Cosmo

How do I sum up the experience of eating in Cosmo? How can I possibly distil such a complex experience, so many different types of food, into a single review? Well, maybe I should start at the end of the meal. There were four of us round the table (I know: people actually wanted to come with me!), looking at our largely empty plates, feeling a mixture of remorse and queasy fear about how our bodies would cope with what came next. Tim, chosen for this mission because he is one of the biggest gluttons I know, paused for a second and said “I don’t think this place is going to help anybody have a healthy relationship with food.”

There was further silence and the rest of us tried to digest what he had said (trying to digest, it turned out, would be a theme over the next forty-eight hours).

“I don’t really feel like I’ve eaten in a restaurant this evening.” Tim went on. “I just feel like I’ve spent time smashing food into my mouth.”

I looked down at the leftovers on my plate – a solitary Yorkshire pudding stuffed with crispy duck and topped with hoi sin (it was my friend Ben’s idea and it sounded like a brilliant plan at the time) and started to laugh hysterically. It might have been all the sugar in the Chinese food, the sweet white crystals on top of the crispy seaweed, but I felt, in truth, a little delirious.

“Nobody should leave a restaurant feeling this way.” said Ben, possibly the other biggest glutton I’ve ever met and a man who has never, to the best of my knowledge, left a restaurant entirely replete. We all nodded, too full to speak. I can’t remember who got onto this topic, but there was a general consensus that we were all dreading our next visit to the bathroom and then, having said all that and paid up, we waddled out onto Friar Street and into the night.

Alternatively, maybe I should sum up the experience of eating at Cosmo by recounting the conversations on Facebook the next day. I won’t name names, but we had I had to sleep with a hot water bottle on my belly to aid with digestion, along with I still feel ill, not to forget the more evocative my burps taste of MSG and – look away now if you’re easily shocked – I just did something approximating to a poo and it wasn’t pretty. Tim was feeling so grotty that he worked from home, all of us felt icky and found ourselves daydreaming about salad or vegetables – you don’t see many vegetables at Cosmo, you know – and hoping for some time in the future when the meal was a distant memory.

The thing is that if I started to sum up Cosmo that way you might just assume that I went with some greedy pigs, we all ate too much, made ourselves poorly and have nobody but ourselves to blame. So maybe I should start more conventionally at the point where we walked in and were escorted to a Siberian table for four right at the back, close to the emergency exit, far from daylight. You go in past a display of bread and vegetables in little baskets (I can only assume this is a heroic piece of misdirection, or some kind of in-joke) and then you wind up in some kind of windowless all-you-can-eat dungeon.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of Cosmo, may I first express my undying envy before going on to explain: it is indeed a gigantic buffet where you can consume as much food as you like for two hours before your time is up and you are asked to leave. Serving staff constantly circle the room while you are up at the cooking stations, whisking away your old plate so that when you sit down you can almost forget just how much food you have consumed. I bet you’re getting peckish just reading this, right?

All major cuisines are represented, provided your idea of major cuisines is largely Chinese and Indian. There are other things on offer – sushi, pizza (or, as Tim referred to it, “random pizza”, when he stuck a slice of one right next to his crispy duck pancake), a big wodge of unappetising pink gammon you were invited to carve yourself, something described as “beef stew”, I could go on – but the general theme is pan-Asian. The “pan” might be short for “pandemic”.

The experience of eating at Cosmo is very different from a traditional meal where you all sit down at a table, decide what you want and then chat away while someone cooks and brings it to you (it’s very different in the sense that Ryanair, for instance, is very different from British Airways). I would say there were very few moments where all four of us were sitting down at once: instead we were frequently prowling from one cooking station to the other, finding things to stick on our fresh plates, wondering if our choices went with one another, wondering whether it mattered, wondering where Ben got the idea of sticking crispy duck in a Yorkshire pudding like a massive demented vol-au-vent (You haven’t lived until you’ve put sushi, Yorkshire pudding and rogan josh together on the same plate said someone on Twitter – hi Pete! – in the run-up to my visit: all I can say is I still haven’t lived, and I’m fine with that).

When we were talking, most of the conversation revolved around one of three topics, namely “this dish isn’t half as bad as I thought it would be”, “try this, it’s truly atrocious” or, and this one was mainly led by me, “what possessed you to put crispy duck in a Yorkshire pudding?”

When you get to Cosmo you’re a bit like a kid in a sweet shop at first (although who over the age of six wants to have dinner in a sweetshop?). The other way that the experience is different to a normal meal out is that as the evening wears on, the mood gets slightly more deranged. Maybe it’s the cumulative effect of all that sugar, maybe it’s the body’s way of expressing Vitamin C withdrawal symptoms, or maybe it’s my fault because I collated a list of all the things people had recommended and I was insistent that we try them all. It was like an I-Spy book or something, and I directed people with military precision: You, go get some sushi. Tim, check out the prawns with ginger and spring onion. I’ll hit the teppanyaki station. Meet you back here in a couple of minutes. All right, let’s move out! If that doesn’t sound like fun then take it from me, the element of co-ordinated planning and being in it together was probably the most fun thing about the evening (well, that and bonding over our bowel movements the next day).

Finally, let’s talk about the food. Between us we ate so many dishes that it’s difficult to go into forensic detail about everything, but as a general rule I’d say the things I expected to be good were poor and the things I expected to be dreadful weren’t quite as bad as I feared. For instance I had the teppanyaki station recommended to me, so I made sure I had some seared scallops (or, more literally, a scallop cut into thin slices and griddled) and some very thin steak wrapped around enoki mushrooms, also griddled. The scallops were pleasant if basic, the enoki tasted of nothing but oil and the steak, if it tasted of anything, tasted of oily mushrooms. Similarly, I went to the grill station and asked for something off the bone and they recommended the pork. It still had a bone in it and I watched the chef slice it on a board before handing it to me. It was some miraculous cut of pork that was made only of bone, fat and crackling, presumably from a pig which had spent its entire life lying down.

CosmoTeppan

What else? Well, Tim pronounced the samosas and spring rolls as “rubbish” (nothing in them, he said), an adjective he also applied to his lamb rogan josh. I tried a bit of the latter and I tended to agree, the lamb and the sauce felt like they had spent their whole lives apart before being stirred together at the last minute, no depth of flavour in the meat, nothing you couldn’t do yourself with a jar of sauce from Loyd Grossman. The tandoori chicken was apparently dry. The most derision was reserved for the “crab claw”, something made of goodness knows what, a wodge of awful, indeterminate homogenous beige material not dissimilar to a washing up sponge. Tim disliked his so much he insisted that Ben try one and Ben, a man I have never known to turn down food, had a mouthful and abandoned the rest. The sushi was also judged to be pretty grim, claggy and flavourless, soggy seaweed and all.

CosmoBuns

There were some slightly better dishes. The chicken satay was nice enough, although certainly no better than chicken satay I’ve had at dozens of other places in Reading and beyond. The stir fried green beans were thoroughly enjoyable, although that might just have been the novelty value of eating something that was actually green. We all quite liked the char siu and the black pepper chicken, although again not enough to tell people to make a beeline for Cosmo just to eat them. The steamed pork buns divided opinion – some of us liked them, some found them just too sweet. Again, China Palace undoubtedly does them better, and China Palace is itself arguably nothing special. Tim liked the pad Thai, and Ben seemed not to mind the southern fried chicken. The crispy seaweed was lovely, but then I could eat crispy seaweed all day. Also in the Chinese section were some miniature hash browns with spring onion: they were about as out of place as I was.

CosmoPork

Before I went to Cosmo someone very wise on Twitter – hello Dan! – said that he treated the place as an all you can eat duck pancake meal. I think this might be the best way to approach Cosmo: again, it was okay rather than amazing but perhaps the trick is to find a dish that never lets you down and stock up on that. We all started on this dish and a couple of us went back to it later on when the other options ran out of appeal. There was also crispy pork, also for pancakes, and I was a little concerned that the pork and the duck didn’t taste quite as different as they could have done. Still, even if it was a bunch of faintly meaty fluffy strands it hit the spot in a way that most of the other dishes couldn’t.

CosmoDuck

“It’s important not to be snobby about Cosmo.” said Ben towards the end of the meal as he ate his trio of miniature desserts, three little sponge cakes (he was the only person to have any dessert – he wasn’t a big fan of them, though). Maybe he’s right: there’s undoubtedly a place for this kind of restaurant and a market for it, which is why there are queues outside it at the weekend. It’s cheap – all you can eat (which, by the end of my evening, had mutated into “all you can bear”) for fourteen pounds on a week night. I can also see it would be perfect for parents, for big groups, for indecisive people or, and I sometimes forget how many of these there are in every town, not just Reading, people who Just Don’t Like Food That Much.

In my ivory tower, enthusing about the likes of Papa Gee, Perry’s or Pepe Sale it’s easy for me to forget that some people just want to get fuelled up somewhere like Cosmo before going on to one of Reading’s many characterful chain pubs, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. And perhaps that’s the point of Cosmo full stop – it doesn’t serve the best of anything, but if quantity and range are the most important things then Cosmo is the place for you. I’m just glad I don’t ever have to participate again, and if that makes me a snob I suppose I’m just going to have to suck it up. Maybe I should get a t-shirt printed or something.

I didn’t mention the service, because it isn’t really that kind of place, but what there was was pleasant and entirely lacking in the kind of existential despair I would experience if I had to spend more than two hours in Cosmo. I’ve saved the cost of the meal until last, for good reason. Dinner for four, including two glasses of unremarkable wine and a couple of bottomless soft drinks, came to seventy pounds. But more importantly, and this is what makes it the most expensive meal I’ve ever reviewed for the blog, it cost ER readers over a thousand pounds. Yes, people made over a grand’s worth of pledges (not including GiftAid) to Launchpad to enable them to continue doing their incredible work for the homeless and vulnerable in Reading, work which has never been more badly needed than it is today. And if you haven’t donated yet, but you enjoyed reading this review, it’s not too late: just click here.

So, veni, vidi, icky: I went to Cosmo, just like I promised I would, and I had a pretty iffy meal, just like you thought I would. No surprises there, and that might well be why you sponsored me in the first place. But now the after-effects have subsided, when I look at how everybody rallied round and chipped in, and most importantly when I think about what all that money will achieve for our brilliant town, it’s hard to imagine I’ll have a less regrettable meal all year.

Launchpad

Cosmo – 5.0
35-38 Friar Street, RG1 1DX
0118 9595588

http://www.cosmo-restaurants.co.uk/locations/reading/

Royal Tandoori

I sometimes envy other restaurant reviewers. Michelin has its stars, the AA has its rosettes, even the much-maligned TripAdvisor has its Certificates Of Excellence. And what do I have? Just a bunch of ratings nobody really understands which I’ve consistently refused to explain (“What do they mean?” said a friend of mine down the pub recently. “I mean, seven point five, what’s all that about?”). Well let’s not go through all that again but there’s one exception, and that’s what I call the 8+ Club: without giving too many trade secrets away, a rating in that range means a place is really, really good. Go again good, plan your next visit good, evangelise to friends good.

Sometimes, when I eat out on duty I find myself mulling over what elevates a restaurant or a café into that select few, and as you can see if you’ve scrolled down to the bottom already (and own up, lots of you do) that was very much on my mind when I visited Royal Tandoori. Almost, but not quite. Right on the edge. I changed my mind several times during the meal, although that in itself never bodes quite well enough. So what went wrong? Why is Royal Tandoori just very good, rather than great?

For the uninitiated, it sits downstairs in the slightly ironically named “Quality Hotel” (I suppose it doesn’t specify whether it’s good quality or bad quality) and – as proudly proclaimed on the the menu – has done since 2008. It’s in town but not quite in town and yet it always looks full on the occasions when I pass by – in fact I was lucky to get a table, judging by the number of big groups that were in (on a school night, too) and the amount of hushed staff discussion that went on before they decided they could seat me. It’s a large, long room and I think they’ve spruced it up since I was there last: I may be imagining new windows, but I’m pretty sure the large black and white Bollywood stills papered onto the walls – which I rather liked – weren’t there before. The menu, though, was every bit as huge and bewildering as I remembered.

The starters were pretty darned good. Gobi Manchurian, a dish I’ve had elsewhere in Reading, was miles better here, little nuggets of battered cauliflower in something almost like an Indian barbecue sauce – sweet, sticky and spiced. It tasted so terrific that I found myself not caring that the cauliflower was ever so slightly soft and that the batter had no crunch. The best dishes can make you suspend your disbelief like that, and the only real drawback was how much I resented having to share. Jeera chicken was also top notch. It was very tender pieces of chicken breast in a spiced sauce – so far so blah – but covered in cumin seeds, somewhere halfway between a speckle and a crust. How I loved this: I adore cumin, and eating a mouthful with the sauce piled high and the pungent crunch of those seeds made me go quiet and nod an awful lot.

RoyalStarters

I was quite enjoying drifting in a cumin-infused daydream, but sadly my reverie was interrupted far too soon by the arrival of the main courses. I’d had reports of the chicken chettinadu (like nothing else in Reading, according to one reader – hi Chris!), so I felt it would have been remiss not to order it. Well, it goes to show how little help photographs are when you’re reviewing this kind of food. Like one of the other starters and the other main, it was just meat in an orangey-red sauce (and yes, I know I always say this) but the flavour was indeed complex and unusual, all black pepper and curry leaves, nigella seeds and a sharp hint of citrus which came from I know not where. It also had that clever heat which sneaks up on you rather than beating you about the tastebuds – 3 out of 4 on the International Scale Of Chillies (or ISOC for short) used by many Indian and Thai restaurants, although the only thing with an ISOC rating of four was “devil lamb”, which sounds like something you might see on a terrifying cross between Springwatch and Most Haunted.

I do like a dish that’s interesting, and this fitted the bill perfectly. The first mouthful established that it tasted different. The second mouthful established that I wasn’t entirely sure how. For all the other mouthfuls I was fed up of analysing and too busy enjoying. But it wasn’t perfect, for all that – mainly because there wasn’t an awful lot of meat. The big bowl of sauce I was left with was good for dipping and pouring, but it still felt a tad unbalanced.

The other main, lamb Hydrabadi (ISOC2 – handy!) was just as good. Despite looking very similar, it couldn’t have been more different. The lamb – and there was loads of it – was rich, intense and cooked beyond the point of having any give at all: if it had had any less integrity it could have been the subject of an OK! magazine photoshoot. But the sauce was what made this dish – smooth and spicy but shot through with the sharp green surprise of mint leaves. I know lamb and mint is a classic combination, but seeing it in this context was incongruous and comforting at the same time, and I loved that slightly altered perspective. Neither main had much – or, to be more accurate, anything – in the way of vegetables, but it was hard to care (sorry vegetarians, I’ll be back doing meat-free mains again very soon).

RoyalMains

The plain rice on the side was exactly that – although it was a bit clumpy, which made me wonder quite how it had been cooked and when. The butter naan though was interesting in that it wasn’t the big pillowy bicycle saddle of a naan that I’m used to. Instead it was light, thin, almost pizza-like. I really liked it, although I did find that with that and the rice there was sauce left at the end which I couldn’t scoop or mop. Who ever finishes a meal in an Indian restaurant and says “that was nice but I could have done with some more carbs?”. Me at the Royal Tandoori, it turns out.

We did manage to find space (and eventually manage to find some staff to order with) for dessert – and dessert, for me anyway, meant gulab jamun. The texture and the flavour were perfect, the sugar syrup had a clear note of rose water and there were a few chips of pistachio in the bowl too which I appreciated (I am starting to become a connoisseur, I reckon). But there was one drawback: the kitchen didn’t seem to be able to decide whether to serve them hot or cold and so they were neither, coming instead at a slightly jarring off-room temperature. Mango lassi (ordered as an alternative to dessert by my companion) was very good – normally the smoothness would be off-putting but apparently it was silky, sweet and delicious. Almost like caramel, I was enthusiastically told.

It wasn’t a Cobra kind of evening so we tried a couple of the red wines by the glass – a merlot and a shiraz. They were pleasant enough to drink but not nice enough to remember, which is as much as I was hoping for. The total bill, for three courses and a glass of wine each, came to fifty pounds not including tip. Service was friendly when they were there, but only when they were there. When they weren’t it seemed impossible to attract anybody’s attention and the overall atmosphere was oddly downbeat (maybe they were huge Wogan fans).

By any standards, Royal Tandoori is a good restaurant. Everything I had tasted good, everything I had tasted distinctive and some of what I had tasted quite unlike anything else I’ve had. Not only that, but I can see where it would win out over other Indian restaurants in town – more consistent than Pappadams, more central than Bhoj, maybe slightly less chaotic (and better with big groups) than House Of Flavours. More than any of those places I could see myself going there with a gang of work colleagues, all ordering different things and having a lovely time. But it doesn’t quite cross the line into great – the service was just a little too patchy, the food a little too rushed, the dishes just a little lacking in balance. But really, this score malarkey: who cares? Very good is plenty good enough most of the time. You’ll read this review, irrespective of the number at the bottom, and you’ll either want to go there or you won’t. Which is exactly how it should be.

Royal Tandoori – 7.9
4-8 Duke Street RG1 4RY
0118 9572717

http://www.royaltandoorireading.com/

Piwnica Pub

I’d put off visiting Piwnica Pub for something like six months and there were two reasons for this; the one I told myself and the real reason. In my mind, I’d decided that it was a winter restaurant. A cellar restaurant serving rib-sticking Polish cuisine, tucked away just off the London Road, felt like somewhere for the colder months when you can see your breath in the air and you want big platefuls of hot comfort food, dumplings and stews and all that jazz.

That was how I justified the delay, but perhaps more significantly I struggled to persuade anybody to go with me. Polish food, it turns out, doesn’t have a great reputation outside the Polish community, despite the amazing delicatessen on St Mary’s Butts full of interesting bread which also sells about five different kinds of herring (and, to me at least, that’s a good thing: I bloody love herring). One friend, who occasionally accompanies me on reviews, told me that he’d been to Piwnica already. He emphatically wasn’t a fan. “I ordered a starter, some kind of pork spread, and when it turned up it was literally just lard.” he told me.

“What did it taste like?”

He gave me the Charles died years ago look from “Four Weddings And A Funeral” and I realised, too late, what a stupid question I’d just asked.

“How would I know?”

So I had mixed feelings as I turned off the road and found my way down the stairs. But in the back of my mind I was still thinking that this had the potential to be another of those breakout finds Reading has scattered around, doing a roaring trade under the radar. Besides, the TripAdvisor reviews were glowing – and none of them mentioned lard, either.

First impressions were positive yet bemused. I have a soft spot for all subterranean restaurants, I have a soft spot for the lovably scruffy and Piwnica ticked both boxes simultaneously. The décor was endearingly amateurish – brown paint on the walls was intended to replicate the appearance of beams, grey paint tried to conjure up stonework – and although it looked unconvincing I rather liked it anyway. The tables had little doilies in the middle. There was a piano in one corner and some kind of exposed filament lamps on the side tables. It was cosy and snug. Only one table was occupied when I got there at half seven, although the restaurant was doing pretty well on a midweek night by the time I left.

The menu is big (and frustratingly their website has been taken down for construction, so I wish I’d taken some pictures). Starters tend to be around the six pound mark and mains around ten to twelve, and as you’d expect there’s a general emphasis on meat in general and pork in particular. The first language on there is Polish with an English translation, the first (but not the last) indication that I wasn’t entirely in the target market. Ordering was made simpler, if more frustrating, by the fact that on the day I visited they had a fault with the oven which meant several things I would have chosen just weren’t options. So you won’t be reading about the stuffed mushrooms or the baked trout – and although it’s possible that I’d have enjoyed my meal more if they’d been available, somehow I doubt it.

So what did we have instead? Well, for starters pierogi and Polish sausage. I wanted to try the pierogi because I’d heard good things and they felt like distant relatives of things I’ve always liked, like tortellini, momo and gyoza. I couldn’t decide between pierogi filled with cheese and potato or with pork, so the waitress kindly let me try some of both. The first thing to say – and this was a theme throughout the meal – is that the portion was huge: ten gigantic dumplings, arranged around a pile of coleslaw, slathered in butter and topped with little cubes of something which could have been ham or might have been diced sausage.

It’s never a good sign when the coleslaw is your favourite thing about any dish, and I’m afraid that was the case here. The dumplings themselves were heavy – thick dough like stodgy pasta – and the fillings were unsettlingly featureless. I didn’t mind the potato and cheese, although it was more culinary beigeness than recognisably either, but the pork had been shredded to the point where it was almost smooth and had a slight taste of offal. Partway through I was already weighing up how much of it I could leave without giving offence, which is a calculation nobody should have to make in a restaurant. I mean, it’s bad enough doing it when you’re round a friend’s house.

PiwnicaPierogi

The sausage starter had been recommended by the waitress when the stuffed mushrooms had turned out to be unavailable (it’s difficult to imagine how this approximates to the next best thing). When the board arrived I realised that Polish sausage is very similar to the sales people in my office – incredibly smooth, very pink and unappealingly homogenous. The sausages had at least been diagonally scored before being shown a pan, then served with some fried onions, but still it was much like eating a couple of massive slightly rubbery frankfurters i.e. not something I would choose to do. The ten year old me would have loved this – but then the ten year old me loved He-Man and I doubt I’d get such a rush out of watching it now. I gamely stuck them in the sliced bread and made mini hot dogs but, as with the pierogi, I only ate as much as I had to.

PiwnicaSausage

The waitress saw that we’d both left roughly half and asked if we wanted to take our leftovers home. We both feigned slight fullness and said we were saving ourselves for our main courses, and in truth I felt like a bit of a fraud. Worse still, we were fully prepared to use the same excuse later in the evening, saying that we’d left lots of the main courses because we’d filled up on the starters. I think when you eat food you’re not familiar with, you’re far more likely to adopt the “it’s not you, it’s me” position and so it proved here. The table next to us was experiencing no such problem, enthusing about the dishes and raising a hue and cry when they hadn’t received a little jug of mushroom sauce to serve with their main course (actually their mains looked pretty nice, although when ours arrived I decided that they must have been a mirage).

I didn’t have to wait long for the mains because they came to the table split seconds after our starters were taken away. And no, I didn’t like them any more than the starters. Pork goulash with Polish gnocchi felt more like a struggle than a treat: the cubes of pork were decent enough, although the sauce – glossy tomato with little slices of mushroom – didn’t taste like any goulash I’ve ever eaten and had more than an air of Chicken Tonight about it. The gnocchi were gigantic, and resembled nothing so much as huge, undercooked oven chips. I think I’d have preferred undercooked oven chips, though again this might be my fault for expecting smaller, subtler pillows of potato based on my experience of more Western European establishments. There was also some finely grated carrot, some beetroot which appeared to have been minced, and some sauerkraut. I actually very much enjoyed the sauerkraut, but as with the coleslaw it really shouldn’t have been the star of the show. Again, the dish was – to use a technical term – mahoosive, and again I left as much of it as I thought I could.

PiwnicaGnocchi

When I couldn’t order the trout the waitress recommended chicken Kiev and, faced with the prospect of ribs and knuckles I quite liked the idea of taking the easy option and going for something made with chicken fillets (again, something that the ten year old me would have considered haute cuisine). Despite being, basically, a chicken breast filled with garlicky cheese and coated in breadcrumbs it was hard to enjoy this. It came with the same accompaniments as the goulash, but also with sub-school dinner mashed potato – lumpy and dry, lacking in seasoning or even a knob of butter (the saviour of many a forlorn vegetable). The Kievs – and actually there were two, in keeping with the monumental portions elsewhere – could have been rather nice but they were spoiled somewhat by being served in a puddle of mushroom sauce which took away any of the crispy fun of the breadcrumbs. This was the sauce they specifically asked for at the next table, but I’m not sure why – it had a peculiar vinegary taste for reasons I tried not to get to the bottom of. I left almost a whole Kiev (the logic being that if I ate at least some of the second one it couldn’t be wrapped up to take home) and pushed the veg around to make it look like I’d eaten more than I did. It felt like a sad tactic for a grown-up paying customer to resort to.

PiwnicaKiev

The drinks weren’t bad. We had a Polish beer (poured from a bottle at the bar and brought to the table, so I don’t know what it was but I’d guess it’s Zywiec) and a rather large glass of white wine which was fine for the cheap end of the wine scale (Google says it’s five pounds a bottle in Tesco). If I’d stayed longer I might have had a bison grass vodka with apple juice (a snip at three pounds) but that would have involved eating more food and I’m afraid no power on earth was going to get me to do that. And as if I don’t feel enough like I’m happy slapping a meerkat, the waitress was lovely, friendly, enthusiastic and anything but dour. It wasn’t her, you see, it was me. Dinner, with a ten percent tip included, came to forty-six pounds fifty. At the table next to me, as we left, they’d moved on to the desserts with a shot of Krupnik. They were having a significantly better evening than me and, pulling my winter coat on, I found myself envying both their evening and the fact that they saw something in the food which I simply couldn’t.

More than anywhere I’ve ever reviewed, I left Piwnica Pub with a clear feeling that it just wasn’t for me. In more ways than one – partly that it wasn’t my cup of tea (such a quintessentially English way to describe a Polish restaurant) but also that I just wasn’t in the target market. This has been an an especially difficult review to write, because I’m quite happy to come across as ignorant (I cheerfully admit that I am, never having eaten Polish food before this visit) but I really don’t want to sound patronising. So I hope it’s acceptable to put it this way: I really wanted to like Piwnica Pub, and I left thoroughly sad that I didn’t. In lots of ways I think it’s admirable, and I’m glad that Reading has a place like it. But now I know that it exists and I know what it’s like, I think I’ll leave it to others to actually go there.

Piwnica Pub – 4.7
81 London Road, RG1 5BY
0118 9011055

http://www.piwnicapub.co.uk/

Lazeez

Lazeez closed in February 2018, and will be replaced by a new restaurant, apparently called Afghan. I’ve left this review up for posterity.

Pardon the pun, but eating out is often about your gut reaction, and some of the oddest meals I’ve had while reviewing have been ones where my head tells me one thing and my gut tells me another.

Usually, that happens in fancy, precise, pristine places: my head admires the artful arrangement of ingredients on the plate and the provenance (which always, however well-intentioned, has a whiff of name-dropping about it) on the menu, but my gut tells me this is food for people who love to tell people where they’ve eaten, rather than food for people who love to eat. Lazeez, a newish Pakistani restaurant down the Wokingham Road, is that unusual beast, the same phenomenon in reverse. I can see lots of reasons why I would dislike my meal there, so how come I didn’t?

I went partly because despite being three months old it had nearly no digital footprint whatsoever – no reviews, nothing on TripAdvisor, although I’ve been told by one reader that it was easily as good as House Of Flavours. But also, I was also intrigued by the notion of a Pakistani restaurant, as I don’t think Reading has any others which specifically identify themselves as such. In a rare piece of research not involving Wikipedia, I even asked a colleague at work, currently planning his wedding in Islamabad, what Pakistani food is like. “Pretty much the same as Indian”, he said.

It’s an interesting place to open a restaurant, two doors down from Miah’s Garden Of Gulab, which either demonstrates huge confidence or a fundamental lack of market research (even now, having eaten there, I can’t decide which it is). But it’s quite a nice room, a big square with booths and banquettes round the edge and tables in the middle. One interior wall has rather tasteful brick-effect tiles, another has very attractive lattice-work with lighting panels behind it which, disconcertingly, change colour on a regular basis. I can imagine on another, busier, night it could all be a bit much, but on a quiet weekday night (and it was quiet – we were the only table there) I rather liked it while at the same time knowing I shouldn’t. It was a disconnected feeling I had to get used to.

Certainly the menu was compact by the standards of Indian restaurants I’ve been to: no poppadoms on offer, a smallish selection of starters, a similarly manageable range of mains (grilled, chicken, lamb or vegetarian) and a handful of specials, including lamb trotters – maybe another time, eh? – and the only seafood main on the entire menu. Two other things jumped out from the menu. One is that the restaurant doesn’t have an alcohol licence, which I suppose will rule it out for some people but didn’t bother me. The other, more significantly, is how inexpensive everything is: most mains hover around the six pound mark, the costliest starter is four pounds.

So, cheap and nasty or cheap and cheerful? The starters were the first evidence. Shami kebab, which I ordered as a change from the usual sheekh kebab, sounded interesting – a mixture of finely minced lamb and ground dal. I liked it more in theory than in practice – two round pucks which had a vague flavour of lamb but none of the texture that goes with it, and a heat which went from “meh” to “my word” by the end of the dish. If anything they were more like spicy rissoles, which sounds more like a euphemism for a medical complaint than something you’d clamour to pick off a menu.

LazeezShami

Chicken tikka was a more traditional choice and was better, if not perfect. I was a bit surprised by how neatly cylindrical it all was, cut into equal sized chunks by someone very good at cutting things into small chunks (a trick which was to be repeated with the main courses). It was quite tasty, if a little bit lacking in the tenderness of the best examples I’ve had in Reading. I couldn’t decide how I felt about it, torn between “this is only four pounds!” and “well, it’s only four pounds”. Both starters came with a perfectly decent selection of perfectly decent raita, mango chutney and something a bit like a hot chilli mint sauce.

LazeezTikka

No sooner had the starters left than the mains, two sizzling karahi dishes on little wooden stands, were whisked to the table. This is one of my pet hates in any restaurant, and more than anything it made me wonder if Lazeez quite got how restaurants are meant to work. I understand it must be dull standing around in a kitchen when the room out front only has two customers in it, but that’s no excuse to curtail what’s meant to be a pleasant, leisurely evening for those two customers. Still, I could hardly send them away and again, I found myself thinking that given the price perhaps I was the one with the wrong expectations.

Karahi chicken was pleasant. Chunks of chicken and, I think, some little shreds of chicken were in there and I spotted a few little batons of ginger on top. The sauce was red, a little spiced but pretty unremarkable. The whole thing was a little well-mannered for me, as if someone had fitted a normal dish with a silencer. It was also ever so slightly on the small side and the pieces of chicken were also a tad diddy, especially if you’re used to the massive pieces in many Indian restaurants where you have to cut them in half or risk somebody having to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre. Still, at the risk of repeating myself, it was six quid.

The star of the night was the bhindi gosht – lamb curry with okra. The okra was what made it – sticky rather than slimy, still firm and really quite delicious with the gently spiced sauce and the sweet shreds of onion. This managed to be subtle rather than bland, in contrast to the karahi chicken which got that balance wrong. But again the pieces of lamb, though tender and soft, were small and few and far between. Both dishes, the karahi chicken and the bhindi gosht, were shiny with oil to the extent where I had slight misgivings.

LazeezMains

Rice was rice, no surprises there. There wasn’t enough sauce to need it all. More of a clanger was the aloo paratha. I love paratha; I know it’s unhealthy but there’s something about those buttery layers of bread that makes me come over all unnecessary, and the idea of such a thing stuffed with potato really appealed to me. Unfortunately, what came out was a stodgy, oily thing, the shape of a frisbee, full of cubes of potato and peas as you’d find in the middle of a samosa. Arg and Lydia from The Only Way Is Essex are switching on the Broad Street Mall lights this weekend, but even those two combined are not quite as dense as that paratha was. We abandoned half.

On a more positive note, possibly due to the lack of an alcohol licence, Lazeez doesn’t just do glasses of mango lassi. Oh no. They do a jug of the stuff. For seven pounds. It’s not every day you can go into a restaurant and say “and I’ll have a carafe of the mango lassi” and they deserve some credit for that alone (it was very nice too, to the extent where I wish I’d skipped the shami kebab and had a jug to myself). I should also say that service was lovely, if a tad eccentric. Obviously there are no real excuses for a meal which took – no word of a lie – forty minutes from start to finish, but the waiter was very friendly and genuinely interested in us, what we thought of the food and the Indian restaurants around town. Dinner for two came to thirty-two pounds, not including tip. We didn’t have dessert, mainly because my stomach felt more oiled up than a Chippendale.

Sometimes the act of writing a review is the final thing that crystallises my view of a restaurant. You’d think that would happen here, and yet despite all that’s gone before I feel a certain warmth towards Lazeez. Yes, there were lots of mistakes – the timing, the execution of some of the dishes, their oiliness – and yet it feels like Lazeez is a chrysalis from which a good restaurant might at some point emerge. I even wondered whether I was really in the target market for Lazeez or whether it’s aimed towards the Pakistani community in Reading (it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me; on my way home I wandered into Home Taste across the road and asked if I could look at a menu. “Not unless you’re learning Chinese” grinned the man behind the counter).

Crucially, what might keep Lazeez going is that it fills a gap in the market; it’s cheaper than most of its competitors and it’s an easier, more casual place to grab dinner (especially before going out drinking, or if you’re with teetotallers) than Miah’s. Put it this way, given a choice between the two I’d still go to Lazeez nine times out of ten, even though ten times out of ten my head would probably tell me that Miah’s is a “better restaurant”. But that’s how it goes: the gut wants what the gut wants, after all.

Lazeez – 6.7
146a Wokingham Road, RG6 1JL
0118 9668802

http://www.lazeezrestaurant.co.uk/

Itsu

Whatever you think of the food, Itsu’s biggest success – for me, anyway – may be how it’s transformed the bottom of Queen Victoria Street, banishing the grisly memory of temporary shop after temporary shop selling nylon shoes or mobile phone accessories. It gives that corner a certain glow, all shiny, fresh and welcoming; it’s strange how even though it’s only been open for a couple of months, it somehow feels like it’s been there forever.

It forms part of a long-established trend, which on balance is probably a good thing, of smaller, more exclusive chains picking Reading to be in the vanguard for any expansion plans. Bill’s started this, of course, and then there was Five Guys, but although Itsu is the latest it’s unlikely to be the last: West Country pizza and cider chain The Stable is rumoured to be opening on Bridge Street, and Bristol-based barbecue specialists Grillstock were linked to a site on Friar Street recently.

Itsu wasn’t top of my wish list of chains (I’d love a branch of Leon or Busaba, personally) but it’s an intriguing prospect – a place offering healthy lunches and dinners low in calories and saturated fats. Salads, smoothies, sushi, sashimi: splendid, surely? I’m one of those people who goes to Yo! Sushi with the best of intentions and then ends up ordering anything and everything the kitchen has to fry, but I decided to put my reservations (and my love of alliteration) to one side and give it a try one weekend lunchtime.

Inside, the chillers are packed full of options – sushi and sashimi on the left and salads on the right (although many of the salads are in fact on a bed of sushi rice, which in some cases can make your dish look more like maki that couldn’t be bothered to get dressed). There’s also a range of hot noodle and rice dishes which you pick up at the counter. I decided to order a little of everything – in the interests of balance, naturally – so I headed up the stairs with a heavy tray and a growing sense of excitement.

Now, before I get on to the food I’m afraid I need to wax lyrical about the view from upstairs, so feel free to skip this paragraph. It really is a gorgeous spot up there, full of tastefully done long tables with stools, USB charging points – which could come in handy if you plan to be on your iPhone for longer than, I don’t know, fifteen minutes – and most importantly a gorgeous first floor view out across town through the lovely floor to ceiling windows. In one direction you get to look up Queen Victoria Street, a symphony in Victorian red brick only equalled by the Town Hall, in the other you get to gaze out on John Lewis, one of Reading’s most handsome and iconic buildings. You can even make out, behind some of the façade, the word “HEELAS” in block capitals on the front of the building, a little detail for those of us who still think of it that way. It made me realise how few restaurants in Reading give you a view to go with your food, unless you happen to be a fan of Ed’s Diner (is anyone, I wonder?).

That architectural diversion aside, let’s start with the good news: the chicken teriyaki potsu (Itsu’s slightly twee way of saying it comes in a cardboard pot) was truly splendid. Lots of slices of tender thigh meat, so much more interesting than breast, sat on top of a big pile of brown rice, itself so much more interesting than white rice. Interesting is the right word in general, because it managed that rare trick of making sure there simply wasn’t a dull forkful – so much going on in the rice, with beans and petit pois adding a bit of crunch, leek for sweetness and little ribbons of piquant ginger running through the whole lot.

At first I thought the dish looked a little dry and that I might need to top up with the sauce bottles at the table, but digging deeper I got to the liquor, a wonderful sweet-salty mixture of teriyaki and broth that made every mouthful magnificent. If I was being critical it was warm rather than hot, but even having said that I could happily eat this every week for a year and never get bored. At little over a fiver it felt fairly priced for lunch and keenly priced for a light dinner, too.

ItsuPotsu

The sushi was less successful. An assorted pack of small maki – seven each of salmon and avocado – felt a bit clammy, claggy and unremarkable. I didn’t mind them, and at about four pounds fifty they clocked in very reasonably compared to Yo!, but they were difficult to get excited about (a shame, because I adore avocado maki). I nearly didn’t order them because I wasn’t sure how much they would tell me about the kitchen’s skills but as it turned out they were badly rolled, with most of the maki having gaps where the seaweed didn’t form a complete circle.

ItsuMaki

Prices in general are quite variable at Itsu, so although these were fairly competitive the sashimi and some of the bigger maki are priced outside the territory of a light lunch on the run. One of the salads I considered buying – a piece of rare salmon, some leaves and some dressing – was just shy of eight pounds, and I’m really not sure who out there is going to buy an eight pound salad from Itsu.

The other dish I ordered, to cover all bases, was vegetable dumplings on a bed of sushi rice. I quite liked the dumplings but quite liked is probably as far as it goes. They’d been steamed and then chilled, giving the outside a texture just the right side of cardboard, but the filling was decent enough. They were sprinkled with something that looked and tasted like togarashi which gave them a bit of oomph and the wee pot of teriyaki sauce on the side added savoury depth to the proceedings. It didn’t quite disguise that texture, but it did make them feel a bit less like a health food.

They came on a bed of rice, a thick layer of carbohydrates which didn’t remotely go and felt like hard work towards the end. You pay a quid extra to have this edible plate, and with hindsight I don’t think it was worth it. I did find myself thinking about Sapana Home, a hundred yards yet a whole world away, where you get a huge plate of freshly-assembled, freshly-cooked momo for only six pounds. I also worried about how many people would never discover Sapana Home because they never looked past Itsu’s snazzy exterior.

ItsuDumpling

I couldn’t quite bring myself to order a “raw smoothie” for just under a fiver (perhaps I’m not cut out for this whole healthy eating caper, because I just found myself thinking I could get a pint of cider and a packet of Scampi Fries in the Allied for that), so instead we went for a couple of drinks from the fridge. Coconut and lime pressé, which isn’t made by Itsu, was light and refreshing, although I got more lime than coconut. The carrot and ginger juice drink (also known as “Detox iii”: what a horror movie that would be), which is made by Itsu, was pretty grim. I was expecting something like the terrific carrot and ginger juice you can get at Bill’s but this was a nasty, thin, watery pastiche of proper juice. Looking at the label I got a vague idea why: water was the single biggest ingredient in it. It also contained a mysterious substance described only as “Thorncroft detox cordial”, which sounds about as enjoyable as an hour stuck in a lift with Gwyneth Paltrow.

That sums up my problem with Itsu, because it doesn’t make healthy eating as fun as the happy-clappy blurb on the website and the pictures of people enjoying volleyball outside the shop suggest it will be. The staff are lovely, and my hot chicken teriyaki dish was beautiful – if I went back, it would be for more of that – but still something about the place jarred with me. Even the cans of Coke in the fridge are a mingey 250ml rather than the standard issue 330ml (drink them if you absolutely must seems to be the message). The meal for two, three dishes and two drinks, came to just over eighteen pounds, which feels like a lot for what we had, especially when you think how much of it was just rice. Also, I’m just not sure when I would eat here rather than spend less and go to a café or spend more and go to a restaurant. I have no doubt that Itsu will do extremely well – the crowds already suggest I’ve got this one completely wrong – but it left me really fancying a KitKat Chunky. Or some Frazzles. Or a chip butty. Something tells me that wasn’t their intention.

Itsu – 6.6
31 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY
0118 4020979

https://www.itsu.com/locations/shops/reading_UK69.html