
https://www.trinquefougasse.com/petit/home

Café review: Cairo Café

Something I often bang on about often in restaurant reviews is that feeling of being elsewhere, of the power some places have to completely transport you, in mind if not in body. Restaurants as travel agents, taking you somewhere else without having to rack up a huge hotel bill or get to the airport two hours early, or feel that sense of gloom about no longer being able to join the “arrivals from the EU” queue.

Last Saturday evening I had dinner on the sunlit terrace at Buon Appetito, and I felt like I could have been anywhere on the continent but nowhere near Reading. My Aperol spritz shone a luminous orange, soft jazz was playing on the speakers and my pizza was speckled with savoury bombs of gorgonzola left, right and centre. At the end of the meal the manager brought over a couple of amaros for us to try – one from Sicily, rich and sweet, the other from Calabria, medicinal with rosemary and mint. Could I really be a stone’s throw from the Oxford Road? It felt hard to credit.

I had a similar feeling the following day, pretty much from the moment Zoë and I walked through the front door of Cairo Café. It’s where Beijing Noodle House used to be, in a site they’ve bizarrely divided into two not side by side, as usual, but front and back: you walk down a corridor to get to Nepalese restaurant Chillim Kitchen out back, but at the front, with a much smaller bright yellow sign advertising its presence, is Cairo Café.

Inside is a little room that could maybe seat ten people, if they knew each other extremely well. Two small tables for two are on the left, all vibrant tablecloths, and on the right is a high table seating four. A couple more stools are up at the window staring out onto West Street, which offers a characterful viewing experience. It’s tiny, but I loved it, with all the little touches like the black and white photos on the wall and a couple of clocks showing Cairo and Reading time.

Like many places serving lunch in town, the menu – in bright yellow above the counter betrays a certain amount of bet hedging. You can have a conventional panini or baguette, if that’s what you want, and the menu gives you all the mainstream choices – tuna mayo, brie and bacon, chicken tikka and so on. And at the counter you can see all the steel dishes with those fillings, if you want to try the same sort of thing you could easily get somewhere like Pierre’s. But the middle of the menu, marked “Cairo Street Food”, is the reason I went: a range of Egyptian dishes, some of which I’d tried and some I’d never heard of. And the kitchen, just about visible out back, is where all of these are conjured up.

“I’m sorry, but we don’t have any falafel” said the owner, aproned and smiling. “It’s been a crazy morning.” Undeterred I asked him to explain a few things on the menu I hadn’t heard of before, and discovered that warak enab was what I would recognise as dolmades, stuffed vine leaves. He went on to explain that sakalans was an iconic Egyptian dessert, a sandwich made with halva, cream and honey: I made a mental note not to leave without trying it. 

I placed my order – this is a venue where you pay at the end – and took a seat. The room had a strangely serene calm, and despite knowing that all the noise of the less salubrious end of town was just the other side of the door, I had that feeling of being transported, of not being in Kansas any more. I could see the owner up at the counter plucking fresh mint leaves for our tea and I had that dangerous feeling that comes from time to time, the slowly building hope that I might have discovered a gem. The tea, by the way, was cracking: fresh and fragrant.

Things improved still further when the chicken shawarma wraps arrived on their little tin plates. So many places don’t know how to assemble a wrap so it can be eaten, so instead either all of it falls out of the end or you get a giant indigestible clove hitch of tortilla. You wouldn’t want these people rolling you a joint, put it that way. By contrast Cairo Cafe’s wrap was a stunner, carefully assembled as a square and flattened under a grill – neat, no wasted space, and the crisped exterior almost reminiscent of a pastilla. 

And the chicken inside was terrific: the whole filling was, in fact, with some kind of beautiful alchemy of chicken, cheese, mint and (this might have been my imagination) a hint of something like cinnamon. I ate it slowly, partly because it was hot but mostly because I didn’t want it to end. This cost a ridiculous – and in all honesty, unsustainable – four pounds fifty. You should go and try it, before he puts his prices up. He should put his prices up.

While we ate our wraps, in a sort of wordless euphoria, something lovely happened. A couple of gents came in to the café looking for a late lunch, but clearly in a rush. The owner explained that he was preparing our dishes and that it would take him a while to put some baguettes together. Were they willing to wait? It transpired that they weren’t, and so they scarpered and as the owner came over to take our plates away he was splendidly unapologetic.

“I’m not making food in a hurry. I want to give people something they’ll remember” – a quiet smile at this point, because the two chaps in question looked like they might have struggled to recall what they did the night before – “even if only for a little while.”

I was happy that we’d been prepared to wait, because our remaining choices, from the more resolutely Egyptian section of the menu, all came together and largely kept up a very high standard. Possibly the weakest thing were the waraq enab: I love stuffed vine leaves, but these weren’t quite the best I’ve had, a little too saccharine. I don’t know if they’re made on the premises – they might be, because they felt a little ragged and slightly loosely wrapped – but I’ve had better, both at Bakery House and at Blue Collar, from Fink as part of their superb mezze boxes. A good example of wayward pricing, too: these cost as much as a shawarma wrap. I know which I’d rather have.

But the other two dishes we’d chosen returned to the high standard of those wraps. Moutabal was a bright, zingy thing shot through with parsley, perfect loaded on to pitta (the pitta, again, was a slight weakness: a little hard, and not quite enough of it, although I’m inclined to be more forgiving than it was). It didn’t have the smokiness I associate with some examples – this was a light and happy dish, not a dark and brooding one – but I didn’t like it any the less for that. Dark and brooding gets boring, doesn’t it.

Even better was the sojuk, a marvellous surprise and one of the nicest things I’ve eaten this year. I was expecting something like Bakery House’s maqaneq – sausages cooked and served simply with onion and lemon juice – but what I got instead was wonderful pieces of coarse, caramelised sausages, punchy and brick-red inside, in a thick, spiced gravy (if I didn’t know better, I’d have likened it to a curry). Slow-cooked, soft pieces of green pepper and green chilli were in the mix, giving the potential for every mouthful to be a gorgeous sunburst of heat. 

Again, this was four pounds fifty and again I worry about the owner’s ability to make money charging so little. I ate forkful after forkful in beaming delight: Zoë loaded some on to a piece of pitta, dolloped some moutabal on top and said something to the effect of “this is really fucking good” between mouthfuls. It was, simply put, one of my favourite discoveries of 2022 so far, and I’m not sure I’m capable of going back and not ordering it.

As we reached the end, and sipped what was left of our mint tea, there was a moment of perfect peace. The hubbub of West Street had died away, no customers came in, the owner was out back. The clocks on the wall ticked away the advancing seconds, in Reading and Cairo, and I thought to myself: there’s something slightly magical about this place.

When the owner took these plates away, I asked him a little about Cairo Café. He’d been trading for four months, he said, and things were going well.

“Do you sell more stuff from the Egyptian side of the menu than the conventional dishes? It would be sad if most people who came here didn’t try this.”

Another grin.

“Yes, we do. But I try hard to convince people – we give out little samples, too.” I was reminded again of this man’s spiritual family here in Reading: people like Jo at Kungfu Kitchen, Nandana at Clay’s, Keti at Geo Café and Kamal at his eponymous new restaurant. People who believe in the narrative power of food, of telling stories, of welcoming you into their home with the food they grew up with.

“I’m glad customers don’t just come here for an English breakfast.”

“We don’t do one! We do that stuff in a baguette but we don’t do a full English. We sell an Egyptian breakfast instead” (it comes with falafel and shakshuka, by the way, and it sounds excellent).

“What should I order next time I come here?”

“I know we’ve sold out, but our falafel are really good. And you should try the beef livers.” I made a mental note: the menu says they come ‘all the way from Alexandria’.

The sojuk had a wonderful building heat, so I wanted something cooling and I’d left room for dessert so we ordered a couple more things. Again, the owner apologised that they would take a while but by that point I thought the prospect of another half an hour in Cairo Café was a positive boon, so I wasn’t complaining. First to arrive was a cooling drink which had rather been misplaced in the “Fresh juices” section, a drink made with yoghurt, milk and honey. I absolutely adored this – as a dairy fiend it’s right up my alley at the best of times, but what I loved about it the most was how light and delicate it was. It didn’t have that thick stubbornness a lassi can have, and the sweetness was almost floral, complementing things rather than beating you round the head. To add to the random pricing, this was four pounds but, for me, worth every penny.

Last of all, I had to try the sakalans. This took a while to prepare and I can honestly say I’ve never had anything like it – a warm, almost-crunchy baguette split lengthways and crammed with cream, honey and huge wedges of halva. I’ve loved halva for years – ironically, since my mother brought some back from a holiday in Egypt, and as a huge fan of sesame in all its forms this dish had a huge amount to appeal to me. The idea of sticking it in a sandwich had never occurred to me, but eating this I was delighted that it had occurred to someone. Zoë was a little less convinced by it, I suspect, but she was also either fuller, or more restrained, than me.

Our bill, for all that food and an hour and a half of serene, unmitigated delight, came to forty-five pounds, not including tip. I felt a compulsion to keep telling the owner how much I’d enjoyed everything, but eventually I realised I’d have to button it and stop thanking him. Besides, I have the opportunity to tell all of you instead, so it’s not as if I’m going to get an ulcer from suppressing anything. I went on my way absolutely convinced that I would be back, and positively evangelical about making sure some other people went there too.

My overwhelming feeling when I discover somewhere like Cairo Café is to think: how lucky are we in Reading? How lucky are we that despite the best efforts of the unholy trinity of Messrs Brock, Sykes and Horton-Baker, that cabal of the unimaginative, avaricious and dim-witted, people still come here to open their restaurants and their cafés, to battle away against the misguided focus of our public bodies and the bleak indifference of our local media. How lucky are we that we still get a gem like Cairo Café defying all of that inertia and doing their damnedest to get a foothold in this town?

It reminds me, many years ago, of another café only a few doors down from where Cairo Café is now: Cappuccina Café, a modest little place serving banh mi and pasteis de nata. I visited it, I rather liked it, I wrote a review and within a month it was closed. It remains, even now, one of the Reading closures I’m saddest about – more so, in a funny kind of way, than all the Mya Lacartes and Dolce Vitas out there; everybody misses them, but when I think of Cappuccina Café I sometimes think it’s mourned by me and me alone. I’m determined to do my bit to ensure that Cairo Café doesn’t go the same way. So please, go there and try the food: it has, I think, a little spark of magic. And heaven knows, we all need to keep that alive in Reading, as much as we possibly can.

Cairo Café – 8.3
13 West Street, Reading, RG1 1TT
07862 200055

https://www.instagram.com/cairocafe11/
Delivery via: Just Eat, Deliveroo, Uber Eats

Restaurant review: Shree Krishna Vada Pav

When it comes to food and drink, Reading is an especially interesting place. You may find this hard to believe at times, but it’s true.

I don’t mean all the stuff that’s obvious to you, especially if you’re a regular reader of this blog. I don’t mean our coffee culture, or our street food scene that’s the envy of towns for miles around. I don’t mean our two local breweries with taprooms, or excellent pubs like the Nag’s and the Castle Tap selling fantastic craft beer and cider. I don’t mean the jewels in our restaurant crown – places like Clay’s, the Lyndhurst, Kungfu Kitchen or Vegivores. I’m not even talking about our network of local producers and the independent shops, like Geo Café and the Grumpy Goat, which sell their stuff. You know all that already, although I suspect a lot of people who live here still don’t. 

No, I mean interesting in terms of the world outside our food-loving, indie-supporting echo chamber. Because a lot of businesses have clocked that Reading – with its university, its prosperous populace and its tech employers, just the right distance from London – is the perfect place for them to open another branch of their restaurant chain and make pots of cash. They have us down, mistakenly I like to think, as something of an Everytown, the perfect testbed for their particular flavour of the hospitality experience.

In fact, two very different types of businesses have Reading in their sights. The first, tapping into that affluent, well-educated demographic, are smaller, more targeted chains. They’ve often seen Reading as their first attempts to expand west (Honest, Pho) or east (The Coconut Tree), or just picked it as one of the first stops on a journey to nationwide ubiquity (Itsu). And this still continues, albeit to a lesser extent: we’re getting a Leon and a Wasabi this year, don’t forget.

But the second type is more interested in Reading as Everytown, and often we are the lucky Petri dish they squirt their pipette into before deciding whether to open branches elsewhere. And this is, I’m afraid, often an American thing. It’s no coincidence that Reading got one of the first Five Guys, got a Chick-Fil-A, albeit briefly, got a Taco Bell and a Wingstop and a Wendy’s and has a Popeyes on the way. Such is life: newly added to the Tube map, but somehow equidistant between London and the good ol’ United States. 

These big American chains with plenty of money are aided and abetted in their mission to slightly worsen Reading by our local media – which posted dozens of stories about Wendy’s, mainly because they were too dumb to think critically for even a split second about whether Reading getting the first Wendy’s in the U.K. was actually a Good Thing. But it also points to just how much is going on in Reading, and how interesting the battle will be between all these factions fighting it out for your money. No wonder Jonathan Nunn, the editor of Vittles, called our town a “fascinating anomaly”.

“Why is this the subject of your interminable preamble this week?”, I hear you say. I thought you’d never ask. The reason I talk about all of this is that the subject of this week’s review is that rare thing, a chain choosing to plonk a branch near the centre of town that people can get genuinely excited about. Because Shree Krishna Vada Pav, a small chain selling vegetarian Maharashtrian street food which started out in Hounslow and only has three branches outside the M25, comes here with an excellent reputation.

Eater London, which tirelessly covers everywhere worth eating outside Zone 1, has enthused about SKVP on numerous occasions. They classed it as one of London’s best Indian restaurants, and one of West London’s best value restaurants. And they said it served one of London’s finest sandwiches, on a list rubbing shoulders with greats like Beigel Bake’s salt beef bagel and Quo Vadis’ legendary smoked eel sandwich. Eater London aptly summed up what SKVP do as “carb-on-carb masterpieces”, and commented elsewhere that their dishes (carbs stuffed into a soft bap) had a “curious affinity with snack culture from the north of England and Scotland”. 

So you might not have heard of Shree Krishna Vada Pav, or you might not have known they were coming to Reading, but one way or the other this is a strangely big deal, despite the grand total of zero coverage in Berkshire Live or the Reading Chronicle. But who needs them anyway when you’ve got me, so this week I headed there on a Monday evening with Zoë to try as much of the menu as I could.

It’s at the edge of town, opposite the Back Of Beyond, and once you get past its Day-Glo orange exterior it’s fundamentally a very long thin room with a view of the kitchen and a corridor heading to the back – and presumably the loos – which seems to go on forever. (“I know” said Zoë. “I used to come here when it was Julia’s Meadow and I thought it was like the fucking TARDIS”). A panel down one wall gave a potted history of the chain which opened its first branch in 2010, although the founders go further back than that, having met at college in Mumbai at the turn of the century. I found all that oddly sweet, which is no doubt the desired effect.

Apart from that the interior was best described as functional – basic furniture, a mixture of tables for two and four and cutlery on the table. It looked very much like a fast food restaurant, albeit one with table service. The music was just the right side of overpowering, although I found I liked that.

“I don’t know how unbiased I can be” said Zoë as we took our seats. “Have we ever had a meal for the blog where I’ve been this fucking starving?”

She had a point. We got there around eight o’clock, having not eaten since a light lunch, and irrespective of how tempting the menu might be there was very much a strong urge to order nearly everything. That said, looking at the menu didn’t make that any easier. It was two things: cheap and huge, not necessarily in that order. It was split into sections, each of which contained an embarrassment of riches: a variety of pav and other bap-based dishes, some Indo-Chinese dishes, some chaat, some sandwiches and wraps, a section of “bites to enjoy” and some signature dishes marked as “SKVP recommends”. And the carb on carb struggle is real: if you want an onion bhajiya sandwich, this is the place for you.

It’s possibly an indicator of how you should eat here that the handful of curries are squirreled away in the furthest corner of the menu, and ordering any of them never occurred to me. But also the pricing positively implores you to order lots of things and share them – the most expensive dishes are around six pounds but most are less than that. I took this as encouragement to take an approach much like the numbers game from Countdown: a couple from the top and the rest from anywhere else. We ordered – please don’t judge – eight dishes in total and our bill came to just under thirty-two pounds. That didn’t include any drinks, because SKVP didn’t have any mango lassi and we didn’t especially fancy anything else: there is, unsurprisingly, no alcohol license.

I do have to say that although the set-up says fast food, ours was far from that. We ordered at ten past eight, and it wasn’t until half an hour later that food started coming to our table. That’s not a problem of itself, but it’s worth mentioning because the restaurant ostensibly closes at nine. And weirder still, the customers kept coming: we were by no means the last table seated or the last people to get their food. I’m pretty sure that SKVP has been busy from the day it opened, and on this showing that’s not going to change any time soon. I should also mention at this point that the staff were quite brilliant, although clearly under the cosh. 

We ordered a lot of food – if you go, you don’t need to order anywhere near as much as we did – and it all came to the table over the space of five minutes. Again, I’m not complaining but it was an odd approach to bring nothing for half an hour and then literally every single thing. I would have preferred a steady stream of dishes, but that might just be me. But don’t be fooled into thinking that low prices mean small portions: you’ll get very full very fast if you make the same mistake we did.

Your challenge, if you go, will be narrowing it down. We had to try the vada pav – it’s in the name, after all – and although I liked it I’m not sure I loved it or preferred it to Bhel Puri House’s version. It really is a carb overload: fried potato served in a cheap white floury bap with a variety of chutneys. I think you kind of have to have it, but I don’t know if I’d have it again – the chutneys were excellent, sharpening and and elevating it, but the potato was a little too much stodge and not enough crunch. Zoë had the version with cheese (plastic hamburger cheese, I think) and she absolutely loved it. That might be the Irish in her.

“Can you believe this only costs two pounds?” I said.

“It’s a bit of old veg though, innit?” came the response, between mouthfuls. Did I mention that we were both ravenous?

More successful (and, frankly, slightly insane) was the “aloo bomb”. I’d wanted the paneer bomb – the sandwich, incidentally, lauded by Eater London as one of the capital’s peerless butties – but it was off the menu that night so they subbed it for the aloo bomb. It’s hard to do justice to this but essentially it’s a spiced potato sandwich that has been battered and fried and it’s every bit as nuts as that description makes it sound: Glaswegians, it turns out, aren’t the only people who will batter anything. 

A portion comes in two triangles so you only need one between two but it’s well worth ordering, if only to tick it off. It struck me as a vegetarian cousin of Gurt Wings’ infamous chicken burger in a glazed donut with candied bacon on top: you’d want to try it once to say you’ve had it, but you mightn’t order it again for at least twelve months.  Who am I kidding? When I go back that paneer bomb has my name on it.

Possibly the best dish was that reliable staple, the chilli paneer. Reading has always been spoilt for this by Bhel Puri House, where the tricky decision is whether to have chilli paneer, paneer Manchurian or – as I have on occasion, again, please don’t judge – both of them. SKVP’s version is beautifully pitched between the two – a little hot, sweet and savoury all at once, staying on that highwire without putting a foot wrong. The paneer was just caramelised enough without being crispy or burnt and this was one dish where, even though we were full to bursting, we made it a personal mission to ensure that not a forkful remained.

“You could come here and have a portion of that to yourself and a vada pav and that would be you sorted” said Zoë. “You could come here for lunch when you’re working from home, you lucky bastard.”

I’d be lying if I pretended the idea hadn’t crossed my mind, although they’ve have to take less than half an hour to bring it.

If the other dishes were less successful, it was still just the difference between rather good and very good. I quite liked the onion bhajiya, I really liked the red onion studded throughout them and I adored the little fried green chillies they were festooned with. But although greaseless they were a tad dried out for my liking: what they really needed was a chutney of some kind. And fried momo were more doughy than their Nepalese cousins, and probably didn’t bring enough to the table. But once you’ve had a spiced potato masala in a deep fried sandwich and a samosa, a third carby vehicle for it is probably overkill by anyone’s standards.

The samosas, by the way, were excellent. My benchmark for these is Cake & Cream up on the Wokingham Road (where they’ve recently gone up in price to a still-ludicrous seventy pence). But I reckon SKVP’s match them nicely, with a filling flecked with chilli that starts out gently hot before going on to clear out every tube you have from the neck up. You can have them on your own – you get four for a ridiculous three pounds fifty – but we had them bundled with a really delicious, deeply savoury and soothing chickpea curry which was one of the milder, less aggressively hot dishes of the evening. Five pounds fifty for this lot, if you can believe it.

I don’t know to be impressed or faintly disgusted with myself that we ate so much of what we’d ordered but eventually we admitted defeat, although not before picking away at the last peppers and spring onions from the chilli paneer. We waddled out into the night, and headed to the back room of the Retreat for a bottle of chocolate stout and a post-meal debrief: I wouldn’t say it was the stuff of Shakespeare, as it mostly consisted of us saying “I’m so full” to one another after a suitably pregnant pause, but it was a debrief nonetheless. The pause probably seemed less pregnant than I did.

It probably won’t surprise you, now that we’ve got to the end, to scroll a little bit further down and see the rating. I loved SKVP. I didn’t care that it took half an hour to turn up, I didn’t care that I missed out on that paneer bomb and, perhaps most significantly, I didn’t care in the slightest that I’d had a meat free evening. It gets an unqualified thumbs up from me, and I imagine a lot of you would enjoy it, even if it’s just for a quickish bite to eat at lunchtime, or before the pub (good luck catching it at a quiet time, though). And I suspect that my selections from this menu were probably pretty mainstream and tame: I look forward to trying more of it.

SKVP’s closest equivalent is Bhel Puri House – which I still love, don’t get me wrong – but it strikes me as offering something very different to Reading’s other vegetarian Indian restaurants, Madras Flavours and Crispy Dosa, both of which focus their menus elsewhere. And SKVP also achieves that underrated thing which not enough restaurants succeed in pulling off: it’s fun. Fun from start to finish, fun looking through the menu, fun picking too much stuff, fun eating somewhere unlike the rest of Reading, fun eating a deep fried potato sandwich. One hundred per cent fun. It was even almost fun lying in bed that night, feeling like a python slowly digesting a mongoose it had swallowed whole. Almost.

So maybe Reading’s story isn’t written yet. And that’s an encouraging thing to realise, that with big U.K. chains to the left and bigger U.S. chains to the right we still have the chance to be stuck in the middle with our independent heroes, our restaurants and pubs, breweries and cafés, producers and shops. And in that happy place, I like to think there’s also still room for someone like SKVP – an occasional epic, incongruous, glorious curveball.

Shree Krishna Vada Pav – 8.1
97 Kings Road, Reading, RG1 3DD
07900 345120

https://skvp.co.uk
Delivery via: Deliveroo