Café review: Raayo

In June 2022 Raayo closed and a new business, Iro Sushi, is operating out of those premises. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

Picture the scene: I found myself in the town centre on Sunday around noon with the afternoon to myself, and I figured it was the perfect time to try one of the many lunchtime options on my to do list. This is, it turns out, something of a growth area. Despite last year being a challenging one for hospitality, there was no shortage of relatively new places for me to explore – Italian café Madoo on Duke Street, Bru at the skanky end of Friar Street, Yaylo where Nibsy’s used to be on Cross Street, Chipstar next to the Alehouse. I used to complain frequently about Reading not having enough places for lunch, but I felt distinctly spoiled for choice.

And actually, wandering round town I discovered new lunch places I’d not even considered or known about. My Warsaw, a Polish street food hole in the wall, has opened on the ground floor of Kings Walk, and Bánh Mì QB, a place selling the Vietnamese sandwich of the gods, looks set to open a few doors down in the not too distant future. 

Meanwhile, over on West Street where Beijing Noodle House used to be, there’s a little Nepalese place called Chillim Kitchen and, right next door, an establishment called Cairo Café that does common or garden panini and wraps but also serves “Egyptian Street Food” and something called the “King Tut Breakfast”. Where had all these places come from? I guess if we had a local media worth speaking of we’d all know about these by now, whereas instead you have to rely on me mooching round at the weekend. Sorry about that.

Anyway, I figured everywhere on my list would be quiet. After all town, or at least my social media echo chamber, was completely swept up in Blue Collar Corner mania: every couple of minutes I saw another Instagram story of someone enjoying our brand new street food Mecca down Hosier Street (“it felt like I was in Ibiza” was Berkshire Live’s verdict. That’s nice). So I just assumed everybody would be there checking out all the bright shiny new things and I would have my pick of the empty cafés. 

It was a great plan, but it didn’t survive its first bruising collision with reality: Madoo was rammed and, out on Broad Street, the handful of stools in Chipstar were all occupied. As so often, Reading’s Twittersphere wasn’t a perfect reflection of town, so back to the drawing board it was. With uncanny timing, the heavens opened and I took shelter outside M&S, half tempted to abort my mission and just review a takeaway this week. And then I remembered Raayo, just down from Hickies and opposite what’s left of the Harris Arcade. 

I’d never been, and in fact I’d been a little waspish about them in my roundup at the end of 2020: at the time they had an underdeveloped website, now I’m not sure they even have a website. But I seemed to remember hearing from Zoë that some people from her work had been there and quite liked it. As I passed, it was as empty as empty could be. That didn’t raise my hopes that I was going to have a fantastic lunch, but it did make me feel for them a bit – I’ve always been drawn to the underdog – so I decided to chance my arm, and my lunch, and in I went.

It’s basically a small, open plan room which makes full use of its floor to ceiling windows looking out on to the pavement. There’s a bar alongside the window, and handsome stools to perch on, but apart from that it’s just a case of going up to the counter and placing your order. From the size I’d imagine much of their business would normally be takeaway, but as there wasn’t a soul in sight it seemed the apposite moment to try it out.

The menu, if I’m honest, looked a tad generic. There was a range of sandwiches and toasties all involving various ingredients kept under the counter, à la Reading institutions Pierre’s and Shed. A couple of sandwiches had interesting-looking components – scamorza in one, pickled fennel in another – but nothing leapt out (and seeing one of my favourite cheeses misspelt on the blackboard as “Parmsean” made my heart go out to them again – that underdog thing, I imagine). But when I asked the owner behind the counter what he recommended he pointed to their special, the pulled pork, and so I went for that.

It took just long enough to arrive, wrapped in foil like a burrito, and I found myself pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Unlike many toasties, especially at chain cafés, it was edible without being hotter than the sun, and the pulled pork was really very good. At its worst, pulled pork is a mulchy, soggy mess and usually the standard-issue barbecue sauce it tends to be paired with makes it a sickly, mulchy, soggy mess. But not so here – the pork wasn’t bone dry (as it is, for instance, at the Nag’s Head) but the balance had been struck nicely. And the barbecue sauce had a properly pleasing heat to it, without masses of sweetness. At four pounds fifty it was very generous and excellent value, and although my photo makes it look like a symphony of beige I hope you’ll take my word for it that it was a find. 

I had misread the menu, which offers plenty of extras you can put in your pulled pork sandwich. I thought they all came as standard, whereas in reality you have to pay for them. If I’d known, I’d be talking right now about the sharpness and crunch of gherkins, and the delightful texture from the crispy shallots. But sadly, I didn’t: although in some respects that might be for the best because this sandwich could stand on its own two feet without the extras. With them, next time, it could be worldbeating. 

But I was quite happy as I was, so I ate my sandwich on my stool, looking out the window at the sights of Friar Street, lost in the moment, pondering some of the great mysteries of life: why are we here? Do I eat so much nice food to distract myself from some gaping spiritual void in my life? And, perhaps most significantly, does anyone actually drink in Wild Lime? There I was, the only living boy in Raayo: behind me I could dimly make out the sound of the owner, AirPods in, chatting to somebody on his phone, vaguely audible above the hum of the fridge. All seemed right with the world, and the rain had even stopped.

I went up to order some coffee and a cookie for afters and I told him how much I’d enjoyed my sandwich. He sounded really proud of it, and he told me his story: he’d opened eighteen months ago, and it had been a really challenging time. People were starting to come back into town at last, and the weekends were surprisingly busy. He told me that he made everything himself, that the pulled pork and the barbecue sauce were both to his recipe and that although it was described as a special it was on the menu every day. I was so glad that my food hadn’t been rubbish, although of course I didn’t put it that way when I was talking to him.

The coffee isn’t great though – if you go, you might find it disappointing. It was below that top tier of Workhouse, C.U.P. and Compound, with a slightly scorched bitter note that needed more sugar to conceal it than I was prepared to put in. But it didn’t matter, because my chocolate and coconut cookie was a chewy treat – part biscuit, part macaroon, all delicious. I was so keen to eat it that I started without taking a picture, which means that the photo below is the only one in nearly nine years of writing this blog of my tiny toothmarks. He had a meal deal going so I got the coffee and a cookie for three pounds thirty – I asked him to charge me full price but he just wouldn’t. In total my sandwich, my cookie, a coffee and a soft drink cost me under a tenner: good luck getting so much stuff at Pret A Manger.

I wish I could give Raayo the kind of score that would send literally a handful of people flocking to it. But this isn’t that kind of review, and Raayo isn’t that kind of place. It’s too shy and unassuming – back to that lack of a social media presence again – and it needs to be slightly bolshier. I worry for it, a little. But then maybe if it was gobbier it would lose some of what made it such a quietly lovely place to have a peaceful, serene lunch when it felt like all the world was somewhere else. But I would recommend you try it if pulled pork is your thing, and I’ll definitely go back to try it again. 

It’s somehow hugely comforting to know that Reading still contains these little surprises, like a small hole in the wall sandwich shop where the owner makes his own pulled pork and it’s thoroughly decent. It’s good to know these places still thrive amid all the Caffe Neros and Costas that so dominate the centre of Reading, like flowers through cracks in the pavement,. And it’s a timely reminder, on an apt weekend, that you should never completely let the next big thing blind you to what’s already here, toiling away, waiting for that lucky break.

Raayo – 7.0
155 Friar Street, Reading, RG1 1HE
0118 3273418

https://www.facebook.com/Raayo155
Delivery via: Deliveroo, Uber Eats

Advertisement

Takeaway review: Smashing Plates

Smashing Plates is no longer on Deliveroo Editions. If you want good gyros, you were always better off going to Tasty Greek Souvlaki.

Last month I had a very nice email from someone who worked as a commercial manager for Deliveroo Editions, telling me all about a new restaurant called Smashing Plates operating from Reading’s dark kitchen. And before we get started, let’s tackle the elephant in the room: I know, the name is a problem. It’s not as if it was my idea, so don’t shoot the messenger. Let’s all get that sigh, that cringe, that facepalm or weary shake of the head out of the way in unison right at the start of proceedings, and move on.

Anyway, the email described Smashing Plates as cool and “unorthodox” – only choosing to put inverted commas around the latter, as if the former was incontrovertible. Did I fancy running a competition for my followers, it asked? I could put a post on my Instagram telling people all about Smashing Plates, and if they liked my post, followed me and the restaurant and Deliveroo and tagged the person they really wanted to share the prize with then one lucky individual could win a £50 Deliveroo voucher to use at the restaurant of their choice. Did that sound like something I would be interested in? I mean, did it?

Did I want to give over my Instagram to pimping some restaurant I’d never even tried and ask my followers to give them and Deliveroo loads of free publicity just so that one solitary reader could win fifty quid? Hell no. Don’t get me wrong, I do run the occasional competition for readers, but I try and pick the partners for them carefully. I’m not that easily bought, or that cheaply. It struck me as especially weird that the prize was vouchers you didn’t even have to spend at the restaurant the competition was meant to promote. Who was doing the benefiting here – Smashing Plates or Deliveroo?

So I declined politely and no doubt they found many other Instagram accounts to team up with. In fact, I know they did: you don’t have to look far to find plenty of #ADs and #invites featuring the restaurant (although at least the social media posts declared them, unlike some prominent restaurant bloggers). But it did make me think about whether Smashing Plates was worth ordering, so I made a mental note to come back to them later. And here we are.

They’re almost a diffusion brand in themselves, launched by Neo Christodoulou, the co-founder of The Athenian (which itself was on Deliveroo in Reading a while back, if memory serves). Smashing Plates has opened in four venues across London, all of them previously branches of The Athenian, and has two dark kitchens, here and in Cambridge. 

I’d like to say that they have a distinct identity from the Athenian, but looking at both websites I’m none the wiser. The Athenian is all about using “the best ingredients, freshly and lovingly made to order”, they “source everything from our partners in Greece and here in the UK” and “environmental concerns are super important to us… we turn our cooking oils into biodiesel and our kitchens are powered by renewable energy”. 

Smashing Plates, on the other hand, says “The menu is seriously fresh and totally traceable. I know where every ingredient in every product has come from”, “our cooking oil… gets collected and turned into bio-diesel” and “everything is fresh, from start to finish”. Seriously – chalk and feta, these two. I wonder if they fell out and Christodoulou thought “I’ll show them… by copying their entire website”?

Smashing Plates’ delivery menu is small and centred on wraps and sides, gyros and souvlaki. It has slightly less range than their restaurant menu, but there’s enough choice that you don’t feel hemmed in. Perhaps significantly, real priority is given to vegetarians and vegans – so, for instance, you can have gyros with chicken, but pork isn’t on the menu and instead you can choose from halloumi, seitan or portobello mushroom. Most of the sides, for that matter, are vegetarian. They also do salads, loaded fries, skepasti (a gyros toastie) and a handful of desserts and if you fancy a Greek beer on the side you can get your Fix, literally and figuratively.

Nothing is too pricey, either – wraps and salads cost between seven and ten pounds, practically all of the sides are less than a fiver. I chose a wrap, a couple of sides and a dessert, which came to just over twenty pounds not including rider tip (they were doing 25% off food that night), sat back and waited.

Are you ready for the obligatory fuss-free delivery paragraph? Okay, here goes: I ordered just before eight o’clock on a weekday night, my driver was on his way twenty minutes later and in just over five minutes he was at my door. How far we’ve come from me obsessively checking the tracker and saying “why is he going down the Orts Road?” to Zoë as she rolls her eyes for the seventh time: perhaps this is what personal growth looks like. I particularly appreciated the fact that my hot food was in one bag and my cold food in another – if I’d known they were going to be that careful I might have ordered that Fix after all. Please drop us a review! was written on the bag in biro. How little they know, I thought.

Everything was hot and stayed hot throughout the faff of me taking it out of the bag, photographing it, photographing it again because one of my feet was in one of the photos and so on. The gyros – I’d gone for pork – was good but a little muted for my liking. It’s not possible to eat one without comparing it to Tasty Greek’s gyros wrap, and Smashing Plates’ version wasn’t quite at that level. The meat didn’t have that wonderful crispy caramelisation that comes from being exposed to a naked flame and then thinly sliced, and although it was still decent I knew I’d had better.

What was good though, was their signature smoked aubergine sauce. It made a surprisingly refreshing change not to have tzatziki in a gyros wrap and this supplied some badly needed depth of flavour – more sweet than smoky, in truth, but still welcome. I found myself thinking about Tasty Greek Souvlaki’s set-up and wondering whether an off the shelf dark kitchen on the edge of Caversham could match it. Maybe that’s why the gyros fell short. Perhaps, for that matter, it’s why they only offered one meat option for the gyros. Working within your limitations is all very well – I do it as a writer all the time, god knows – but in an ideal world other people don’t notice your limitations.

But Smashing Plates was saved by the sides. Panko chicken bites were marinated with oregano and smoked paprika and they really weren’t mucking around when they said that: opening the box you got a wonderful herbal hit of oregano, a refreshing antidote to all the many times I’ve walked through Reading in the slipstream of someone smoking a massive joint.

It was chicken breast rather than thigh but it wasn’t dried out or bouncy and the coating was crunchy and genuinely delicious. You got a hell of a lot of chicken, the tzatziki it came with was pleasant, if underpowered on the garlic front, and I thoroughly enjoyed every bite. Looking in the box afterwards I found loads of little crunchy pieces of coating – yes, I ate them all with my fingers, with no shame – and not a jot of grease. If they could do all this for less than five pounds, what on earth was Wingstop’s excuse for being so crappy?

I also very much liked the courgette and feta bites, although it was a little odd to get only five of these for a fiver as opposed to so much chicken. The blurb calls them “fluffy” which, if anything, does them a slight disservice. The first ones I had, from the box at the start of the meal, almost had the silky texture of croquetas, with a nice tang from the feta. And actually, as they cooled if anything I appreciated them slightly more. The flavour came through better, and they firmed up so you could tell, from a bite, just how much courgette and cheese had been packed into them. 

Oh, and I had dessert too, a vegan chocolate brownie. If you decide to give Smashing Plates a try, give this a wide berth. It felt like supermarket quality at best: no real texture to speak of, no contrast between crumble and squidge, and a salted caramel topping that just felt like badly sunburnt sugar. Three pounds fifty, too – I know that’s the going rate for brownies at the likes of Workhouse or The Collective, but theirs are bigger, and better, than this. What were you thinking ordering a dessert from Deliveroo? you might be thinking. You might have a point.

Despite the brownie, I found I rather enjoyed Smashing Plates. It’s true that you can get slightly better gyros from Tasty Greek Souvlaki, but my chicken bites and halloumi and feta bites were properly enjoyable, and different from anything offered by Tasty Greek. If I ordered again I would have a gyros because I’d feel that I ought to, but it would largely be an excuse to go crazy and order all the sides. They do another that’s halloumi with sesame seeds and maple syrup which is calling to me: I love all three of those things, and I really want to experience the centre of that particular Venn diagram.

It helps, I’m sure, that my meal was better than I expected it to be. On the sofa in my comfies at the end of a forgettable day, waiting for Zoë to come home from a late shift, the weather positively Baltic outside, it brought me a little joy. And that’s the thing about takeaways – they don’t always have to hit the heights. Sometimes you just want one fewer problem. Sometimes it’s just about that little bit of self-care, treating yourself while you sit in front of Bake Off (I’m rooting for Giuseppe to win) or Strictly (Team John and Johannes all the way). That, to me, is a decidedly orthodox pleasure.

And the silliest thing of all is that if I’d taken Deliveroo up on that competition, I might never have written this review. Some of you might have found out about Smashing Plates, if you happened to be on Instagram, and one of you could have won fifty quid. But I expect you’d have spent it elsewhere, because you probably wouldn’t have the foggiest idea whether Smashing Plates was any good. And that’s the point of this blog. I don’t know why influencers do what they do, although naturally I wish them all the best. But I do know why I do this.

Smashing Plates

https://deliveroo.co.uk/menu/reading/reading-editions/smashing-plates-editions-rea
Order via: Deliveroo only

Pub review: Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen at The Butler

In August 2022 Chef Stevie announced that he was leaving the Butler and moving to Windsor. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

Opening and running a restaurant is hard work. You have to find premises, sort out a lease, decide your concept, pick your staff, choose your suppliers, design your menu, set up your social media, get people through the door, get them to come back, replace your staff when some of them leave. The list goes on. 

That’s at the best of times, but the last year has hardly been that. Now you can add in navigating the complexities of furlough and bounceback loans, applying for grants, retaining your staff, getting your head round the rule of six, track and trace, “hygiene theatre” and having to close or reopen at the drop of the hat based on government fiat and what tier system is in use this week. And you can also bung in asking people nicely to wear masks so they don’t risk infecting your unvaccinated staff and closing because you have been pinged, or because your staff have and you don’t have enough left to be able to trade. It’s hard work. I sometimes wonder why anybody does it.

Most people dip their toe in the water rather than diving in at the deep end, and there are many ways to do that. One of the most common is to start out doing street food. Get a gazebo, go to some markets, build a reputation and one day you might open your own place. Take Vegivores, which has made a roaring success of its site in Caversham. But sometimes street food is the place that exposes the gap between your daydream of feeding adoring crowds and the harsh reality of getting up early in the morning only for everything to go wrong, as this touching post from a recent Blue Collar alumnus shows.

Another route is to use someone else’s premises, the “cuckoo” approach. One of the most successful exponents of this is Anonymous Coffee, who have had coffee machines in the Tasting House, Thames Tower, Curious Lounge and the Grumpy Goat without setting up permanent premises of their own. Many people in hospitality have taken this path, from Bench Rest serving food in the Tasting House to I Love Paella, operating out of a tiny kitchen in the Oxford Road branch of Workhouse Coffee. But the most obvious synergy, if you can ever forgive me for using that word in any context, is between chefs in search of a kitchen and pubs in search of a chef.

When this works, it’s a dream. The pub wants to serve food, but doesn’t want to cook it. The chef wants to cook, but doesn’t want his or her name on a lease quite yet. And so over the years we’ve been treated to I Love Paella cooking out of The Horn before graduating to the Fisherman’s Cottage and Caucasian Spice Box (now, of course, Geo Café) operating from the Turk’s Head and later from The Island, still one of the most surreal Reading establishments I’ve ever visited. I fondly remember I Love Paella’s salt cod churros, or Caucasian Spice Box’s ajika chicken, and I may not have loved The Horn or the Turk’s Head, but the food was so good that it didn’t matter.

I got wind recently that a similar arrangement was in place over on the edge of West Reading at the Butler in Chatham Street, where an outfit called Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen had popped up and was offering a full menu of Caribbean classics. I have fond memories of the Butler: it’s a handsome building which has stood proud for many years surrounded by the architectural chaos of the old Chatham Street car park with its curving Brutalist concrete walkway and the gleaming apartment buildings that have sprung up more recently, much like the house from Up. In this week’s scorching weather I couldn’t think of a better place to try, so I headed over with my friend Graeme, last seen enduring imaginable horrors at Taco Bell.

“Don’t you want to know where we’re going?” I said as we made our way down Broad Street. In the run-up to our visit Graeme had steadfastly told me that he only wanted to find out on the day.

“No, I like a surprise. Anyway, we’re heading in the direction of KFC, so I can still dream.” Graeme has a love of the secret blend of herbs and spices that exceeds even mine: when he was recovering from Covid at the start of the year, the first thing he asked for when he was past the worst was a bucket of the Colonel’s finest.

“I have a good feeling about this place, don’t worry. I hope it will make amends for that quesadilla.”

“Nothing on earth can make up for that.” 

I felt like pointing out that he did volunteer to come to Taco Bell, but I thought better of it. But Graeme’s mood lightened immediately when we rounded the bend of Chatham Street and he saw the board outside the Butler advertising Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen. “This is great! I love Caribbean food.”

I hadn’t realised how much outside space the Butler has, but it turns out there’s quite a lot. There were plenty of tables out front in the unforgiving sun, a happy few of them sporting parasols, and initially I though it might have been fun to eat dinner with the background hum of the Chatham Street traffic. But I found out when I went in to grab a menu that there was a courtyard out back, a lovely little sloping space with a little more shade, and so our decision was made. 

The pub and the kitchen run separately, so you order your drinks at the bar and your food out back, where the kitchen operates out of a different building. The menu immediately presents a couple of problems: one is that you sort of want to eat everything, the other is that because the three most iconic mains can be served in small or large sizes ordering everything is almost a realistic possibility. None of the large mains come in over fourteen pounds, most of them are closer to eleven, and there are both vegetarian and vegan options in the form of macaroni pie and a sweet potato curry respectively.

The “sides and nibbles” section is brilliantly flexible, giving you the option to order starters, have extras with your main course or even, potentially, just go for a sort of Caribbean tapas where you try it all. The majority of them hover around the six pound mark. We sort of went for a mixture of all three of those approaches – although it soon became apparent that Graeme’s appetite was even bigger than mine, which pretty much makes him my ideal dining companion (on the walk over he was complaining about having gone up to a thirty-six inch waist in recent months: if I ever slimmed down to a thirty-six I’d probably go on a week-long bender to celebrate).

“We have to have plantain as one of our starters” he said.

“I’ve always struggled with plantain. I think it’s because I went off bananas in 1999, the year I did the cabbage soup diet so I could fit into my suit for my brother’s wedding.”

Graeme gave me an indulgent look, as if he couldn’t work out which of those two sentences was the most moronic.

“Okay, we can skip the plantain, but we have to have some of the handmade patties.”

“Salt fish?”

“Exactly.”

We narrowed it down to just the four starters and two mains and I wandered over to Stevie and his partner, who were sitting at one of the pub tables waiting for orders. It transpired that they didn’t have any patties, and after a little more to-ing and fro-ing our order was placed. 

“My friend thinks we’re going to still be hungry after this lot” I said, and she laughed.

“He hasn’t seen our portions.”

Our food came to forty-eight pounds, not including tip, and once I’d got that sorted Graeme wandered into the bar and got us a couple of very satisfying pints of Neck Oil. Really, it was perfect. The sun was shining, I had good company, a cold beer was in front of me and food was on the way. I had that feeling that this could be my next favourite place: it doesn’t often happen, maybe once every couple of years, but I could feel that familiar, dangerous sensation of my expectations gradually rising. Only what appeared to be a gathering of Reading’s Socialist Worker Party in the corner was slightly incongruous. What were socialists doing picking a pub whose name was the embodiment of servitude to the ruling classes? I guess the hard left has never been known for its sense of humour.

Our starters were uniformly excellent, even if the salt fish patties had to wait for another time. I’ve always struggled with chicken wings, but these were magnificent stuff – ten of the blighters for seven pounds, all wonderfully crispy, all yielding plenty of meat and all bloody delicious. The menu describes them as “dark rum glazed”, and that wasn’t quite true: instead they came unglazed with the dark rum sauce lurking at the bottom of the foil tray. It might have been a happy accident, but I preferred it that way – less messy, more crunchy and you could still dredge bits of chicken through the sauce and fully appreciate how sweet and boozy it was; I wouldn’t be surprised if that sauce had turned out to be 90% rum.

“Those are magnificent” said Graeme as we made inroads into the big pile of napkins that had also been brought to our table. We’d also gone for the most expensive of the starters, coconut island shrimp. These were coated in panko breadcrumbs and coconut and served with a little tub of scotch bonnet aioli. I really enjoyed these too – the texture was more fluffy than firm, but you got a good helping of plump prawns. They could have done with more of the aioli, which I liked, but our cutlery basket also had a trio of hot sauces with it so we tried them with the Baron sauce which was almost luminous yellow and very hot indeed.

“I could come here and eat these starters tapas-style every day” said Graeme, and I couldn’t have agreed more: I was already beginning to wonder when (it was no longer an if) I’d be back. That decision was vindicated by our third starter, some truly beautiful beef and jerk pork dumplings which skipped the velvet rope and headed straight for my mind palace of happy food memories. The texture of these was spot on – the filling firm and fiery, the dumpling caramelised on one side – and plonking them in the dark soya dip was hugely satisfying. Everything went perfectly with a cold IPA, too: on a hot day like that, I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.

I felt that our mains continued the momentum nicely, although Graeme wasn’t quite so sure. I’d let him pick first and he’d chosen the curry goat, which arrived in a massive portion, on the bone. Initially I’d wondered whether the plastic cutlery – more hygiene theatre – would be up to the job, but Graeme deftly demonstrated that keeping the meat on the bone would have been more of a challenge.

“I don’t know what I think of it. It’s not quite a chip shop curry sauce, but it’s quite sweet.”

I was allowed to try a bit and for what it was worth, I loved it. There was definitely a fruitiness to it, but also a heat that slowly built, and the meat was stunningly tender. It was great to see some sprigs of thyme in there too, adding a little complexity. That said, I’ve always had a sweet tooth, so maybe this was more my kind of thing than Graeme’s, although he did tell me that in a previous job he came into contact with lots of Caribbean families and was always being given Caribbean home cooking to try, so perhaps he’d been spoilt by that. In any case, any issues with a slight lack of heat were easily rectified with a slug of that highlighter-yellow hot sauce, and all was well.

Personally if I’d ordered the curry goat I would have been delighted. Instead I had to slum it with the jerk chicken, and by slum it I mean lord it. The menu claims that the chicken is marinated for twenty-four hours and drum-cooked with pimento wood, and it really looked the part: that beautiful bronzed colour and all that phenomenal crispy skin. It felt like I had the best part of a whole chicken in front of me, and the taste was superb – smokey, almost leathery, with depth of flavour that can only come from time very well spent. Eating it, there in that courtyard, off a paper plate with a plastic knife and fork I felt transported, in the best possible sense. It reminded me, in some way I couldn’t place, of eating grilled meat at a roadside ocakbasi in Turkey, of being somewhere else.

“It wasn’t bad”, Graeme said later, but I do think it was a tiny bit on the dry side.”

“I didn’t have that problem, most of it was perfectly soft.”

“That’s because you deliberately gave me a dry bit” he said. “And it was a bit without skin.”

He might have been joking, he probably was, but many a true word’s spoken in jest and I didn’t quite know him well enough yet to judge. Was I just a bad sharer?

The accompaniments were also terrific – rice and peas, all present and correct, along with a tangy tangle of pickled escovitch peppers and onions, and sticky slices of plantain which completely converted me to the stuff (“didn’t I tell you?” Graeme said, enjoying it every bit as much as I would have). But the other real beauty was the side of macaroni pie we’d ordered on the side, a glorious claggy, cheesy, comforting dish with a splendid crunchy crust. Before I ate it I questioned just how interesting it would be to have a main course of the stuff: afterwards I could well understand the appeal.

Our meal finished, both of us surprisingly full, we finished our beers and headed off to the Nag’s for the post match analysis. I would have been tempted to stay for the people watching alone – by this point a chap had turned up and greeted virtually everybody in the courtyard with the term “comrade” – but Graeme, a centrist like myself, had seen enough. 

On the way out I stopped to tell Stevie’s partner just how much we’d enjoyed our food. She had done a top notch job of looking after us all evening and she seemed really pleased with the feedback, although she accepted it with the serene confidence of somebody who knows their food is good. They’d been trading for a couple of months, she told me, and things were going well, especially as the Butler was hardly known as a food pub. She said they were going to go on Deliveroo from the following day, and we promised to recommend the food to as many people as we could.

I’m sorry, as usual, to have gone on so long. But for once I feel slightly less guilty, because I wanted to try and capture the excitement of the meal I had. Seeing someone starting out, at the beginning of a journey, not knowing where it will take them or their food is exciting. And it’s exciting to get to try it early on in that process. It takes me back to all my favourite discoveries in all the time I’ve spent writing this blog, and it reminds me that Reading’s food scene never loses its ability to surprise – that there’s always potential for the next thing to be the next big thing. And when that happens, you just know it. That scorching evening on Chatham Street, I knew it.

When I got home and explained how good my meal was to Zoë, she expressed her chagrin that she’d missed out on this one. And then we got our diaries out and tried to work out when we could visit it next. The chances are pretty strong that I’ll have been there again by the time any of you make it to the Butler. Next time I want to try those patties, the roti and the chicken curry (and everything I had on this visit, even though I know that’s impossible). If you get there before me and order any of the things I didn’t try, please tell me how good they were. Make me jealous: you know you want to.

Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen – 8.1
The Butler, 85-91 Chatham Street, Reading, RG1 7DS
07780 829127

https://www.facebook.com/ChefStevieAnderson
Delivery available: via Deliveroo

Takeaway review: Rosa’s Thai Café

Rosa’s Thai is no longer on Deliveroo Editions, although a permanent site is apparently coming to Reading on the ground floor of Jackson’s Corner. If you want Thai takeaway, try ThaiGrr! or Thai Table instead.

This might be hard to believe, but I’ve been writing this blog for coming up to eight years, and in that time many different people have joined me on duty, sitting the other side of the table from me as we’ve experienced both triumph and disaster. For the first three years of the blog, my regular dining companion was my ex-wife, but for the last four years I’ve had all sorts of plus ones as I’ve explored restaurants in Reading and beyond. 

Whether it’s my waspish mother (“Good view of the wheelie bins”), my friend Reggie (“Don’t tell them I drink Amstel, they’ll think I’m a right chump”), ex-Reading Buses CEO Martijn Gilbert eating a naan the size of his head or my delightful friend Jerry trying Japanese food for the first time in his sixties, they all add something to the experience – for me, anyway, if not for the reader. All in all, over twenty people have come out with me to review restaurants since this blog began. And there may well be more to come: I already have a poor unfortunate who has volunteered to accompany me when I get round to reviewing Wendy’s.

Nowadays, my most regular dining companion is of course my other half Zoë, especially this year when I’ve mostly reviewed takeaways. It’s safe to say that she’s build up rather a cult following over the last six months, to the extent where I get Tweets about it. “Hope there are some good Zoë quotes this week”, one reader has said to me – more than once – and recently my friend Graeme told me that he mainly reads the reviews for Zoë’s comments. “They belong on motivational dinner plates” he said. 

He has a fair point. Her greatest hits include referring to something as “artisan shit”, describing Pho’s legendary chicken fried rice as “hot as balls”, calling a hearty meal a “proper gut bash” (can’t you just see that round the edge of a piece of Emma Bridgewater?) and staging a revolt during our only attempt at a restaurant DIY kit (“Sixty pounds and they ask you to roll your own fucking dough”). That’s before we get on to her summing up Rizouq’s beautiful samosas as “fried, fresh as fuck and full of meat”, or savaging O Português’ grilled chicken as “a mirage… just a carcass covered in tasty skin”

I’m lucky to live with someone so endlessly quotable – I’ve long suspected I’m the true plus one in this partnership – although I should add that she writes beautifully on her own blog. Anyway, I’m sorry to have to tell you that this week’s meal is a solo effort. “I need some time off” she told me. “I’m never going to lose any weight eating a takeaway every week like this.” I tried my best to dissuade her – think of the readers I’ll haemorrhage, I told her – but when Zoë’s mind is made up it’s decidedly hard to change. “My jeans are saying pack it in” she added later. 

So, this week it’s a solo takeaway from Rosa’s Thai Café, the smallish London chain of Thai restaurants. It started as a privately owned Thai restaurant in Spitalfields before expanding to other London locations. Then – and this is a familiar story by now – it was the subject of a private equity-backed management buyout which installed an ex-director of Wahaca as chief executive and the former chief executive of Yo! Sushi as chairman. Good times! At the time, a managing partner at “investments specialists” Connection Capital said “Rosa’s Thai Café’s differentiated and well thought-through business model puts it in an excellent position to exploit growth opportunities, even with today’s macro-market headwinds”, and if that’s not a sentence that makes you peckish I don’t know what is.

Anyway, the rest follows a well-trodden path: Rosa’s Thai expanded to Leeds, to Liverpool, to Manchester and Birmingham. The only other Thai chain I can think of is Giggling Squid, and Rosa’s Thai is clearly trying to leapfrog them for national primacy. In their search for new growth opportunities (err, sites) they have turned to Deliveroo Editions, which means Reading is one of the only other places that gets to try out their food. So off I went to Deliveroo to see if the soul of that little restaurant in Spitalfields in 2008 was still alive in the menu today.

To their credit, the menu on Deliveroo is relatively compact, and largely the same as the one they offer in their restaurants, with the exception of a few starters. The mains are divided into noodle dishes on the one hand, and curries and what they call “wok stars” (lord, no) on the other. The prices are the same as those in the restaurants, which must mean there’s some loss leading going on given the cut Deliveroo invariably takes. Starters cluster around the seven pound mark and mains between nine and twelve, although you pay extra for rice. “Pick one each and try serving them at the centre of the table” says Rosa’s Thai’s Deliveroo page of the starters, seemingly under the impression that they’ve invented communal dining.

There are decent vegan options, which you’d expect with Thai food, and most of them revolve around tofu although they do manage to slip in some “This Isn’t Chicken”, last seen on the Pho menu. I still don’t understand the name, because by definition you could use it to describe anything which isn’t chicken: Quorn, beef, Michael Gove, an air mattress, the list is endless. It’s a nice touch, though, that you can also order pumpkin crackers instead of prawn crackers.

Anyway, I ordered a main with jasmine rice and a couple of starters – partly for research and partly so Zoë could try some of the dishes to liven up her boring ready meal – and everything came to thirty-two pounds, not including rider tip. If that sounds expensive, bear in mind that I ordered two starters.

As so often with Deliveroo, things were very speedy indeed: I placed my order at ten past seven and less than fifteen minutes later it was on its way, with the rider taking a mere five minutes to get to my door. I’d say that’s right on the border between “quick” and “too quick”: I imagine as restaurants have reopened, the demand on takeaway services has declined. Everything came in a paper bag liberally stuck down with Deliveroo Editions stickers, and a handwritten note saying “Keep Calm And Curry On”, also asking me to leave a review on the app.

Now, with many takeaways I’ve ordered recently, including both the Thai meals I’ve had this year, the restaurant had not only popped a lid on but wrapped the whole thing in clingfilm first. If I thought that was an unnecessary belt and braces approach, the delivery from Rosa’s Thai proved me wrong: the bottom of the bag, and all the napkins, were liberally soaked with red curry sauce. Fortunately, there was still a lot of it in the cardboard container but as it turned out it was a telling sign – although Rosa’s Thai were delivery only, one of the things I took away from my meal was that they hadn’t quite given enough thought to how takeaways work.

The best example of that was the first starter I ordered, the pork skewers. These were probably the best thing I ate, as it happens. The pork was nicely tender with just one suspiciously bouncy bit, and that tenderness suggested there had been some marination, even if the supposed honey and soy hadn’t made it into the skewers. The tamarind dipping sauce they came with was worth the price of admission alone. I would have liked to see some evidence of char, of caramelisation on the pork, but more to the point the way they’d served this for takeaway was plain silly.

I accept that it’s never going to be quite as delicious as a takeaway dish as it would be taken straight off the grill and send to your table, but they could have given it a fighting chance by not serving it in a plastic coffin buried underneath a pile of chilled shredded cabbage and carrot like some gastronomic hostage situation. Even so, I liked it – as did Zoë who hoovered up one of the skewers. “This is good” she said. “But you know I love the porks.” (See? She just couldn’t stay away.)

Less successful were the sweetcorn patties. Normally I would have made a beeline for the chicken satay, but I checked myself because I always seem to order it and my reviews don’t always contain enough of interest for vegetarians, let alone the rest of you. So I veered off the beaten path, but I’m not sure it was worth it. The fritters were heavy and stodgy, not light and crispy, with a disconcerting habit of shedding stray kernels, like droppings, on the plate. Apparently the batter has red curry paste and kaffir lime in it, but they didn’t really make their presence felt. Worse was the sweet chilli sauce, which had so much sweetness and so little chilli that it felt like jam, and the whole thing was almost more like a dessert.

“This is when I could do with you weighing in, saying something like this is a fucking corn festival and a half.”

“I wouldn’t say that” said Zoë, trying her first forkful of a corn fritter. “It’s okay, actually. I feel like I’m getting some lemongrass.”

For my main course I’d gone for Rosa’s Thai’s chicken penang curry, one of two different red curries they do. It was nice, and if “nice” sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise it’s probably because I am. Everything was well cooked and well put together. The sauce had some heat, although it felt slightly lacking in depth. And it made a surprising amount of difference that the bamboo shoots were finely shredded – so different from the big planks of it you often get in Thai curries. But the overall feeling was one of inoffensive pleasantness. I don’t know why I expected a little more from Rosa’s Thai but I did, and when I didn’t get it I wondered who this restaurant really appealed to – diners or private equity firms.

So far from a terrible meal, all things considered, but here’s the problem: I just can’t think of the question to which “Rosa’s Thai” is the answer. If you want Thai food in Reading I would urge you to support Thai Table, which has been around for ages and, without fanfare, churns out reliably solid, lovely food. And if you want to try something exciting and new, I highly recommend ThaiGrr!, which really impressed me when I ordered from it recently. Crucially, both restaurants have properly thought about how to make delivery work, they have a better and more interesting range of starters and they’re just all-round more appealing.

By comparison Rosa’s Thai, although by no means bad, falls a little short. And this isn’t about taking against Deliveroo, or Deliveroo Editions: VIP Very Italian Pizza is doing exactly the same kind of market research as Rosa’s Thai. It just so happens that they offer something a little better, more interesting and more distinctive: Rosa’s Thai, on the other hand, just isn’t the growth opportunity I was looking for. I’m taking a week off next week, so you won’t get a review until two Fridays’ time. I plan to spend the next week or so persuading Zoë to join me on my next on duty visit. Wish me luck.

Rosa’s Thai

https://deliveroo.co.uk/menu/reading/reading-editions/rosas-thai-editions-rea
Order via: Deliveroo only

Takeaway review – Banarasi Kitchen at the Spread Eagle

As of October 2022 Banarasi Kitchen is no more and a new Indian kitchen, called Bagheera, will be operating out of the Spread Eagle under new management.

In its capacity as The U.K.’s Largest Town™️ Reading has many neighbourhoods and tribes who live in them. Some people are proud Caversham residents, some are firm supporters of Katesgrove, others fly the flag for New Town, or the university area. Just like having a favourite chippy, everyone has their own opinion and could happily argue the merits of living round the corner from Geo Café or Pau Brasil, just down the road from the river or from the Harris Garden.

Personally I’ve always lived either in the centre or on the east side, and I grew up in Woodley so I’ve always been more familiar with that end of town; the west side, out towards Tilehurst, remains a bit of a mystery to me. Despite that I have a huge fondness for west Reading, for its vitality and its charm. There’s always something going on out that way, and if you walk from the Nag’s Head to Double-Barrelled down the Oxford Road you see Reading in all its diverse glory. I get cross about the criticism that part of town gets: a lot of it always feels, to me at least, like poorly disguised bigotry. Something about that mosque really seems to bring out the worst in some people.

And there’s more to west Reading than just the Oxford Road: the Bath Road is grand and sweeping, with beautiful tall houses at its eastern end and the likes of Florida Court, green-roofed, pretty but incongruous, further down. The Tilehurst Road also has a lot going for it, and there are some lovely houses between it and the Oxford Road: Brunswick Hill, for instance, is always a good source of house envy. And off those main roads you can see lots of pretty little whitewashed houses with porches – places like Hollins Walk, or Benyon Court. You could almost describe them as Instagrammable.

And however well you think you know it, west Reading always throws up surprises. The fact that there’s a football ground not far from Double-Barrelled, for example, or the absurdly photogenic Wilder’s Folly a short distance from IKEA. I recently asked on Instagram, after a meditative coffee sitting up on Balmore Rise, what people’s favourite spots in Reading were. Several people mentioned McIlroy Park and its splendid view of the town: I’d never even heard of it before, and now it’s on my to visit list.

I also maintain that West Reading has always been Reading’s most interesting area in terms of food and drink. Something about it encourages people to try new things and take risks: it has Reading’s best beer pub in the shape of the Nag’s Head, and the Castle Tap and the Forester’s Arms are, in happier times, also worth a visit. It can claim to be the birthplace of Reading’s burgeoning coffee scene – the first Workhouse was there, back when C.U.P. and Tamp were just useful Scrabble words.

More to the point, it has consistently played host to a selection of some of Reading’s best restaurants. The wonderful and much-missed Bhoj plied its trade on that run of shops opposite Workhouse, and there was a halcyon age where Workhouse also allowed I Love Paella to operate out of its kitchen on evenings and weekends.

Bhoj and I Love Paella are sadly no more, but Kobeda Palace remains one of the best (and best-value) restaurants in town, and Bhoj has been replaced by Oishi, bringing sushi and sashimi to west Reading. I miss Tuscany, the brilliant Polish pizzeria a tiny bit further down the road, and the Jolly Fryer closer to town. Both were perfect for lining the stomach before a session at the Nag’s, but the other thing about having such a vibrant scene is that there’s always somewhere to take its place: I still haven’t reviewed Palmyra, the Lebanese restaurant which opened on the Oxford Road a while back, for example.

All this brings us neatly to Banarasi Kitchen, an Indian restaurant operating out of the Spread Eagle pub, between the Oxford and Tilehurst Road. They began cooking there last year and the pub joined Instagram to promote its new offering. Gradually I started to hear some noise about the food being worthy of investigation, and when I announced that I was going to start reviewing takeaways several people on Twitter told me I needed to check it out.

Banarasi Kitchen has a famous fan, too: none other than Naomi Lowe, the gluten-free genius behind Nibsy’s, who lives nearby and told me it was well worth a try (she particularly recommended the daal yellow butter fry, “although I bet you won’t have it with chips like I do”). That was all the encouragement I needed, so I fired up my laptop on a dreary Tuesday night, ready to order. But before I did that, I decided to consult a friend of mine who has forgotten more about Indian cuisine than I’ll ever know: I asked Nandana, co-owner of Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen and semi-regular fixture in the Guardian, what she thought of the menu.

“It looks decent.” she said. “I’m interested in the rye ke aloo, mustard-infused potatoes. That’s a very popular dish from west Bengal, close to the border with Bangladesh. I can see a few dishes from southern India too – murg kori gassi from the south-west coast and sea bass moili from Kerala.”

The menu struck me, from my inexpert point of view, as nicely balanced between some specific regional specials and an approachable mixture of more well-known dishes. So if you want to eat a rogan josh, a jalfrezi or a korma you can, and you can add onion bhajis or samosas if you like, but there are also momo and chaat, Punjabi cholay and railway lamb if you want something more off the beaten track. They even do fish and chips, burgers and salads, and a kids’ menu – which if nothing else is helpful if you really fancy a curry but the rest of your household is more conservative. Mains go from ten to thirteen pounds, and most starters are less than seven pounds.

Banarasi Kitchen is on JustEat, Uber Eats and Deliveroo (all under slightly different names) but I wanted the restaurant to take as much of my money as possible, so I phoned the restaurant to place my order directly. My older readers might remember that this used to be the only way it worked when getting takeaway – you rang them up, the line was invariably terrible, the place always sounded packed to the rafters and half the conversation consisted of you repeating yourself, or asking the person on the other end of the phone to. You read out your card details, you hoped they’d taken your address down correctly, you put the phone down and you waited, you waited and then you waited some more.

There was no such problem on this occasion, so I read out my order, gave my address and postcode and listened as the man on the other end of the phone read it back perfectly.

“Do you need my card details?” 

“No, we’ll take payment at the door.” This was another development since I last ordered a conventional takeaway, which must have been, I don’t know, around four years ago.

“How long do you think it will be?”

“Around forty minutes.”

This struck me as reassuring – I live a ten minute drive from the Spread Eagle, and if the ETA had been quicker I might have been concerned. In the event, it was just over an hour before my doorbell rang, during which time I hadn’t been constantly checking my phone to watch an icon of a scooter meandering round Orts Road or, worse still, standing on the bridge over the Oracle for five minutes. My driver may well have got lost, but I didn’t know about it and that suited me fine: it turns out that ignorance is bliss after all.

Sometimes, even when someone is wearing a mask, you can tell they’re smiling, and that’s how it was with the gentleman standing on my doorstep. He was wearing a shirt and tie, which immediately made me take to him, and he asked me how I’d heard about Banarasi Kitchen. I decided to go for the short version – “I’ve seen you on Instagram” – and quickly tapped my PIN in on the card reader before grabbing my food from his insulated bag. The packaging was a mixture of foil-lined bags for the bread, conventional plastic tubs for the curries, rice and chutneys and, randomly, a foil container for one of my starters. I’m pretty sure, though, that everything was recyclable – and, equally importantly, everything was piping hot.

We ordered a couple of starters to eat as sides, because with a takeaway everything comes at once. The lamb samosas were rather good, with a little fire to them, although the decision to use filo pastry instead of something thicker made them feel slightly insubstantial. There were three of them, which might have caused more disagreement if there hadn’t also been three very respectable lamb seekh kebabs. I made do, not that it felt like any sacrifice, with two of these – and they were almost impossibly soft, well spiced and well seasoned. 

The two chutneys that came with the starters were very good indeed – one bright and zingy with bucketloads of mint and coriander, the other sweet with tamarind. I thought I would have liked some raita for the kebabs, but halfway through I found I was more than happy without it. 

I’d picked the murg kori gassi, a Mangalorean chicken curry, after hearing Nandana’s thoughts on the menu and I’m so happy I did. Even on opening it, it didn’t feel like a boring curry made with a generic base sauce – it didn’t look like it had been near a tin of condensed tomato soup, and was a deeper hue with a good helping of curry leaves on top. It was an absolute delight: there was plenty of coconut in there which transformed every forkful of basmati rice and the chicken was both generous and tender. The heat in this dish built perfectly and it reminded me of dishes from Clay’s, in that the sauce was a feature attraction in its own right. The meat was almost secondary: next time I order from Banarasi Kitchen I may well go for the chickpea curry, or something with paneer.

I also couldn’t not order the daal yellow butter fry after hearing such glowing reports from Naomi. Again, it was an excellent decision to defer to someone better informed: this was everything daal should be, earthy and comforting with a good dose of beautifully pungent garlic. 

And although I ate some of the daal with rice, it was even better with bread. We’d ordered a keema naan, which I’m told was rather nice, and a laccha paratha which was probably the only disappointment of the meal – I was hoping for something buttery with plenty of layers, like the excellent example by House Of Flavours, whereas this was a little stodgier and closer to a naan. It did however do a brilliant job when it came to transporting daal from bowl to mouth, and it’s my fault anyway for not ordering chips as I was told to: a rookie mistake on my part.

My final choice, chilli chicken, was a dish I’ve ordered in many Nepalese restaurants, from Sapana Home to Namaste Momo. It’s a beautiful dish when done well, with a hot, sharp and sour sauce which contains, among other things, a little tomato ketchup. Banarasi Kitchen’s version was easily one of the best I’ve had, with a lovely acrid kick that made every mouthful perfectly balanced between pleasure and pain. The chicken was tender, although the pieces were strangely uniform in shape compared to those in the murg kori gassi, and the peppers and onions had the right amount of crunch for contrast. As with the murg kori gassi, every molecule of sauce was swept up and finished off: this just wasn’t food you left if you could possibly help it.

The whole thing made me incredibly happy on an otherwise nondescript evening, and reminded me of the joy that a truly good takeaway can bring – not having to worry about food, or masses of washing up, and just putting yourself in somebody else’s hands for one night. I miss restaurants, but I do also very much like being able to eat delicious food while watching crappy TV, without having to go out in the rain or change out of my comfies. When food is as good as Banarasi Kitchen’s, you don’t feel as if you’ve made any tradeoffs at all.

Our dinner – two starters, three curries, two portions of rice and two breads – came to just under forty-eight pounds, and when I looked at my bill I saw that the restaurant had knocked ten per cent off – impressive value when you think that they don’t charge for delivery. There are all sorts of offers and discount codes and vouchers on the delivery apps, but I would go direct to the restaurant any day of the week. I’m just sorry I didn’t get to leave them a tip, but I’ll make sure I do next time. Hopefully telling everybody how good they are (unless you’re one of those people who already knows) will do my bit to pay it forward.

So there you have it. I’m committed to reviewing a different takeaway every week for the duration of this third lockdown and I’m beginning to realise that it’s a lose-lose situation in some respects. If the meal is bad, you never want to use that restaurant again, and if it’s good you are disappointed that you have to move on to the next one. For those of you anywhere near west Reading I think the emergence of Banarasi Kitchen is extremely good news, and if you haven’t tried them yet I’m looking forward to seeing what you think. When life goes back to normal, I’ll be heading there in the flesh to review it properly. Not only that, but I hear the Spread Eagle has a decent quiz: I suspect I’ll be so glad to be in a pub again that I won’t even mind embarrassing myself by taking part.

Banarasi Kitchen
The Spread Eagle, 117 Norfolk Road, Reading, RG30 2EG
0118 9574507

https://banarasikitchen.com
Order via: Direct through the restaurant, or via Deliveroo, JustEat or Uber Eats