Pho

“You never go on a review with two other people, do you?” said Reggie as he, Claire and I took our seats at Pho. I’d been due to go on duty just with Reggie, but Claire and I were having a quick drink after work when Reggie came to join me and we had one of those “let’s put on the show right here” moments. Looking across at my two friends, side by side like an interview panel, I realised that they might well spend much of the evening taking the piss out of me. Oh well, at least I’d get to try more starters.

“Well, not recently. I mean, I have in the past. It’s not like I have a legion of friends to choose from.”

Reggie smiled. “Three people, I like it. It might be a bit quirky.” Reggie is a big fan of Tony Blair and, like Tony Blair, I sometimes think he’s a little too worried about his legacy. Claire did a face I recognise, where she looked like she was rolling her eyes without actually doing so: it’s a neat trick, if you can manage it. I resolved to write a review as lacking in quirks as possible: that’ll teach him, I thought.

The inside of Pho is very nicely done indeed. You wouldn’t ever know it was once one of Reading’s many Burger Kings – inside it’s all dark wood and muted lighting, with big wicker shades hanging from the ceiling. The furniture, despite playing to the usual school chair trope, looks comfy enough to linger in and the bigger oval tables at the back of the restaurant seemed perfect for larger groups (nice, too, to see some tables outside – I can see that on hotter days that could be lovely). We were in one of the booths in the middle section of the restaurant and very pleasant it was too, easily large enough for four rather than the squeeze it can be at, say, CAU.

A waitress came over and asked if we’d been to Pho before, and given our mixed response she kindly explained the menu to us. It didn’t really take much explaining – certainly not enough to need to make a thing of it, anyway. There were starters, salads, rice dishes, noodle dishes and of course the pho (pronounced “fuh” rather than the name of the restaurant, which is pronounced “foe” – got that?), the traditional Vietnamese dish of soup and noodles which takes up much of the menu.

The horse trading began fairly straightforwardly – we agreed to share three starters, and picked two Claire had already tried and one Claire hadn’t (Claire, as she pointed out to us, had been to Pho many times). It became more difficult when we got to the mains.

“I think you of all people ought to try the pho”, said Claire. “It is their signature dish, after all.”

“But should I have the pho too, or should I have a rice dish? I really fancy the rice dish, but is it like having the Prego steak roll in Nando’s?” said Reggie. That legacy thing again.

“I quite liked the look of the rice dish” I said, “so if you want, have a pho and I’ll have the broken rice.”

“No, you should definitely have the pho,” said Reggie. “But maybe I should have the pho as well. No, I should have the rice. Or maybe I should have the pho.”

Normally, I would be saying how great it was that a menu provided you with such tough choices – with any other dining companion, anyway, but I suspect this is just Reggie. He changed his mind another couple of times before our waiter turned up, and even when he did I half expected poor Reggie to toss a coin. Our waiter was friendly and likeable and talked us through the options, congratulated some of us on our choices, recommended beers, the whole shebang. He was really very good.

“I’ve been here a few times” said Claire, not for the first time “and he’s definitely the most engaged of the lot.”

“He sat down next to me to take my order.” I said. “Surely that’s not normal.”

“I could tell you had a problem with that” said Reggie, who does enjoy the fact that I’m nearly twenty years older than him. “You visibly tensed up.” Well, it’s possible. I also had a problem with the fact that our beers – Saigon for me, Ha Noi for Reggie – turned up without glasses, but I felt too old and fuddy-duddy to ask for one. Besides, I was wishing I’d had a coffee martini like Claire’s – sweet with condensed milk, it was more like a White Russian than a martini. More than a sip of hers, and the regret would have been too much.

Our starters arrived quicker than I’d personally have liked, but they all looked nice enough. The goi cuon, summer rolls with chicken, were light, delicate things; rice paper parcels mainly filled with shredded vegetables and vermicelli noodles, a thin strip of chicken along one edge. You dipped them in the nuoc cham, a slightly anonymous sweet dipping sauce with, allegedly, fish sauce and lime in it. Reggie and I used our hands while Claire, just to show us up I suspect, deftly wielded chopsticks. They liked the summer rolls more than I did – I thought they showed how fine the line can be between subtle and bland. “They’re especially good in the summer. Well, obviously” said Claire.

Nem nuong, it turns out, are Vietnamese meatballs rather than that odd looking mouse with jowls from Return Of The Jedi. These were more my sort of thing – six sizeable spheres of coarse meat on skewers. They were pork and lemongrass, although I didn’t get as much of the latter as I’d have wanted. You were encouraged to wrap them in lettuce and dip them in the peanut sauce, but there wasn’t quite enough lettuce to easily do that and although I loved the peanut sauce it did rather obliterate your hopes of tasting much else. I liked this dish more than Reggie and Claire did, which makes me wonder if they, with their more refined palates, should have written this review instead of me.

The last of our starters was muc chien gion, fried baby squid. This came with a bit of self-assembly – a little dish with pepper and chilli which you squeezed half a lime into, mixing it with chopsticks to make a dip. This was a lot of fun, although it didn’t make much dip; perhaps more than half a lime was called for. As for the squid, I thought it didn’t seem like an awful lot for seven pounds. What there was I quite enjoyed, although it was wayward – some of it was very intensely seasoned, some not at all. Baby squid was about right, too – much of it seemed to be shrapnel, which tested our chopstick skills. Well, everybody’s except Claire’s.

Opinion was divided on which starter was the best. Reggie and Claire favoured the squid, I preferred the meatballs. Perhaps most tellingly, the summer roll had come in four bits and there wasn’t a pitched battle for the spare quarter. While we waited for the mains to turn up Reggie and Claire settled on their favourite conversational topic, which seemed to be critiquing previous reviews I’d written and saying that the rating didn’t match the write-up. It was part-meal, part-audit.

Our main courses, again, came relatively quickly. I’d gone for the pho dac biet, a sort of greatest hits with chicken, prawns and garlicky beef. It came with a side plate of optional garnishes – beansprouts, mint and coriander, chilli and lime. I expected pho to be hard work to eat, and it was: you desperately try to fish out the floppy noodles, with chopsticks, using the big flat wooden spoon as a platform to make it easier. Then you use the spoon to sip the broth. Couldn’t be simpler, you might think, but I managed to make it incredibly complicated.

Throughout the whole thing I found myself thinking that if everything was tastier the experience would have been more than worth the faff, but again I found the dish understated almost to the point of being silent. The steak, what there was of it, had genuine flavour and the prawns were big firm things. The chicken seemed to be exactly the same as that in the summer rolls, just pale white featureless protein. But the broth, which I’d anticipated so keenly, didn’t have the kind of warmth, depth or complexity I was so looking forward to. As for the noodles, let’s not go there. I left a fair amount, mainly because I was a bit bored of wearing my dinner by then. It’s rare for me not to finish food, and that perhaps tells its own story.

Claire told me I should pep up my pho with some of the gubbins on the table: well, in the immortal words of GetReading, “there are plenty of condiments on offer”. I slugged in a bit of fish sauce, stopping shy of the sriracha or chilli paste. I might have had some of the garlic vinegar, but Reggie – in an inexplicable fit of clumsiness – had managed to dish it up all over his trousers, practically a whole jar of the stuff. (“Don’t write about that. You’re going to write about that aren’t you?” he said: umm, yes Reggie, I am.) Maybe I didn’t enter into the spirit of things, but I expected it to taste more interesting before I added stuff to it. I’m sure this is a cultural thing: after all, in most Western restaurants they don’t actively encourage you to season your own food.

Claire had ordered better than me, going for the bun bo hue, a spicier soup with slow-cooked brisket and extra chilli paste on the side. It looked the part – brick-red and oily, with lots of strands of beef, and the heat in it was much more interesting. I’m still not sure I would have ordered it, or that I’d have enjoyed a whole bowl of the stuff, but it made an interesting contrast to mine. Actually, it tasted like mine with the contrast dialled up.

“I should have had the pho, shouldn’t I?” said Reggie. His dish – com tam dac biet, or broken rice with chicken – looked good, and the chicken thigh was nicely cooked and tasty, the tiny mouthful I grabbed with chopsticks oversold the dish. I got all the best of it in that mouthful but the chicken ran out fast and there was a lot of bland rice underneath to wade through. No wonder Reggie reached for, and ended up bathing in, the garlic vinegar.

“This room is so lovely that I always like it here, but I always want to like the food more than I do,” said Claire as we finished our drinks. Our bowls had been taken away and I wondered what was on the dessert menu and whether anything would tempt us to stay. I had half a mind to try the Vietnamese coffee having been told by friends that it was the kind of sweet milky delight I enjoy (the main reason I’ll never make a coffee connoisseur).

“It’s very solid, I mean it’s nicely done. The room and everything,” said Reggie, who knows a bit about this sort of thing.

“But where have all the staff gone?” I said.

“This is a bit of a trend I’ve experienced recently around town,” said Claire. “They’re brilliant when they seat you and take your order, but then you never see them again.”

Claire was right, and in the time we sat there left unattended we went from “let’s have another drink and look at the dessert menu” to “let’s have a look at the dessert menu” to “sod this for a game of soldiers, let’s pay up and go to the Alehouse”. It was a week night, and the restaurant wasn’t busy; there were staff, but they just didn’t show any interest in coming to our table. All very odd. The meal for three came to sixty-two pounds, not including tip. The Alehouse had a very pleasing booth waiting for us, my cider was cold and fresh and, if anything, Reggie’s trousers smelled even funkier in a more confined space.

When we compared notes, our provisional ratings were all in the same ball park. Reggie liked it the least, although you might be able to put that down to his whiffy trousers (or, to use the technical term, “jeans Kiev”), and Claire the most, which might come down to her having been to Vietnam and actually being able to use chopsticks. I was in the middle: wanting to like the restaurant, loving the space, being frustrated by the service. But, worst of all, I was underwhelmed by the food. I’ve had Vietnamese food before, at a place in Glasgow called Hanoi Bike Shop, and it blew me away; everything sang and zinged with flavours I’d never experienced and yes, it was all clean but never anodyne. Pho didn’t come close to that. Not for the first time in nearly five years of doing this gig, I wondered what I was missing.

It’s a pity, because there is a lot to like about Pho: the room is great, the menu is excellent for vegetarians, vegans and people who choose to eat gluten free, but none of that matters if the food doesn’t hit the spot. Perhaps if they did banh mi – the other great dish of Vietnam and one sadly not represented on the menu – I would go back one lunchtime to try it. But as it was I just couldn’t see myself picking Pho over one its local rivals, whether that was Royal Tandoori for heat, Namaste Kitchen for noodles or Honest for quick, simple casual dining. So, not a quirky review this week but instead one of quiet disappointment: the gap between inoffensive and offensive is admittedly much bigger than the fine line between subtle and bland, but it doesn’t bode well when inoffensive is the best you can do.

Pho – 6.6
1-1a Kings Walk, RG1 2HG
0118 3914648

https://www.phocafe.co.uk/locations/reading/

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Gooi Nara

I first went to Gooi Nara in late 2016; I was on what I suppose you could loosely have classed as a date, with somebody I suppose you could loosely have classed as a vegan. I sat there trying to sound enthusiastic about tofu (not a skill I’ve ever mastered, truth be told) and then I ate my disappointing bibimbap while all around me, the other diners were wolfing down Korean barbecue, grilling a plethora of delectable looking meats on the hot plate in the middle of their tables. They all seemed to be really enjoying themselves, and as the weeks passed I came to think of that evening more as a metaphor than as an actual meal.

Naturally I wanted to take a more suitable dining companion when I went back on duty and, on reflection, there was only one suitable candidate – my friend Claire. Not only had she actually been to Korea but, in her review of Korean restaurant Soju for her website Explore Reading, she’d been responsible for teaching me pretty much everything I knew about Korean barbecue (admittedly not much).

Much has happened since Claire last accompanied me on a restaurant review, most significantly that Explore Reading had begun publishing restaurant reviews. A lot of people have asked me if I mind that, and of course I always say I don’t mind in the slightest, Reading benefits from a variety of restaurant reviews and that it’s not right for one site to have a monopoly. That said, it’s a running joke between Claire and I that she’s going to take me down; first she took on Alt Reading, which finally announced that it was quitting – for the time being, anyway – this week, and now she’s coming after me.

I’m mainly joking, of course. Mainly. In the run-up to our trip to Gooi Nara I make some gags about how it will be like the infamous dinner at Granita where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown agreed when the former would stand down in favour of the latter. After doing the joke I realise I’m not entirely comfortable being cast as everybody’s favourite grinning war criminal.

“I’ve always had a soft spot for Gordon Brown,” says Claire, “but then I like an underdog.” It made sense, on reflection: we each spend a lot of time championing Reading, so perhaps we both do. In any case, I strolled up the hill to the restaurant on a quiet Monday night with no plans to announce my retirement.

I’m always struck by how often I start a description of a restaurant by saying “it’s a long thin room”, like it’s the equivalent of “it was a dark and stormy night”. Well, brace yourself, but Gooi Nara is indeed a long thin room, but a surprisingly attractive one. One side was covered in slate-effect tiles, with a couple of wood stores in the wall that would no doubt come in completely useless in fuelling the fake fire showing on the wall-mounted widescreen television. The other side was a vibrant burnt orange, with oblong shelving units populated, in a slightly OCD manner, with little objets. There were dark wooden beams spanning the ceiling, such a pleasant change from the ten-a-penny industrial pipes and bare bulbs which always give a place a slightly unfinished look. I really liked the place.

“It’s funny, I wouldn’t necessarily say this is authentic Korean, but it has that feel about it” said Claire. “It’s sort of homely, but in a good way – even down to the windows.”

The first surprise came when I looked at the menu. Gooi Nara has a sister restaurant in Guildford called Sushi Nara, and as a result I was thrown to see that aside from a Korean menu there was also a whole menu of Japanese dishes – sushi, sashimi and the like. It was tempting to order some, because Reading still needs an excellent Japanese restaurant and Taberu, on the Oxford Road, is still doing delivery only at the time of writing. On reflection, though, I decided to remain steadfast: I had turned up to eat Korean barbecue, and eat Korean barbecue I bloody well would.

Not that you have to do that, of course: the Korean menu alone was massive. There were plenty of starters, although some, like takoyaki (octopus balls) and pumpkin korroke felt like they were on the run from the Japanese section of the menu. There were soup dishes and rice dishes, noodle dishes and hot pots and – as I remembered from my previous trip – plenty of tofu and bibimbap. But the trick with barbecue, Claire told me, was to order your meats of choice, cook them on the hot plate in front of you and dip them in vinegar and sesame oil before placing them on a lettuce leaf, adding kimchee and beansprouts and then wrapping the whole thing up and popping it in your mouth. I’m not the biggest fan of finger food, but put that way it’s hard to imagine a more enjoyable way to eat.

Before that though, we tried one of the starters I had my eye on – the seafood pancake. It turned up cut into squares, on a paper doily on a wicker serving dish, a bit too fiddly and faffy (“We Want Plates need to be told about this” said Claire, waspishly). It was a little fiddly too to pick up with chopsticks and dab into the dish of dipping sauce which, as so often, was too small to be useful. That all said, it really was lovely stuff. Claire told me these were made with wheat flour, but if anything the texture was so starchy that it reminded me of a potato cake – more like a latke than a pancake. Despite that, it wasn’t heavy at all, and the spring onion throughout gave it texture and freshness. I got squid in the pancake, and I may have missed the shrimp – we all make mistakes – but the menu also advertised octopus and I’m pretty sure I’d have noticed that. Still, the pancake was seven pounds fifty, so if it seemed too good to be true, perhaps that’s because it was.

The support act out of the way, it was time for the feature attraction. The waiter came and switched on the hot plate at our table, the meat arrived and, not for the first time, I wondered how anybody ever managed to convince themselves that they enjoyed eating tofu. We’d decided to try all three of the main food groups – pig, cow and chicken, don’t you know – and the first to go on the barbecue was the spicy sam gyup sal, long thin slices of pork belly, deep-red with marinade, a veritable bar code of meat and fat. On the hot plate, the smell was terrific and the transformation beautiful, and Claire and I took it in turns to poke and turn with the tongs until it was impossible to hold back any more (I spent most of that time banging on about the Maillard reaction, and Claire spent most of it nodding and humouring me).

It tasted even better than it looked or smelled, and I loved the ritual of coating it in vinegar and sesame before tenderly resting it in the centre of a lettuce leaf, topping it with brick red kimchee and devouring the whole lot. The kimchee added sourness and crunch without being quite as fiery as some kimchee can be. The spice on the pork, again, built to a crescendo rather than went off like an explosion, and the whole thing was the kind of dish that you can’t help but grin while eating.

It would be a lazy piece of observational comedy to say that you’re basically paying money to cook your own food, but that would be to underrate the service; every time a hot plate got too crusted with meat and residue to use, the waiter would come along, deftly hook it out with a nifty device and pop in a new one. He also gave us advice on what to grill in which order, and regularly kept us topped up with bottles of Asahi (Claire offered to give me a crash course in Soju, but then said it was basically vodka, at which point I found myself really fancying a cold beer).

“Do you know how they clean these?” said Claire, probably well aware that my answer, inevitably, would be no.

“No.”

“They use a lemon. You just scrub the hot plate with a lemon and it all comes off.”

I found myself thinking of those colour supplement adverts that tell you vinegar has magical powers and can clean pretty much everything around the house.

“So, the pork is better than Soju, I think” said Claire, “although here they bring it already cut into strips and at Soju they sort of bring it in a big slab and you cut it up yourself with scissors.”

It would be an even more lazy piece of observational comedy to say you were expected to chop your food as well, so I decided not to mention it. In any case, more meat was on the way. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the ju-mul luk (the beef) when it arrived, because it was in thick cubes and I had been expecting thinner slices. But any doubts I had were caramelised into oblivion as the beef sizzled on the grill, the coating of garlic and sesame searing and producing the most glorious aroma. It was far more tender than its thickness might suggest, with a splendid whiff of garlic which lingered long in the memory (and possibly even longer on my breath).

Last of all, we went for the chicken bulgogi gooi, thighs marinated in soy and sesame. These were probably the most disappointing thing we had – it had been sliced too thinly and broke up into very small pieces on the barbecue. It also had less marinade, so it was the only thing to keep sticking to the hot plate and burning. Still pretty good, but just a bronze medallist in this setting.

“It’s a shame really, because bulgogi is the thing in Korean restaurants” said Claire.

“And it’s the one thing they could have brought out whole” I said. “Just imagine laying a marinated flattened thigh out on that hot plate.”

“The chicken is definitely better at Soju, but the rest is probably better here. And that pork is incredible.”

Claire was right about that. I was also struck by just how good value everything was. Each plate of barbecued meat was a hefty, generous portion and the chicken and pork only cost seven pounds fifty. Even the beef was still less than a tenner. We’d ordered three different plates, but two people could easily get by sharing two – well, two people where one of them wasn’t as greedy as me, anyway.

“You can tell this is good”, I said, “because I’m already trying to work out what I’ll have when I come back.” In my mind, I was already mentally choosing between the feather blade beef and the prawns with lemon and pepper and – predictably – deciding it really wouldn’t be a crime to order both. And possibly a bibimbap. But there were limits even to my hunger, so we stopped there. All that food and six bottles of Asahi came to sixty-eight pounds, including a pre-added ten per cent service charge which I had no problem at all paying.

On the walk down the hill to the Hop Leaf for a post-meal pint and debrief, I asked Claire how she would describe the clientele at Gooi Nara.

“Oh, it was mixed. The table behind us were clearly Chinese – I heard them talking – but the big table nearest the loos were definitely Korean. And this restaurant is near the university, so I expect they get a lot of university students.”

Claire had effortlessly clocked all the other diners, their nationalities and the likely market for Gooi Nara’s food, all while pretending to listen to me talk about the Maillard reaction. She’d had her back to the lot of them. It was like something out of The Bourne Identity, and not for the first time I found myself thinking that if she starts reviewing restaurants regularly it might be the end of my blog. It was a suspicion compounded when we compared notes in the pub about what ratings we’d give Gooi Nara: they were a cigarette paper apart.

I’ve thought a lot about the right word for my visit to Gooi Nara since the meal, and it boils down to a really simple one: it was fun. Fun is an underrated quality in eating out, I think. So much about restaurants is either po-faced or functional at the moment, and when it’s not it’s the type of enforced jollity and zany fun that always reminds me of mandatory corporate away days. But Gooi Nara was properly enjoyable from beginning to end, with an element of playfulness that set it apart from the formula of starters, mains and dessert. I can imagine going back with a big group of people and mucking in, although the one thing I would say is that the barbecue takes up a lot of space on the table, so things could get decidedly cramped in a bigger group. But that aside, Gooi Nara comes highly recommended and I’m really looking forward to going back. Having fun, eating great food and making new friends: I wouldn’t be at all disappointed if this visit, too, becomes as much a metaphor as a meal.

Gooi Nara – 7.9
39 Whitley Street, RG2 0EG
0118 9757889

https://www.facebook.com/GooiNara/

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/