Memory Of Sichuan

Early last year I received a lovely email from a woman called Claire. In it, she said that she’d noticed from my review of Chinese restaurant Happy Diner – now defunct, as it happens – that I’d wished I had a Mandarin speaker with me. As luck would have it, Claire had just returned from six years in Shanghai working for Time Out, and she kindly offered her services if I ever needed a dining companion who could decipher the (always more interesting) Chinese language menus in such places. In particular, she asked if I needed any help reviewing Furama, which had recently rebranded as Memory Of Sichuan. It was her favourite cuisine, and she said she could help me try out all the best dishes.

It was a brilliant offer, but back then I had a regular dining companion, and anonymity to consider, so I said thanks but no thanks. Eighteen months on, all sorts of things have changed – not least that Claire has gone on to become the editor of Explore Reading and the town’s Queen Of New Media. Things have also changed on my side, and now that I’m recruiting, cajoling and pressganging people to accompany me on reviews I couldn’t think of a better person to come and try out Memory Of Sichuan with me. Fortunately she said yes, which is why you get to read this review today.

In the run-up to the visit, I looked at the menu online, completely bewildered by the options. Pig’s ear, frog’s legs, tripe, duck blood curd: everywhere I looked there was something I didn’t much fancy trying. Who knew that China had quite such an amazing array of fauna and so few scruples about hacking it up and exposing pretty much any part of any of it to a direct heat source before dishing it up to customers? The descriptions of some of the dishes had definitely been lost in translation too, especially something called Sichuan Mentioning Surface (“ignore that”, said Claire, “those are dan dan noodles”).

I felt apprehensive as the evening approached, even more so when I reviewed the Trip Advisor reviews for some vague idea of what to expect. The general consensus seemed to be of disappointing food and service which was rude verging on openly hostile. Again, Claire was reassuring. Most of those reviews seem to be about the (less exotic) all you can eat menu, she said. “Besides,” she added, “brusque service is authentic. I once had a waitress tell me to fuck off. In China, if you’re not shouted at by waiting staff you’re paying too much money for your food.”

This, along with a promise that we wouldn’t order any offal, put my mind mostly at rest and so we turned up at the restaurant on a rainy weekday evening ready to take our chances. Claire was hoping for a Proustian reminder of the city she had left behind, I was hoping to make it through the evening without having to suppress my gag reflex. What could possibly go wrong?

The interior was about as nondescript as restaurants get, so much so that I struggle to recall it now. A carpet with one pattern, chairs with another. Biggish tables covered with crisp white tablecloths. It said conference centre more than restaurant: really, if you placed whiteboards in every corner you’d half expect a team building exercise to break out. A small smattering of the tables were occupied, and the vast majority of the customers were Chinese.

“Notice what’s different about this place?” said Claire.

I was stumped.

“No sofa. In all your other reviews of Chinese restaurants, you talk about the sofa at the front, but there isn’t one here.”

She was right: no takeaway on offer. I reflected on the menu at the same time as being impressed that she had done her homework. If anything, it was even more intimidating than it had been online – a huge thing, with far more dishes than I remembered. There were still more terrifying sounding dishes (“crab ovary with fired (sic) bean curd”, anybody?) and notes at the bottom of the page tersely telling you that the dish you ordered might bear no relation to the photographs in the menu: on reflection, I decided this might be no bad thing. One section, to ram this point home, said “NO Imagination on Physical Vision” in big stern letters in the middle of the page.

Even stranger was the other difference between the paper menu and the menu online: the prices had been massively hiked. Every dish we had considered ordering had gone up in price, usually by around three pounds. On one level, this is just one of those things: not all restaurants are brilliant at keeping their websites up to date. But on the other hand, Memory Of Sichuan had been open a couple of years at most, so it was hard to understand why they’d increase the price of some of their dishes by something approaching fifty per cent. And in some cases, it just made it impossible to pick a dish without the order sticking in your craw. Ten pounds ninety for sautéed green beans? How could green beans possibly cost that much unless they had either been covered in gold leaf or cooked by my therapist? It was almost worth ordering them just to find out, but ultimately we decided that this might well be how a fool and their money achieved a conscious uncoupling.

Of course, you probably reckon by now that this review is hurtling towards a horrifying denouement. If so, think again, because all of what we had was interesting, much of it was rather good and some of it was spectacular. The first dish to arrive was described on the menu as “Hunan mouthwatering chicken”, although Claire told me that this is often more literally translated on menus in Shanghai as “saliva chicken”. This didn’t raise my hopes enormously, but what turned up really was beautiful – tons of chicken with thin batons of cucumber, sesame seeds and peanuts, all sitting in a thin but potent sauce.

Claire told me that they boil the chicken and then almost blanch it in cold water to stop it overcooking and ruining the texture, and it really pays off – I was worried it would be rubbery, as chicken in Chinese restaurants can often be, but this was like the very best roast chicken a few hours later, when you want to cram it in a sandwich despite knowing that you’re still full. I’d say the Sichuan dish, though, might be an even better thing to do with the stuff. “The sauce isn’t as brick-red as I was hoping” said Claire, “but the flavour is all there.” And she was right, it was simply extraordinary: hard to describe, but almost like a grittier, earthier satay with none of the cloying sweetness satay can have.

This was also my first encounter with Sichuan heat. “It’s very different to what you’re probably used to” said Claire, “it builds up more gradually and it numbs the tongue.” She pointed to the black specks, Sichuan peppercorns. And it’s true – it was hot, but not excruciating, and the anaesthetised feeling in my mouth made me feel like I’d just crunched on a Tyrozet. But more to the point, it just tasted fascinating. I’d not had anything like it, and if I’d just looked at the picture on the menu I’d never have ordered it. I spooned more of the sauce onto my plate, tamped some plain white rice into it, made a pig’s ear of eating it with chopsticks and found myself excited about what was to come.

The two relative duds were, I think, the dishes Claire was relying on most to induce a madeleine moment. Ma po tofu, silken tofu in a spicy sauce with minced pork, managed to leave me nonplussed and Claire disappointed. “It’s not wobbly enough”, she said, showing that she’d spent long enough in China to forget that unless you’re talking about panna cotta or jelly, “wobbly” is rarely a good adjective in food. But the worst crime was that something so exotic could be so bland. Perhaps it was muted after the chicken (the chicken was a tough act to follow) but I didn’t see much to like about it. For my tastes, the tofu was pleasingly firm, but there wasn’t enough minced pork, there were no contrasts of texture in the dish and I wasn’t fired up to finish it.

Dan dan noodles are Sichuan’s traditional street food dish, and they’re named after the pole – carried across the shoulders with a basket at either end – used by the street vendors who originally sold the dish to passers-by, something that sounded a lot more interesting than grabbing an 80p Twix from the vending machine next to reception (a lot more likely to result in you actually getting any food in return for your money, too). Memory of Sichuan’s version was a little overcooked for my liking. I was assured this was authentic – there’s no word for al dente in Mandarin, after all – but even so lukewarm noodles didn’t hugely appeal to me. It wasn’t just me, though, because Claire was equally underwhelmed. Again, there was nothing pleasing about the texture, the sauce was a bit ordinary and neither the pak choi nor what I assume was more minced pork heaped on top. This dish also went unfinished, although that’s partly about the sheer quantity of food we ordered.

“That’s sad,” said Claire. “They can be much better than this. That’s basically the fish and chips and Cornish pasty of Sichuan cuisine.”

I think I’d rather have had fish and chips and a Cornish pasty, but never mind. Later on Claire described them to me as “mamahuhu”, a magnificent expression which translates as “horse horse tiger tiger” and, for reasons which I’ve had explained to me and forgotten, means “so-so” (maybe it’s because it’s neither one thing nor the other).

If we’d stopped there it might have been a sorry state of affairs, but the remaining two dishes were among the very best things I’ve eaten in Reading this year. First up, something the menu described as “Big Potted Cauliflower”. We’d ordered this instead of the eye-wateringly expensive green beans, but at nearly twelve pounds I was still half-expecting to be disappointed. But it was so much more than just cauliflower – firm but not crunchy florets, a ton of garlic, spring onions and, underneath, soy beans in a rich sticky salty-sweet sauce. On top were dark slabs of what I initially thought was aubergine. “No,” said Claire, smiling, “this is Chinese bacon. I used to dream about this stuff when I came back to England.”

What a dish! It had everything – so many different things to combine and so many perfect mouthfuls to construct. The bacon was almost a saltier char siu, and a piece of that, a small floret, some garlic, some beans and that sauce made for an almost perfect forkful (I’d moved on from chopsticks by then, mainly to make the most of this dish). Some of the best moments of this dish came right at the end, scraping the bottom of the pot and enjoying the very last of the beans, glazed in a sauce somehow simultaneously as sweet as honey and as savoury as Marmite.

If that was hard to top, the final dish came very close. Beef with cumin is again a pretty understated way to describe what I ate. Here’s the overstated way to describe it: impressively light clouds of tender beef, absolutely groaning with cumin. Beef is another meat I’ve always approached with caution in Chinese restaurants, but the texture of this was so delicate you almost didn’t know where it ended and the seasoned coating began. Claire told me that the wok will have been so hot that the beef spent next to no time there before being served up, and I could well believe it. Again, the dish was good right to the end, and once the last of the beef was gone I found myself wolfing down the strands of onion, just about cooked and again festooned with cumin. This dish, like the chicken and the cauliflower, was completely picked clean by the end.

Service was actually lovely throughout – quiet, deferential, not remotely matey but nobody told me to fuck off even once and there was certainly no shouting. It might have helped that my dining companion could ask for the bill in Mandarin and pronounce Tsing Tao properly, but quite possibly not. The bill, for all that food and two beers each, came to seventy-eight pounds, not including service. That’s a lot, but I would say that the food we had would definitely have fed three, if not four.

Later on Claire and I discussed the rating and we both agreed that it was problematic. Memory Of Sichuan is, it has to be said, on the expensive side. The room is pretty uninspiring, and the menu is so gargantuan that it induces the same kind of paralysis I get when I fire up Spotify. I couldn’t guarantee to anyone dining there that absolutely anything they picked would be good. Normally when I review a restaurant I am basing it on a single visit but, more than usual, I’m aware that I’m also basing it on this particular set of dishes, and not everyone will have a Mandarin-speaking accomplice to go with. All that weighs against the place (although it’s worth saying that the two disappointing dishes were also on the all you can eat menu, so perhaps just stay away from that).

And yet on the other hand, the three standout dishes here rank among the best things I’ve eaten in Reading – and if not the best, certainly the most surprising and unusual. Memory Of Sichuan is worth it, even if you just go once, to take your taste buds on a holiday. I’ve thought about those dishes pretty much every day since my visit, and that doesn’t happen often. So I’ll definitely go back, and I’ll try just enough of the things I know while adding something new each time. And if there are some duffers in there, so be it, because a relationship with a restaurant is a bit like any other relationship: everyone has off days. Towards the end of the meal Claire looked around and said “we’re the only Western customers in here eating from the Sichuan menu”. Well, we were that night, but I for one hope that changes.

Memory Of Sichuan – 7.6
109 Friar Street, RG1 1EP
0118 9575533

http://www.memoryofsichuan.co.uk/web/

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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/

Happy Diner

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

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

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

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

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

HappyStarters

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

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

HappyDuck

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

HappyMains

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beijing Noodle House

Because I have a policy of not reviewing restaurants the very minute they’ve opened, opportunities to be topical are few and far between. I’m not always good at seizing them – I’ve always regretted not visiting Pau Brasil last year while the World Cup was on, for example – so there’s no way I was going to miss out again this week.

I’m not talking about pancakes, by the way. I’m still convinced that pancakes, like cooked breakfasts and roast dinners, are best enjoyed at home; even when a restaurant does them well, it never quite recaptures how good they can be in the comfort of your own kitchen. Something’s always not quite right: the sausage isn’t good enough, the baked beans are claggy and don’t have Worcester sauce in them, the beef’s a tad leathery or (most unforgivably) there aren’t enough roast potatoes. At their best – especially with roast dinners – they can be a high-end reimagining, an enjoyable one even, but it’s just not the same.

That’s never truer than with pancakes. Just writing this I am remembering them – fresh from the pan, sprinkled with sugar and lemon juice, rolled up and scoffed greedily while someone is busy cooking the next one. No restaurant can match that. Plus when you have them in a restaurant you get a pancake, emphasis on the singular. Where’s the fun in that?

No, the other thing that happened this week was the Chinese New Year, only yesterday. It got me thinking again about the disappointing lack of good Chinese restaurants in Reading, and then I remembered one of the recommendations I’d received: Pete, the proprietor of Shed, had suggested I review Beijing Noodle House. He raved about some of the Indonesian specialities and the “mouth watering pork dumplings”. Pete strikes me as a man who knows his food – anyone who’s ever tried Saucy Friday can attest to that – so how could I go anywhere else on this of all weeks?

Actually, my first reaction to the recommendation was “is that place still open?” I used to go to Beijing Noodle House a lot, back in the day (I was especially partial to their duck fried noodles). Then, back in 2008, it was gutted by fire; I can’t remember how long it was closed for, but when it reopened I had moved on elsewhere and it never occurred to me to return. Heading up West Street on a weekday evening and going through the front door felt a little like bumping into an old friend and having to make excuses for not having been in touch.

The first thing that struck me about the room was the pictures on the wall. They are enormous (one pretty much covers an entire wall), an odd mishmash of Oriental and European art. You almost couldn’t take your eyes off them, so huge were they, and I’m no Brian Sewell but I don’t think the proprietors are going to take them to a filming of Antiques Roadshow any time soon. Apart from the mind-boggling art? Well, it’s a bit run-down. The dark wood tables are a little too low so you end up hunched over your food, everything is a little worn and has seen better days. An electronic neon sign in the window flashes “OPEN”. The place mats are thin, plastic and tacky – mine, for no reason I could think of, had a photograph of chips on it. It was just tatty enough that I looked up the health and safety rating from the council, and was hugely reassured to find that they’d given it five stars.

There’s no menu online but there are a lot of noodle options – as ramen, as fried noodle, as udon or vermicelli, in soup or not. More noodle combinations, in fact, than I knew existed. You could probably figure that out for yourself – the clue’s in the name after all – but there was a lot more to the menu than that. I also spotted plenty of rice dishes, a good vegetarian section and, on the back, a range of Thai and Malaysian dishes. I couldn’t see any main courses costing more than seven pounds. As always with a very big menu I felt spoiled for choice, and sadly as usual with a very big menu I also wondered how many choices contained spoilers.

No way to find out except to dive in, so we ordered several of the starters. “Grilled Pork mouthwatering dumplings” (yes, that’s a direct quote from the menu) were every bit as good as Pete had suggested they would be. There’s often an air of the mystery meat about dim sum filling which puts me off, but these – more like gyoza than steamed dumplings or pork buns – were full of coarse, subtle pork. They were beautiful combined with the clean, delicate taste of the ginger vinegar dip. Four felt like a snip at just under four pounds.

Beijing starters

The chicken satay was also very good: you could say it’s hard to get satay wrong, and you’d probably be right, but I liked this a lot. The chicken – three decent sized skewers – was maybe slightly cooked into toughness but that just gave me an excuse to heap on lashings of the satay sauce, which was nothing to look at but deceptively impressive, with just enough slow-building chilli. Last of all, crispy seaweed came with cashews on it rather than the traditional grated scallop (did you know that the pink powder was grated scallop? I didn’t) and was also delicious. The nuts added a savoury toasted note which meant it wasn’t artificially sweet the way seaweed can be – not that that ever stops me polishing it off, mind.

I ordered the duck fried noodles partly for old time’s sake and partly because the menu goes out of its way to say that the duck is marinated and freshly cooked and you can have it boneless if you prefer. When it arrived I felt that mixture of nostalgia and anticipation. It looked just how it used to, back when I used to come here, but was it as tasty? After all, your tastes move on, change, develop: could it possibly have been as good as my memories of it?

In a word: yes. Possibly better, in fact. The duck – and you get loads of it – was glorious in big, tender slices. Not crispy, which might put some people off, but not with the thick layer of fat that might deter fussy eaters. The spring onions, peppers and beansprouts still had the right amount of crunch with the soft noodles and the duck, and everything was coated in a beautiful dark sauce which was more than soy but impossible to split out into its component parts. I was smiling from the first mouthful to the last, and wondering why on earth I’d left it so long. It was just over six pounds, and I’d pick it over a yaki soba from Wagamama nine times out of ten.

Beijing noodles

I also wanted to try something from the less conventional side of the menu, so I went for the nasi goreng. This turned up as a huge heap of rice (indeed, the translation from Indonesian is simply “fried rice”) liberally interspersed with prawns and pieces of chicken breast. The sticky, lightly spiced rice was dotted with peas and on top were a few thin slices of spring onions which felt like not quite enough variety to make every mouthful exciting. That said the meat was generous enough to have a prawn or piece of chicken in every forkful and the flavour was good, if a little bit repetitive (I rarely order risotto for the same reason). Still, five quid for a really tasty plate of rice is incredible value and it made me want to try more of the more unusual dishes (nasi lemak, the national dish of Malaysia, perhaps, or possibly beef rendang).

Beijing nasi

Someone pointed out my really poor track record of ordering desserts in 2015, and I’m afraid it’s true. I didn’t do any better here: I could have gone for some ice cream, or toffee banana with sesame seeds, but somehow I felt like I’d eaten two courses with no need of a third to complete them. The whole thing – three starters, two mains, a Tsing Tao and a large glass of anonymous, cheap and perfectly drinkable red – came to under thirty pounds. I haven’t mentioned service and that’s deliberate – not because it was bad but because it was almost unobtrusive. It’s just not that kind of restaurant: they ask you nicely what you want, they go away, a little later they bring it and they leave you to get on with enjoying it (actually when I put it that way, it sounds pretty good). Besides, how could they ever compete with the wall art?

I’m delighted that I enjoyed Beijing Noodle House. I can’t think of many places in town that are so cheap and so enjoyable, and when I looked at the menu I had real trouble narrowing it down to two main courses, so it probably won’t be long before I return to fill in the gaps. I really wanted to like it, because of all those happy memories, but as a realist I’m not sure I was expecting to like it as much as I did. It’s also a great example of how good food in an iffy room is always going to beat iffy food in a good room. Maybe one day Reading will have an equivalent of “Where Chefs Eat”: if so, Pete should definitely claim this one for his entry.

Only one thing troubled me: I was one of only two tables the night I went, although someone else did poke their head round the door for takeaway. West Street has felt increasingly like a ghost town recently, with Vicar’s closing just before Christmas and rumours that Primark is considering relocating to Broad Street. I can only hope my curse doesn’t strike and Beijing Noodle House doesn’t close shortly after receiving a glowing review from me. I know I say this a lot but use it or lose it, because otherwise one of these days the question will still be “is that place still open?” but the answer will be no.

Beijing Noodle House – 7.2
13-14 West Street, RG1 1TT
0118 9078979

http://www.hongbeijingreading.co.uk/

Kei’s

Apologies to any vegetarians reading this, but there are few things in life more joyous than crispy duck pancakes. There’s something about that combination of flavours and textures – crunchy cucumber, soft duck, the particularly prized crispy bits, all salt and skin and the intense, sweet yet savoury hoi sin – all almost visible through the paper thin translucent pancake, rolled up as tightly as your greed will allow and crammed into a hungry mouth. And yet Chinese has to be one of the most under-represented cuisines in Reading. We have Indian restaurants all over the place, we have Italians coming out of our ears, as it were, but where can you go in this little town to overfill on prawn crackers, starters and crispy duck only to be defeated by the main courses?

Nowhere, as far as I can tell. China Palace doesn’t fit the bill, for me at least: possibly because it’s too authentically Chinese and possibly because it’s just not that good. Furama (I have friends who still call it Futurama, which gets annoying after a while) has never impressed me. Reading’s best Chinese restaurant, Chi, closed ages ago after trying three different venues in town. I still miss Wayne Wong’s charming if haphazard service and his delicious food – prawns coated in light, brittle batter with a sticky, sweet chilli sauce, pristine cod smothered in garlic-laden black bean sauce… (I could go on, but I might cry).

So out into Lower Earley, then, where the mini-precinct at Maiden Place has had something of a makeover. Instead of an off licence called simply “Bargain Booze” there is a spanking new WHSmith and some other shops have morphed into a shiny Sainsbury’s Local. On the edge of the precinct sits Kei’s, a restaurant I tried to review once before but left after I was offered a woefully dark and forgotten corner table, despite booking. I’ve got over this now: six months seems long enough to hold that particular grudge. Besides, people do say it’s the best Chinese restaurant in Reading.

Entering a buzzy restaurant on a cold and drizzly midweek night always lifts the spirits, and stepping into Kei’s was no different. The dining room is quite cleverly laid out with the smaller tables grouped together and the bigger, potentially louder, tables at a slight distance. It was so busy that I didn’t even mind waiting for a suitable table to become free (sitting on the squishy three piece suite in reception felt a bit like being back in 1979: I rather liked it). The waiter offered the a la carte or the “eat as much as you like” (which they do Monday to Thursday). At first I picked the former, feeling a little snooty about the latter, but a quick inspection of the all you can eat menu revealed that it had pretty much all of the dishes I’d been salivating over on the website. Plus – and this was the crucial factor – the food is cooked to order rather than sitting on a buffet; Cosmo this ain’t.

The first dilemma was how many starters to order: I didn’t want to take “eat as much as you like” as a personal challenge, but on the other hand I wanted to try as much as possible. How many would you have picked, between two? Well, if you answered “four” you win a gold star. Of them, the dry spare ribs were the first to go; imagine your favourite spare ribs with nicely spiced meat falling easily off the bone but none of that sticky sauce that winds up all over your fingers and face and you’ll have a pretty good idea what these were like. The salt and pepper five spiced squid was less successful. The squid was nice enough – thin strips, tender rather than bouncy – but they were underseasoned and bland, with nowhere near enough salt and more sugary sweetness than five spice.

The Thai style smoked chicken (the menu at Kei’s seems quite happy to wander from China to Thailand and even onwards to Vietnam – it’s almost as if it’s on a gap year) was rather similar to the squid, just a little darker and much sweeter. There was no discernible smoky taste but there was some nicely mashed garlic and spring onion at the bottom of the heap that balanced the sweetness a little. And finally, one of my favourites, the crispy fried seaweed. I know it’s not seaweed and I bet it has more fat than I’d want to know about but I love the crispy, salty, sweet taste of it and I wasn’t disappointed. I know it’s a staple but I loved it.

keistarter

Only after the plate was taken away did I realise how little variety there was in the starters – largely sweet, crunchy, fried things. Probably not the cleverest idea, but I was starving and I’m afraid I must have been subliminally influenced by the smells wafting from the kitchen; sometimes you order with your belly rather than your head.

Can you guess what came next? Oh yes, the crispy duck. I was surprised this was on the “eat as much as you like menu” but when it turned up I saw how they managed this: perhaps it’s churlish to complain but the duck was a little on the skimpy side, especially compared to the big bamboo steamer of pancakes (I think we counted 12). Have you ever ordered crispy duck and run out of duck before you ran out of pancakes? No, me neither, so Kei’s was very much a first in that respect. What there was, though, was as good as ever – it’s a measure of how good this dish is that it’s impossible to eat it in silence (maybe it was just as well that it didn’t last that long).

keiduck

Having eaten all that, how many main courses would you have ordered between two? This time, gold stars for those of you who guessed “three”. I was concerned that this would be a greedy mistake but actually, all of them felt like scaled down versions of what you’d have got if you ordered from the a la carte.

Sizzling king prawns in black bean sauce, for instance, were tasty – but you got four prawns. Serving this on a sizzling cast iron platter seemed strange when in reality the dish could probably have fitted in a ramekin. I enjoyed it, but the sauce was a bit thin on the ground (as were the black beans: I didn’t count many). Lamb in satay sauce, another sizzling platter, was a bit more generous. The sauce itself was smooth and shiny, with a texture a bit like egg yolk and not particularly peanutty. Ironically, given how shiny it was, it was distinctly lacklustre – and when it started to cool the gelatinous nature made it slightly gloopy, stringy and reminiscent of things I’d rather not describe. That said, the lamb was lovely and tender – I just wished I’d had it in “Vietnamese plum sauce” (whatever that is) instead. Oh, and if you’re looking at the picture below: yes, it’s a solitary giant piece of tenderstem broccoli, yes it’s as random as it looks and no, I have no idea what it’s doing there either.

keimain

The third main, chicken and cashew nuts in yellow bean sauce, had the best flavour and texture but went cold incredibly quickly. I didn’t check the dish when it arrived but I wonder if it was served in a chilled bowl. Maybe I should have tried it before the two sizzling dishes, but either way it shouldn’t have got this cold this quickly. Again, the sauce was tasty but – as with the other two dishes – you didn’t get enough of it to make the rice interesting (the plain steamed rice, also a bit claggy and lukewarm in next to no time, needed all the help it could get).

We had a couple of diet cokes and a colossal 250ml glass of sauvignon blanc, the only white they offer by the glass and the only size glass they serve it in. Often, house wine tastes like it’s punching slightly above its weight – this one tasted very much like a house wine, and 175ml would have been plenty (hark at me, it’s not as if I let any go to waste). Service throughout was pleasant and attentive: staff were friendly, efficient and patient when it took us some time to pick our food.

Having said that all the dishes were on the small side, it’s only fair to say that the quantities I’d ordered worked out well – we were both nicely full without being stuffed which often isn’t the case in a Chinese restaurant. Just as well, though, as I wouldn’t have felt like I’d have been able to go back and ask for more dishes if I’d under-ordered. The all you can eat option is just under twenty pounds per head and our total bill, including a semi-optional service charge of 10%, came to fifty three pounds.

Is Kei’s Reading’s best Chinese restaurant? Yes, it probably is (unless Happy Diner in Caversham turns out to be stellar) but that didn’t make me feel like hopping on a bus to Lower Earley any time soon to pay it a return visit. Instead, it made me wish that Reading had something better that could compete with the delights of Chinatown, or even some of the offerings just down the train tracks in Oxford. If Kei’s was on my doorstep, or if I had a friend visiting who really, really fancied Chinese food then I’d go – it’s a solid, reliable restaurant and those are qualities a lot of people value. But most of all, it made me miss the charismatic chaos of Chi: if you never sat at a table in Chi while someone in a rhinestone jumpsuit who doesn’t look or sound remotely like Elvis serenades you with “Devil In Disguise” you haven’t lived, take it from me. Maybe we’ll see its like again at some point: until then, Kei’s might have to do.

Kei’s – 6.7
Maiden Place Centre, Lower Earley, RG6 3HD
0118 9263133

http://www.keis.co.uk/reading/