Restaurant review: Shree Krishna Vada Pav

When it comes to food and drink, Reading is an especially interesting place. You may find this hard to believe at times, but it’s true.

I don’t mean all the stuff that’s obvious to you, especially if you’re a regular reader of this blog. I don’t mean our coffee culture, or our street food scene that’s the envy of towns for miles around. I don’t mean our two local breweries with taprooms, or excellent pubs like the Nag’s and the Castle Tap selling fantastic craft beer and cider. I don’t mean the jewels in our restaurant crown – places like Clay’s, the Lyndhurst, Kungfu Kitchen or Vegivores. I’m not even talking about our network of local producers and the independent shops, like Geo Café and the Grumpy Goat, which sell their stuff. You know all that already, although I suspect a lot of people who live here still don’t. 

No, I mean interesting in terms of the world outside our food-loving, indie-supporting echo chamber. Because a lot of businesses have clocked that Reading – with its university, its prosperous populace and its tech employers, just the right distance from London – is the perfect place for them to open another branch of their restaurant chain and make pots of cash. They have us down, mistakenly I like to think, as something of an Everytown, the perfect testbed for their particular flavour of the hospitality experience.

In fact, two very different types of businesses have Reading in their sights. The first, tapping into that affluent, well-educated demographic, are smaller, more targeted chains. They’ve often seen Reading as their first attempts to expand west (Honest, Pho) or east (The Coconut Tree), or just picked it as one of the first stops on a journey to nationwide ubiquity (Itsu). And this still continues, albeit to a lesser extent: we’re getting a Leon and a Wasabi this year, don’t forget.

But the second type is more interested in Reading as Everytown, and often we are the lucky Petri dish they squirt their pipette into before deciding whether to open branches elsewhere. And this is, I’m afraid, often an American thing. It’s no coincidence that Reading got one of the first Five Guys, got a Chick-Fil-A, albeit briefly, got a Taco Bell and a Wingstop and a Wendy’s and has a Popeyes on the way. Such is life: newly added to the Tube map, but somehow equidistant between London and the good ol’ United States. 

These big American chains with plenty of money are aided and abetted in their mission to slightly worsen Reading by our local media – which posted dozens of stories about Wendy’s, mainly because they were too dumb to think critically for even a split second about whether Reading getting the first Wendy’s in the U.K. was actually a Good Thing. But it also points to just how much is going on in Reading, and how interesting the battle will be between all these factions fighting it out for your money. No wonder Jonathan Nunn, the editor of Vittles, called our town a “fascinating anomaly”.

“Why is this the subject of your interminable preamble this week?”, I hear you say. I thought you’d never ask. The reason I talk about all of this is that the subject of this week’s review is that rare thing, a chain choosing to plonk a branch near the centre of town that people can get genuinely excited about. Because Shree Krishna Vada Pav, a small chain selling vegetarian Maharashtrian street food which started out in Hounslow and only has three branches outside the M25, comes here with an excellent reputation.

Eater London, which tirelessly covers everywhere worth eating outside Zone 1, has enthused about SKVP on numerous occasions. They classed it as one of London’s best Indian restaurants, and one of West London’s best value restaurants. And they said it served one of London’s finest sandwiches, on a list rubbing shoulders with greats like Beigel Bake’s salt beef bagel and Quo Vadis’ legendary smoked eel sandwich. Eater London aptly summed up what SKVP do as “carb-on-carb masterpieces”, and commented elsewhere that their dishes (carbs stuffed into a soft bap) had a “curious affinity with snack culture from the north of England and Scotland”. 

So you might not have heard of Shree Krishna Vada Pav, or you might not have known they were coming to Reading, but one way or the other this is a strangely big deal, despite the grand total of zero coverage in Berkshire Live or the Reading Chronicle. But who needs them anyway when you’ve got me, so this week I headed there on a Monday evening with Zoë to try as much of the menu as I could.

It’s at the edge of town, opposite the Back Of Beyond, and once you get past its Day-Glo orange exterior it’s fundamentally a very long thin room with a view of the kitchen and a corridor heading to the back – and presumably the loos – which seems to go on forever. (“I know” said Zoë. “I used to come here when it was Julia’s Meadow and I thought it was like the fucking TARDIS”). A panel down one wall gave a potted history of the chain which opened its first branch in 2010, although the founders go further back than that, having met at college in Mumbai at the turn of the century. I found all that oddly sweet, which is no doubt the desired effect.

Apart from that the interior was best described as functional – basic furniture, a mixture of tables for two and four and cutlery on the table. It looked very much like a fast food restaurant, albeit one with table service. The music was just the right side of overpowering, although I found I liked that.

“I don’t know how unbiased I can be” said Zoë as we took our seats. “Have we ever had a meal for the blog where I’ve been this fucking starving?”

She had a point. We got there around eight o’clock, having not eaten since a light lunch, and irrespective of how tempting the menu might be there was very much a strong urge to order nearly everything. That said, looking at the menu didn’t make that any easier. It was two things: cheap and huge, not necessarily in that order. It was split into sections, each of which contained an embarrassment of riches: a variety of pav and other bap-based dishes, some Indo-Chinese dishes, some chaat, some sandwiches and wraps, a section of “bites to enjoy” and some signature dishes marked as “SKVP recommends”. And the carb on carb struggle is real: if you want an onion bhajiya sandwich, this is the place for you.

It’s possibly an indicator of how you should eat here that the handful of curries are squirreled away in the furthest corner of the menu, and ordering any of them never occurred to me. But also the pricing positively implores you to order lots of things and share them – the most expensive dishes are around six pounds but most are less than that. I took this as encouragement to take an approach much like the numbers game from Countdown: a couple from the top and the rest from anywhere else. We ordered – please don’t judge – eight dishes in total and our bill came to just under thirty-two pounds. That didn’t include any drinks, because SKVP didn’t have any mango lassi and we didn’t especially fancy anything else: there is, unsurprisingly, no alcohol license.

I do have to say that although the set-up says fast food, ours was far from that. We ordered at ten past eight, and it wasn’t until half an hour later that food started coming to our table. That’s not a problem of itself, but it’s worth mentioning because the restaurant ostensibly closes at nine. And weirder still, the customers kept coming: we were by no means the last table seated or the last people to get their food. I’m pretty sure that SKVP has been busy from the day it opened, and on this showing that’s not going to change any time soon. I should also mention at this point that the staff were quite brilliant, although clearly under the cosh. 

We ordered a lot of food – if you go, you don’t need to order anywhere near as much as we did – and it all came to the table over the space of five minutes. Again, I’m not complaining but it was an odd approach to bring nothing for half an hour and then literally every single thing. I would have preferred a steady stream of dishes, but that might just be me. But don’t be fooled into thinking that low prices mean small portions: you’ll get very full very fast if you make the same mistake we did.

Your challenge, if you go, will be narrowing it down. We had to try the vada pav – it’s in the name, after all – and although I liked it I’m not sure I loved it or preferred it to Bhel Puri House’s version. It really is a carb overload: fried potato served in a cheap white floury bap with a variety of chutneys. I think you kind of have to have it, but I don’t know if I’d have it again – the chutneys were excellent, sharpening and and elevating it, but the potato was a little too much stodge and not enough crunch. Zoë had the version with cheese (plastic hamburger cheese, I think) and she absolutely loved it. That might be the Irish in her.

“Can you believe this only costs two pounds?” I said.

“It’s a bit of old veg though, innit?” came the response, between mouthfuls. Did I mention that we were both ravenous?

More successful (and, frankly, slightly insane) was the “aloo bomb”. I’d wanted the paneer bomb – the sandwich, incidentally, lauded by Eater London as one of the capital’s peerless butties – but it was off the menu that night so they subbed it for the aloo bomb. It’s hard to do justice to this but essentially it’s a spiced potato sandwich that has been battered and fried and it’s every bit as nuts as that description makes it sound: Glaswegians, it turns out, aren’t the only people who will batter anything. 

A portion comes in two triangles so you only need one between two but it’s well worth ordering, if only to tick it off. It struck me as a vegetarian cousin of Gurt Wings’ infamous chicken burger in a glazed donut with candied bacon on top: you’d want to try it once to say you’ve had it, but you mightn’t order it again for at least twelve months.  Who am I kidding? When I go back that paneer bomb has my name on it.

Possibly the best dish was that reliable staple, the chilli paneer. Reading has always been spoilt for this by Bhel Puri House, where the tricky decision is whether to have chilli paneer, paneer Manchurian or – as I have on occasion, again, please don’t judge – both of them. SKVP’s version is beautifully pitched between the two – a little hot, sweet and savoury all at once, staying on that highwire without putting a foot wrong. The paneer was just caramelised enough without being crispy or burnt and this was one dish where, even though we were full to bursting, we made it a personal mission to ensure that not a forkful remained.

“You could come here and have a portion of that to yourself and a vada pav and that would be you sorted” said Zoë. “You could come here for lunch when you’re working from home, you lucky bastard.”

I’d be lying if I pretended the idea hadn’t crossed my mind, although they’ve have to take less than half an hour to bring it.

If the other dishes were less successful, it was still just the difference between rather good and very good. I quite liked the onion bhajiya, I really liked the red onion studded throughout them and I adored the little fried green chillies they were festooned with. But although greaseless they were a tad dried out for my liking: what they really needed was a chutney of some kind. And fried momo were more doughy than their Nepalese cousins, and probably didn’t bring enough to the table. But once you’ve had a spiced potato masala in a deep fried sandwich and a samosa, a third carby vehicle for it is probably overkill by anyone’s standards.

The samosas, by the way, were excellent. My benchmark for these is Cake & Cream up on the Wokingham Road (where they’ve recently gone up in price to a still-ludicrous seventy pence). But I reckon SKVP’s match them nicely, with a filling flecked with chilli that starts out gently hot before going on to clear out every tube you have from the neck up. You can have them on your own – you get four for a ridiculous three pounds fifty – but we had them bundled with a really delicious, deeply savoury and soothing chickpea curry which was one of the milder, less aggressively hot dishes of the evening. Five pounds fifty for this lot, if you can believe it.

I don’t know to be impressed or faintly disgusted with myself that we ate so much of what we’d ordered but eventually we admitted defeat, although not before picking away at the last peppers and spring onions from the chilli paneer. We waddled out into the night, and headed to the back room of the Retreat for a bottle of chocolate stout and a post-meal debrief: I wouldn’t say it was the stuff of Shakespeare, as it mostly consisted of us saying “I’m so full” to one another after a suitably pregnant pause, but it was a debrief nonetheless. The pause probably seemed less pregnant than I did.

It probably won’t surprise you, now that we’ve got to the end, to scroll a little bit further down and see the rating. I loved SKVP. I didn’t care that it took half an hour to turn up, I didn’t care that I missed out on that paneer bomb and, perhaps most significantly, I didn’t care in the slightest that I’d had a meat free evening. It gets an unqualified thumbs up from me, and I imagine a lot of you would enjoy it, even if it’s just for a quickish bite to eat at lunchtime, or before the pub (good luck catching it at a quiet time, though). And I suspect that my selections from this menu were probably pretty mainstream and tame: I look forward to trying more of it.

SKVP’s closest equivalent is Bhel Puri House – which I still love, don’t get me wrong – but it strikes me as offering something very different to Reading’s other vegetarian Indian restaurants, Madras Flavours and Crispy Dosa, both of which focus their menus elsewhere. And SKVP also achieves that underrated thing which not enough restaurants succeed in pulling off: it’s fun. Fun from start to finish, fun looking through the menu, fun picking too much stuff, fun eating somewhere unlike the rest of Reading, fun eating a deep fried potato sandwich. One hundred per cent fun. It was even almost fun lying in bed that night, feeling like a python slowly digesting a mongoose it had swallowed whole. Almost.

So maybe Reading’s story isn’t written yet. And that’s an encouraging thing to realise, that with big U.K. chains to the left and bigger U.S. chains to the right we still have the chance to be stuck in the middle with our independent heroes, our restaurants and pubs, breweries and cafés, producers and shops. And in that happy place, I like to think there’s also still room for someone like SKVP – an occasional epic, incongruous, glorious curveball.

Shree Krishna Vada Pav – 8.1
97 Kings Road, Reading, RG1 3DD
07900 345120

https://skvp.co.uk
Delivery via: Deliveroo

Café review: Madoo

It’s a fact of life in hospitality that restaurants open and close all the time. There’s an inexhaustible supply of plucky new businesses ready to sign a lease and try their chances, and you can almost measure how long someone has lived in Reading by how far back they remember the history of certain sites. Do you recall when Thai Corner used to be Bistrot Vino, or when the Nando’s on Broad Street was a place called Bistro Je T’aime? You’ve probably been here since the early days of the Oracle, if not longer.

In some cases a restaurant makes such a go of it that you almost completely forget the establishments that went before. Some people have long memories, and remember Mum Mum or that pretzel joint on Market Place, but for many people I imagine it feels like it’s always been Tasty Greek Souvlaki. And although I know rationally, in the back of my mind, that there used to be a great branch of Ha! Ha! on the Kings Road – and that after that it was a Turkish place, and a tapas restaurant, and a weird kind of pub that closed on Sundays – it’s been House Of Flavours so long that it’s jarring to imagine anybody else there. It’s a bit like how, after you’ve been in a relationship with a person long enough, your previous life feels as if it belonged to somebody else.

But there are some sites where you need not only a long memory but a good one, because so many restaurants try and fail to make a go of it on the same premises. The quintessential example of this is the site of the old Warwick Arms, which has been Bali Lounge, the Biscuit & Barrel, Cardamom and King’s Kitchen and currently goes by the name of the Aila. I only reviewed the first two of those, and most of the others closed before I could get round to them.

Or take Cozze’s site on the Caversham Road, which has been Chi’s Oriental Brasserie, La Fontana, Al Tarboush, Casa Roma and Maracas, all of which eventually went pear-shaped. (Incidentally, I heard a fantastic story once that when Casa Roma decided to change to a Mexican restaurant called Maracas they did it mainly because they realised they could reuse all the letters in their sign except the O: I so hope this is true.) But can there really be a god in heaven when the TGI Friday opposite has outlasted them all?

What’s behind these high-churn sites, I wonder? Is it bad judgment, bad luck or bad juju? Are they run by enthusiastic amateurs who bite off more than they can chew, or are some sites simply cursed – by lack of footfall, of parking or of access, or by the presence of better (or better-known) alternatives nearby? Or is it just that they haven’t found their forever home – or rather, their forever homeowner – yet? All that crossed my mind last weekend as I stepped through the front door of Madoo, ready for lunch.

By the standards of titans like the Aila’s or Cozze’s site, Madoo’s is only slightly hexed. It used to be a sandwich shop called It’s A Wrap which lived up to its name by closing, and then it was the ill-fated Project Pizza (pizza may be many things, but surely it should never be a project). But it’s been Madoo for a couple of years now, and it forms a Little Italy on Duke Street with delicatessen Mama’s Way opened just next door. And it has its fans – I’ve heard lots of good things about its toasted sandwiches and it even came up in conversation with my physio this week. “I love that place, it feels like being in Italy” he said. “I started going there in lockdown because it was one of the only places in the town centre that was open.”

Inside it was a lot more hospitable than you might think from trying to peer through the tinted windows. It probably seats just over a dozen people, some of them up at a bar that runs along one wall, but it had a nice feel to it. The chevrons on the floor, pallets fixed to the ceiling and lights attached to the pallets make it feel somewhat like a zone from the Crystal Maze that didn’t make the cut, but for all that I rather liked it. One other table was occupied when I turned up just after noon, but half an hour later the place was full.

You order up at the counter but along the walls are loads of tempting bits and bobs to take home – dried pasta, a small selection of cheese, sauces, biscuits and all manner of snacks. I know a few eyebrows were raised when Mama’s Way opened next door but they seem to have put some effort into not treading on one another’s toes – Madoo has the space, and sells coffee but no booze, and its neighbour is minuscule and sells booze but no coffee. Between them they make up one of Reading’s most fascinating gastronomic micro-climates.

Madoo’s menu is a symphony of toasted sandwiches. There are a couple of salads, if you want to eschew carbs, but really it’s just about picking your fillings. Some of the sandwiches are made up and behind the counter, ready to eat, or you can pick an option from the menu, or pretty much customise it however you like. But the majority of the sandwiches are variations on a classic theme – pick your meat, pick your cheese, pick your veg or salad and off you go. Everything sounds fantastic on paper and many of the ingredients here – mortadella, speck, scamorza, gorgonzola – are far more exciting than anything you’d get in another dreary soggy sandwich from Pret. It’s affordable, too, with nothing clocking in at more than a fiver.

The other main decision you have is all about the bread. The menu suggests the sandwiches all come in ciabatta (incidentally, did you know that ciabatta is a comparatively recent invention? Created in 1982 to protect Italy from the existential threat posed by the baguette apparently, my other half tells me). And Madoo’s recent social media posts suggest you can have puccia, a flattish Puglian bread, instead. But when I ordered at the counter I was given the choice between puccia and focaccio and, out of curiosity, I picked the latter.

While I waited for it to arrive, I made inroads into my latte. I’ve had coffee from Madoo once before and it was somewhere on the borderline between nothing to write home about and actively bad, so I was hugely relieved to find that either it’s improved or they were having an off day last time. It isn’t top tier, not up there with the likes of Workhouse, C.U.P. or Compound, but it’s probably comfortably in the pack with Shed and Picnic – and tellingly, it was better than the one I had recently at Raayo.

I’d chosen toasted sandwich number one, a classic combo of prosciutto, mozzarella, tapenade and rocket and it came to the table looking the part with a nice golden sheen and telltale lines from the grill. It didn’t look hugely like any focaccia I’ve had before, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t authentic: they vary widely by region and this was a long way from the oily, dimpled foccacia most people are used to. Instead it was flatter, denser and less airy – if anything, better suited to a sandwich. It was still oily, though: enough to soak through both napkins that had been put underneath it. Why do cafés still put napkins under the sandwich or cake? It’s an eternal, nearly-unsolvable mystery that not enough philosophers have tackled over the years.

There’s an art to toasted sandwiches, that fine balance of getting everything inside hot and/or melted, all those mingling flavours cross-pollinating without ending up with a charred exterior. Based on my sandwich Madoo hasn’t quite got the hang of that yet, because although the ingredients were unquestionably good, it hadn’t had long enough under the grill for the magic to happen. The mozzarella had begun to melt but not reached full glorious elasticity, and the prosciutto – again, good quality stuff – was too close to fridge-cold at the core. But the tapenade saved the day, uniting everything with that deep, pungent saltiness. It felt like there were a few intact olives in the mix, too. 

Even with all that nit picking, it was a thoroughly enjoyable sandwich – and it reminded me of many happy lunches in the early Nineties from Parmenters, a sandwich shop in Oxford. This was back when the whole town was ciabatta crazy and you could get big pillowy sandwiches full of mozzarella, sundried tomato and pesto and eat them in quadrangles across the city (I didn’t realise, back then, that even the concept of ciabatta was barely ten years old). When I go back to Madoo, I have designs on something with scamorza, or speck, or pesto – or some arguably ill-advised combination of all three. 

Because I’m greedy, and because I wanted to try out more of Madoo’s food, I’d also ordered two mini cannoli – one with chocolate, another with pistachio. Again, they were served on their own personal napkins but that aside they were a beautiful indulgence – both with nicely brittle shells and the kind of smooth, rich filling that lingers on the tastebuds for almost long enough. I ordered the chocolate one – because I’m basic like that, and that’s just what I do – but the pistachio was equally lovely if not more so. I don’t know whether Madoo makes them or buys them in, but given that they sell them for one pound twenty each I’m not going to complain if it’s the latter.

My whole lunch came to less than a tenner – and again, it’s instructive to think how little that would buy you eating in at Pret these days. And service was excellent – kind and friendly, even to a total newcomer. I felt very much the exception in that respect: I was struck by how nearly everybody else who came into Madoo that lunchtime had clearly been there before, probably had a regular order or a favourite sandwich. Two chaps came in, talking Italian, went up to the counter, got their espressos, downed them and left. A family came in towards the end of my lunch and their son was wearing a Bari shirt. 

Every table was bright with chatter, and I possibly liked it even more because with some tables I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. It’s things like that which made me fall ever so slightly in love with Madoo and this tiny corner of Italia overseas. Because restaurants and cafés are about more than just the food, or the coffee. They’re also about the atmosphere, the little bubble they create and whether they make you want to be inside it. Madoo’s toasted sandwiches are definitely better than many of their competitors – not perfect, but not too far off it, and the ingredients they use are a cut above. But also I just loved sitting in a different part of Reading to my usual, to having a different type of coffee and sampling an entirely different flavour of people watching. 

I can absolutely see why it’s always so full. And although I may not ever become a regular there – I have too many lunch places still on my list to review, it’s rather an occupational hazard – I’m certain they will see me again. It’s great to have another option, too, because some days Reading still seems a tad thin on good candidates for a quick, light lunch. And besides, I’m reliably informed that they do arancini every Friday – so if nothing else, I’ll have to drag myself away from my regular appointment with Blue Collar one week to try them out. Maybe this spot on Duke Street has found its forever homeowner, after all.

Madoo – 7.4
10-14 Duke Street, Reading, RG1 4RU
0118 9502249

https://www.facebook.com/madooitaliandelicafe

Takeaway review: Biryani Boyzz

A couple of things happened last weekend that got me thinking about the cost of food, and the concept of value for money. 

The first was a visit to Nirvana Spa, where the menu had been ravaged by Storm Shrinkflation. “I’m sure last time I had the halloumi salad there was more halloumi on it” said Zoe, shortly before looking up her picture of the dish from a previous visit and finding that yes, you used to get three bits of chargrilled halloumi whereas now it’s just two. For nine pounds. I would have sympathised more, but I was too busy looking at a single, tiny tranche of pork and chicken terrine, also nine pounds, and thinking “where’s the rest?” My dish, which wasn’t billed as a salad, had more salad on it than Zoë’s, which was.

It’s one matter to reduce portion size and another to increase prices but it takes a rare kind of chutzpah to, as Nirvana has, do both at once. I’d ordered a pizza as a main course, which was nine inches at most and cost all of sixteen pounds: I couldn’t help but compare it to a lunch at Buon Appetito a couple of weeks before. Food is becoming more expensive, and it’s going to become more expensive still. That’s not necessarily a problem, but you at least want to feel that it’s great quality, even if it’s not good value. At Nirvana, it just felt like they were milking a captive audience.

The second experience, at the other end of the spectrum, was this week’s takeaway, from Biryani Boyzz (yes, not one but two Zs). It’s where Punjab Grill used to be, at the top of the Oxford Road before you reach Harput Kebab, and I think it was owned by the same people as Kobeda Palace, Palmyra and Da Village, although I’m not sure if it still is. Biryani seems to be one of Reading’s new trends, with Biryani Boyzz out west and Biryani Mama (which is owned by the same people as Crispy Dosa) just opened last week in the old Ask site on St Mary’s Butts.

Incidentally, because I’m going to be typing the word “Boyzz” numerous times during this review – with gritted teeth I might add – I want to say that I truly hope abusing the letter Z in this manner is a trend that doesn’t catch on. I know Biryani Boyzz is a stone’s throw from the equally woefully named Ladz Barbers, but I think they ought to learn lessons from history: restaurants with gimmicky Zs in their name rarely do well in Reading. When Chennai Dosa changed its name to Chennai Dosa Artisanz, it was the beginning of the end for them, and the coffee shop Artizan on St Mary’s Butts doesn’t seem to have ever opened. In my taxi back from Nirvana I spotted a place on the Wokingham Road called “Milano’z Pizza”: doesn’t the word pizza provide enough Zs already?

Rant over. I’d been tipped off to Biryani Boyzz by one of my readers, who said that it had excellent reviews on Google. So I went had a look, and although the reviews on Deliveroo were less glowing it piqued my interest enough to give it a try. Besides, their eponymous dish, the chicken biryani, was a startling four pounds ninety-nine. Could it really be any cop at that price?

Biryani Boyzz’s – I hated typing that combination of letters, just so you know – menu is a mixture of Indian, Pakistani and Afghan dishes. Chapli kebab is on there, as it would be at Kobeda Palace or Da Village, but you can also order Lahori chane, butter chicken if you want something more mainstream, or paya, a stew made with lamb trotters, if you’re the adventurous kind. 

The main thing that brings the menu together is its affordability. Nothing costs more than a tenner, most of it is far less than that and, of course, that biryani stands out at just under a fiver. I had to try that, so we ordered it along with a selection of starters, a couple of curries and some rice. The whole lot came to forty-five pounds, not including rider tip: not much money for quite a lot of food. 

Fancy a drama-free delivery paragraph? Of course you do. So here it is: I placed my order around twenty-five past seven, I was told it would be about an hour and in reality it was with me in forty-five minutes or so. And the driver took just over five minutes to reach me from the restaurant. There you go: drama-free delivery paragraph ends. It was all perfectly packed and piping hot, just to further reduce the element of drama: if only the situation in Ukraine could de-escalate as rapidly.

We’d chosen three things which broadly classed as starters, and they turned out to be a bit of a motley crew. Chapli kebab, which came in a brown paper bag shiny with grease, was a far cry from the very good ones I’ve had at Da Village or, back in the day, Afghan. It didn’t have that lean, meaty muscularity I’ve always enjoyed, and the texture was a little sodden and pappy, as if it had been padded out with something. There were bits of tomato speckled in it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more. It cost three pounds: after placing the order I wish we’d added a second, but after finishing it I was glad we didn’t.

Chicken 65 was more like it, but I still came away from it liking but not loving the dish. My previous experience of the dish comes from its time on the menu at Clay’s, and I tried to put that rarefied version to the back of my mind while eating this. The flavour of it wasn’t bad, with a good whack of acrid heat but the chicken was in little pellets rather than bigger, more tender pieces and there was something slightly off-putting about that. 

I’d have liked it to feel drier and less glossy – and I know this dish isn’t big on vegetation but I couldn’t help thinking that if, say, Momo 2 Go did a version of this it would have had a flash of green from some curry leaves or some coriander, whereas this was a relentless tidal wave of day-glo terra cotta. We left some of it. “I’m not even sure it was chicken” was Zoë’s verdict: feel the burn.

The last of our starters was Afghan lamb chops, which weren’t bad but weren’t exciting either. Cooked through with no blush, these were old-school chops where you got a postage-stamp sized piece of meat that was largely redeemed by bathing it in raita. To put this in perspective, you got four small chops for seven pounds, so if it wasn’t great it at least wasn’t expensive: presumably at Nirvana Spa they’d have charged you fifteen pounds for that lot. Deliveroo claims this dish is “Popular”. But then so is the Caversham branch of Costa Coffee.

Did things improve with the main courses? Well, yes and no. The yes came in the unlikely form of the butter chicken: it’s not a dish I ever really order but Zoë requested it and it was better than I was expecting. The sauce had a good, smooth sweetness which made the rice more interesting even if, again, there was only limited evidence it had ever seen any vegetables, or even just some herbs. And again, the chicken was in small, homogeneous pieces and lacked the generosity I would associate with the likes of Royal Tandoori or House Of Flavours.

But every rose has its thorn, and the thorn in this case was the chilli paneer. I think maybe I was expecting a dry chilli paneer, like the one you’d get at Bhel Puri House, whereas this was very much soft unfried cubes of paneer in a chilli sauce which took no prisoners and didn’t fuck around. My friend James has an expression for things that people like me think are hot but which wouldn’t make him bat an eyelid: he calls them “white people hot”. There’s no disgrace in that, per se: James classes Gurt Wings’ buffalo sauce as white people hot, although he’s never passed judgment on “The Gurt Locker”, their hottest sauce. I must take him to Kungfu Kitchen some time.

But it’s safe to say that Biryani Boyzz’s chilli paneer isn’t white people hot. It’s just hot. And not one of those clever, layered heats that builds momentum and pace as you work your way through a meal. No, it’s just really hot. Hot as in it makes your eyeballs leak with what might be tears, could be sweat or might just be a disgusting cocktail of both. Hot as in it clears out every sinus in your face while reaming your Eustachian tubes for good measure. 

Zoë said she thought there must be something like lime pickle in it and initially I disagreed, because I rather like lime pickle, but on reflection I thought she might be on to something because lurking under the brooding heat was something that could have been sour citrus. What do I know? If I’d had another couple of forkfuls I might not have been able to taste anything until the following Tuesday. The odd thing is that, in a treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen sort of way I admired Biryani Boyzz for doing something so uncompromising. It wasn’t for me, but there might well be customers out there who would love it. Reading the last few paragraphs, you probably know whether or not you’re one of them.

I’ve saved that five pound biryani til last, just so that this review has a little twist in the tale. You know what? I quite liked it. The chicken was on the bone, which of course it’s meant to be – and although you didn’t get huge amounts of it and it needed a little persuasion to get off the bone it was perfectly nice and the rice had some flavour – more, and better balanced, than the other dishes I’d tried. Did I mention that it was five pounds? And here we return to what I was saying at the start: something either has to be good value or good quality. Nirvana was neither, and Biryani Boyzz was one of them, in places. If Nirvana’s pizza had been something like a tenner, I’d have been quietly pleased, but if Biryani Boyzz’s biryani had been a tenner I’d have been nonplussed.

But cheap food for cheap food’s sake isn’t the holy grail some people like to think it is. Even ignoring that witless Berkshire Live article about how you can’t buy lunch in town for a quid any more (as everybody should), there can be a prevailing view in publications like Vittles that each time you get a dirt cheap meal in a restaurant you’re somehow sticking it to the man and getting one over on capitalism. But food ought to cost money, staff ought to cost money and everything ought to go through the books and be above board. I always worry that when food is cheap what you’re actually doing is just enabling a slightly different, equally unpleasant, flavour of capitalism.

Anyway, rarely have I been gladder that my takeaway reviews don’t come with a rating. Biryani Boyzz’s food is okay, and interesting in places, but I really don’t know where I’d put it if I had to find a place for it on a scale. And I’m not sure I’d order from them again, because I’d either spend more somewhere like Banarasi Kitchen or pay roughly the same amount at Momo 2 Go for very different cuisine. But I may not be Biryani Boyzz’s target market, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They didn’t lose me at that first Z, they didn’t even necessarily lose me at the second, but they probably lost me somewhere after that.

Biryani Boyzz
109 Oxford Road, Reading, RG1 7UD
0118 9573337

Order via: Deliveroo, Uber Eats

Takeaway review: Momo 2 Go

Of all the groups of people who have settled in Reading and made it their home, you could easily make an argument that few have done more to improve Reading’s food culture than our Nepalese community. I’m not talking about Standard Tandoori – I’m sure it had its day, and I know some people (the Dalai Lama included) probably mourn its passing more than I do. But perhaps more significantly, our Nepalese community is very much responsible for Reading’s love affair with the humble momo.

The godfather of the momo scene, of course, is Sapana Home which has been installed on Queen Victoria Street for many, many years. It is a terrific, completely uncompromising place in that it serves what it serves and has no interest at all in adapting its menu to more Western tastes, but it’s always warm and welcoming to people outside the Nepalese community who want to eat there. 

And who wouldn’t fall in love with momo? They’re tiny pockets of joy, you get ten of them for not very much and they’re hugely versatile, whether you want to be virtuous and have them steamed, indulgent and have them seared and caramelised in a pan or Glaswegian and eat the bastards deep fried. You can have momo in sticky chilli sauce, momo bathing in tomato gravy or momo bobbing in soup. National cuisines have been built on less, and although I know that pierogi, ravioli and gyoza have their ardent fans, momo have my heart.

For a while Sapana Home largely had the market sewn up. Sure, there was a pretender all the way out in Caversham Park Village and another at the top of the Basingstoke Road, but for most people momo meant Sapana Home. And then along came Namaste Kitchen, a game-changing restaurant in Katesgrove operating out of the Hook And Tackle pub. Its momo were fantastic, but it also showed that there was so much more to Nepalese food, whether it was exemplary chow mein, chewy, savoury dried mutton, beautiful gizzards or bara, thick lentil pancakes studded with spicy chicken. I went once and fell in love: Reading had never had it so good.

As it turned out it was too good to last, and within a year Namaste Kitchen’s dream team had split up. One of the owners, the legendary Kamal, left the business and the chef went back to Nepal. Namaste Kitchen kept trading, but it bought a tandoor and shifted its menu towards more traditional fare, slightly away from the dishes that made it famous. Kamal set up a new place, Namaste Momo, on the outskirts of Woodley in partnership with a chef from the Royal Tandoori. And the momo there were great, but there was still a friction between the Nepalese and more traditional sections of the menu. Namaste Kitchen was the Beatles of the Reading restaurant scene, and after it split up none of the solo projects quite recaptured their genius.

Fast forward to 2022 and Kamal has now left Namaste Momo as well. He’s in the middle of fitting out his new restaurant, Kamal’s Kitchen, on the Caversham Road: appropriately enough it occupies half of the space that used to be Standard Tandoori, a nice way of passing on the torch. If Kamal’s Kitchen turns out to even half as good as Namaste Kitchen was in its heyday it will be a fabulous place to have dinner. But today’s review is about a total curveball, a new pretender to the momo throne that has come out of nowhere: Momo 2 Go, a little joint down on the Oxford Road.

Momo 2 Go first came to my attention late last year, but by the looks of it it actually started trading, on the down low, last spring. It’s in a small site just before Reading West Station, with pictures of the dishes Blu-Tacked to the window, and despite the name it does have a handful of tables for dining in. But I fired up its website (they handle deliveries themselves and don’t currently use Deliveroo or JustEat: good for them) on Saturday night and decided to order a takeaway for two to stave off the winter blues.

Here’s something I really liked about Momo 2 Go’s menu – it was compact. Many of Reading’s Nepalese restaurants give you a plethora of choices, not including the huge number of ways you can customise your momo experience, and the stripped down simplicity of Momo 2 Go’s offer was a real breath of fresh air. You can have your momo steamed, in chilli sauce, in a tomato gravy or “fired” (which I assume is a typo), but that’s it. You can order chow mein or fried rice, and there’s a smallish section of sides, but that’s your lot. The water is not muddied with a crossover into more conventional Indian food or street food, there are no samosas, or chaat, or dosa. You go elsewhere for that, the menu says, and you come here for your momo. I wish more restaurants appreciated the feeling of confidence this approach instills, but I’ve been saying that for years and I’m probably not done saying it yet.

This also meant that between us Zoë and I could order a hefty cross-section of the menu – five dishes in total which came to just shy of forty pounds. That included two pounds fifty in service and delivery charges, which gives you an idea of pricing. None of the dishes costs more than a tenner and the majority are around seven pounds. We ordered at twenty to seven and the website said we’d be waiting around forty-five minutes. And pretty much bang on the dot our delivery arrived, brought to our door in a Mini which I suspect might have been driven by one of the owners. The greeting was smiley and friendly, the delivery prompt and piping hot: it’s easy to forget that most of the time, all the middle men like Just Eat and Uber Eats do is cock things up, and allow you to track how badly they’re cocking things up in something tangentially related to real time.

Our first two dishes were variations on a theme: Momo 2 Go’s chow mein, one portion with pork and the other with sukuti, dried meat usually made from buffalo or lamb. The first thing to say about this is that I’ve had chow mein from a fair few Nepalese restaurants and it’s often as beige as beige can be. But Momo 2 Go’s was pleasingly speckled with colour and life – a flash of red chilli here, a verdant glimpse of shredded cabbage or spring onion there. 

It felt fresh and vibrant, and teamed up with their impressively decongestant chutney (again, a step up from the one you get at Sapana Home) it reminded me that I think I prefer Nepalese chow mein to its Chinese cousin. But the real MVP was the sukuti – dense, chewy nuggets of savoury joy that transformed every forkful they stowed away on. I just wish there had been a few more of them – which might say that the dish was slightly out of balance, or might just say that I was greedy. The true answer’s probably at the midpoint, and besides, the dish was only eight pounds.

“You always complain that I order better than you, but I think you win this time” said Zoë. Her chow mein had pork in it (because asking Zoë to order something other than pork is to engage in a futile battle against centuries of Irish forebears) and for what it’s worth I thought it was quite nice. But it wasn’t the sukuti: Momo 2 Go sells sukuti on its own, for nine pounds (ten if you want it with beaten rice and pickles) and next time I’ll have to order a separate portion of the stuff to relive that wonderful moment when I took my first bite and knew that I’d picked a winner.

Speaking of winners, we’d chosen chicken choila as a side and again, I’m not sure I had especially high hopes. I thought it would be nice enough – it’s spiced, grilled chicken after all – but I’ve never had a choila in a Nepalese restaurant that was a feature attraction in its own right. But this was. A tub full of beautiful pieces of chicken thigh, cooked just right, not bouncy but with enough firmness left, blackened and coated with a sticky fieriness that started to make your eyes water by the end. 

I really loved this dish, so much that I don’t know how I could avoid ordering it again, except maybe to try the pork next time. We raced through, almost wordless with delight, and both offered the other the final huge, succulent piece of chicken. “No, you have it” said Zoë and, realising that if I refused one more time she would totally eat it I gratefully accepted her offer. I don’t remember whether she said at the time that it was fucking good – I know it’s the kind of thing she would say, but I don’t want to invent a memory. But either way I’m saying it myself, right now.

I’ve saved the momo til last, and ironically they were the dishes with the most room for improvement. But even then, they were still really very good indeed. Let’s start with the lamb chilli momo, which were the most problematic. Which is a pity, because all the elements were present and correct, almost. The chilli sauce was an absolute beauty – a glossy, hot, sour and sweet doozy that clung to every single momo. Kamal once told me that the secret ingredient in the chilli sauce at Namaste Kitchen was Heinz tomato ketchup, and this reminded me of that but with more of a barbecue sauce note. And the filling, coarse minced lamb, was extremely good. 

But the problem was that because of the way the momo had been assembled, there just wasn’t enough of the filling. Most of the momo I’ve eaten tend to be crimped along one side into a half-moon, like a gyoza, which means that the filling gets to take up plenty of space in the middle. But these momo had the dough gathered at the top, like a little pouch. Nothing wrong with that, of itself, but it meant that the filling was largely taken up with a heavy, stodgy knot of dough that didn’t leave enough room for the lamb (it’s also the reason I’ve never quite taken to khinkali, the momo’s Georgian cousin). Even so, what lamb there was and what dough there was, speared onto a crunchy piece of onion and taken for a swim in that sauce made for a very agreeable mouthful. 

The chicken fried (or fired, according to the menu) momo were also very good but not quite on the money. These were crimped the same way but the act of frying had formed little chimneys. I suspect they were deep fried rather than pan-seared, because Momo 2 Go doesn’t offer kothey momo, and the overall effect was ever so slightly tough. And again, if I wanted a little more filling it’s partly down to gluttony but also recognition that it was so good, singing as it did with fragrance and what felt like a hint of lemon grass. And again, even if they were a little knife-resistant and a little light on the chicken, they were still fairly stellar when dipped in the chutney.

Around this time last year I reviewed Banarasi Kitchen, in one of my first ever takeaway reviews. It really helped to discover somewhere brilliant, unassuming and under the radar early in the year, to remind me why I do this and reiterate that for every bland, disappointing meal and bandwagon-jumper there’s still the potential for somewhere to come out of nowhere and pleasantly surprise you. 

I don’t know if the glass is half full or half empty, and I do know – in the immortal words of Dolly Parton – that if you want the rainbow you’ve got to put up with the rain. But to fend off the occasional disillusionment I do need to feel, especially after a run including Zero Degrees, Zyka and 7Bone, that the next ThaiGrr! might be just round the corner. And that’s why I’m so delighted to have discovered Momo 2 Go this week – another modest but quietly accomplished place that gets so much right. I admire them for the concision of their menu and for sticking to their guns, and I could see plenty of little touches in what I ordered that tell me they care about their food. 

It’s ironic that the momo were possibly the weakest thing I had, but they were still pretty good and within touching distance of greatness. I can’t imagine it will be long before I order from them again, and I know I’ll face that agonising dilemma of choosing between the things I know I loved, and the unknowns I might like even better. There are far worse decisions to have on a night when you’re giving yourself a night off from doing the cooking. Try it, you’ll see.

Momo 2 Go
172 Oxford Road, Reading, RG1 7PL
0118 9586666

https://momo2go.co.uk
Order via: Restaurant website only

Café review: The Collective

Some of the most prevalent of Reading’s many cynics are people I like to call the Not Another Brigade. They crop up all the time: Not another burger place, they say. Not another coffee shop. If I had a fiver for every time I’ve heard someone say that, I could open a coffee shop of my own. Shortly after doing so, I’d hear enough not anothers to be able to open another, and another, and another.

Although when it comes to burgers, they might have a point. Aside from Gordon Ramsay’s new outpost where Giraffe used to be, there’s one opening on St Mary’s Butts in the old Pizza Express site, one on the Oxford Road opposite the Broad Street Mall, one more taking up the Sprinkles Gelato building next to Smash N’ Grab, itself another – that word again – burger restaurant. Oh, and Slam Burger on Christchurch Green, which will offer burgers called the Big Slam and – ridiculous name alert – the “Beef Wooper”. There was once a Black Country establishment called Kent’s Tuck Inn Fried Chicken. Slam Burger could learn a lot from them: if you’re going to be shameless, at least be funny with it. 

Coffee shops are a different matter. People have been saying not another coffee shop ever since C.U.P. opened next to Reading Minster, but now C.U.P. has another branch on Blagrave Street and a third, a recent addition, in the Broad Street Mall. We get new coffee places all the time. Compound Coffee is now operating out of the ground floor of the Biscuit Factory, and something called “Artizan” (showing that swapping an S for a Z always makes a brand look classier) has opened in the building once occupied by Nineties throwback Smokin’ Billy’s.

It’s not a story of unchecked growth, though: the year hasn’t been without its closures in caféland. Earlier this year Anonymous Coffee pulled out of the Tasting House, shortly before the Tasting House pulled out of Chain Street. And only a few weeks ago punters heading for Tamp Culture outside the Oracle were surprised to find an empty space where the kiosk used to be. Tamp had upped sticks and left after over seven years trading at that pitch with no farewell: they’ve since put something on their website. Do these closures prove that Reading can’t sustain (not) another café, or is it just the circle of life?

One part of Reading that has traditionally felt poorly served for cafés is Caversham. There was a time when you had Costa and Alto Lounge, and that was pretty much it. Then in 2016 Tipsy Bean opened, serving something you could loosely describe as coffee, and so did Nomad Bakery. And for a while we also had Siblings Home, a little place on the Hemdean Road: I liked it a great deal, but its owners had a haphazard approach to some of the basics, such as being open when you’d expect them to be. Anyway, that flurry of activity didn’t last long – Nomad, Tipsy Bean and Siblings Home have all ceased trading.

But in more recent times, there’s been a new wave of cafés in Caversham trying to challenge the dominance of Costa. So now Geo Café, which is part cafe, part delicatessen slash general store, is where Nomad used to be, but you also have Gardens Of Caversham, a third branch of the Workhouse empire, in the old Lloyds Bank building. At the more traditional end of the spectrum, there’s the superbly named Nathan’s Nibbles. And up past the Griffin you’ll find The Collective, the subject of this week’s review.

It’s a combination of café and “lifestyle store” and it opened last summer, the brainchild of locals Sam Smith and Susie Jackson (although I gather the latter has now left the business). It’s built up a good reputation over the last year, even scoring a mention in cult coffee blog Brian’s Coffee Spot, and yet shamefully I hadn’t visited until recently, when I sat in their courtyard on a warm afternoon and had a coffee. I made a mental note that I should check out the menu, so I returned on a Monday lunchtime to see what the food was like.

The Collective has obvious kerb appeal. It used to be a newsagent, but they’ve done a fantastic job converting it to a double-aspect café and shop with big windows, and the overall effect is far more like something Scandi, or at least European, than any other café in town. There are a couple of tables outside on Church Road, a handful inside, and a courtyard out back which has the majority of the seating. Inside there are a fair few homewares on display, and a counter displays plenty of appetising-looking baked goods. You order at the counter, then take a number to your table.

My table was out in the courtyard, which is truly a gorgeous space. They’ve clearly put a lot of work and thought into it, with a lovely panelled roof letting in plenty of sunlight and keeping out any rain. I can imagine it being an attractive spot when the weather takes a turn for the worse, with plenty of tasteful overhead lighting which will help as the afternoons become gloomy. It felt very polished – I’m so used to cafés that open before they’re quite ready and always look somewhat unfinished, so it made a welcome change to go somewhere so fully realised.

And it was packed – I arrived just before one o’clock and got one of the last free tables. When I did, every table indoors was already taken and there was a decent queue building for the counter. It gave the whole place a companionable bustle, and I enjoyed sitting among the great and the good north of the river, although it did make me feel increasingly guilty about taking up a table all to myself.

The menu sensibly doesn’t try to do too much, with sections for brunch, sandwiches and salads. There’s nothing as pedestrian as a full English, and the brunches are more Granger & Co than Gregg’s. Prices range from six pounds fifty to nine fifty, and there’s a selection of sourdough toasties including a regularly-changing special. Suppliers are name-checked – not enough places do this – so you know that the bread comes from Rise, the bacon from The Caversham Butcher and the eggs from Stokes Farm. I didn’t clock who makes the cakes, so it’s possible that they use a selection of suppliers for those.

I was sorely tempted by the mushrooms, glossy with tamari and tumbled onto toasted sourdough, after seeing them arrive at a neighbouring table, but after mulling it over I opted for the bacon and maple syrup brioche French toast. And a good decision it was too: just look at it. 

Not bad, eh? But it didn’t just look the part – which is crucial, because this is a dish that’s easy to get wrong in many ways. You can over-soak the bread with egg, so that eating it becomes a stodgy chore. Not so here: The Collective wisely used brioche which made it airy, beautifully light. You can use back bacon – the enemy of brunches everywhere – but The Collective has gone for thick, crispy streaky bacon which was cooked bang on. Or you can be stingy with the maple syrup. So many places are, giving you one of those depressing minuscule cardboard cups, barely half-full, to trickle over. Here, the whole thing swum stickily in the stuff, exactly as it should.

This dish costs nine pounds fifty, the most expensive thing on the menu. That pricing could be seen as on the sharp side, and if you charge that much you have to get everything right, but The Collective did. I wouldn’t be doing my job as Reading’s answer to Craig Revel Horwood if I didn’t say that the icing sugar dusted on top was probably unnecessary, or that in an ideal world there would have been at least a third rasher of bacon, but those are minor details. It was a cracking brunch dish all the same, and one I’d order again without hesitation.

Coffee is by Extract, a Bristol roastery, and I liked it: definitely at or around the standard of The Collective’s neighbours. And, partly to test more of the menu but mostly out of greed, I’d also ordered a double chocolate brownie. I do wish people wouldn’t put the napkin under the cake – a hill I’ll probably die on, some day – but the brownie was impressive work, a brittle exterior giving way to a fudgy core, with tectonic plates of chocolate studded throughout. Only a slightly aggressive sweetness marred it a tiny bit: it either needed less sugar, or darker chocolate. But again, there’s a note of Revel Horwood to that observation, because I had to look hard to find any fault.

Service was a tad brusque when I first got there, for one obvious reason – they were rammed. But things got warmer and smilier as the café calmed down slightly, and the lady who took my plates away told me they weren’t usually anywhere near this busy on a Monday lunchtime. “Shouldn’t they all be at work?” I asked, fully aware of the irony in that. My meal – brunch, a latte and a brownie – came to just shy of sixteen pounds, not including tip. I walked home, propelled by a slight sugar rush, keen to get back and write this.

I was delighted to like The Collective as much as I did. It strikes me that all of Caversham’s cafés (well, ones that aren’t Costa, anyway) bring something different to the proverbial table. Gardens Of Caversham is for coffee purists, Geo Café has a particular and distinctive charm. Nathan’s Nibbles has an almost unimprovable name. But The Collective, it seems to me, is the natural successor to the much-missed (by me, anyway) Siblings Home – stylish and poised, with that interesting blend of hospitality and retail.

It also happens to cook one of the best brunches I’ve had in Reading – easily better, for instance, than Café Yolk’s. The contrast with Café Yolk is an apt one: The Collective is sleek and grown up, it buys good produce and it makes the best use of it. It feels very ‘Caversham’ – but, more than that, it reflects how Caversham would like to see itself rather than how it sometimes is (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I mean that as a compliment). So yes, another café. But more importantly, an extremely good one. Reading can always do with more of those.

The Collective – 7.9
25 Church Road, Reading, RG4 7AA
0118 3272728

https://www.thecollectivecaversham.co.uk