Round-up: April and May

I can’t believe it’s nearly the end of May already. We’ve had the beer festival (did you go? wasn’t the food rubbish!), the second of our two bank holidays is about to begin and summer is just round the corner with the promise of al fresco dinners and – more importantly – barbecues. And Pimm’s! Have you had your first Pimm’s of the year yet? There’s something magical about it, isn’t there – the fresh cucumber, mint, strawberries, the gently fizzing taste of summer in a long tall glass… Anyway, I’m digressing: it’s also a good point to stop and look back at the last few couple of months, both in terms of ER reviews and other restaurant news. Shall we? Excellent. Make yourself comfortable…

The Eldon Arms, 8.0 – A burger: a religious experience, or a sandwich blown out of all proportion by passing food fads from That London? Regardless of the answer, I think The Eldon may well do the best one in Reading. I checked it out here. (Sadly, the Eldon has now stopped serving food – see below.)

Dolce Vita, 7.6 – Dolce Vita is a hugely popular Reading restaurant, one of the longest running in town, and yet I’d rarely been. Was I missing out? The answer’s in the review, here.

The Abbot Cook, 6.0 – Another pub, just down the road from the Eldon, but it couldn’t have been more different. One had a slightly scruffy interior and belting food, the other looks the part but somehow managed to dish up flavourless food. The review is here – it also contains a lost waiter, a lake of cream and something which can only be described as potato-geddon.

Bel And The Dragon, 6.6 – A short walk out of town, with a lovely waterside location, Bel has the potential to be the perfect summer restaurant. So why isn’t it? I reviewed it here, only to find that neither the staff nor the dishes were full of beans.

Bhoj, 8.2 – Forget Mya Lacarte, ignore l’Ortolan: TripAdvisor says that Bhoj is Reading’s best restaurant. But people who go on TripAdvisor aren’t experts like newspaper reviewers and bloggers, so they can’t be right, can they..? Click here to find out.

China Palace, 6.3 – Does Reading have any good Chinese restaurants? Is an authentic restaurant the same thing as a good restaurant? Can dozens of Chinese diners be wrong? Click here for the answers to some (but not all) of those questions.

Cappuccina Café, 7.0 – If I told you Reading had a place that was half-Portuguese, half-Vietnamese, with a view of possibly the town’s ugliest pound shop you might think I was making it up. I’m not. Egg custard tarts, a broken dishwasher, delicious barbecued pork and outstandingly inefficient service: read all about it here.

On to the news. Casa Roma and Coconut Bar And Kitchen, both mentioned in previous round-ups, are now open. I’m getting good reports of both, and I’ll add them to the list, although as always I will give them time to settle in. From the website Casa Roma doesn’t sound any different to any of the other Italians in town (and I’ll take some convincing that that is an attractive dining room, from the photos) but if the food and service are good none of that will be quite so important. Coconut originally sounded like it was going to be a Tampopo clone but the website now makes it look much more interesting, especially the wide selection of yakitori which is something nowhere else in Reading does.

Not exactly a restaurant, but Tamp Culture has also started trading at the junction of Minster Street and Gun Street, by the Holy Brook entrance to the Oracle. It’s a small van serving coffee and a small selection of cakes, and my friends who like coffee tell me it’s very good stuff indeed. They roast their own beans and add to a burgeoning coffee culture in the town following Lincoln opening late last year. No website, but they Tweet here.

We have also – finally – seen the last of the Lobster Room. It closed, it took the menus down, it put a sad little notice in the door saying it would reopen but it was a death rattle, as it never did. In next to no time, it has already reopened as “Chronicles”, another Mediterranean restaurant (no website yet, but the menu on the door suggests a small range of pasta dishes, steak, grilled meat and fish). I don’t have any detail on whether it’s different proprietors to the Lobster Room, although they’ve kept the same phone number. Is it someone new trying to resurrect a classic Reading restaurant brand, or someone familiar trying to detoxify a different one? I guess we’ll find out – watch this space.

The other potential opening, much covered in the papers, is CAU which has applied to develop the area at the Holy Brook entrance to the Oracle (so not far from Tamp). The plans look quite impressive and would change that side of the Oracle completely. It’s not a triumph for independent traders and small businesses, of course, because almost nothing is where the Oracle is concerned: CAU is the more affordable sibling of the Argentian steakhouse chain Gaucho – a smaller chain with less than ten branches, but a chain none the less. They also do Argentinian flatbread pizzas, so if I was Zero Degrees I’d be saying a few prayers that the council doesn’t approve the application.

The saddest recent news is so hot off the press that it didn’t feature in the original edition of this round-up: the Eldon Arms has confirmed that it’s no longer serving food. They only had a small kitchen, and there just wasn’t enough trade to make the numbers stack up. It’s a real shame – pubs like the Eldon that do good food rather than buying it in off the back of a lorry are few and far between, especially those doing it with a small domestic kitchen. There’s a moral in there: if you find somewhere you like make sure you go there, or it might not be around next time you’re deciding on a dinner venue.

Back to the Lobster Room, briefly: Reading Borough Council uploaded its latest food hygiene inspection results this month. Much of the coverage focused on the Lobster Room which got a zero rating, while initially completely missing the fact that it was already closed. Island Bar and Café Madras also got zero ratings in inspections carried out last July and September respectively. Buffalo Grill, next to the Broad Street Mall, got a rating of 1 (meaning, apparently, “Major Improvement Necessary”) in an inspection from this February. Caversham greasy spoon The Gorge, inspected last November, also got a rating of 1 (maybe it is literally a greasy spoon). The Food Standards Agency takes great pains to say that these ratings are for information and don’t constitute a recommendation to eat at or avoid any particular establishment. That’s all very well, but if you’re planning to go to Buffalo Grill, Café Madras or The Gorge then, well, best of luck and rather you than me.

In the last round-up I mentioned the Reading Retail Awards which are your chance to nominate restaurants, coffee shops and lunchtime venues (did you? hmm?). This time, it’s the turn of the Pride Of Reading awards – nominations have just opened. There’s nothing around restaurants (which is a shame – I’m very proud of some of them, even if it’s just me) but there is a category for Cultural Contribution, sponsored by those renowned opera-goers, Grosvenor Casino. Don’t worry – I’m not asking you to nominate me. Absolutely don’t. Not on any account. Although I’m sure I’d have an excellent chance I’m anonymous and have no plans to turn up to an award ceremony in disguise just to listen to Danyl Johnson singing. However, if you do feel in the voting mood I think the team over at Alt Reading have done a brilliant job of making Reading a better place to live in the short time since they started publishing. They’ve already been nominated but it wouldn’t hurt to reinforce that by nominating them yourself.

Last but not least, and this is hardly news any more but it happened just after the last round-up, Edible Reading is now on Facebook. So if you’re into that sort of thing please go “like” it, feel free to share the reviews through Facebook and join in the conversations on the ER Facebook page. I’m told the reviews have even made it to the infamous “Caversham Gossip Girls” (if any of you are reading, hello there!). Thanks to anybody who’s spread the word about one of my reviews over the past couple of months – the site traffic seems to keep going up and it’s great to see more people getting involved.

Speaking of getting involved: last but not least, as always, please don’t forget that the majority of restaurants I review have been requested or recommended by readers. The details, as I’m sure you know by now, are here. See you next Friday, 11.30 (be there or be square) for the next impartial, independent review. Which restaurant will be next?

China Palace

N.B. China Palace closed in December 2019. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

One of the joys of writing this blog is when people ask me for recommendations. It means an awful lot that you (well, maybe not you specifically, but you catch my drift) trust me enough to approach me for advice. Usually I’m able to help, but I do feel like I let people down when it comes to Chinese restaurants: I’ve been asked several times to suggest a good Chinese restaurant in central Reading and I couldn’t, because I just don’t know of any. And when I’ve been asked about China Palace, which is probably the best-known Chinese restaurant in town, all I’ve really been able to say is that I wasn’t a fan, although that’s based on a visit from some time ago. So this week’s review ends the (I’m really sorry about this pun) China crisis and kills two birds with one stone: filling a gap in my repertoire and meaning I can give you better advice on restaurants in Reading.

China Palace is one big room next to the Argos, on the outskirts of the Broad Street Mall (“Reading’s favourite mall” according to, well, the Broad Street Mall). It’s undeniably handsome with beautiful black lacquered walls and lots of tables, mainly large circular numbers with proper white tablecloths. I went on a Monday lunchtime and it was more than half full, a sign of a restaurant doing something right. Another promising sign was that the other diners appeared to be pretty much all Chinese: everything was shaping up nicely for a delicious, authentic meal.

When I arrived I was disappointed to see the tables laid out with dim sum menus; I’ve nothing against dim sum per se but it wasn’t what I’d gone there to review. Fortunately China Palace also offers their a la carte menu, though I did have to ask for it and look suitably helpless. The full menu is exactly that; huge and more than a bit terrifying, offering over 200 different dishes running the gamut from fully Westernised (sweet and sour chicken, crispy chilli beef) to those with more exotic-sounding ingredients (duck web or intestines, anyone?). In the end we were helped by the manager who recommended ordering from the dim sum menu to start with so we could then decide whether or not to order anything else. This struck me as genuinely kind, not only because he could see we were floundering but also because the dim sum dishes are three to four pounds compared to six pounds for an a la carte starter.

The manager picked some relatively user-friendly dim sum for us, steering us away from the tripe and chicken claws and the cheung fun being so expertly manipulated with chopsticks at the neighbouring tables. Prawn dumplings with salad cream (yes really, salad cream) were very tasty – a mixture of chopped and minced prawns, with finely chopped carrot and spring onion in among the relentless pinkness, shaped into dollops a little like misshapen potato croquettes and fried. I liked the taste – especially dipped in the salad cream, something I haven’t had in ages and am now experiencing nostalgic cravings for – enough to overlook the slight wobbliness under the crispy surface.

Vietnamese style spring rolls were even better and a world apart from what I was used to. The rice paper was finer and less stodgy than Chinese spring rolls and the contents far more delicate – so there were mushrooms and beansprouts and prawns but also beautiful fragrant lemongrass. The sweet chilli sauce they were served with was clear, fresh and subtle rather than the gloopy sugary hit you normally get. They were so tasty that we fought over the third spring roll with the prawn dumpling as a runner up. I lost. I’m not bitter (I may be a little bitter).

Dim sum 1

Possibly even better than the spring rolls were the steamed pork buns. I’m sure I’ve had these elsewhere and really not enjoyed them but my guest really fancied them so I was prepared (or forced) to give it a go. These were three fluffy dumplings, sweet and thick – rather like bread made with candyfloss, if that makes sense – filled with chopped char siu style pork in a rich red sauce. We picked them out of the steamer by hand and burned our fingers on the hot dough and our tongues on the filling because we didn’t want to wait. All of the dim sum came served in threes – the curse of the odd numbers, again – but after failing to win the prized third spring roll I made sure we split the last bun fifty-fifty. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again (see? not bitter).

Dim sum 2

All told those dishes cost us about ten pounds. I wish I’d stopped there, or flagged down the manager again before ordering the mains. I’m sure I’d have had a better meal if he’d picked our dishes. To be honest, I’d probably have had a better meal if he’d cooked them, too. I can’t even rule out the possibility that I’d have had a better meal if I’d gone into the kitchen and done it myself.

The sizzling lamb with ginger and spring onion wasn’t sizzling, literally or metaphorically. I was expecting it to arrive with a bit more theatre and be drier, rather than the rather slimy looking dish which turned up (my friends tell me they’ve had very similar experiences on match.com). The sauce itself was shiny and bland. All the ginger came from huge slabs of the stuff scattered throughout the dish which made the taste a rather binary affair: either it tasted of ginger and nothing else, or it tasted of nothing at all. The lamb was floppy slices of oddly textureless meat which didn’t taste of lamb and easily could have been lamb, beef or something created in a particularly unpleasant laboratory. I didn’t finish it and I didn’t regret it, and minutes later I couldn’t really remember anything about it except how unmemorable it was.

Lamb

The beef with golden mushrooms in satay sauce (from the “chef’s favourites” section of the menu, “favourites” appearing to translate to “a couple of pounds more expensive”) was better without being good. The beef was as grey as the lamb (if you had told me they were the same meat I would have believed you) but the dish was almost redeemed by everything else. The golden mushrooms turned out to be enoki, the skinny little pinhead mushrooms which grow in clumps. There were also, rather randomly, little pieces of pineapple which turned out to be a pleasant surprise. This was all generously distributed in a sauce which I suppose you could just about have described as satay if you were otherwise lost for words. It was inoffensive verging on pleasant but had no salt, no kick and no real oomph. For thirteen pounds fifty, I was expecting something considerably better. The dish was padded out with what I think were glass noodles, rendering the steamed rice a bit redundant. Except by then it was all redundant because the dim sum was quite nice, this was desperately average and I was already wondering how much I could leave without causing offence when I asked for the bill.

Beef

Getting the bill proved difficult (I had to ask twice). Getting served, except by the manager, proved difficult. Getting any kind of suggestions proved difficult. Getting a smile proved difficult. Getting a second glass of cabernet sauvignon (which was quite nice but felt, from the moment I ordered the first one, like a rookie mistake) proved difficult. Perhaps this is a sign of a very busy restaurant which was used to serving fast turnaround dim sum to the legion of diners there at that time of day. Or maybe this is a restaurant that is so successful that it doesn’t need to look after its diners. Either way I felt a little neglected. The bill for two, for three dim sum, two main courses and four glasses of house wine, came to £60. This included a compulsory ten per cent service charge. Seeing this as value for money proved difficult.

I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity since I ate at China Palace. You can’t deny that it’s a very successful restaurant: the room seats 120 according to their website and was very busy when I was there. You also can’t deny that it would appear authentic: it was very popular with Chinese diners and I’m told that’s par for the course. But authenticity doesn’t automatically mean good – taste is all that really matters and for me, that’s where China Palace was a let down. Maybe my palate is too Westernised, maybe not, but I like to think I can tell the different between subtle and bland and for me there was way too much of the latter and nowhere near enough of the former. So next time someone asks me if I can recommend a Chinese restaurant in the centre of town I’ll say: No, not really. I suppose there’s China Palace at lunchtime if you pick dim sum carefully but otherwise, probably not. On the other hand, if authenticity is all that matters to you, by all means go there – and all power to you if you can convince yourself that you’re enjoying it.

China Palace – 6.3

43-45 Oxford Road, RG1 7QG
0118 9572323

http://www.chinapalacereading.com/