Tutu’s Ethiopian Table

As of April 2019 the Global Café has a new vegetarian menu and Tutu cooks at her new café in Palmer Park. I’ve kept this review up for posterity but the restaurant it describes no longer exists. The Global Café is reviewed here, and Tutu’s new café is reviewed here.

Usually, when I eat at a restaurant I have a pretty good idea whether I’ll enjoy it fairly early on. First impressions are important – the welcome, the service, the room, the menu – but even if they aren’t good, you normally know by the time you taste those first few forkfuls of your starter. Not to say there aren’t still chances to save the day: a knockout main course can redeem all sorts of prior disappointments, although by that stage it’s increasingly unlikely. And if everything else has underwhelmed you up to that point, a dessert (if you order one) is only going to be damage limitation, however magnificent it might be.

Tutu’s Ethiopian Table was a huge puzzler for me, because it didn’t fit that pattern at all. I was undecided from the moment I sat down to the moment I finished, and even afterwards I found myself mulling it over and weighing it up for quite some time. This in itself puts me out of step with most of Reading: Twitter is regularly awash with people raving about Reading’s well-established Ethiopian restaurant, not to mention the string of awards and mentions in the national media (one of my friends, ever the curmudgeon, was the solitary voice of dissent – “good luck with that, it’s just slop” he said when I mentioned that I was planning to pay it a visit).

Perhaps it would be easier to talk about what I liked and didn’t like. So for instance, I liked the room. I wasn’t expecting to, but the section of the Global Café at the front of the building is a lovely, bright, buzzy place, full of people and with lovely old jazz playing in the background. It may be a bit scruffy, but it’s so likeable that it didn’t matter. (I wouldn’t have felt the same, however, if I’d been stuck in the back room – long, windowless and distinctly cold and uninviting.)

I liked the service at the counter, too – no table service which makes sense as Tutu’s is only part of the Global Café which also does coffee, tea and all sorts of interesting alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, some of them Fairtrade. Everyone was friendly, engaging and genuinely funny (“I’m going to blow your mind now,” said one of the bar staff to another customer, “I’ve accidentally dished up your cappuccino in a latte cup and your latte in a cappuccino cup”). I wasn’t so convinced about the unsmiling, functional service from the staff at Tutu’s, who just plonked the plates on the table and left.

The menu gave a choice of seven vegetarian dishes and four meat dishes, with a choice of rice or injera (a thick, flat pancake), or you could opt for a platter – one meat dish and two vegetable dishes – for the same price. We went for platters, partly out of indecision and partly to try as much of the menu as possible. The indecision was strangely appropriate, because if I couldn’t make up my mind about the experience of eating at Tutu’s, it turned out that I couldn’t make up my mind about the food either.

So I liked the doro wot, chicken on the bone in a rich spiced sauce. I liked that an awful lot, in fact. The chicken was so soft, so tender and so well cooked that taking it off the bone was no challenge at all, and once I’d done that I was struck by how much of it there was. The sauce was magnificent too, sticky and delicious with a heat which gradually, subtly developed without ever being too much. By the end of the dish my mouth had a wonderful, warm glow; if I went back to Tutu’s, I think I’d just order this dish, as nothing else I tasted came anywhere close to it.

I didn’t like the keya sega wot – beef in a remarkably similar sauce – anywhere near so much. The beef was everything the chicken wasn’t. It needed a lot more cooking; none of it passed the two forks test and one piece was downright wobbly in a way best not remembered, let alone written about. There also wasn’t much of it – I counted less than half a dozen pieces, none of them huge.

I liked the injera, like a thick flat sourdough crumpet you could tear off and use to eat your food, almost an edible plate (and who among us has never fancied one of those?). It was a bit of a soggy experience, perhaps, but still a fun one – and the slight vinegary note in it worked better with the sauce than I expected. I was less keen on the rice – a little dome of yellow rice with what looked suspiciously like frozen vegetables in it, it didn’t feel like it added an awful lot to proceedings.

Tutu

This, I’m afraid, is where I largely ran out of likes. The vegetable dishes were bland variations on a theme, and it’s hard to be positive about any of them. Fosolia, described as “a dish of subtly flavoured fried green beans and carrots” was a mulch of green beans and what looked like tinned or frozen carrots which tasted of beans, carrots and nothing else (so very subtly flavoured, then). I couldn’t see how this could possibly have been fried, either, because fried food doesn’t normally wind up this damp.

White cabbage and potatoes and collard greens and potatoes were very close relations and again, were basically soggy brassica with cubes of potato. One was apparently cooked with exotic herbs and spices, but it reminded me of my school dinners and trust me, there was nothing exotic about those. The other featured garlic, in theory at least (I could barely tell the two dishes apart). Last of all, the difen misr wot, green lentils in sauce, was impossible to either like or dislike. The lentils had a nice bite but it was just a puddle of brown blandness. Maybe nothing could live up to the sauce which came with that chicken and beef, or perhaps my palate just isn’t developed enough to pick up both ends of the spectrum in Tutu’s food. I’m not sure I could tell which it was by that stage, and worse still I’m not sure I cared.

I’d rather end on a positive, so I will say that my Ubuntu Cola – a fairtrade African version that is never going to appear on a tacky red festive truck outside the Oracle – was very tasty indeed. But then, like much of what I enjoyed in my visit, this had more to do with the Global Café than it did with the restaurant. The whole bill came to around twenty-three pounds, and to my shame I left really, really wanting a big slice of cake somewhere else.

So, did I like Tutu’s Ethiopian Table? I should have, I wanted to, but did I? I don’t know, what do you think?

Tutu’s Ethiopian Table – 5.7
35-39 London Street, RG1 4PS
0118 9583555

http://www.tutus-ethiopian-table.com/

Faith Kitchen

Faith Kitchen lost its licence in April 2016 and is now closed. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I went along to Faith Kitchen really not knowing what to expect. My knowledge of African food before the visit – I’m not ashamed to say this – was primarily based on Googling words from the menu on the number 17 bus on my way there. I also had no idea what it looked like: in the big hurrah of the restaurant opening a couple of months ago, all the photos were of the ribbon cutting outside so it was impossible to see the interior without turning up to have a look.

The restaurant, on a school night, was eerily empty. We shuffled in and picked a well lit table in anticipation of taking photos, although if anything it was impossible to sit somewhere that wasn’t brightly lit. I’ve been in restaurants before where I’m at the only occupied table, but even those haven’t felt quite as empty as Faith Kitchen did (maybe it was the lack of any background music). The tables are nicely spaced and the chairs had bright golden seat covers. The overall effect was of being the only guests at a wedding reception, an odd feeling if ever there was one. Also, the room has a gold dado rail – you don’t see one of those every day, or indeed ever.

The menu is intimidatingly big and unwieldy. It wasn’t clear what exactly were starters, what were mains, what were side dishes and so forth, something not helped by the confusing pricing (more on that later). Some of it is split by region, some isn’t, for reasons which aren’t made clear. I’m sure if you know Nigerian cuisine very well (and think “swallow food” is a particular dish rather than a very basic instruction) this is all absolutely fine, but as a newcomer to it I felt pretty bewildered.

The other hazard with a huge menu is the risk that the kitchen either can’t do it all or can’t do it all well. In this case, it was the former, so some of that bus research rather went to waste. So for instance, I fancied puff puffs (a sort of Nigerian doughnut) but they didn’t have them so we settled for chin chins instead. For the uninitiated – which included me until this meal – they’re small sweet cubes of dense hard biscuit flavoured with nutmeg and, I’d guess, a little cinnamon. They looked disconcertingly like dog biscuits but tasted quite pleasant, although they felt like something you’d have with a cup of tea rather than to get you in the mood for your main course. We munched our way through half a ramekin of these but in the end there was just too many of them to eat and they didn’t go with anything else. Meat samosas, on the other hand, were top notch: triangles of very thin filo pastry filled with minced lamb and onion. Everything worked perfectly – the meat was coarse, tasty and deeply peppery and the filo added just the right amount of crispy contrast.

Chin chin samosa

The other starter we ordered was chicken suya, which – according to Wikipedia – are skewers of chicken with a fiery, nutty sauce. Another menu problem: the waitress wasn’t sure if they could cook this but after a quick conflab with another member of staff we were assured it would be fine. What turned up was neither nutty nor skewered. Instead, it was a wooden board with about six small pieces of chicken on the bone, superbly spiced and fried with crispy skin that made roast chicken skin look pretty limp in comparison. It came served with fresh tomato and red onion which we mostly ignored in favour of giving the chicken our undivided attention (plus raw onion has never been high on my list of favourite things). Besides, getting it off the bone was more difficult than I’d expected. Again, the flavour was gorgeous – a great combination of salt and spice and texture – so much so that dividing it all up almost caused a diplomatic incident.

Suya

The mains were equally confusing, to say the least. Jollof rice with chicken seemed to be another signature dish from my limited research and I’d say it summed up my experience of the restaurant as a whole: some great flavours coupled with very erratic execution. I got a mound of brick red rice on a plate and, on a separate dish, a chicken leg, skin on, strewn with peppers and onion. The rice itself was very good; I don’t know how they managed to infuse it with so much savoury tomato but it was tasty and interesting almost in equal measure. The chicken, what there was of it, was also good, if rather close to the starter I’d already eaten. It was, however, one of the scrawnier chicken legs I’ve seen and considerably less meat than I was expecting. Once stripped from the bone it formed a much smaller heap next to the rice. The peppers were sweet and crispy but the onion, in wan chunks, was best left. Did the whole thing add up to a dish? Well, it didn’t quite feel like it, and the lack of any sauce or moisture either in the rice or the chicken made it a pretty dry experience.

Jollof

The other main was grilled chicken with homemade Faith Kitchen sauce. The chicken here was pretty much the same as with the jollof rice – spindly, dry and tasty but thin on the ground. I’m not sure what the home made Faith Kitchen sauce was meant to be, there was a little of something that looked like sauce in the dish but it was watery and flavourless (the waitress also brought a bottle of soy and a bottle of chilli sauce to the table which didn’t feel like a vote of confidence). The menu doesn’t explain whether the chicken came with anything, so after asking several questions I also ordered some pilau rice. This was really tasty – spicy but not overly hot with flavours of, I think, cinnamon, cumin, fresh ginger and chilli plus a few chunks of potato and even a couple of pieces of chicken. This made me feel like I’d ordered two things which weren’t necessarily meant to go together. Again, the whole thing was tasty enough, but very dry. Where was the moisture in this dish meant to come from? And why so little chicken?

FK chicken

Now, I deliberately haven’t talked about this until now and I don’t normally discuss pricing in detail but in this instance I really have to. The pricing at Faith Kitchen is crazy. It appears to bear no relation to the size or cost of any of the ingredients. So for example, the four delicious samosas came to £2.50. Four samosas. Two pounds fifty. It could easily have been half the size or twice the price. The chicken suya, on the other hand, was £9 for six thumb-sized pieces of chicken on the bone and some raw vegetables.

Things get even more random when we talk about the mains. Jollof rice with chicken is £8 – that’s eight pounds for a chicken leg and some rice. You could argue about whether that represents good value, but then you get on to the grilled chicken with sauce: that was £9, and I was charged £5 on the side for the pilau rice. That means two equally baffling things: either I paid £9 for a chicken leg, or I paid £14 for a chicken leg with rice. Either way, if you think about how much chicken you’d get for £9 elsewhere in Reading, or the kind of main course you can buy for £14, it doesn’t bode well for Faith Kitchen.

Even the drinks were bizarrely priced. I had a Ghanaian spiced gin – because I like to experiment – and a 200ml bottle of that cost £3.50. Yes, 200ml for £3.50. That means I got a whole miniature bottle of gin – four times the size of the bottle you might get on an aeroplane – for less than the price of a G&T in a pub. It just makes no sense. Going through my bill at the end – it came to thirty-five pounds, not including tip – I couldn’t help wondering if the cost of the dishes had been chosen at random. We didn’t have dessert – the rice left us too full and, thinking back to the chin chins, I did rather feel like I’d already eaten it anyway.

Service was a similarly mixed bag. Our waitress was absolutely lovely throughout but I got the impression that she didn’t have any prior experience in the service industry; despite the restaurant being almost empty it could be hard to get her attention and dishes were brought over piecemeal leaving us to wait for her to come back with the cutlery. The tables aren’t laid and the cutlery was delivered wrapped in a paper napkin which reminded me of eating in a cafe, not a restaurant.

Faith Kitchen illustrates – better than anywhere else I can think of – the gulf between being a cook and a restaurateur. Most of what I ate tasted really good, and when it didn’t quite hit those high notes it at least tasted unusual enough that I enjoyed it anyway. But there’s so much more to running a restaurant than that. You have to create a space with ambience where people want to spend an evening. You have to put together a menu that invites diners in rather than scares them off. You have to understand portion size, cost and quality and juggle all of those factors so that everybody wins, you included. It may be that Faith Kitchen will do quite nicely catering for people who already know and love Nigerian food and are devastated that they can’t find it in Reading, and if so all well and good. I really hope they do well. But if they want to have a wider appeal than that and popularise this under-represented cuisine, I think they need to look at their menu, their pricing, their portions and the whole experience they’re offering. The food is lovely, really it is, but you need more than food – and faith – to run a restaurant.

Faith Kitchen – 6.4
288-290 Oxford Road, RG30 1AD
0118 9574046

http://www.faithkitchen.co.uk/