2022 was the Year Of The Sushi Restaurant in Reading: you waited ages for somewhere to come along to challenge Sushimania and the bigger chains, and then three came along practically at once. The most upmarket, grown-up proposition was Intoku, which I reviewed last year (tl;dr – great food, everything else was problematic). But the other two – what are the chances? – opened a few doors and a few weeks apart on Friar Street last summer.
One, Iro Sushi, took the tiny site previously occupied by Raayo, which I reviewed last year (tl;dr – a nice pulled pork panini I was sorry to see the back of). The other, You Me Sushi, was bigger, the latest franchise in a chain previously confined to London. Before that, that site was home to the now defunct STA Travel, something I only know because I Googled it. It’s sad, I always think, when you can’t remember what something used to be.
Both Iro Sushi and You Me Sushi are far more aimed at the casual grab and go market, closer rivals to Itsu than to Yo!, I would say. I don’t think either sells alcohol and although both are open until the evening they feel more like lunch venues, somewhere you would eat without necessarily hanging about. Both are on delivery apps, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a reasonable amount of their custom comes through that channel. Size is a factor there: Iro only has about five stools, two facing the bar and three looking out of the window, while You Me has a smattering of tables and maybe twenty or so covers.
You nearly got a review of either of them this week. Zoë and I wandered in that direction ready to take our chances, but although my heart said Iro (besides, somebody told me they make everything to order whereas You Me has readymade sushi on display) there were people sitting up at the window there, whereas You Me was empty. So the choice was made, although I did wonder in the back of my mind whether You Me Sushi was empty for a reason.
It’s perfectly pleasant, if a tad sterile, inside. They have some of the same furniture, I think, as Kokoro and it’s very much reminiscent of the likes of Kokoro and ThaiGrr! – functional, utilitarian, lacking in any homeliness (unless your home resembles a dentist’s waiting room). It’s mostly black and white – one black wall, a white tiled kitchen at the back – although a bright graphic on one wall adds colour and character.
This might sound like a basic error, and I’m not sure if it’s mine or theirs, but there aren’t any menus on the table. A lot of premade sushi boxes are on display in the fridge – a very good range, in fact – but it wasn’t clear to me until later that there were menus up at the counter and you don’t have to limit yourself to what you can see. That was very much my mistake, but I still found it weird to not make the menus a little more visible.
Most of the stuff they had out were the more expensive sushi rolls or selection boxes, but even then prices weren’t eye-watering: nearly all the boxes on delay were under or at the ten pound mark, and they also had some reliable staples like avocado maki. Over the counter illuminated menus offered soups and hot dishes – the latter very reminiscent of the sort of thing you can get at Kokoro – along with poke bowls, something which always seems to be huge whenever I go to Europe but which hasn’t really caught on in this country. From my photo one of their screens was out – maybe that’s where the more conventional bits of the menu should have been.
When I did eventually get a look at the menu, I saw that you could get a decent range of maki, uramaki, temaki, nigiri and sashimi – along with something called the “crazy crunchy roll” – at reasonable prices. So you don’t have to take your pick from the fridge and, in most cases, they’ll make it there and then for you like Iro, their near neighbours. They also apparently offer free delivery for orders over twelve pounds – I have no idea what the small print on that is, or how on earth it’s viable, but it’s worth knowing.
Anyway, by then I had grabbed a bunch of stuff from the fridges, which along with a couple of soft drinks came to just over twenty-four pounds. I told myself that if we liked it, and we were still hungry, we could always go up and order some more stuff.
First up, something called the “salmon box” which, confusingly, wasn’t all salmon. Nigiri, never my favourite, were actually really nicely done and I loved the salmon and avocado maki, arguably the best entry-level sushi out there. But the real pick, for me, was the salmon free zone: the California roll, with crab stick and avocado, the pop of tobiko and the elevating factor, a smidge of wasabi. Just enough to lend an edge without shouting everything down. I really loved it. Just over ten pounds for this, although I think they’re meant to charge more if you eat in – looking at my bill, I think they forgot to do so.
Avocado maki are an absolute must-order for me and I liked You Me Sushi’s a great deal. Ever so slightly raggedly rolled – the nori didn’t join up on all of them – but at under two quid for a dozen I was very much not complaining. You could hit their twelve pound delivery threshold by just ordering a fuckton of these and you (well I, anyway) could have a very enjoyable meal.
Last but not least, we’d also chosen the crunchy salmon box. Now in hindsight I probably should have picked something with a little more variety – a lot of this review could basically be summed up as “textures of salmon” – but even so it was very enjoyable. The crunch here was partly supplied by some crispy onion, of the sort you used to get in plastic tubs and sprinkle over salad, glued on with something like Kewpie mayo, and by little batons of finely sliced cucumber, in the mix along with the ever-present avocado. Seven fifty for this and, again, very respectable at this price point.
Having eaten and enjoyed everything we had, sipping away on a rather nice ginger and lemon kombucha (unusually, You Me Sushi sells multiple kombuchas), I was seized with the thought that by picking from the stuff already in the fridge we may not have given the place a fair crack of the whip or tried enough of what they had to offer. So we conferred over the menu, and I went up and ordered a few more dishes at the total cost of another twenty-six pounds. I know, the lengths I go to for you lot. Looking beyond the counter I could see the kitchen behind, all precision knife work and efficiency, and it made me glad that I hadn’t left it there.
They offer salmon sashimi either as it comes or seared, and for scientific purposes we ordered one of each. It was a beautiful piece of salmon and although it was interesting to see how searing slightly changed the buttery texture of the fish I’m not sure it was worth the extra quid to have them do that and then scatter some sesame seeds over it. They weren’t the most generous cuts of salmon though – slightly thin slivers that draped limply over the chopsticks. It’s also worth mentioning that even if you order at the counter to eat in, everything comes in disposable plastic trays. That didn’t sit easily with me: I really hope they do plenty of recycling.
Last but not least we tried soft shell crab, one of my favourite things, in temaki, big conical hand rolls. The crab itself, still warm, was delicious with just enough crunch. But it had to carry the whole show. There was tobiko but not enough, a spiced mayo but not enough, avocado but not enough and so on. Just past the halfway mark there was nothing really left but rice, and it was time to give up.
Short and sweet this week, then, a little like You Me Sushi itself. By my reckoning we can’t have been there much longer than forty-five minutes – and that’s ordering two rounds of dishes, so you can probably see why I think this is definitely a quick lunch spot more than anything else. And this is where I do slightly worry about the place, because I’m not sure that people in a hurry want to drop fifty quid on sushi, even when it’s decent value and surprisingly good.
That second bit, the “surprisingly good” part, bears repeating. You Me Sushi had the misfortune that I visited it the day after eating sushi from Misugo, possibly my favourite Japanese restaurant in the world. And I’ll say this for the place – if their sushi wasn’t quite as good at Misugo’s, it was far, far closer to it in quality than I was expecting. Add in a pleasant, if functional, room to eat in and very friendly, polite and efficient staff and you have something of a surprise package.
When you also factor in their free delivery for orders over twelve quid – an offer that, even as I type it out, still seems too good to be true – You Me Sushi may have a viable business on its hands. I very much hope so, because it definitely adds to Reading’s food scene, especially in the town centre. It isn’t really a competitor to Intoku or Sushimania, nor a like for like comparison either. But I would choose it over drab old Itsu eleven times out of ten. Fingers crossed enough people do likewise.
You Me Sushi – 7.4 150 Friar Street, RG1 1HE 0118 2290616
Yes, Popeyes. Now, I imagine some of you think it must be Shooting Fish In A Barrel Week here on Edible Reading, that I’ve gone for the easy option of punching down for those sweet, sweet clicks. And who can blame you? Fried chicken restaurant Popeyes is the latest, though by no means the last, big American chain to touch down in Reading, continuing a trend that began with Five Guys ten years ago and which, if anything, is accelerating. You know this already, I’m sure: we’ve also had Chick Fil-A, Wingstop, Taco Bell and, of course, Wendy’s.
And, just as with Wendy’s, from the moment the news broke about Popeyes our local press – what’s left of it – went completely gaga. OMG Popeyes is coming to Reading! it gushed last March, followed by It’s going to be in the old Gap store on Broad Street! in November. I especially loved the photo caption – always a Berkshire Live speciality – saying “Popeyes is an American restaurant that sells fried chicken” (who writes them, Mr Chips from Catchphrase?)
“Customers can now sign up for updates about when the new Reading Popeyes will open and a lucky few are in with a chance of being invited to the grand opening of the store” said an article, suspending any remaining critical faculties. But why sign up for updates when you can just read Berkshire Live as it pumps out more free advertising for a well-backed business which doesn’t need it?
I hope after doing all that free advertising for Popeyes the drones at Reach plc at least got some free food in return, you might be thinking. Well, don’t worry – they did! “I was lucky enough to be invited down to the Reading restaurant for a sneak preview of what the international chicken chain has to offer”, an article began. “With celebrity fans including Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian, I’ve been eager to try their famous Louisiana cooking for quite some time.”
You might be astonished to find that our local Reach plc publication absolutely loved its free food: I know I was. “I tried Reading’s Popeyes and was blown away by one thing” said the headline, although the article then raved about both the chicken sandwich and the Cajun fries, so even that was an inaccurate report of their own meal. By my reckoning Berkshire Live sounds like it had two meal deals, so it sold its soul for twenty quid: that’s roughly what it’s worth. “If I was walking through town, wondering where to stop for a quick bite to eat, I’d head straight there” it concluded. Talk about a plot twist!
Not to single Reach plc out, the Reading Chronicle managed an even more glowing writeup of its free scran, although one that copied out more of the accompanying press release. “This burger is put together like a piece of art…” it enthused, with a touch of hyperbole. “Every bite makes you want another and by the time you know it you’ll be buying another portion.” Pretty potent stuff for a chicken burger you might think, but apparently, it had the author’s “jaw hitting the floor”. The overall impression was that Popeyes made Pulp Fiction’s legendary Big Kahuna burger taste like the contents of a warm food recycling bin. Two local journalists can’t be wrong, can they?
So yes, the scene is set for me to give Popeyes the time honoured kicking that I’ve doled out, over the years, to the likes of TGI Friday, Taco Bell, even Wingstop. But here’s the thing: my antipathy towards big American chains and the homogenisation of Reading is on the record and has been for years. And yet, on the other hand, I really love fried chicken. Always have. I love it in all its forms, from a crafty KFC to Blue Collar’s legendary Gurt Wings, from Bristol’s Wing’s Diner to the Lyndhurst’s karaage chicken to Clay’s Kitchen’s payyoli chicken fry and everything in between. The crunch and yield, the seasoning and the sauce: there’s nothing else out there quite like it.
It’s a proper Achilles heel and if I found a good one I doubt I’d care if the restaurant serving it was the property of a holding company co-owned by Elon Musk, Tim Martin and Scrooge McDuck. And all the talk and hype about Popeyes, about how its chicken sandwich “broke the internet” back in 2019, raises at least the possibility that it could be a game changer. So we have a classic scenario: what happens when an irresistible force (my love of fried chicken) meets an immovable body (my disdain for big American chains)? If you know the answer already you were one step ahead of me when Zoë and I stepped through those doors on Broad Street on a Bank Holiday Monday afternoon.
It’s hard to believe the interior had ever been a Gap, that much is true. But beyond that I’m not sure what there is to say – there are big touch screens at the front on which you can place your order, there’s a counter right at the back and there are loads of very functional-looking wipe-clean tables, most of which are occupied at any given time. If it sounds like I’ve described McDonald’s, there’s a reason for that: it’s not that different from one (and I actually went to the McDonald’s on Friar Street a few months ago – after an afternoon and evening on the sauce, in my defence – so I vaguely know what I’m talking about).
So yes, it’s a big cacophonous space where you sit, eat your food and sod off. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but let’s not pretend it’s a masterpiece of interior design that will make you long to linger. It’s almost designed to be just insufferable enough that you vacate your table nice and quickly so they can make money off the next group to plonk themselves down there. Someone on Twitter said to me that the interior was much nicer than KFC. I’m not sure it is, really, I think it’s just a lot newer.
Although you can order at the big touchscreens – and I hope for their sake they’re more effective than the ticket machines in Reading Station – there’s also a QR code on the table so you can grab a seat and look at the menu at your leisure. Not that it will take long, because Popeyes does chicken, chicken and chicken. Oh, and something called a Creole Red Bean Sandwich, for vegetarians who are dragged to Popeyes by friends or family who don’t much like them. But beyond that, it’s just how you want your chicken: in a bun, on the bone, on the wing or as tenders. The only other permutation is whether you want it regular or spicy.
Oh, and the sandwiches are either normal or “Deluxe”. Want to guess what Deluxe means? It means they charge you an extra pound and give you cheese and some lettuce. I know we’re in the middle of a salad shortage, but when did salad become a luxury item? Is it only a luxury to people who are going to Popeyes for dinner? It’s a puzzle. Anyway, sandwiches are six or seven pounds, if you bundle them with fries and a soft drink you’re spending something like a tenner. I don’t eat in Popeyes’ peers often enough to tell you if that is especially expensive in relative terms, but in absolute terms it’s pretty affordable.
We decided to try a little of everything so we placed our order, which came to just under twenty-eight pounds, all in, and waited the grand total of six minutes before a tray was brought to our table. They bring you the food, but you have to go up and get your own drinks – I’m not sure why. Weirdly they also charge twenty-five pence extra for fat Coke, although I’m not sure how they enforce that.
The fact that everything I’m about to describe are iterations of the same dead animal in one of two different coatings might make what follows a tad monotonous. Let’s whip through it. I’d chosen the classic sandwich, the one that allegedly broke the internet. Those two local articles I’d read raved about how huge it was, as if they’d somehow deep fried some ostrich; it’s not a meagre burger, but it’s not colossal. The one thing the articles did get right was the crunch: the crunch Popeyes achieves is quite something. It does have that almost-brittle snap spot on, and the coating adheres to the burger perfectly. That’s the good news.
The bad news, and I’m not sure how they managed this, is just how little it tastes of anything. It’s all very well raving about how huge and thick the burger is, but if the coating is bland it just means that however tender the flesh underneath is the whole shebang feels like a bit of a chore. And that, sadly, is how I felt about it. With KFC, there’s no mistaking that blend of herbs and spices. It’s not for everyone, and it’s probably just as well I don’t know what goes into it, but it tastes of something. It leaves you gasping for a cold drink, it dehydrates the inside of your mouth with every bite. But it tastes of something, and afterwards you feel like you’ve done something disreputable but indulgent.
Popeyes’ burger, on the other hand, could have been produced on a 3D printer and I’m not sure I’d have been any the wiser. A splodge of mayo and some watery slices of gherkin weren’t going to change that.
Popeyes’ fries, especially their Cajun fries, also come in for a lot of praise. I quite enjoyed them, actually – they had good crunch and the dusting of Cajun seasoning (yours for an extra quid) definitely added a dimension. But they were lukewarm when they arrived and cold not long after that, one of the most basic things fast food restaurants have to get right. KFC used to get a lot of stick for its fries and it worked on improving them: they’re still not best in class, but they’re not noticeably worse than Popeyes’. Zoë dunked hers in some ranch dip, which apparently improved matters.
Being fancy, Zoë had gone for the spicy Deluxe burger – just look at that luxury iceberg lettuce – and had similar feedback to mine. “It’s okay, but it’s not that spicy and it’s really not that special. To be honest, I prefer the McSpicy.” McDonalds put the McSpicy back on its menu permanently in February, apparently: it’s almost like they knew Popeyes was coming. If I went to Popeyes again, I’d be tempted to order this just to see if it supplied the so what factor, but, as you’ve probably already guessed, that’s unlikely to happen this side of Christmas.
For completeness we also had chicken without bread in a slightly different shape or, as the menu likes to call them, tenders. And again, the disconnect between looks and taste couldn’t be starker. These look the part: they look like they’re going to taste amazing. And when you bite into one, your teeth tell you you’re in for a treat, with that almost audible crunch. And beyond that? Nothing much.
If you dip them into something, they at least taste of the dip but that, I’m afraid, is as far as it goes. I tried them with a “Bold BBQ”, which really wasn’t, and a “Red Hot Honey” dip which I rather liked, despite it not being especially hot. It was more like a sort of sweet chilli number, and perfectly agreeable (I looked on the label on the lid of the plastic tub: the main ingredient was water).
Zoë also had some chicken wings, thrown in as part of a promo the restaurant was doing. I almost forgot she’d ordered them, in the course of writing this, but that’s okay because I think she almost forgot eating them too.
So, let’s recap. The sandwich may have broken the internet, but this review will not. Throughout my meal, my jaw remained resolutely undropped. I didn’t have one bite after another until, as if possessed by some kind of hypnotic superpower, I wandered over to the touchscreens, zombie-like, to order another portion. Sorry to piss on anybody’s (Cajun) chips, but if this restaurant was half as good as Berkshire Live and the Reading Chronicle said it was, it would be ten times as good as it actually is.
And yet this isn’t a hatchet job, and the mark below isn’t savage. And why’s that? Because, I’m sorry to say, it’s so boring. It’s not terrible food – not like Taco Bell, or Wingstop – it’s just bang average with a thick dusting of weapons-grade hype. I’ve always thought chains opening in Reading shouldn’t be a problem if they do something nobody else does, or if they do it better than everybody else. The best chains, like Honest, understand that.
But on either of those counts, Popeyes falls flat on its face. You can get a chicken burger in countless places, and most of them are easily as good as theirs. Honest’s has gone from strength to strength, even Blue Collar Corner is doing one at the moment – it’s a little bland, but at least it’s chicken thigh and it’s still probably more exciting than Popeyes. And speaking of Blue Collar, if it’s fried chicken you want Gurt Wings is in the market Friday lunchtimes and their tenders knock the spots off Popeyes’,
I’m not even angry, and I can’t bring myself to hate Popeyes. It’s good that people are excited about it, even if that’s mainly because they’re excitable, and bringing new jobs to the town centre can only be a good thing. But while I was eating it, and as I cogitated on it afterwards, I couldn’t help thinking, in the immortal words of Peggy Lee, is that all there is? Is this all it takes to get half a dozen articles in the local press, while newcomers like San Sicario get ignored?
It frustrates me that people think Reading is so easily mugged off with the latest shiny thing, that nobody wants to look beyond the obvious to the people and places that make this town so interesting. Why even now are we, as a town, so happy to settle for second best? I can already picture Reading Borough Council’s bid for city status in 2026: Look, we’ve got a Popeyes!
Just this once – and these are words I never thought I’d say on the blog – I’ll leave the last word to Beyoncé. She may have got a lifetime loyalty card from the restaurant, but that was back in 2003. What does she say nowadays?
Without question, Mama’s Way is the smallest venue I’ve ever reviewed. There are three stools outside on Duke Street, looking out on our thriving branch of Ryman: I suppose you could sit there with an Aperol Spritz, but best of luck eating at them. Inside, up at the window, there are three more stools with a ledge in front of them. The bits of the ledge that aren’t accommodating goods on display, that is.
And there are goods on display literally everywhere in that little room. Chocolate eggs hang from the ceiling this time of year, the wall nearest the door is lined with Italian wine, amaro, vermouth – even mirto, the Sardinian liqueur. Under the counter, lit enticingly, is a cornucopia of cheeses, again all Italian, and a delectable range of cured meats just asking to be sliced. On the counter is a makeshift wall of panettone, and above that glasses hang down, ready to be filled with Aperol or Crodino.
It doesn’t stop there. Eye level might be buy level but if you stoop, there are multiple types of balsamic vinegar and oil, black rice, snails in jars, every kind of paté or pesto you could want. On the far side another fridge gently hums, keeping burrata and scquacqerone cool, next to them sit ’nduja, blocks of bottarga, fists of sausages crammed with fennel. You could get lost in the place, walk out with countless treats you weren’t intending to buy. Perching on a stool next to Zoë, people watching the passers-by heading into town, I fantasise about lock-ins, imagine the fun you could have.
I would describe the room as a Tardis but that’s not right. The Tardis was bigger on the inside, this room is still minuscule. It just happens to be absolutely rammed with lovely things to eat and drink, covering nearly every square inch. When I was in Paris last month I went to a branch of Eataly, the upmarket food hall; I reckon Mama’s Way has, in a fraction of the size, a respectable proportion of the stuff you can find in Eataly. I bet it’s a darned sight cheaper, too. With Madoo next door, this forms a little Italy in the town centre: I’ve tried dubbing it Via Del Duca, but so far it hasn’t caught on.
Although I’ve popped in to Mama’s Way occasionally to buy coppa, fennel salama or olive oil this is the first time I’ve eaten on the premises since it opened in 2021. I remember seeing the pictures of their opening night, that hole in the wall transformed into a riot of drink and celebration, people spilling out on to the street, and I recall cursing the risk aversion that stopped me joining in.
Months later, towards the end of the year, I tried their food via Deliveroo but wasn’t won over – and yet even at the time I knew that some food just doesn’t travel well and that I needed to try it out properly. Since then Glen Dinning, the man behind Blue Collar, has raved to me about the experience of eating at Mama’s Way during the day. You just turn up, grab one of those three seats and let them look after you. He even compared it to José, the tiny but legendary tapas restaurant in Bermondsey. “For fuck’s sake, don’t go telling everybody” he said, almost immediately after waxing lyrical.
Looking back I wonder what took me so long to try it out, but better late than never. And this week’s review is the consequence of providence and opportunism. Zoë and I were strolling into town on a Saturday lunchtime, we approached Mama’s Way and – could it be true? – the seats inside were all unoccupied. It felt like fate, so we went inside, waited for the customers standing at the counter to finish their business and plonked ourselves down (there’s enough room for Mama’s Way to have customers eating in and customers buying stuff over the counter, but only just).
The menu looks wider than it is, because it contains plenty of variations on a theme: you can have one of five types of pasta with the sauce of your choice, from a range of ten, giving a dizzying range of options. Similarly they serve pinsa – a Roman variant on pizza made with a particular blend of flours and praised for its airiness – and that too lends itself to many combinations. It’s a clever way to offer a lot of choice from a core of ingredients, but there are also some salads, soups, a handful of main courses and other options which make use of the wealth of produce they have to hand.
I was struck by how reasonable the prices are – pizzas are just over a tenner, most pasta dishes clock in around the same price and some dishes, as I discovered, are a real steal. This was especially confusing because the price gulf between eating in and ordering on Deliveroo is considerable, with a huge uplift on some dishes. Up to a hundred per cent, in fact, in some cases. Similarly the prices on the menu on Mama’s Way’s website bear no relation to those on the menu I saw.
It may be a version control problem, it may be that they’ve decided to slash their prices to be competitive, but the overall impression is confusing. On the plus side, it makes eating in a comparative bargain – and good for them, I guess, for not taking a huge hit on their Deliveroo orders: heaven knows the delivery companies take a hefty, almost punitive share for doing not a lot.
The thing I was drawn to on the starters section was the “selection imperiale”, a range of cheese and charcuterie to share for two people. When I ordered this at the counter, the lady told me I could pick three of each and I looked at the embarrassment of riches under the counter, almost unable to choose. It looked, to me at least, like as wide a selection of cheese and cured meats as you’d find anywhere in Reading, and although the Grumpy Goat does something similar they limit your choice to a fraction of the cheeses they sell.
Prose is all very well, but sometimes you need a picture: just look at what we got.
How appetising does that look? I was truly impressed by the quantity and range and sipping a glass of white wine, watching this gradually take shape behind the counter, I wondered whether the small bar I’d always wished Reading had, serving wine, cheese and charcuterie, had been here all along. The wine, incidentally, was a wonderful Italian chardonnay straight out of the fridge and newly opened, with just enough freshness and complexity for everything that followed.
Everything we had was excellent, and most of it was truly great. I’ve had Mama’s Way’s finocchiona – fennel salami – before, so it was a known quantity but one I found hard to resist. Their coppa was also terrific, dry, salty and superbly savoury. And I was drawn to the speck, a smoked ham made close to the Austrian border, but then I spotted the culatello – one of the very best of the best of Italian salumi – and my decision was made.
Even in this company it was outstanding, sliced almost thin enough to be translucent and quite extraordinary. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve eaten cured meats, even at places like the Tasting House that prided themselves on such things, with that glossy sheen of something kept in captivity, sandwiched between environmentally unfriendly leaves of plastic. This, by contrast, was absolutely the real deal, and I felt extremely fortunate to find it in Reading.
But the cheeses, if anything, were even more exquisite. First up, Fiore Sardo, a hard Sardinian cheese a lot like pecorino. I didn’t realise this was a smoked cheese, and nothing prepared me for that whack of woodsmoke. It felt like being catapulted back to winter, wandering through the Village, seeing my breath in the air and smelling the woodburning stoves of my more prosperous neighbours.
I loved it, but the other two were even better. Caciobufala was hard, moreish and studded with pistachio, and we liked it so much that Zoë picked some up afterwards to take over to her mum as a present; it does make you think, that the Italians put pistachio and truffle in their cheese and we have to settle for Wensleydale with fucking cranberries. And last of all, a really indulgent buffalo milk cheese from Lombardy which reminded me of a triple cream, the core still firm and fresh but a million miles from bland. We broke off shards of music bread, we loaded cheese or meat on to them, we sipped our wine and we thanked our lucky stars.
And here’s the crazy bit – all of that was something like fifteen pounds. The menu also says it’s for two people, but at that price I think you could do a lot worse than grab a stool, order a drink, order this and treat yourself; I’m already wondering when I could get away with doing so. Before this, the best sharing board I’d found in Reading was Buon Appetito’s, but although I still absolutely love that place Mama’s Way utterly puts it to shame.
Even if our mains had been a let-down, this would still be a positive review. But here’s the thing: they weren’t at all. Zoë had gone for the low carb option, pollo Milanese, and it was more than respectable – two pieces of chicken breast, beaten flat, coated, cooked and served with a well-dressed pile of leaves. I’ve had a lot of pollo Milanese which is dried out and entombed in a thick permacrust of breadcrumbs. This, on the other hand, was light and tender, subtle and delicate. The menu says that it’s baked rather than fried, which I can believe; I didn’t order it, but I tried to trade as much of my pinsa as I could for another forkful. Eight pounds fifty, would you believe: again, there could be worse sunny evenings than sitting at that ledge with this and a crisp white wine.
On to the pinsa. Now, I have to be honest and let the cat out of the bag: as we were sitting there a delivery man came through the front door carrying a big cardboard box with the words PINSA ROMANA on it, so we can be pretty sure that Mama’s Way aren’t making these bases in their kitchen out back. But I also have to be honest and say that when they’re as enjoyable as this I don’t give two hoots. The base genuinely did have the airy fluffiness I was hoping for, and stayed light throughout. I think it helped that I’d chosen a white pinsa, not soggy with tomato, but it genuinely was a pleasure from start to finish.
I’d gone for smoked provola, Italian sausage and potato, a combination I first encountered a couple of doors down in Madoo’s fantastic panuozzo, and it really didn’t let me down. The cubes of potato added a floury joy to proceedings, the dense nuggets of sausage, resplendent with more fennel, gave little spikes of porky delight. And the smoked provola – well, it wasn’t quite as intense as the Fiore Sardo I’d had before but it cast a spell on the whole affair, bringing it together. You could imagine that the potatoes, the sausage had been cooked in the same fire, infused with the same smoke.
This was something like twelve pounds, and again perfect for sharing, thoughtfully cut into rectangles. I absolutely adored it: my favourite pizzas have always involved the holy trinity of tomatoes, anchovies and capers, but if anything could displace them in my affection it would be this.
Just as Mama’s Way is the smallest place I’ve eaten, that also means it has the highest concentration of serving staff to customers: one to two is a ratio that could easily beat any Michelin starred restaurant you care to name. And the woman looking after us was just fantastic – so friendly, enthusiastic and attentive, so skilled at juggling these two oddballs perched at their window ledge, the steady stream of punters buying goodies and the occasional driver turning up, giant Deliveroo coolbag on his back, ready to take their food out beyond the town centre.
Everything we ate, along with those two glasses of wine, came to something like forty-seven pounds, not including tip. And our server seemed genuinely surprised when we did tip, which in turn took me aback and, in truth, slightly saddened me. Excellent service is not proportionate to the distance you have to travel from the kitchen to the table, and the welcome we got at Mama’s Way put countless larger venues to shame.
I had a proper warm glow from eating at Mama’s Way, and I was kicking myself for leaving it so long after that tip-off from Glen Dinning. He may regret telling me, and I may regret telling you, because if there’s any justice in this world the occasions where I walk down Duke Street and see those seats vacant may get scarcer and scarcer in the months ahead. But really, I hope they do. I can’t think of anywhere like Mama’s Way in Reading, anywhere so fun and free-spirited, anywhere that, rather than wanking on about how carefully they source their produce just, well, does it.
In an ideal world, Reading would be a very different place. Clay’s would occupy the space that’s wasted on Bill’s, Tampopo would never have been sent packing from the Oracle. The 3Bs would never have left us, and we certainly wouldn’t have the Pantry there. The Market House site would have been properly done and occupied by someone who actually wants to serve decent food. We would have said farewell to John Sykes instead of Dolce Vita. And in that ideal Reading, Mama’s Way would be the size of Veeno and Veeno the size of Mama’s Way. We don’t live in that Reading, I’m sorry to say. But a Reading where Mama’s Way exists – small, plucky, eccentric and crammed with beautiful things – is definitely the next best thing.
Mama’s Way – 8.2 10-14 Duke Street, RG1 4RU 0118 3273802
Paris was one of the last places I visited before the start of the pandemic: I was there in November 2019, when only the very well-read and well-prepared had even the slightest inkling of what was in store for all of us. It was my first trip there with Zoë, although back in the day I used to go there on a practically annual basis, and we stayed in the Marais, my favourite part of the city, eating in all my favourite places.
It was a parade of greatest hits. We grabbed a table at L’As du Fallafel and ate their legendary many-layered falafel wrap, studded with sticky cubes of aubergine and all the good stuff. We went to the Marché des Enfants Rouges for lunch and hunkered down at a tiny table to eat Japanese food at Chez Taeko. We had pizza at Briciole in the Haut Marais, surrounded by people infinitely thinner and more fashionable than us. Maybe they were those share-one-pizza-between-two types: I was too busy eating mine to notice.
We strolled out past the Canal Saint Martin, an area so hip I’ve never really tried to explore it, and had a wonderful meal at Le Galopin accompanied by a wine that, at the time, was too funkily advanced for me: I wonder if now, many lambics later, I’d like it better. We sat side by side in Boot Café, a ludicrously Instagrammable place that seats, and this is no exaggeration, the grand total of four people. Imagine living here, I must have said, about a thousand times. We had some iffy meals too – you can’t win them all – but we were in Paris and so really, did it matter that much? At the end of the trip, replete and far more skint, we got onto the Eurostar at Gare Du Nord and I remember parting company with the city with real sadness. We’ll be back soon, I thought. But then three years passed, so it turns out that I wasn’t.
Finally returning this month, I was comforted by how little things had changed but perhaps slightly disconcerted by how much I had. I think my taste for crowds, such as it was, evaporated entirely during the pandemic, so often I found myself thinking that there were just too many people, everywhere. But it wasn’t just that. I think the kind of cities I like spending time in has been subtly changing for years; I like smaller, scruffier, less touristy cities now.
I think that whenever you go to a city on holiday you only really scratch the surface, but in a smaller city you can at least fool yourself that you’ve managed that. In a city as vast as Paris, one you could spend a lifetime exploring, you’ll never come close. That wouldn’t bother everybody, but for a lifelong FOMO sufferer like me it just meant a constant worry that I was missing out on better meals, better coffee, better wine, better bars. I mentioned this on Twitter and someone told me he’d had exactly the same experience when he went to Budapest at the start of the month. “I felt like I was just doing it wrong”, he said.
Anyway, despite all that I managed to have a marvellous time. I tried to pick carefully, not do too much, not beat myself up too much about all the places I didn’t go and generally keep my glass half-empty tendencies in check (in fairness, in Paris, if your glass is half empty it’s never too long before you’re filling it again). It may be a while before I return again, but I know I will: Paris isn’t the kind of place you quit once it’s got under your skin, not really. Besides, just imagine living there: short of re-watching Amelie, holidays are always the next best thing.
This piece doesn’t even pretend to be any kind of definitive guide, but it’s a collection of places I loved eating and drinking on my most recent trip, and they’re geographically spread enough that they might come in handy if you’re going there yourself. I wasn’t sure whether to write this up, but in the run up to going plenty of people said they’d be watching my social media with interest as they had a trip lined up. One person even booked one of the restaurants in the list below and went there the weekend before my visit, a huge vote of confidence.
But I know that Paris is so huge that you might only find one or two entries in here that appeal to you; when I said I was going at the start of the year and asked for recommendations I got plenty that were probably excellent restaurants, but in parts of the city I wasn’t going anywhere near. In any case I hope it gives you food for thought, or even just transports you during your lunch break. There remains something incredible about the city – even if you visit it, as I did, on a week when the chic pavements of Saint Germain-des-Prés are lined with walls of black bags full of uncollected rubbish and crossing the boulevards involves zigzagging through hordes of well-tempered demonstrators.
Where to eat
Parcelles was probably the fanciest of the places I visited on this trip – the epitome of the perfect Paris restaurant, all bare stone walls and tasteful terrazzo floor, the warm glow seeping out through the huge windows on to the Marais pavement outside. I’ve seen a lot of buzz about it and bookings online come available about four weeks in advance, so this one requires a little forward planning.
The best of the food was close to perfection too – a slab of pressed beef cheek with a glossy foie gras core, burnished sweetbreads tumbled onto the most buttery mash, the whole shebang surrounded by a moat of jus so shiny you could almost see your face in it. And the chocolate tart was heavenly, liberally topped with candied pecans.
It wasn’t completely flawless – there are good tables and not quite so good tables, and we got the latter only to see later arrivals ushered to the former. And the pacing was a little breakneck, until we reined it in by ordering a bottle of dessert wine and two desserts, one after another, a life lesson I learned from Nora Ephron (and my friend Al). The dessert wine, by the way, a 1996 Coteaux de Layon, was ambrosial – honeyed and golden, so beautiful that somebody from a neighbouring table wandered over to ask what it was.
It was a full-sized bottle and the waiter told us we could save any leftovers, take them home and have them with our French toast in the morning. But that didn’t prove necessary, and we rolled out on to the street afterwards full and happy, drunk on life, drunk on Paris and drunk on all that wine. It was my birthday, after all.
Parcelles may have been the fanciest meal of my trip, but I think Double Dragon was my favourite. Out in the 11th arrondisement, this unpretentious and buzzy place served Filipino-French cuisine including some truly astonishing dishes.
Bao came filled with Comte and XO, a combination I would never have dreamt of in a million years: fortunately, Double Dragon did. A tartare made with smoked beef and Korean pickles, humming with gentle heat, might well have been the best tartare I’ve ever tasted. But the piece de resistance was the main, a huge piece of pork roasted, paraded in front of us and then taken away to expertly back into pieces.
It came back as an adventure playground of flesh and stunning crackling, ready to be eaten with plain white rice, papaya and a chill sauce with the sweet funk of something equidistant between gochujang and hoisin. This felt a million miles from chocolate-boxy tourist Paris, and all the better for it. When I return to the city, this will be at the top of my list to rebook.
When I got to Café du Coin I discovered that there had been a mix-up with our reservation, which had been lost, so the only space left was up at the bar. We took it, even though it gave me a fantastic view, in a look what you could have won sort of way, of a bright, well-lit and convivial space being hugely enjoyed by other people. It is, as the name suggests, on a corner and looks like much of the decor hasn’t changed in seventy years (let’s just say, from this trip to Paris at least, that Formica is having something of a resurgence). But even so I instantly took to the place.
And the food, at lunchtime at least, was belting. A simple menu of three starters, two mains and three desserts where you take your pick and it’s yours for twenty-four Euros. No wonder the place was packed. Despite a single misfire – you can bread and deep fry tête de veau and serve it with the nicest kumquat ketchup on earth but nothing can completely conceal its true, worryingly wobbly nature – everything else was superb, whether it was a puffed up pizzette resplendent with scamorza and wild garlic pesto, a densely delicious ingot of bavette with roasted beetroot and crispy capers or a marvellous piece of pollock with bright peas, roasted cauliflower and a creamy sauce made with cime di rapa and tarragon.
For dessert we both devoured a stunning quenelle of chocolate ganache whose only fault was how quickly it vanished, with a sharp, fresh ice cream. Wines were six Euros by the glass and included an extraordinary orange Riesling from the Alsace, and by the end of the meal I would happily have gone back and eaten their food in a broom cupboard it it was all that was available. Do yourself a favour, do a better job of booking than I did and, if you’re ever in Paris, go.
GrandCoeur, on some levels, is the restaurant you’re most likely to visit from this list – it’s a stone’s throw from the Centre Pompidou, so easy to work in as a pre-culture treat or a post-culture reward. It’s also formed a little tradition for me, being the last place I lunched in 2019 before catching the Eurostar home and playing the same role in 2023. It’s a really attractive room, all exposed stone and wood, marble tables and opulent banquettes, although – that Paris thing with the bad tables again – they initially sat us at a crap table looking out on a gloomy rain-spattered courtyard. The restaurant was empty at the time: what is it with that?
But the food! Well, the food redeems all. Zoë’s wagyu cecina with a few slices of pungent garlic bread was knockout, my hamachi served simply with toasted almonds, verdant coriander oil, blobs of ponzu gel and judiciously applied flakes of salt was as pristine and refined a dish as I enjoyed on my holiday. We both gravitated towards the same main, a square of slow-cooked lamb shoulder, surrendering to the fork, nestled on a sticky-sweet tumble of soft-edged sweet potato, shallot, dates and black sesame. If the dish had more of autumn than spring about it, it was far too tasty to quibble. That said, you could quibble the pace – everything came far too quickly (why is it that the more you spend in Paris, the quicker they seem to want to get rid of you?), so if you go make sure you get them to slow it down a little.
This, by the way, was the restaurant I mentioned at the start of the piece that one of my readers visited the week before I did on the strength of my recommendation. Happily, she loved it.
Now if we’re talking shit tables, Chez Janou gave us one of the shittest tables I’ve ever sat at. It was rammed into a corner of the restaurant which said “this is how we maximise our profits”. Zoë and I sat at right angles to one another: she was facing the wall, and I was facing a group of people at significantly better tables than ours. I honestly don’t know whose view was worse.
Fortunately, after a better table came clear I begged and cajoled and the super-efficient, patient wait staff let us move. And from that point on, it was all gravy (well, jus). Because Chez Janou is a packed, busy, madcap place serving Provencal cuisine, in that part of the Marais close to Place de la Bastille, and it’s a magical place to eat, provided you feel like you’re part of it.
The food isn’t really the point at Chez Janou – it’s very nice, not amazing, but not the whole of the Chez Janou experience. Despite saying that, everything we had was solid and, in its way, quite delightful. I had goats cheese baked with sweet tomato to start, the kind of dish made for dragging crusty bread through until not a mouthful remains. My tuna with braised fennel was a joy – and a huge, expertly cooked piece of tuna at that – and Zoë’s confit duck with duck fat roasted potatoes and a shimmering rosemary jus gave me a little stab of menu-based regret.
I don’t think Chez Janou is for everyone, and you have to throw yourself into it. We were sat next to a couple from Kent who seemed ill at ease. She had asked for the tuna but without the fennel and with the sauce on the side – Sally Albright she definitely wasn’t – whereas he’d accidentally ordered the entrecôte with salad and then had to flag a waiter down to ask for a separate helping of potatoes. I think they’d have been happier somewhere a little less French.
And they made the fatal mistake of not ordering the chocolate mousse: someone comes to your table, plonks a plate in the middle of it, dishes out an enormous dollop of it from an earthenware bowl, hands you two spoons and leaves you to it. Reason enough to go to Chez Janou in its own right, believe you me.
Le Petit Marché, just tucked away off the Place des Vosges, is a restaurant with sentimental attachment for me. I’ve been eating there, whatever twists and turns my life has taken, for the best part of fifteen years. And in that time it really hasn’t changed – it’s a lovely corner spot on the edge of the Marais, it’s dark and cosy and conspiratorial, you sit cheek by jowl with all sorts of people, the wine by the carafe is fucking A and there are few better places to spend an evening. There are dishes on their menu I know so well I can close my eyes and imagine them now – cubes of just-seared, sesame-encrusted tuna with a couple of dipping sauces, or medallions of soft lamb with a basil cream sauce and the best mash in the world. In another life, on my frequent visits to Paris, it was the place I always ate on my first night. It’s how I knew I had arrived.
On this trip it seemed fitting to have my first meal there, for lunch on my birthday, which is how I learned that it’s just as pretty a restaurant in daylight, is ridiculously busy even then and has a real bargain of a set lunch. The first of the French season asparagus – asparagus was everywhere on my visit – was glorious, my blanquette de veau was exemplary, served with a mound of pearl barley and Zoë won lunch, as she often does, with a beautiful piece of haddock served with a sauce corail which was a thing of beauty. They even have a website now, something most French restaurants wouldn’t have been seen dead offering when I first set foot in Le Petit Marché, all those years ago.
One day we headed along the Seine and across the Pont des Arts, denuded of its legendary padlocks, on the way to the Left Bank and to Saint Germain des Pres, Paris’ most glamorous quartier and, I understand, the stomping ground of the really annoying eponymous heroine of Emily In Paris.
On the way, heading down roads lined with imposingly expensive-looking galleries, we stopped at La Palette, a ridiculously gorgeous street-corner cafe which has been around for yonks and, back in the day, played host to the likes of Cézanne and Picasso. It’s an unbeatable place to sit outside and watch people wafting past, wondering why everybody in Paris seems inevitably more stylish than their counterparts the other side of the Channel. It’s funny how gilet is a French word but somehow it’s hard to imagine that a Parisian would be seen dead in one. Of course, if they did I’m sure they’d carry it off, but I’m equally sure they’d draw the line at fleeces.
Anyway, this was a chance to indulge one of my favourite things – boards of cheese and charcuterie groaning with delectable things and far better than they needed to be, given what a great spot they have. Everything was spot on – small soft cheeses that had given up the fight for structural integrity and were ready to hang over the edge of the table, Persistence Of Memory-style. Multiple other cheeses, unnamed, a mixture of sharpness and tang, all magnificent in subtly different ways. A Comte and a blue, because no cheeseboard is complete without both. Dried ham and an abundance of cornichons to wrap it around, big hunks of saucisson sec to slice and chew in wordless glee. Cubes of terrine with a slight honk of offal, completely compelling, and a deep gamey rillette to slather on bread. Plenty of bread, by the way, with more when you ran out, and the most incredible unsalted butter to boot.
All that, Margaux by the glass and an endless parade of your fellow flâneurs wandering by, a procession you would join just as soon as the archetypal Paris lunch had come to an end. What could be better? Just one thing: finishing the meal with a tarte tatin, all soft apple and golden sunshine, or the most exquisite eclair, piped full of chocolate mousse. How are the French thin when they can eat like this? It must be that mythical quality, self-restraint, that I’ve heard so much about but never possessed.
I often make the mistake, on holiday, of having my main meal at dinner time. Well, it’s not a mistake per se (although Paris’ menus du jour can make lunching both a bargain and a pleasure) but it does mean that I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve found myself drinking in a cool bar only to have to grab my coat and scramble to a restaurant, or wandering past cool bars after my meal to find that I’m full, the bar is too and I just can’t face it. Just me?
I was determined not to make that mistake with Le Barav, a bar on the edge of the Marais that I’ve frequented and loved for years. So I had a decent lunch and made sure I was at Le Barav when it opened. There are no reservations, so we grabbed a table in their front room and started making inroads into the wine list.
It really is a wonderful place, and although it was empty when I got there every table was taken within a couple of hours, seemingly none of them by tourists other than mine. Again I got that sense of the real life of a city, not just the Instagram filtered kind (although of course I still put a picture on Instagram: you kind of have to).
The wine is great. Around a dozen – red, white, sweet and sparkling – are available by the glass and everything I tried was terrific. If you feel like really settling in, a bottle from their shop next door attracts a deeply modest corkage fee; I ended up buying something to take home, though I bet it tastes even better drunk on the premises.
Equally importantly, Le Barav has a superior range of bar food. Fuet, a Catalan salami, was sliced thin and fanned out on a plank. Saint Marcellin was baked with honey until it was a decadent, gooey mess, perfect for scooping up with torn baguette. Beef carpaccio was dressed with pesto and Parmesan, every mouthful a beauty. And toasted sandwiches with truffled brie or truffled ham were golden-striped from the grill, cut into meat triangles and perfect for sharing.
Many units and calories later I left my table with a heavy heart, hoping that the next people to sit at it would understand just how lucky they were.
Another leading light in the Great Formica Revival Of 2023, L’Etincelle (it means “spark”) is a fantastically scruffy, lively bar just off the Boulevard Beaumarchais. Inside it’s all neon and a slightly unreal pink light with a hugely varied crowd of hipsters, would-be hipsters and people who don’t give a shit whether they’re hip or not: naturally, they are the hippest of all. It reminded me very much of another bar I love, La Perle in the heart of the Marais, but the real difference here is the wine – much of it organic, natural, biodynamic stuff. But unlike some natural wines, everything I tried was intensely gluggable.
I managed to grab the last free table in the place – admittedly the one nearest to the lavatories – and had, as so often, that slight twinge of knowing that my search for the next big thing (the evening’s restaurant reservation, as usual) was depriving me of the opportunity of fully enjoying the current big thing. The menu contained bao and spring rolls, interesting stuff, and I could have consoled myself with the knowledge that it was probably crap. But then, just as we were about to head out into the night, I saw one of the staff bringing a plate of chips out from the kitchen. And wouldn’t you just know it, they were hand cut, irregular, golden and wickedly tempting. Damn it. Next time, I told myself. Next time.
L’Etincelle 3 rue Saint-Sebastian, 75011 Paris
3. Magnum La Cave
Arguably the yin to L’Etincelle’s yang, Magnum La Cave is a chic little wine bar in Village Saint Paul, a gorgeous, sleepy bit of the Marais that hides in plain sight between rue Saint Antoine and the river. It’s on rue Beautrellis – fun fact, this was where Jim Morrison spent his last night on earth, popping his clogs and joining the 27 club in the bath in an apartment just down the street – and I chanced upon it during a wander down to the Seine. We made a mental note, returned the next night and loved it.
Again, it has a great selection of wines by the glass, what look like a cracking set of small plates and the service was warm and welcoming. Again, I didn’t see any other tourists in there. And again, I left sooner than I wanted to with a dinner reservation to make. Perhaps that’s how I’ve been doing Paris wrong all these years. But what I was really thinking, as I shut the door behind me, is that Reading’s not really had anything like this – no, Veeno doesn’t bloody count – and I wish someone would take a chance on opening one. But I’ve been saying that every year for the last ten years, with a brief break when The Tasting House looked like it might become that sort of place, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I do it for the next ten, too.
Liquiderie, on the other hand, I went to for a post-dinner drink after my stunning meal at Double Dragon, and I’m so glad I did. It’s deeper in the 11eme arrondisement, on the edge of Belleville, but easily walkable from the nearby restaurants earlier in this piece. It’s a really fantastic craft beer bar – not a side of Paris I’d ever seen before – with a friendly buzz and a proper neighbourhood feel.
Again, it has a good menu if you want something to accompany your drinks but really, it’s all about the beer here. Quite aside from an impressive fridge featuring lots of sours and lambics they have fourteen lines and plenty of names from home – Deya, Beak and Polly’s all make an appearance. But I wanted to try some of the local beer and had a devilishly sharp fruit beer (with a hint of Pickled Onion Monster Munch) and a elegant, restrained imperial stout from La Brasserie du Mont Salève, a little brewery near Annecy, along with a DIPA singing with Sabro and tonka from Brasserie Cambier, not far from Lille. Heaven for Untappd geeks like the person I have unexpectedly become, and the icing on the cake of a gorgeous evening.
Yellow Tucan was just round the corner from my hotel and it was a really welcome stop, post pain au chocolat, at the start of a day exploring the city. A far cry from the exposed chipboard not-especially-chic of many of the U.K.’s third wave coffee shops, it was a bright, tasteful yet calming space which, more importantly, did a very accomplished latte. Great merchandise too, so if you want a mug with their distinctive toucan on it, or an equally snazzy tote, this is the place for you. One of the latter found its way back to Reading in Zoë’s suitcase.
First of all, hats off to the name: it’s not the most accurate reflection of what happens in the roasting process, I’m sure, but perhaps the owners are just really big fans of Julie Driscoll or Absolutely Fabulous. However they picked such a random moniker, I’m prepared to overlook it because TBOF’s coffee was among the nicest I tasted in the city. They have a nice little outside space in the 11eme arrondisement overlooking a little square – with a boules court! – and I liked it so much that, no higher praise than this, we gave up our plans for a pre-lunch amble and stopped for a second coffee.
A bag of their beans made it back to Reading in my suitcase, and when it makes it into the V60 I will remember a very happy morning shooting the breeze with no particular place to be. Incidentally they have a second branch in Montmartre, so it’s worth checking out if you’re making a visit to the Sacré Coeur.
Many years ago, when I wrote a very different blog to this one, there was an American in Paris who wrote a blog called Lost In Cheeseland and we read one another’s stuff. Fast forward twelve years or so and Lindsey Tramuta – that’s her name – is the author of two authoritative books about the New Paris with an envy-inducing Instagram feed and almost a hundred thousand followers, while I’m sitting on my sofa writing this. Still, I bet she’s never eaten at Clay’s, the Lyndhurst or Kungfu Kitchen so who’s the real winner here, that’s what I’d like to know.
Recto Verso was a tip from her Instagram and is the newest venue in this piece, opening this month in a sidestreet off the rue des Archives. And it’s a really attractive spot, all stone and wood, reminding me of some of the cafés I’ve known and loved in Bologna, much further afield. We had just fought our way across one of the boulevards, the streets thronged with protestors and seemingly every sidestreet teeming with life, and we really, really needed a coffee. And there in that peaceful space I got quiet and caffeine, and the great reset button of life was gently pressed until you heard a click. Nothing mattered after that.
Incidentally, a street full of aerated Parisians is tricky to cross. But they should try getting across Friar Street this Sunday when the Reading half-marathon is on: these French agitators don’t know they’re born.
One of the best things to happen to Reading’s food scene during Covid wasn’t the influx of American chains blighting the town centre, complete with inexplicable queues for weeks. Rather it was the return of a welcome trend, with independent businesses setting up shop in the kitchens of established pubs, offering interesting menus in a way which minimised the commercial risk for all concerned. Everybody won, particularly Reading’s diners.
The notable proponents of this were in West Reading. At the Butler on Chatham Street you had Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen cooking up a storm, with beautiful dumplings, bronzed jerk chicken, moreish slabs of macaroni pie, plantain and so much more; I visited in the summer of 2021 and adored practically everything I ate. Further down the Oxford Road at the Spread Eagle, just next to Kensington Park, there was Banarasi Kitchen, offering an Indian menu with some regional specialities. I reviewed a takeaway from them early in 2021, and loved it.
All good things must come to an end, and by the end of last year both pubs had parted company with the businesses that had made them brilliant places to eat. At the Butler, it was Chef Stevie’s choice – he left to cook at Liquid Leisure in Windsor, only for the water park to close later that month in tragic circumstances. Now the Butler plays host to a business called The Toastily that serves toasties, breakfasts and that retro staple, the jacket spud. As for Chef Stevie, so far as I know he’s yet to turn up elsewhere, but if he ever does I will be there, ready and waiting to order.
The story with Banarasi Kitchen is a little more opaque, and began very curiously indeed. Last October the Spread Eagle made an announcement on Instagram. “We’re restructuring our management team” they proclaimed, language that sounded more IT and telecoms than hospitality. What did that mean for Banarasi Kitchen, somebody asked? It’s now called Bagheera, they said. But was it? Their next post had the old Banarasi Kitchen logo on it.
A couple of days later, the panther out of the bag, the pub said again that the restaurant would soon be known as Bagheera. Along with the new name came a new menu, new signage, a new chef and a new kitchen team. As further announcements came out, you could be forgiven for wondering whether we’d gone past the point of rebranding alone. The logo looked snazzy, the mock-ups of the dining room (or, as they put it, the “design concept” – more corporate speak) looked classy. Was this a conscious attempt to go upmarket?
Things continued to be baffling. In early November the pub confirmed that they had officially rebranded as Bagheera. But for some reason they didn’t announce their official opening until early December, even though they did continue posting about their menu and dishes during the intervening time. All clear as mud, but it seems that the business is one hundred per cent Bagheera now (although at the time of writing they still have the link to Banarasi Kitchen in their Instagram bio: go figure).
One of my biggest regrets last year is that I didn’t make it to Banarasi Kitchen before they closed, so I always had it in mind to visit Bagheera early in the New Year. There was something special about Banarasi Kitchen’s food, but once you’ve changed the name, the room, the menu and everyone in the kitchen, could any trace of Bagheera’s predecessor remain, hidden in some intangible way? I wanted to find out, so on a Saturday evening, nice and early, Zoë and I hopped on the trusty 17 bus and strolled up Wantage Road to check it out.
First things first, the “design concept” is actually really attractive. There’s a dedicated dining room on the left as you enter the pub, separated by an old-school sliding door, and it’s a distinctly luxe place in which to have a meal. The room is all wood panelling, deep green walls and gold accents, beautiful chandeliers. The chairs, in complementary green and gold, were tasteful and comfortable, proving that you can have both at once. The gold-edged tables were fetching and sturdy. The room had handsome big windows, and I can imagine it would be a lovely place to eat in the summer. It looked like they’d let one of the better contestants on Interior Design Masters loose on it, and I liked it a great deal.
When they announced a new menu as part of the rebrand, the Spread Eagle wasn’t kidding. Banarasi Kitchen’s menu had the Anglo-Indian dishes you might expect but the menu stretched further than that, offering more regional dishes like murg kori gassi, rye ke aloo and railway lamb. Bagheera’s menu is far more generic. They have a tandoor, and an Indo-Chinese section, but beyond that you have your jalfrezi, your korma, your rogan josh and your butter chicken. It’s to their credit that they don’t allow you to pick your protein with any of the curries, at least giving the suggestion that all the components have spent some quality time together rather than being thrown together at the last minute. But it’s not a menu that sets your mind racing; it struck me as interesting, when Banarasi Kitchen’s menu had been more rambling, to stick to the hits.
But first, drinks. Now, I’ll get all this moaning out of the way in one go so we can talk about the food. They don’t have any Indian beers on tap, which struck me as strange. They also didn’t have one of the gins on their list either, but when we did eventually get a couple of Tanqueray and tonics they came in big Beefeater branded glasses with – being charitable – a couple of tiny nuggets of ice in them. So they weren’t massively cold, and I got the impression a very small bottle of tonic had been used. Possibly between two. I found all this a tad weird, because when you eat in a pub you do rather expect them to have the drinks part down pat.
The same problem reared its ugly head further on in the meal when we ordered more drinks. Initially I’d asked about their draft cider, but that was off too. So instead we asked for the same again and this time the waiter brought two equally small, completely ice-free gin and tonics before explaining that one was Tanqueray and the other was Gordon’s. No explanation was offered, and we were left to guess which was which in a sort of blind taste, find the lady scenario.
Service at Bagheera could be a little like that, likeable enough but hapless. The main front of house was a charming, dapper, authoritative older man who clearly knew his job back to front and was brilliant with customers. The rest of the team, though, were wayward, bringing mismatched gins, dropping salad on the floor when they cleared our starters away and generally making me want to stage some kind of intervention.
I was hugely relieved when the starters turned out to be good, solid dishes. The best of them was the Punjabi fish fry, a generous portion of fish in a light bubbled batter that clung superbly to the flesh. It was quite possibly my favourite thing I ate at Bagheera, and good value at seven pounds. But being critical, because that’s what I do, it lacked a bit of spice and depth and the coriander chutney it came with was lacking some sharpness and definition. The whole thing lacked heat, too: I didn’t mind that, as it happened, but I had been expecting to find a little more going on.
The coriander chutney made a repeat appearance accompanying three firm, sizzling seekh kebabs in a skillet sitting, as they often do, on a bed of onions which became more golden and caramelised as we went along. I thought these were respectable, the texture finely balanced between coarse and crumbly with some decent heat. A couple of weeks before I’d been to House Of Flavours and sampled their seekh kebabs: Bagheera couldn’t quite come close to that standard, but it was by no means dreadful.
Last of all, we ordered some onion bhajis. Zoë liked these more than I did – she’s a sucker for a bhaji – but I found them a little dense and stodgy, big unforgiving pellets rather than light, crispy, finely-spun things. They were perfectly pleasant dipped in a sort of date and tamarind confection that could easily have been HP sauce, but no more than that. Two of the starters came with pointless foliage – doesn’t Bagheera know we’re in the middle of a nationwide salad shortage? – and we didn’t eat it. As I said, thanks to the mishaps of our waiter some of it ended up on the floor anyway.
Main courses came about fifteen minutes later and continued a general trend of being perfectly reliable but quite unexciting. Zoë liked her chicken korma (“I’m the korma queen” she told me when she announced her intention to order it) and I enjoyed my forkful more than I expected to. I would never order it in a restaurant, probably because I’m a snob/terrible person/both, but it had a sweet nuttiness that was far from unpleasant. The chicken was impressively tender, especially for breast, but this was an extremely liquid dish, with a big gloopy pool of glossy sauce, too much really, left at the end.
I’d picked the lamb rogan josh, mainly because I was sold on the menu’s description of lamb marinated for six hours and slow cooked with chilli-infused oil. It’s a good blurb: it absolutely gets you thinking about texture and flavour, of time taken and a glorious end product. And it feels like I’ve said this about most of what I ate at Bagheera but, again, it was dependable without approaching mind-blowing. The lamb was tender, with no dodgy bouncy bits, but not falling-apart tender in the way you’d expect from long, slow cooking. And the flavour was, well, pardon my poverty of expression but it was okay. Just okay. No other word quite captures it.
Again, a gigantic lake of sauce was left at the end. And – sorry to use the C word, but I’m sure you were expecting me to bring them up at some point – I was reminded that when you eat food from Clay’s the sauce is the best bit. It’s to be swept up with bread, or mixed with forkfuls of rice, but however you get it in your mouth you make sure you taste every last molecule. Could I imagine feeling that desperate to squeeze every last drop of flavour out of any of the dishes from Bagheera? I only wish I could.
I suppose I should talk about sides, just to show that they were there. Jeera pilau was, according to the menu, “accentuated with cumin” but could have done with more of it. I didn’t mind my lachha paratha but it didn’t have the decadence, the layers I love in paratha – like the bhaji it was too compressed, too stodgy. And Zoë liked her keema nan, but she has a weakness for keema nan in general. “Again, it’s not as good as the one at House Of Flavours” was her considered verdict. That could, in hindsight, be the tl:dr version of this review.
What more can I say? The whole thing set us back just over eighty pounds, not including tip, and when I looked over the bill I saw that they’d charged us for double gins even though we’d ordered singles. Whether we got doubles is anybody’s guess, although it was hard to believe that those G&Ts could have been any smaller. We paid up and headed out to the bus stop in search of the Nag’s Head, where you can be pretty sure they don’t ever run out of cider.
The obvious thing to do is compare Bagheera to Banarasi Kitchen, but that’s not the right comparison. I loved the food I had from Banarasi Kitchen, and I thought their menu was more interesting – and out and out tastier. But I never ate at the Spread Eagle when Banarasi Kitchen were operating there, and restaurants are about more than the food. Reading’s history is full of pubs and kitchens parting company, sometimes in acrimonious circumstances, and you probably never learn the full story. So maybe the Spread Eagle saw Banarasi Kitchen doing so well, fancied a piece of the action and decided to take over the kitchen themselves. Perhaps the whole pub is under new management. Ultimately, it’s pointless to speculate.
But it’s a real pity is that Bagheera has such a beautiful dining room and such a grown-up brand but they’ve decided to use both those things to play it exceptionally safe. On that basis, it’s fairer to compare Bagheera to the likes of House Of Flavours, or Royal Tandoori, and I don’t think it emerges well from those comparisons. The food isn’t bad, not in the slightest, but it’s almost as if Bagheera has decided to leave the wow factor to the room and dish up an unadventurous, inoffensive set of dishes to eat in it. I wonder, in our crowded restaurant scene, how viable an approach that really is.
I might be doing Bagheera a massive disservice. Their vegetarian section looks like it could be where the real treasures can be found, and it’s possible that the Indo-Chinese dishes are where the kitchen really shines. Looking back over the menu I see many roads less travelled and dishes I could have tried instead. I don’t think we picked the staid, hackneyed dishes to fit a narrative I had in my head that big polished Bagheera had displaced plucky, authentic Banarasi Kitchen, but I at least have the self-awareness to see that on some level that might have happened.
So Bagheera probably does deserve another try at some point, but I have to admit that I still have reservations. When it comes to running the country, I am positively looking forward to someone boring but competent taking over. But in a restaurant, that just isn’t enough.
Bagheera at the Spread Eagle – 6.9 117 Norfolk Road, Reading, RG30 2EG 0118 9574507