I’m easily old enough to remember a time before delivery apps and dark kitchens, before the weird and wonderful world of restaurants running side hustles, diffusion brands or heat at home kits. Back in the Eighties and Nineties, for most people, takeaway meant a curry, a Chinese meal or fish and chips from the local chippy. The closest you got to fusion food was having curry sauce (or in my case, sweet and sour sauce from Woodley’s Hong Kong Garden – still going strong, would you believe) on your chips. They were, in all respects, simpler times.
And in those days, having a good takeaway nearby was like gold dust: if you discovered one close to home, you made the most of it. At the end of the last century I lived in Nottingham for a year, and just round the corner from my house in Sherwood was the most incredible Indian takeaway. The flavour has probably been enhanced with a powerful dusting of nostalgia, memory’s answer to MSG, but the Fridays when we got food from there and sat down in front of something from Blockbuster Video were happy evenings indeed.
I’ve never found anything comparable in Reading. I used to live just around the corner from Kings Chef on the London Road, and I had their Chinese takeaway from time to time but it largely left me unmoved. And back when it was open, I would happily wander over to the now sadly defunct Seaspray to grab fish and chips which were still hot when I got home. But doing restaurant reviews for eight years meant that, until the pandemic hit, I never had much cause to use takeaways. And now the proliferation of delivery services, third parties on bikes and scooters and all that means that there’s probably too much choice. You channel hop meals the way you channel hop TV programmes or, as I remember from my days on Tinder, actual human beings.
Ordering from Zyka, the subject of this week’s review reminded me slightly of the old days. No Deliveroo or Uber Eats for them, so you just have to contact them and tell them what you want. Although you can order online (and they even take Apple Pay), so it’s not quite as basic as getting a leaflet through your door and ringing them up. And why did I choose Zyka? I thought you’d never ask: it’s because it won an award recently.
Not at the British Curry Awards, which were announced this week and gave prizes to the likes of Benares in Berkeley Square and Cheltenham’s brilliant Prithvi (“we’re building back balti” said the Prime Minister in a by all accounts cringeworthy recorded message). And not at the English Curry Awards, which were awarded in October and where winners included Wokingham’s Mumbai, either. Zyka won at the Curry Life Awards, also held October, where they were one of twenty-one restaurants to win “Best Curry Restaurants Of The Year”. With hindsight, there are a lot of different curry awards and a lot of winners: perhaps they should have some kind of unification bout, like they do in the wrestling.
Anyway, a fair few people have asked for this review, off the back of that award, so I figured it was about time. “They’ve been excellent for many years”, one person told me on Twitter, adding that they’d diversified by opening The Switch, a Tilehurst café which looks, on paper at least, like an attempt to create a West Reading equivalent of Café Yolk. “The menu doesn’t look that inspiring” said a friend of mine. “It’s not a patch on House Of Flavours” was another piece of feedback I heard: I guess if there was universal consensus I’d never need to review anything.
For what it’s worth, I think my friend was right about the menu. It’s pretty generic, with the same dishes you’d find anywhere else. Starters are mainly bhaji, samosas and a few options from the tandoor, and then there’s a tandoori section and largely the same curries offered with either lamb, chicken, seafood or vegetables and paneer. Another section is entitled “House Favourites”, which makes you think this might be where the specialities live, but no: that’s where you find your bhuna, dopiaza, korma, dansak and so on.
In fairness to Zyka, and I may end up saying this a few times in this review, it may well be very different if you eat in the restaurant. The menu makes a point of saying that they’ve selected the dishes on the takeaway menu to ensure that they travel well – and I understand this might make some dishes unsuitable but I was still a little surprised not to see something off the beaten track on the menu. Because they’ve won an award.
Anyway, my order for two people – poppadoms, a couple of starters, two mains, a vegetable side and some rice – came to a smidgen over fifty pounds. They charged three pounds for delivery and a nebulous extra quid under “surcharge”, whatever that means. I got a text saying that my meal would be with me in about an hour and then, just like in the old days, we sat back and waited.
He was at the door ten minutes later than predicted, but because I didn’t have the facility to endlessly, pointlessly track his whereabouts I just assumed it was because he’d left a little later than planned rather than because he got lost. And everything was piping hot and in a rather natty branded carrier bag. So far everything had gone like clockwork, and the only thing left was to eat the damned thing.
And that, I’m afraid, is where things didn’t quite come together. I’d chosen one of their curries that wasn’t generic, the murg haryali, chicken with mint and coriander: “a touch of sweetness and spice”, said the menu. I have fond memories of a similar, Kermit-green dish from Bhoj many years ago, aromatic and whiffy with garlic. This, I’m afraid, wasn’t that: it’s true that there was a bit of spice, but mostly there was sweetness – an odd, saccharine, artificial sweetness. You got the mint, but not really the coriander, and the chicken, tikka-tinged, was in big and slightly homogeneous pieces. I didn’t finish it, and it tasted a little – that word again – generic.
Zoë – and how many times have I had to write this in 2021? – ordered better than I did. Still giving carbs a relatively wide berth, she’d picked Zyka’s equivalent of a mixed grill, the Zyka mixed tandoori. This was fundamentally a huge plate of meat, with chicken and lamb tikka, an impressive quarter of a chicken, some prawns (“look, there’s a crustacean” was how Zoë chose to describe this development) and a seekh kebab. All lobster-red, so red it’s unreal, and all suffused with the deeply savoury notes that come from time well spent in a tandoor.
I had a bit – I enjoyed the chicken, I thought the lamb was on the tough side. “I love the meats. I’d order the meats again” was Zoë’s verdict after this meal, although in fairness she says that after nearly any meal in which meat plays a predominant role (sometimes it’s a little like living with Captain Caveman). She’d chosen bhindi bhaji, thinly sliced okra, to accompany her rhapsody in crimson, and she thought it was decent enough, “but a little bit underseasoned”. The menu had given me the option to have this dish “desi style” for an extra pound, saying this meant the dish was “a slightly spicier and more authentic take”. I didn’t go for that, and maybe I should have, but it’s a bit weird to have to pay extra to make it taste authentic. They do seem to like their surcharges at Zyka.
The two starters, repurposed as side dishes, were fine but again, no more than that. I think it’s pretty hard to fuck up an onion bhaji, so if I say that these were good I’m not sure it’s especially glowing praise. And the samosas were a little unremarkable – full of pellets of minced lamb and peas but without any overwhelming flavour. You got two of them for a fiver, and the following day on the way back from seeing my dentist I picked up two infinitely more enjoyable ones in the legendary Cake & Cream for under two quid. Cake & Cream, as far as I know, has not been nominated for any awards, but I’d give them “Samosa Of The Year” any day of the week. There were also some poppadoms, but they always taste the same in my experience – even a bad one is usually enjoyable, provided it’s not stale.
I don’t want to sound withering about Zyka. What I had wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t great either. And this is the problem with awards: back in 2011 when Petersham Nurseries, a restaurant in a garden centre near Richmond with plain tables and no whistles and bells, won a Michelin star the chef there, Skye Gyngell, said that she wished she could give it back. The expectations of her customers changed, and they wanted to eat at a kind of restaurant she never wanted hers to be. It got too much, and she quit the following year.
I get that expectation problem, admittedly on a different level, with Zyka. If they hadn’t won an award, maybe the upshot of this review would be “eh, it’s okay”. But because it has, it’s hard not to come away saying “how did they manage that?” I had a much more enjoyable takeaway from Banarasi Kitchen earlier in the year – which is equally well placed to serve West Reading, and much closer to you if you live across town. But the restaurant Zyka really made me miss was Bhoj. I ordered deliveries from Bhoj a few times, back in its golden age when it was still on the Oxford Road, and it never disappointed me.
I’m sure Zyka would have done brilliantly back in the days when I still had a Blockbuster Video card, when it was all leaflets folded into three and putting a call in from your landline (remember landlines?), shouting above the background noise. But the world moves on, and things change. There is so much choice, and it raises the standard: a rising tide, as I often say, lifts all boats. Although perhaps it’s a neighbourhood thing, and maybe if you’re a Tilehurst resident you count your lucky stars to have it just down the road.
I should close by giving them the benefit of the doubt – maybe you had to be there. Maybe their full, eat-in menu has all the imagination and execution that was missing from my meal this week. And I know a restaurant is so much more than the food, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if their welcome is warm, their service superlative. I’ll make a point of checking them out in person in the New Year, and I look forward to them making me eat my words. But, for now at least, I’d rather eat elsewhere.
6 Park Lane, Tilehurst, Reading, RG31 5DL
Order via: Direct from the restaurant