Standard Tandoori

N.B. As of August 2020, Standard Tandoori has reopened and is taking part in the Government’s “Eat Out To Help Out” scheme.

Reading’s food scene has come on in leaps and bounds in the time since I started writing Edible Reading, nearly three years ago. The Tasting House, The Grumpy Goat, Pop-Up Reading, Tamp Culture, I Love Paella, Caversham Jam Lady, Roast Dinners Around Reading, C.U.P., Bakery House… hard to believe, perhaps, but back in 2013 Reading was a very different place. It makes me wonder what Reading might be like in 2019, whether people on the Reading Forum will be saying things like “do you remember Nando’s? Those were the days” and “what did that place on Gun Street used to be called? You know, the one that does Korean barbecue-ceviche fusion cuisine and has all those giant 3-D chess sets on the mezzanine floor”.

One thing Reading has always had, though, is iconic dishes. Whether it’s the suckling pig at Pepe Sale (which needs to be eaten to be believed, only on a Friday and Saturday night and only if you order it before they run out) or Kyrenia’s kleftiko, cooked into strands of surrender, whether it’s London Street Brasserie’s fish and chips, the Top Toastie at Shed or Beijing Noodle House’s glorious duck fried noodles there are some items on Reading’s menus that have attained almost mythical status. This week, I went in search of one I had missed.

It all started with a Tweet from regular reader Steven Burns (hi Steven!) a few weeks ago about Standard Tandoori. When I go there, he said, I have to make sure I order the “Standard Super Dry Fry”. Accept no imitations, he told me. But there was more. “It’s quite possibly my favourite thing in the entire Reading food scene. I try to save it for special occasions lest I tire.” That, ladies and gentleman, is an accolade I simply had to investigate. If he was right this could be another culinary Holy Grail to stick in Reading’s already overstocked trophy cabinet, and that was a prospect I simply couldn’t resist.

Standard Tandoori is on the edge of what is colloquially known as “Welshtown”, the warren of streets off the Caversham Road with names like Newport Road, Cardiff Road, Swansea Road, Barry Place. I noticed on my walk there that born again Mexican joint Maracas had closed, and made a mental note to cross it off my list (a lot of people think that’s a difficult spot, but Papa Gee and Standard Tandoori itself are in the same area and have been doing nicely for years, thank you very much). I also spotted a very tasteful Ercol chair in the window of Epoch3 and wished I had space for it in the spare room, but that’s another story.

Standard Tandoori is a bit unlovely on the inside. Standard also describes the tables, and is probably too high praise for the rather tired-looking conference-centre chairs in shabby red velvet. The big room is broken into sections by curious partition walls with a big porthole in the middle and a surprisingly tasteful lightshade filling some of that circular space. The partition walls are covered in wallpaper which is best described as “disco pebbledash”. It’s all a bit odd and I wasn’t sure whether I liked it or not, the restaurant interiors equivalent of modern art.

I hadn’t been for a while and the menu looked more tasteful and well set out than I remembered, in a font and format which pays a knowing nod to House Of Flavours, a place which has rather raised the bar for this sort of thing. I didn’t realise beforehand that Standard Tandoori is ostensibly a Nepalese restaurant, although I didn’t take full advantage of this. After all, I was hunting big game here: the Standard Super Dry Fry. The rest might well have turned out to be also-rans.

I don’t normally mention the poppadoms at Indian restaurants (and I don’t always order them), but these were noteworthy for what was there and what was missing. No mango chutney – which thoroughly discombobulated me – and in place of my beloved lime pickle something really interesting which looked similar but had pieces of what I think was pickled carrot. Sweeter and lacking that acrid sharpness of a really good lime pickle, but a lovely thing to start with. Eating at an Indian restaurant, in my experience, always involves a tactical decision about what food to leave. I finished the poppadoms gladly, even though I knew I was just postponing that decision to the end of the meal.

Starters, which arrived not long after, were a frustrating bunch. Macha pakora was soft white fish in thick, spiced breadcrumbs served with a little dish of tamarind sauce: not offensive by any means, and all done pretty well, but somehow unexciting. The breadcrumbs had a nice flavour and the colour and thick texture I associate with the recently endangered Findus Crispy Pancake. The fish was delicate, and the tamarind sauce was sweet, but somehow it still felt more like the stuff of Iceland than of eating out.

Lamb choila on the other hand, from the Nepalese section of the menu, was plain tough. You could see how the dish could have worked – the little hits of chilli, the curry leaves, the pieces of onion and little crispy ribbons of fried onion on top, all things that really could have enhanced some perfectly done lamb. But this wasn’t that: nearly all of it was edible but some was chewy in a way I didn’t enjoy. Much of it resisted the cutlery, and might have even defeated a steak knife. I left one piece in particular, because sawing through it was an effort beyond me.

StandardStarters

Service was friendly throughout – chatty, friendly, pleasant – but the starter plates were left in front of us for really quite some time. So was that single piece of recalcitrant lamb; I looked at it, wishing I’d left something else to cover it with. It made me wonder how my digestive system would cope with the rest, not at all an enjoyable exercise in mindfulness.

We were asked if we were ready for the mains, and by the time our starter plates were collected we pretty much were. Even so there was still a bit of a wait before they came out – not an unwelcome one, as it happened. It gave us time to drink a bit more of the house white, a pleasant and fruity sauvignon blanc which wasn’t overwhelmed by anything we had ordered.

I wanted to try a dish to benchmark the Standard Tandoori. I was tempted by the chicken achari, a sweet and sour number with mango which sounded right up my alley, but in the end I went for karahi lamb, curious to see if it could compete with Bhoj’s glorious, sticky interpretation of that dish. It was clearly some relation, but perhaps a step-sister: the lamb wasn’t as tough as that in the choila but it didn’t fall apart the way I wanted it to. It wasn’t quite as dry and savoury as at Bhoj, so there was plenty of sauce. Lots of chillies in there too, inviting you to eat them or leave them (I hedged my bets – by this point I’d got quite used to doing so). The taste felt less smoky, less complex, more route one. The fried onions on top were – again – a nice touch, although probably also an exercise in diminishing returns by this point.

StandardKarahi

The fact that there was plenty of sauce was handy for the pilau rice and the paratha. The rice was good – only so much you can say, really, but nice to see some cardamom pods strewn in there, booby traps though they are. The paratha was a bit of a poor excuse, I thought. I’m used to beautiful, rich, buttery multi-layered paratha, almost like a savoury croissant, whereas this just felt like two wholemeal pitta breads stuck together like limpets. If the sauce had been better, I’d have been sadder; scooping is a beautiful, magical thing, but it just wasn’t happening that night.

Finally, the star of the show: the Standard Super Dry Fry. It was a good example of how appearances can deceive, because when it arrived I did find myself thinking “is that it?” It looked like the kind of Campbell’s Cream Of Tomato Soup based curry I’ve spent my whole life trying to avoid ordering (and failing every single time I set foot in Reading’s now-departed old school Indian restaurants like Khukuri and Gulshan). Well, as it turns out that did it a disservice.

It did what it said on the tin: properly dry, the sauce condensed down to be sticky and intense. The chicken was beautifully cooked – again, on the dry side but perfectly so. And I do agree that there’s something about that sauce. It’s almost the perfect curry, I would say: the balance of spice, nowhere near overpowering, was interesting enough to appeal to people who would normally opt for the beigeness of a korma or a pasanda, while the taste was sufficiently complex that chilli demons too might give it a whirl. More fried onions, too, because that seems to be a hard habit to break. I really liked it, and I’m glad I tried it. Was it alone enough to justify a trip to Standard Tandoori? Yes, probably just about. Would I go back specifically to have it again? Probably not.

StandardSDF

I would have had a pistachio kulfi for dessert if I hadn’t been so full (and the one I saw at a neighbouring table looked quite lovely) but as I implied earlier, all meals in an Indian restaurant – like all political careers – end in defeat. I waved the white flag with some rice, some karahi sauce and one limp quadrant of paratha in front of me. It probably tells you something that every single morsel of the Standard Super Dry Fry was gone. I found room for the Elizabeth Shaw style mint that came with the bill, though, because if you can’t eat that something has gone badly wrong. The whole thing, with those two glasses of wine, came to forty-two pounds not including tip. I felt full, I felt a little bit underwhelmed, but I certainly didn’t feel ripped off.

Standard Tandoori, like many of Reading’s old stagers (Garden Of Gulab, I’m looking at you here) feels like a restaurant which may well have been amazing once and is now merely good. I’m glad I went, and I’m glad I tried the Super Dry Fry, although it won’t be ending up in my metaphorical trophy cabinet of iconic Reading dishes. But perhaps that misses the point, because the map of Reading will look different for each of us. For me it will always be about the karahi lamb at Bhoj, or the jeera chicken starter at Royal Tandoori, a plate of chicken festooned with toasted cumin seeds which gets more delicious every time I have it. Your mileage will undoubtedly vary, and life would be very boring if we all went to the same places all the time (plus, people would have worked out who I am by now). For me at least, the search for the next big thing continues. But then again, there wouldn’t be much of a blog for you to read if it didn’t.

Standard Tandoori – 7.0
141-145 Caversham Road, RG1 8AU
0118 9590093

http://www.standardtandoori.co.uk/

Happy Diner

Happy Diner closed, by all accounts, over the summer of 2017. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I’ve always felt that when I go to a Chinese restaurant I am missing something important about how to order. I don’t speak Mandarin so the special menu (or the beautiful back pages of a menu) for real Chinese people to order from are lost on me. Instead it seems like every Chinese restaurant is selling the same dishes and with a few notable exceptions – cue my inevitable mention of sadly-departed Reading institution Chi – the experience is always the same; great starters, more crispy duck than is strictly wise and then adequate mains, all served by incredibly polite staff who somehow make the experience feel a little like I’m eating in a library.

Since I started this blog I don’t think I’ve made any progress with Chinese food at all. And it’s not like I don’t know that Chinese food can be wonderful – I still have vivid food daydreams about a sizzling chicken dish I had in Chinatown, rich with a slick savoury sauce, bubbling in a stone pot also containing seemingly a hundred pungent garlic cloves – but here in the provinces we don’t seem to get anything like that. I know it might be my fault, watching food arrive at other tables and wondering “what have they ordered? Have they picked better than me?” before returning to my prawn toasts, satay, disappointment.

Stepping into Happy Diner on a school night didn’t give me the sense that this review was going to be the one to change all that. If anything, the large, chevron-shaped room felt more like a conference centre than a restaurant. There were the obligatory sofas at the front for folk collecting takeaways, there was a fish tank filled with beautiful shimmering koi and then there was a large, long room with Chinese murals (of varying quality) on the walls. The tables were heavily draped and the chairs were the padded metal-framed ones which always – along with excitable uncles and Come On bloody Eileen – remind me of wedding receptions. And yes, it was like eating in a library: only two or three other tables were occupied, all spread out in that big space. Presumably this was done to give people privacy, but it felt a little isolating to me.

After polishing off the mandatory polystyrene prawn crackers with sweet chilli sauce I was even less convinced this was going to be The One. We started with a couple of dishes that, in retrospect, weren’t the most well-balanced. The “smoke dry spicy chicken happy diner style” resembled Chinese chicken nuggets; slivers of chicken, about the size of whitebait, that had been lightly dusted then fried. It was hard to detect any smokiness and they certainly weren’t dry – the paper doily (yes, a doily! How long is it since you’ve seen one of those?) they were served on was sheer with the amount of oil it had soaked up. So if they weren’t smoky and they weren’t dry, what were they? Mainly sugary: even the finely chopped green chilli on top tasted candied and sweet rather than adding the jolt it so badly needed. Oh, and huge – a pile so gigantic that we left close to half. Even then that meant we ate quite a lot. They were curiously addictive, but in the same way that Percy Pigs are.

HappyStarters

The other starter, salt and chilli squid, was similarly problematic. Done well this is one of the best things in the world, but Happy Diner’s version didn’t quite get there. The squid was nicely soft, the batter was light and again, the pile of squid was massive but, again, blandness was the order of the day. What didn’t help was that the pieces of squid themselves were equally gigantic – so big that I either had to pick up a bit and try to bite it (not the most delicate of operations) or pop a whole piece in and try not to choke or burn my tongue. Smaller, crispier bits of squid would have been lovely, but this was just a big fluffy cloud of frustration. The best bit was the mixture of the little crunchy salty bits of batter and the (hotter this time) chillies. It made me glad my companion had opted for cutlery, because I was never going to scoop up that delicious goodness with my amateurish chopstick skills.

The next course – no surprises here – was the crispy duck. I knew this would be too much food, but I’m biologically programmed not to turn crispy duck down. I had a sinking feeling from the moment it turned up. You know that wonderful moment when the waiter crushes the duck under a spoon and starts to shred it? That beautiful cracking noise as the skin gives way and breaks? This was more of a dull squelch, and at that point I knew that this would be duck but it wouldn’t be crispy. Normally when the crispy duck arrives, I’m like a kid in a sweet shop (I want that bit! No, that bit! Oh, and that bit!) but here it was more of an effort to find pieces that would perfect my pancake. First world problems I know, but the whole thing about crispy duck is that it’s never, ever like this. There was definite eking required, in fact, to stretch this out to six pancakes, and the last one I had was just spring onions, cucumber and hoi sin (in the immortal words of Roy Walker, good but not right). The rest of the trimmings were much the same as in any Chinese restaurant but at the end of the course, instead of scooping up the delicious fragments with our fingers we were left with a sad and flabby pile of skin.

HappyDuck

The main courses arrived similarly swiftly and didn’t lift things; again, it felt like perhaps we’d ordered the wrong things rather than the dishes we picked being actively bad. King prawns in black bean sauce was probably the best (least worst?) of the evening, with plenty of fat prawns in a watery sauce which tasted better than it looked with discernible black bean, a decent hit of garlic and lots of crisp squares of red and green pepper and big pieces of onion. If I’d had it on a Saturday night in front of Take Me Out I’d probably have been satisfied, but somehow here it still felt like it wasn’t quite good enough.

HappyMains

I was hoping the other main would either take me back to my teenage years or show me exactly how a good Chinese restaurant really does sweet and sour chicken. It wasn’t quite the battered balls of my youth (and yes, I know how wrong that sounds) but it wasn’t much of an improvement on that either. The batter the chicken came in was soggy rather than crispy, the sauce was again thin and watery rather than coating the chicken (it wasn’t that indistinct, to be honest, from the stuff we were dipping our prawn crackers in not that long before). The vegetables in the sauce gave me a strong sense of déjà vu, too; crisp squares of red and green pepper and big pieces of onion (did a black cat just walk by?). Oh, and some pineapple, obviously. It made me miss Orient Express, which used to be next to Keegan’s bookshop, which used to be opposite what Shed used to be, and even writing that sentence makes me feel very old indeed and makes me realise how long it is since I’ve had lovely Chinese food in Reading.

On the side we had plain noodles which, not beating about the bush here, tasted a bit odd. Sort of salty but not NaCl salty. I can’t even explain how they were wrong, but they just weren’t good. My fault, perhaps, for not going with the more traditional rice, but I’m just not a fan of plain white rice and it felt like overkill to order egg fried rice as well. We left a lot of the main courses – this is of course traditional in Chinese restaurants, but it would have been nice to feel even a little regret at doing so.

Drinks were a glass of house red wine (described simply as “Italian”) which was decent enough and a couple of bottles of Tsingtao. Service throughout was very polite, friendly, efficient and ever so slightly distant, much as I expected it to be. We were far too full for the dentist-bothering delights of dessert (toffee apple, anybody?) so we munched on the mint imperials that came with the bill – crumbly rather than hard, which made me irrationally happy – instead. The total was fifty-four pounds excluding service. We wished them a Happy New Year as we left and, not for the first time, I felt like a fraud being polite to someone when I hadn’t much enjoyed eating in their restaurant.

So am I any the wiser? Probably not. I still feel like I don’t know what to order, I still don’t have the courage to venture into the more esoteric reaches of the menu (perhaps I’d take more risks if I hadn’t read David Sedaris’ entertaining essay on the perils of eating in China: I’d quote some, but a single sentence of his would show all of this up). Is it my fault that I didn’t like Happy Diner? Quite possibly; you can probably make your own mind up about that. But be that as it may, there’s one question it all comes down to, the main question really when you review a restaurant: would I go back? I stepped out of the door with Mya Lacarte on my right, I strolled down Prospect Street past Kyrenia with its lights glowing, a laughing table of eight in the window and Ihor leaning on the bar and I thought no, I can’t see when I ever would.

Happy Diner – 6.2
3 Prospect Street, RG4 8JB
0118 9483488

http://happydiner-reading.webs.com/

Thai Table

N.B. As of August 2020 Thai Table has reopened and is taking part in the government’s “Eat Out To Help Out” scheme. 

One thing I rarely talk about in these reviews is the background music, but with Thai Table I really feel I should make an exception. There are some places where it’s perfectly normal to hear a muzak version of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” – in a lift for example, or in the toilets of a shopping mall (more Broad Street than Oracle). Or, for that matter, in Room 101. But I wasn’t expecting to hear it in Thai Table, a smart Thai restaurant just the other side of Caversham Bridge. I’d like to say that it was an isolated incident, but during my meal the vocals-free mangled hits kept on coming. It was as if Kenny G was in the room with us, and surely nobody wants that. Well, except Mrs G perhaps.

I wasn’t expecting to find myself in Thai Table, truth be told. It’s been on my list for eons but I still find it a little difficult to motivate myself to review Thai food – it’s rarely terrible but rarely stellar, and Reading’s Thai restaurants can feel much of a muchness. But then I happened to walk past it on my way back from Progress Theatre’s excellent production of Merry Wives Of Windsor in Caversham Court Gardens (no, I hadn’t seen that one either) and the view piqued my interest. Gone was the chunky, dark, rustic furniture I remembered and instead the interior looked warm, buzzy and contemporary, all snazzy geometric prints and clean, simple chairs and tables. I made a mental note to move it to the top of my list, although if I’d known about the music things might have been different.

The first thing that struck me about the menu was the front page. It’s not every menu where the proprietor’s little spiel gives you his email address and invites you to contact him, and it’s not every menu that he appears to have signed by hand. Silly, perhaps, but I liked this. It felt touchingly old school. Aside from that the menu looked much like most Thai menus – generally well described with a few interesting chef’s specials but also many of the usual suspects. Some of the items were described as signature dishes, which I also found interestingly old school.

As is traditional, we had some prawn crackers first as we watched dishes turn up at the table next to us and wondered whether ours would look (and smell) as good as that. They were a known quantity as ever, but they came with a little split bowl of sweet chilli sauce and plum sauce. Both were nice but there was so little of either, and the dish was so awkwardly shaped, that it was almost impossible to dip the crackers in; a nice idea slightly gone to waste.

The first starter was the pet pet squid. Sounds strangely Geordie, doesn’t it? Bits of this were very well done. The small curls of squid – fresh, not bouncy – were cooked in one of the best batters I can remember; it was superbly light, crispy and bubbled and it didn’t come away from the flesh the moment you took some cutlery to it. But it wasn’t perfect: it wasn’t seasoned and I didn’t get any of the aromatic Thai herbs it was meant to be cooked with. Instead, there was yet more of the ubiquitous sweet chilli sauce and lots of herbivorous padding – I didn’t eat any of the shredded white cabbage or the curly parsley and I assume nobody eats the carrot “flower” unless ravenous beyond words. Most bafflingly, the menu gave this dish a three chilli rating but there was almost no kick to it at all. But, for all that, you could have far worse starts to a meal than fresh, beautifully battered squid and sweet chilli sauce, so it felt a bit churlish to complain.

ThaiSquid

We also had Changmai sausage, which as you can see from the picture was a sausage. Cut into slices. So far so bad buffet, but it was a really, really interesting dish to taste. The menu says it’s home-made and I’ve certainly not tried one like this – with ginger and spices and (I think) some lemongrass. The texture was coarse, almost crumbly without being dry and the whole thing was like a holiday for the taste buds. I liked it a lot, but again, the rest of the stuff on the plate felt like pointless faff: iceberg lettuce, this time, with thin sticks of fresh ginger. A very promising beginning: I was starting to understand why the owner was prepared to sign the menus.

ThaiSausage

After this we sat with empty starter plates in front of us for some time, and they were only taken away about a minute before the mains arrived, presumably because the serving staff suddenly realised that new plates were on their way.

Beef massaman was described on the menu as a signature dish, so I felt I should give it a try, but in truth I ordered it with some hesitation. One thing I’ve learned from eating out is that some restaurants use the words “slow cooked beef” with almost poetic licence: I still remember beef rendang at the Moderation, with all the texture of a trampoline, or my last meal at Tampopo before it closed where I had to send a beef dish back because it was like trying to eat a branch of Clark’s. But again, Thai Table passed the test: big chunks of perfectly braised beef which broke into delicious shreds.

That alone would have delighted me, but the sauce was just as magnificent: Massaman curry can often be sweet and unsubtle, but this was a world away from that with proper heat and a bit of spice, maybe not as much complexity as I was expecting from the menu but still a big Thai hug of a thing. Even the firm new potatoes and the toasted fragments of cashew worked perfectly. Normally my favourite bit of a Thai meal is pouring the sauce on to the coconut rice and eating it at the end, but this challenged all that because every mouthful was marvellous: I could have eaten it every day for a week.

ThaiMains

Stir fried chicken with black bean sauce sounds a bit prosaic on paper, but in practice it was also superb. Part of that is about the veg rather than the chicken. I loved the barely cooked cauliflower, the florets the perfect shape to capture the sauce. I also liked the sugar snap peas, with similar well-judged crunch. And the black beans themselves, beautifully intense, firm and slightly nutty rather than pulpy mush. And that’s before I get to the sauce – so rich, garlicky and salty (there was some oyster sauce in there too, which probably explains it) that by the end I was tilting the bowl to get the last drops onto my spoon. It wasn’t easy – the bowl was a shallow one in the shape of a banana leaf – but that wasn’t going to stop me trying.

After the main courses our plates were cleared a little quicker, and we waited for someone to bring us the dessert menu. By this point I wasn’t hungry, but I was at least curious about whether the desserts would match that high standard and, crucially, whether they would appear on a menu that wasn’t laminated and didn’t have garish photos on it. No dessert menu was forthcoming. We waited a bit longer. Still no dessert menu. The group at the table next to us, also bored of being neglected, asked for a dessert menu. They got one, but it didn’t jog the memory of the waiting staff about whether anyone else might want to see it. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the onslaught of sax classics playing in the background I’m not sure how I’d have coped. And that was the problem with service for the whole evening: it was never rude, it was never unpleasant but – for most of the time – it was never there. We gave up and settled up instead.

To drink we had a couple of beers (they have Chang and Singha, both of which were good) and a couple of glasses of Thai white wine, Monsoon Valley, which was really lovely – off-dry and almost a little syrupy in the mouth. The wine list actually had a fair few bottles I would have been tempted by on a different night – an Australian shiraz, a German Riesling and a Fleurie among them – most of them under twenty pounds. Our bill came to fifty-six pounds, not including a tip.

A friend recently asked me to recommend a Thai restaurant – she has a friend visiting from France who has specifically asked for Thai food. I told her that if the food’s more important than the room she should go to Art Of Siam, but that if the room is equally important she should head for Thai Corner. I have to say, I’m now tempted to contact her and tell her to pick Thai Table instead. The food was fantastic – the best Thai food I’ve eaten in Reading – and had me revising my list of go-to restaurants in town. The room is cool and contemporary. But here’s the drawback: the service felt like an afterthought, a necessary evil to get the food out and the bill paid but with little thought given to making the customers feel welcome. Is two out of three good enough? Meat Loaf would say so. But he might think differently if Kenny G ever got round to covering any of his songs.

Thai Table – 7.7
8 Church Road, RG4 7AD
0118 9471500

http://www.thaitable.co.uk/

Siblings Home

Siblings Home closed in June 2017. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

Some of my readers have told me that they’re members of the “scroll down and scroll back up” club. They look at the rating first, then they go back and read the review. Just to level the playing field for everybody just this once: I absolutely adored Siblings Home. It opened on Valentine’s Day, appropriately enough, and if I’m not careful this review might end up reading a bit like a love letter (don’t say you haven’t been warned).

Siblings Home is tucked away on a sidestreet just off the main drag in Caversham. It’s a two minute walk from Costa Coffee, but in all other respects a universe away: the front is a beautiful double-aspect room with lovely light from those big, big windows. Inside, it’s full of reclaimed wood and old school furniture, exposed lights hanging from the ceiling. I know – what I’ve described sounds like all sorts of restaurant and café clichés, but Siblings Home is a very different beast: it’s clearly been done with love by someone with a very good eye (and, I’d guess, nowhere near as much money as the big chains) so what could seem like a piece of calculated bandwagon jumping is actually a beautifully warm and considered space.

It all feels a bit Labour And Wait, like someone has found a great café in Hoxton or the North Laine and, through some magical realism variant of Control X and Control V, had dropped it incongruously on a street corner in Caversham (I spotted a stool that had “David Bowie” written on it in Tippex, which only reinforced that impression). I couldn’t think of anywhere even remotely like it elsewhere in Reading, just places that had aimed for this kind of look or feel and missed by varying degrees. When I got there on a weekend morning there were already a bunch of hip young (and not so young) things inside, drinking coffee from chunky mugs and luxuriating in the warm word bath of the weekend papers. Aside from the front room there are two others: one full of homewares you can buy to take home and a little back room which has extra space for customers.

Of course, all this only works if the food is good and by this stage I was hoping against hope that I wouldn’t be sitting through another depressing knockout victory for style over substance. The menu, on a blackboard behind the counter, looked promising and made all the right noises: a few breakfast options revolving around toast, granola or muesli and just four sandwiches, all either available in toasted sourdough or piadina, a thin Italian flatbread.

In the interests of research, we tried both types of sandwich and soon realised that substance was going to triumph over style on points. Chorizo, Jarlsberg and mushroom in toasted sourdough was downright marvellous: the sourdough was sliced thinly enough for the insides to melt properly and the outside had been lightly buttered (I think) for better toasting. The flavours were excellent; nice, thin piquant chorizo with a decent amount of creamy Jarlsberg and, last but not least, the rich, earthiness of the mushrooms. A little sprig of thyme had been pressed onto the outside of the toastie, and that attention to detail, that interest in fresh ingredients and that understanding of flavours, in such a little thing, made me love Siblings Home even more. It also came with a salad I actually wanted to eat – a little red chard and rocket, lightly dressed, along with some tartly sweet cherry tomatoes adding zing and colour. Having it done so well and so simply here just made me realise how many other places bugger this kind of thing up. All the salad got eaten, which is the lunchtime equivalent of a standing ovation.

SibSour

The piadina was just as delicious. The flatbread had been folded into a shape something like a tricorne, and inside it was packed with firm salty halloumi, fresh crunchy red pepper and oodles of pesto. I didn’t know what to expect from the piadina itself but the texture was magnificent – not brittle like a tortilla or spongy like a panino, it stood up to the grilling perfectly. The whole thing together was a wonderful sandwich – no wasted space, that perfect blend of salty and sweet filling right up to the edges, every mouthful an utter delight. At the end I took the rest of my salad and used it to mop up the last of the pesto on my plate – which is probably the lunchtime equivalent of an even longer standing ovation. Both sandwiches cost four pounds fifty and were made there and then behind the counter rather than sitting there waiting for someone to order them: again, I was reminded how many places in Reading offer so much less for more money.

SibPiadina

The drinks were excellent, too. Siblings Home serves proper leaf tea in proper pots, with vintage mugs to drink from and milk served in little glass inkwells (you might find that a little twee but by that stage I was completely charmed by the whole thing). My Earl Grey – from Martyn’s of Muswell Hill according to the blackboard – was very nice indeed. The latte, on the other hand, got rave reviews although I’m told it was much more like a big comforting café au lait than a little, intense, densely frothed latte (my companion started to wax lyrical about coffee in Paris at this point, and truth be told I zoned out and paid more attention to my paper). The only misfire was the pain au chocolat which wrapped up proceedings. I really wanted one but it was dense and chewy where it should have been light and flaky. No matter: by then I already loved the place and was in a distinctly forgiving mood. Besides, surely it was my fault for not going for the chocolate brownie or the intriguing-sounding pear and lavender cake?

Service was spot on from start to finish. The young lady serving was bustling about bringing drinks and making up sandwiches but managed to be really friendly and chirpy and when our plates were cleared by one of the titular siblings she seemed genuinely pleased that we’d enjoyed our lunch. The enthusiasm was infectious – I left wanting to come back, soon, and to support them by spending money (and having lovely food and drink. I’m not completely altruistic). The bill, for two sandwiches, two rounds of hot drinks and a pastry was twenty pounds. We could have spent less but were in no hurry to leave: I could quite easily have grabbed some magazines or got out my Kindle and settled in for far longer.

Although I’m no Mary Portas, it’s worth briefly mentioning the other arm of Siblings Home because the shop in the middle room sells lots of lovely things, also clearly put together by someone with a very good eye and an excellent contacts book: from plain, timeless, practical earthenware mugs and dishes to sturdy, beautiful chopping boards, from cacti to cards, from bars of chocolate and jars of local honey to handsome woollen blankets. My one regret is that I didn’t pick anything up – but in my defence I was already a bit giddy from having such an unexpectedly fantastic lunch and things could easily have got out of control.

When you review somewhere every week, this lark can get a bit dispiriting. Mediocre or muddled places, poor food and service, unimaginative concepts, mean-spirited portions, bad execution: they sometimes make me wonder whether my standards are just too high. Maybe my lofty ideals aren’t realistic, and Reading is just like everywhere else and we should buckle down and accept our lot – chains, 2 for 1 vouchers, Groupon deals, making do – and getting on the train to Oxford or London if we don’t like it. But then I go somewhere like Siblings Home that just gets everything right – no fannying around, no cobblers about “artisan products”, no box-ticking attempts to be everything to everyone. Instead, a small, sensible range of simple, excellent food in a beautiful, stylish room along with friendly, enthusiastic service. It makes me realise that it can be done, even if I’m sure the people at Siblings Home make it look a lot easier than it really is. This place reminds me why I started writing this blog in the first place. And finding it is a little bit like falling in love, all over again.

Siblings Home – 8.0
16 Hemdean Road, RG4 7SX
07956 567872

http://www.siblingshome.com/

River Spice

The single question I get asked most often, apart from where to eat, is “what do the ER ratings mean?” I’ve often wondered whether to devote a separate post to this, or to leave it an enigma. The thing is, lots of people like ratings. They want to know whether a film that’s just come out is a 4 star film or a 5 star film, and I can see why: back when I read reviews but didn’t write them I wanted to know that too. Now that I write one every week, I can see it’s more complicated than that. How can you sum a whole experience up in a mark out of ten? If I could go back and start again, I’d be tempted to miss out ratings altogether. But would I go through with it? After all, they might be difficult to decide on, they might prompt head-scratching and disagreement but, like I said: lots of people like ratings.

I’ve always hoped that the ratings on ER work a bit like those on music website Pitchfork. I can read a Pitchfork review of an album that’s rated, say, 8.0 and absolutely know that it won’t be my cup of tea (because of references to, for example, Krautrock – how exciting!), or I can read a 6.2 and rush out and buy the CD. It’s no different with restaurants: the ratings are an interesting conversation point, but there are so many other factors involved. Is it your kind of food? Is it going to be any good for vegetarians? Is it buzzy/quiet/fancy/unpretentious enough for you? Is getting to the location a faff?

Another thing I often get is people saying that my reviews are too harsh, or too kind (sometimes I get both bits of feedback about the same review) or people saying that the review doesn’t read like the rating, that the words feel like an 8 but the rating says 7. Well, I suppose if I’ve been somewhere I liked and you didn’t you’ll think I’m harsh. If I’ve raved about somewhere that left you unmoved you might think I’m too charitable.

A complicating factor is that, over the time I’ve done this, I’ve felt increasingly like being constructive. These are small independent places, mostly, and they’re trying their best – even if their best isn’t that good. I don’t have the appetite for hatchet jobs, and I know that’s disappointing because, like ratings, people really like them. So, and hopefully this will be my last word on the subject of ratings: if you read a review and it makes you feel like trying the restaurant, do. If it doesn’t, don’t. Does that sound fair enough?

This has all been uppermost in my mind because I had such a disappointing meal at River Spice (you may have scrolled to the end, in which case you’ve probably already figured that out). It might have been especially disappointing because I arrived with high expectations: several people had recommended River Spice to me as equal to House Of Flavours, my current benchmark for Indian restaurants in Reading. Enough people recommended it, in fact, and in glowing enough terms that I spent a lot of the meal wondering if it was my fault rather than the restaurant’s.

Early signs were good – it’s an interesting location for a restaurant, at the end of the Caversham Road, facing onto the river (I can see it would be a lovely spot in summer). The room is clean and modern with nice big tables, good cutlery and crisp white napkins. The welcome was polished and professional and although only a handful of tables were occupied on a Monday night, the other diners did seem to be regulars. The menu made me look forward to what lay ahead, full of dishes I’ve not seen at other restaurants in town: tandoori duck and monkfish, grilled ostrich. There were plenty of seafood and fish curries, too. The conventional options were relegated to a section near the end called “all time favourite dishes”. Order them if you must, but we can do much better seemed to be the implication.

Well, maybe they can but that wasn’t my experience. The poppadoms were perfectly pleasant – light, not oily, easily broken into shards – and gave no hint of the disappointments to follow. I know a lot of people think bad, stale poppadoms suggest a bad restaurant (the culinary equivalent of a canary in a coal mine, perhaps) but sadly the reverse isn’t true. It was downhill from there.

King prawn suka, for instance, sounded so delicious on the menu: king prawns in tamarind, garlic, honey, chilli, salt and turmeric. On the plate it looked and tasted unremarkable – two prawns coated in a red gloop, as sweet and fruity as jam. I love tamarind sauce, but there was nothing to offset it and certainly none of the complexity promised by the rest of the ingredients. The rest of the plate was padded out with lukewarm salad – maybe that distracts some of the diners from the fact that they’ve just paid over six pounds for two prawns and something disconcertingly like cranberry sauce, but for me it had the opposite effect.

RiverPrawns

The other starter was chicken nakazat, tandoori skewers flavoured with chicken and nutmeg. It was two decent sized pieces of chicken with a strong taste of garlic and a faint whiff of disconcerting cheese – they looked cheesy and tasted cheesy even though I couldn’t see, from the menu, how this would have been possible. The menu said this dish was “delicately spiced” but I think they may be understating just how delicately. It wasn’t actively bad but I couldn’t see how anyone could get excited about it, especially if they’d tried something similar at Bhoj, House Of Flavours or indeed Pappadams.

RiverChicken

The food was so dull to eat, so dull to recall and so dull to write about that I can’t help but feel this must also be dull to read. It’s not going to get any better, I’m afraid: the mains were pretty mediocre too. The best of them was the gost kata massala, braised lamb with sliced onions, ginger, garam masala and garlic. When it arrived I had my reservations, mainly because the lamb was in such thick slabs that it called for a trust in the kitchen which, by this stage, I just didn’t have. As it turned out, the lamb pulled apart nicely, not quite as tender as it could have been but nothing for the molars to trampoline on either. The sauce was nicely savoury but again, was bland. Almost like gravy, in fact, and this felt more like a casserole than a curry – that might have been all very well on another night but it really didn’t feel like what I’d signed up for.

RiverLamb

The low point was the Goan fish curry. I was impressed to see monkfish appear prominently on the menu, rather than the softer fish (mahi mahi or the like) you often see on Indian menus, and the prospect of having it cooked skilfully in a tandoor was an exciting one. The reality of having it cooked by River Spice, however, wasn’t: the five (count them – I did) pieces of fish had a texture somewhere between cotton wool and mattress. They sat forlornly in the middle of a big puddle of yellow creamy sauce – again, emphasising just how far this dish was from getting your money’s worth (thirteen pounds, if I’m not mistaken). The sauce was thin and bland without any of the sweetness of coconut milk or the kick of any spice. Again, the menu said it was prepared with “delicate” spices: on that basis perhaps I can legitimately say that I delicately eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, delicately exercise or am delicately learning French.

RiverMonkfish

The ultimate sauce test is whether you want to mop up the rest with a naan or rice. The lamb dish passed – just – and the Goan fish curry failed with flying colours. The pilau rice doesn’t really merit a mention, and nor does the keema naan, except to say that it was disturbingly circular and not the more irregular shape of naan I have eaten elsewhere. Make of that what you will: by this point I was almost past caring. The wine – a glass of malbec and a glass of shiraz – were okay. Maybe if I’d drunk a little more I’d have disliked the food a little less. Desserts were all ice cream based but I really felt like I’d spent quite enough money at River Spice already: the whole lot came to just over fifty pounds, not including tip.

Service started out quite stand-offish: despite only two other tables in the restaurant it felt like it took a very long time to get noticed to order food. Ironically, it was roughly at the point where I realised it had been a bit of a wasted evening that they started being really nice to us. It’s almost like they knew I was going to go home and write this and they wanted to make me feel an utter shit about it. If so, I’d say they can count it as a partial success – I do feel like I’ve just spent fifteen hundred words kicking a puppy but average food is average food, even when it’s dished up by nice people. You could ask why I didn’t send any of it back, but the truth is none of it was inedible. It just never felt especially worth eating.

So, you’ll read all this and look at the rating and think I was being kind. Or you’ll have been to River Spice and you’ll think I’ve been harsh. That’s the nature of these things. But nothing I had was dangerous, or offensive, or badly cooked: it was just dull. Would I go back? No. Reading has too many Indian restaurants for anyone to have to put up with mediocre food. Maybe they were having an off night, perhaps I was, but the main memory that sticks with me is that Goan fish curry – rarely in the field of Reading dining has so much been spent on so little food for so much disappointment. So have I been too harsh? If you really want to find out then go for yourself. But I can’t say I recommend it.

River Spice – 6.1
206 Caversham Road, RG1 8AZ
0118 9503355

http://www.riverspicereading.co.uk/