I was having a chat with my friend Reggie the other day, and I told him that my upcoming review was of Bánh Mì QB, the new Vietnamese restaurant on the ground floor of what used to be called Kings Walk. I’d been there earlier in the week, I told him, and I just needed to write it up.
“You know what the problem with that place is, don’t you?” he said.
“The landlord, I know.” The whole of that space, Atlantis Village or whatever it’s called this week, is owned by Sykes Capital, the company founded by noted philanthropist John Sykes. I should apologise at this point: if you had an Edible Reading bingo card, or were playing an Edible Reading drinking game – even at half eleven on a Friday morning – you’d fully expect me to name drop Sykes, Reading’s answer to It’s A Wonderful Life’s Henry F Potter, nice and early in the proceedings. I know I’ve probably lived down to your expectations: I’ll try not to mention him again.
“No, the space. How are you going to get any atmosphere there? It’s a funny spot for a restaurant.”
Actually, it was quite nice. I ate at the tables outside, on the ground floor of the mall (or whatever you call a strange little space that’s half full of restaurants and nothing else: an arcade?) because I’m still all about eating outside whenever I can. But the inside was also rather pleasant with plain, unpretentious furniture, tasteful wicker shades and some wood panelling and screens to add character. In other circumstances, I’d have been happy to have had dinner in there.
A long time ago, a certain landlord I’ve promised I won’t mention by name again – even though, or perhaps because, it makes him sound like Voldemort – made some far-fetched claims that he was going to turn Kings Atlantic Village Walk into a “culinary destination”. There was talk of bringing over a head chef from France to run one restaurant, of opening a bakery on site, even some musings that this could be home to Reading’s first Michelin starred restaurant. How exciting!
In reality, the arcade has somewhat proved to be the kiss of death. Lebanese restaurant La Courbe closed down, as did Art Of Siam and Bengal Reef, and then in the summer of 2018 Dolce Vita, one of Reading’s best restaurants, closed at very short notice amid talk of a massive proposed rent hike. Its former site on the first floor, with all that outside space, has been vacant ever since; underneath it, we’re now on our third cocktail bar in the same spot.
Having said all that, the arcade is gradually beginning to look like an interesting place to eat – no bakery and nothing Michelin starred, because that was clearly cobblers, but a growing collection of restaurants with some character none the less. Pho, Soju and Bolan Thai have survived the pandemic, and now we’re starting to see some green shoots of recovery, with more places opening on the ground floor. Ji Chicken, a Taiwanese fried chicken place, opened last November and this year it’s been joined by Bánh Mì QB which opened in April. Only My Warsaw, a little Polish street food kiosk, contradicts the pan-Asian theme.
It feels a brave or supremely confident move to open a Vietnamese restaurant a mere sixty second walk from Reading’s only other Vietnamese restaurant. That alone would have been enough to make me want to check them out, so one evening, fresh off the train, I headed over there with Zoë to give it a try. It wasn’t my first attempt to eat there, though: I’d dropped by several times at the weekend to find the place rammed, so I was hoping it was busy with good reason.
BMQB’s menu was relatively similar to Pho’s and the prices have been benchmarked around those of its chain rival, so most starters are seven or eight pounds and most main courses max out at twelve quid. There are no less than three variants on the noodles in soup theme: pho, naturally, but also a couple of other soup and noodle dishes which differed from pho in ways that weren’t necessarily made clear. Unlike Pho there are no curries on offer here, just a variety of rice and noodle dishes, and also unlike Pho you can try the eponymous bánh mi, the Vietnamese baguette which most clearly shows the influence of the country’s time as a French colony.
We divided up the dishes we fancied, agreed to share the starters, placed our order and sipped on a Hanoi beer while we waited for some food to arrive. BMQB’s menu offers both Hanoi and Saigon lagers but the wait staff, faultlessly polite though they were, couldn’t tell us how they differed from one another (“they’re both named after cities in Vietnam” they said, charmingly). Inside the restaurant was quiet except for one solitary diner, and I thought to myself that six o’clock was probably a deeply unfashionably early time to have dinner here.
Our starters were a mix of the tried and tested and the unfamiliar, and they got off to an excellent start. I always order Pho’s pork spring rolls and they’ve become a bit of a Reading benchmark, but BMQB’s were as good if not slightly better. A decent portion of three rugged, crunchy spring rolls came diagonally cut into six and were just the ticket dipped into a small dish of what I imagine was nuoc cham.
The texture was spot on but the taste was even better, the filling a hugely pleasing amalgam of chicken, prawns, glass noodles and carrot. The prawn was the element setting the tone here, lending a wonderfully moreish, savoury note with the tiniest hint of funk, although I suppose that could have come from the wood ear mushrooms. The menu says they come with lettuce – why? – but I’m glad to say they sensibly omitted it. By the end I was regretting not ordering one to myself: don’t make my mistake, if you go.
The other starters, although they didn’t completely match that high standard, were by no means a letdown. Salt and pepper squid (you could have salt and pepper tofu instead, if you’re vegan, or sea bass, if you’re fancy) wasn’t half bad, and it was nice to see them using recognisable pieces of tender squid instead of the standard issue rubbery calamari you find in so many places in Reading. You got six pieces, stir fried with some spring onion and red onion, and although it was an enjoyable dish I did finish it wishing there had been more.
Another thing to say at this point, although it’s probably apparent from these photos and the pictures yet to come, is that BMQB’s food is very easy on the eye – simple and beautiful, all reds and greens, an antidote to beige. I even loved the faux basket crockery, a surprisingly easy and effective way to make even the most straightforward dish oddly photogenic.
So far so mainstream, but I also wanted to try something you wouldn’t find in Pho. Once I’d explained to Zoë that a salted egg dish didn’t involve eating a salted egg, rather that it was prawns fried in a crispy coating using salted egg yolks, she was happy for me to order it. And really, the coating was magnificent – light yet intensely salty, hugging every inch of each plump, curled prawn. Was it worth just over ten pounds? Possibly not, but I’m glad I ordered it and delighted that I can say I’ve tried it.
I think we confused them by ordering a bánh mi as a main course, given that they sit next to the starters on the menu and are possibly often ordered as a stand alone dish at lunchtime. So the staff brought it out and then realised only one of us had gotten our order: I waited until Zoë’s main came out five minutes later before tucking in, which involved more restraint than I knew I possessed.
Having waxed lyrical about how photogenic BMQB’s food is, I know this one looks a dud. It’s harder to take a good picture of a baguette than you might think: like babies, they pretty much all look the same. But take my word for it, inside it had everything I could have wanted. The crunch and astringency of pickled carrot and mooli, the pungency of coriander and the piquancy of chilli were all present and correct, along with a single mandolin-sliced stripe of almost translucent cucumber running the whole length of the baguette.
But the chicken was fantastic – “grilled chicken” wrote a cheque suggesting that you would get some kind of dry, faintly marinated breast but in reality that cheque was whipped away, Chris Tarrant-style, and replaced with copious tender nuggets of what I’d guess was chicken thigh, positively humming with lemongrass and providing more than enough oomph to stand up to everything else jostling for position in that baguette.
Truly, it’s one of the world’s great sandwiches and I was verging on overjoyed to be reunited with it in the faintly Hopperesque surroundings of the deserted ground floor of Sykes’ Folly. It did make me think that although hospitality, and the world, are allegedly back to normal I still find myself shying away from crowded, buzzing restaurants and packed pubs, still living outside or grabbing quiet meals on a sleepy lunchtime or the early bird special.
For a moment, that gave me a little sharp spike of sadness, and I wondered if life will ever be normal again. But it’s hard to be down in the dumps for long when you’re eating one of the world’s great sandwiches. And BMQB’s is probably the best rendition I’ve had – better than MumMum, which didn’t last a year on Market Place, and better even than Cappuccina Café on West Street which lasted even less than that. I truly hope that BMQB, third time lucky, bucks that particular trend.
Zoë’s main, from the adjacent section of the menu, was a fried rice dish. She opted to have it with pork (“the most dangerous of the meats”, as she likes to call it) and even then the menu gave the option of grilled pork or crispy roasted pork. But really, what kind of monster would read that blurb and go for the former? What turned up was another gorgeous dish, the roasted pork fanned out into a kind of cheery smile around a neat little dome of rice. A salad of pickled vegetables, garnished with vibrant mint and coriander, and a little bowl of a dark, glossy dipping sauce completed the picture.
I think I expected the pork to be hot, whereas it was closer to warm, but having tried a bit I can honestly say that it didn’t matter a jot. Superbly tender with a winning crackling, full of salty depth, this was easily some of the best roast pork I’ve had since Fidget & Bob’s legendary char siu Tuesdays. And the sauce was outstanding – powerfully salty-sweet, something a little like hoi sin and absolutely compelling. It was great with the pork, equally great with the rice, in fact it was hard to imagine a dish it couldn’t have thoroughly transformed. The crunch of the peanuts bobbing on its surface was the icing on a deeply indulgent cake.
I was allowed a couple of pieces of pork, but when Zoë couldn’t finish her egg fried rice I took to mixing it with the last of that sauce and doing my best to polish it off. I didn’t want to offend the waiting staff, that was how I rationalised my greed to myself. You can also have the crispy roasted pork as a starter – which I might have to do next time, just so I can also try their hopefully equally crispy, equally roasted, equally delicious duck. What can I say? It’s nice to have goals.
I haven’t talked enough about the waiting staff, but they were uniformly friendly, polite and welcoming. I’m not convinced all of them spoke an awful lot of English, but given the state of my Vietnamese I was hardly going to hold that against them. Our bill for three starters, two mains and a couple of beers each came to seventy-two pounds fifty, which includes a 12.5% service charge: they earned every penny of it, if you ask me. We left full and happy, but not before I visited their extremely pleasant bathrooms (I never mention the bathrooms, do I, but these are very agreeable indeed).
If you’ve made it this far, you know the rating is just in sight, down there. And if you’ve looked at it, you might be wondering if I’m going soft. ER ratings of 8 and over used to be like hen’s teeth and yet here I am, doling out three on the spin to Reading restaurants like they’re silly money. It can’t be a midlife crisis – I’ve already had that, believe me – so what on earth’s going on?
But honestly, in its way BMQB is as deserving as anywhere I’ve been in nearly nine years of writing this blog. Everything was clean, precise, beautiful to look at and interesting to eat. In the past I’ve sometimes found Vietnamese food a little on the bland side but BMQB, more than anywhere, has convinced me of the value of being subtle. It is, in general, a paragon of subtlety – from the simplicity of its menu to the understated warmth of its welcome, all the way through to the clever balance of its flavours.
In a town where sometimes we celebrate the brash far too hard, where the people that shout loudest get the most likes, there’s still a place for restaurants like BMQB. And there’s a place for me too, namely sitting outside them having a quietly lovely dinner. So hats off to them for having the guts to open a few doors down from one of Reading’s most successful chains, offering a similar menu, in a building owned by the town’s most controversial landlord. They’ve got my vote, if that counts for anything: but then I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdog.
Bánh Mì QB – 8.0
Unit 8, 19-23 Kings Road, Reading, RG1 2HG