Da Village

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

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

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

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

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

“…Ali G? Definitely.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are desis?”

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t there?”

“No, not at all.”

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

He grinned wolfishly. “Possibly not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Da Village – 7.0

387 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA
0118 4378657

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

Afghan

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

“What’s that doing there?”

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

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

“Is that a problem?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They know I keep them on their toes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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