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

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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: VIP Very Italian Pizza

As of March 2022, VIP Very Italian Pizza no longer seems to be on Deliveroo Editions in Reading. A bit of a shame, really.

The world of Deliveroo can be a strange one, if you fire it up on an average night trying to pick something to have for your dinner. You’ll find all sorts – exactly the sort of restaurants you’d expect to be on Deliveroo, restaurants you’d never go for in a million years, random shops (Lloyds Pharmacy, anybody?) restaurants you probably thought were “too good” for Deliveroo and the occasional complete curveball. It’s a bit like Tinder, that other great digital gratifier, in that respect: a real mixed bag.

You’ll also find restaurants that don’t really exist, but happen to be the Deliveroo-only name for a restaurant you do know. So for instance Madras Flavours, a vegetarian South Indian restaurant, opened recently in the spot where Chennai Dosa used to be, across from the library. They’re on Deliveroo, as you might expect. What you might not expect is that also on Deliveroo, and operating from exactly the same address, are restaurants called Epic Momos, Soul Chutney, Indie Wok, Hyderabadi Biryani Club and (my personal favourite), “Fatt Monk”.

And that’s literally not even the half of it: at the time of writing there are no less than twenty-nine different Indian restaurants, all with virtually identical menus, operating on Deliveroo from the same premises on Kings Road. What’s that all about? Why split all your positive feedback between twenty-nine different restaurants – unless you don’t expect it to be positive, of course. 

It’s not just Madras Flavours at it, though: I’ve heard good things about a place called Maverick Burger which definitely has no physical premises under that name. Deliveroo says it operates from Gun Street, so is it Bluegrass BBQ by another name, or Smash trying to keep busy in lockdown? To complicate things further, if you put “Maverick Burger Reading” into Google, it seems to think it’s another name for 7Bone, which makes no sense at all. Another restaurant, called Coco Di Mama, sells pots of pasta and garlic bread. That might tempt you – but would you order from it I told you that it was just Zizzi under another name?

It’s not a phenomenon unique to Deliveroo, either – you can order Japanese food on JustEat from Oishi, down the Oxford Road. Or you can go on the same app and order the same food from Taberu Express, from the same address. Oishi was originally meant to be a second branch of Taberu, the excellent Japanese restaurant on Oxford’s Cowley Road. Why use the name for some, but not all, of Oishi’s deliveries? The mind boggles. And Uber Eats isn’t immune to this either. It has fourteen different Indian restaurants operating out of – yes, you’ve guessed – a single site on Kings Road.

What is unique to Deliveroo, however, is Deliveroo Editions. This is an arrangement where businesses can rent kitchen space from Deliveroo, and use their delivery capability, while offering whatever menu they like. Deliveroo bill these as a way for restaurants to test the water in a particular area without having to shell out considerable startup costs, and Reading is one of only a handful of locations outside London to have Deliveroo Editions.

The most notable restaurants using Deliveroo Editions in Reading are well-known chains largely based in London – Shake Shack, Rosa’s Thai, Chillango, The Athenian and Burger & Lobster. There’s another restaurant doing lobster rolls under the name of Smack, but I saw an order from Smack on Instagram recently which turned up in Burger & Lobster packaging: smoke and mirrors again. Beyond that it’s mostly companies selling cheesecake and ice cream (perhaps they’re another example of the same company operating under two different names: you hardly need to rent a kitchen to sell Ben & Jerry’s). 

The proverbial sore thumb is the subject of this week’s review, the clumsily named VIP Very Italian Pizza. It only has two branches, both in the Brighton area, although their website says their story goes back to Naples in 1845, and that all their ingredients come from their farm there. I couldn’t find out much more about them from my research; there are restaurants with the same name in Rome and Monaco, though I don’t know if they’re linked, and a chain called Very Italian Pizza in the Netherlands, which I assume is a completely separate business. 

Even so, it struck me as an interesting step to take. The pandemic hits, your restaurants struggle to trade and you decide to strike out across the country without a reputation or a brand name to make it easier. You have to admit, that’s a bold move, and it does suggest a certain degree of confidence in their food. It reminded me a little bit, in fact, of the pluckiness of Clay’s when they bought their vacuum-packing and blast-chilling equipment and decided, from a little restaurant on London Street, to try and conquer the world.

Anyway, I’m not reviewing VIP Very Italian Pizza this week because of their backstory, or because they’re my first experience of Deliveroo Editions. I’m reviewing them for the best reason of all, because somebody told me that they were good.  After my disappointing meal at Firezza a couple of months back, one of my readers, Daniel, told me I should have tried VIP Very Italian Pizza (I’ll just call them VIP from now on: typing all that out would grate across a whole review). “They’re real, they are surprisingly fantastic and very authentic” he said. Daniel’s family are Italian and he knows his food, so following up on this one was a no-brainer. 

VIP’s menu is slimmed down from the one they offer in their Brighton restaurants, but still involves an almost bewildering range of pizzas. That does make sense, given that they’re all variations on a theme, but do expect to do a lot of scrolling and narrowing down before you settle on one. They range from eight to fifteen pounds, although you also have the option to build your own. Alternatively, you can order a panuozzo, a giant woodfired sourdough sandwich: I made a mental note to try one of those next time. There is a small range of starters, too, along with a charcuterie selection for one or two people, a handful of pasta and salad dishes and a few tempting desserts. 

The other thing worth mentioning is that VIP’s menu also has a deli section, so along with your dinner you can pick up some Italian biscuits, some mozzarella or any of the charcuterie used on the pizzas. I really liked this touch and, again, it suggested pride in their ingredients: lots of restaurants talk about this, but they don’t always put their money where their mouths are in this way. I ordered a couple of pizzas, a selection of charcuterie and a couple of desserts, which came to forty-eight pounds, not including tip.

Deliveroo Editions’ kitchen isn’t far from the Moderation, ideally suited to serve both the town centre and Caversham, and my delivery experience was fuss and complication free. I ordered at five past seven, my order was on its way twenty minutes later and within half an hour of ordering a black cab was at my door with the food. Everything was in recyclable cardboard, and their packaging also tells you a bit about their ingredients and sourdough base – a nice touch.

In normal times – in a restaurant, people watching, with a cold beer on the go – I’d have had my charcuterie selection first and my pizza second. I do miss those times. Instead, we went for the pizzas first, reasoning that they would go cold and the charcuterie wouldn’t. I had picked probably my favourite pizza, thinking it would make a good benchmark – a Napoletana, which happens to include olives, capers, anchovies and chilli, many of my favourite things. I’m not sure whether things had moved around in transit, but my pizza had a strange bald spot in the middle and, on further investigation, one corner of the thing was completely devoid of olives, capers or anchovies. Never mind – pizza goes cold so quickly, and at least I knew which bit to eat last.

Having got that whinge out of the way, it really was delicious stuff. It wasn’t stingy with olives and capers the way, say, a Franco Manca pizza would be, and all of the ingredients were really good quality. The intense saltiness of the anchovies, the almost fragrant plump purple olives and the acetic tang of the capers added up to something wonderful: I’ve always thought that this was the pizza for people who love salt and vinegar. 

But more than that, the tomato base was beautifully done, the cheese was top-notch and the base, nicely spotted around the rim, held up superbly.   Zoë’s pizza, the Fiocco di Neve (it translates as snowflake) was every bit as good. It was a simple combination of flavours – sweet thin slivers of onion, salty, punchy gorgonzola and nuggets of coarse, tasty sausagemeat. Sometimes less is more, and this was a good example of that – and the toppings felt generous although, again, the photo suggests there might have been a bit of drift in transit going on in the back of that black cab. VIP’s menu also has a pizza bianca on it which is just fior di latte, potato and sausage, and I can well imagine trying that next time.

We’d also ordered a charcuterie selection for one, and although it didn’t really go after we’d finished the pizza (especially as we’d started to fill up by then) it was still a useful way of checking out the rest of VIP’s produce. It came with some decent toasted sourdough – which would have been even better if we’d eaten it hot, I imagine – and a few bocconcini, but the feature attraction was the meat.  You got a little taster of all the different cured meats they use on their pizzas, all of which you can also buy from the deli to eat at home. 

These broadly fell into three different categories. First, “not bad”: this included the Parma ham and bresaola, both good but unremarkable, a fine Milano salami and a coppa that needed a little more fat and marbling. Second, “really not bad”. This category was comprised of a thoroughly decent coarse speck, some excellent spiniata, a coarse Napoli salami and, my pick of the bunch, some beautiful pancetta with herbal notes and smoky fat almost like lardo. The third category was the mortadella, which I left: I’ve tried it in Bologna and my understanding is that if you don’t like it there, you probably won’t like it anywhere. 

My excuse is that I was saving myself for dessert. I’ve never had a cannolo, and I’ve heard friends rave about them on holidays in Sicily. I can’t tell you whether VIP’s version was authentic or not, but it didn’t quite hit the spot for me – I was hoping the rolled tube of dough would be airier, crisper and bit less like cardboard, and the ricotta inside a little lighter, fresher and more speckled with chocolate chips. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, just that I expected even more – but perhaps it’s unfair to compare this with the snaffling the real deal in a café in Noto.

It’s fairer, perhaps, to compare it with Zoë’s choice of dessert, which came out on top. Scialatelli alla Nutella consisted of fried, sugared strips of pizza dough liberally covered in Nutella. I imagine that sentence either made you hungry or left you cold, but for what it’s worth I loved this dish. It had next to no nutritional value and, like so many things with next to no nutritional value, it was extremely good for the soul. Even lukewarm, having cooled down while we waded through our pizza and charcuterie, it was a superb dessert, like an Italian take on churros with the saturation cranked up. I was allowed to try some, and it made me sad that I hadn’t ordered it while secretly relieved that I had dodged quite that many calories. Zoë didn’t want any of my cannolo in return, which suggests I sold it to her roughly as well as I’ve sold it to you.

So, all in all a very enjoyable meal – Daniel’s summary of “surprisingly fantastic” is both accurate and exceptionally concise. And yet I still felt conflicted at the end of it, because a part of me felt like I’d done the dirty on Papa Gee to have a one night stand with VIP – new in town but, potentially, with no intention of putting down roots. This is where it starts to get complicated to be a consumer, especially a consumer with an interest in building a community. Was I helping a very good pizza restaurant to try Reading out in the hope that they might open a branch here, or was I supporting Brighton’s local economy when I should be helping our local hero on Prospect Street? Was I part of the solution, or part of the problem?

I imagine everybody will have a different answer to that. To some people it won’t even be a question: they just want the best pizza, or the cheapest, or to buy from whoever has a deal on that day. And to some people it’s unthinkable heresy to order from an outsider, or from Deliveroo Editions, or even from Deliveroo in general. I understand all of that, or at least I like to think I do. Modern life is rife with difficult choices. Sometimes choice is a luxury we don’t really need and sometimes – if, for instance, you want to buy some vegetarian dosa from a restaurant on Kings Road – it’s just an illusion. 

I still tend to think of delivery apps in general as a necessary evil, and I don’t know what I make of Deliveroo Editions as a concept, but I came away from my meal with a certain respect for VIP. Even if their stay in Reading is a fleeting one, I wish them every success with it and I think their pizza is pretty damn good. But I’ll make sure I order a takeaway from Papa Gee in the not too distant future – from Deliveroo, again, regrettably – if only by way of penance. It turns out that they do versions of both of the desserts I tried from VIP, so maybe they’ll stop me daydreaming about that pizza dough, slathered in Nutella. Perhaps you have your cannolo and eat it, after all.

VIP Very Italian Pizza

https://deliveroo.co.uk/menu/reading/reading-editions/vip-very-italian-pizza-editions-rea
Order via: Deliveroo only

Takeaway review: O Português

As of March 2023, O Portugues is closed until further notice.

Many years ago, in another life, I was spending a long weekend in Lisbon (remember when we used to have those?) and I had the good fortune to go on a food tour hosted by the journalist and writer Celia Pedroso. Every city – every country too, for that matter – should have an advocate like Pedroso, and anybody who went to Lisbon thinking that Portugal was all peri-peri chicken and egg custard tarts would have had their mind absolutely blown by a few hours in her expert company.

It turned out that Portugal had cheese and ham that could rival anything from Spain, had not only port but also wonderful rich red wines and fresh, almost effervescent vinho verde. We sat in a restaurant called Tagide, looking out over the city, trying petiscos, Portugal’s take on small sharing plates, which were every bit as delicious as any tapas I’d eaten in Andalusia. Then there was ginjinha, a cherry liqueur sometimes served in – just imagine this – an edible chocolate shot glass. Throw the aforementioned chicken and pasteis de nata into the mix, and you have the makings of a wonderful, unsung cuisine.

I came away from that afternoon thinking that Portugal, so often overshadowed by its Iberian cousin, might be the best-kept food secret in Europe. It’s well-kept enough, for some reason, that Portuguese food has never quite made it to these shores; London has never had a Portuguese invasion the way as, say, Peruvian food some years ago and, closer to home, in nearly eight years of writing this blog I’ve only ever reviewed two Portuguese restaurants. Both of them left me a bit baffled, to put it lightly: was it just that the food didn’t travel well?

All of this made me very curious indeed when the old Bart’s Steakhouse site next to Palmer Park, which was Colley’s Supper Rooms for many years, reopened as O Português. All the early signs pointed to a hearty, authentic Portuguese restaurant, and the restaurant’s social media output – all bilingual – suggested a wide and interesting menu, ever-changing daily specials and huge amounts of support from the local Portuguese community. With the exception of Deliveroo-only London imports like Burger & Lobster and Rosa’s Thai, O Português is probably the restaurant most readers have told me they want me to check out. They’re on JustEat, so on a quiet weekday lunchtime I sat down to pore over their menu and decide what to order for dinner.

Researching the menu was an awful lot of fun and involved having JustEat open in one browser tab, Google in another. It was both an education in Portuguese food and a reminder of how little I knew about it. The menu had a selection of just under ten starters, most of them hovering around the seven pound mark, and a wide range of main courses ranging from ten to twenty pounds. Some had descriptions, some didn’t, but I hadn’t heard of much of it and the more I researched the hungrier I got. Did I fancy arroz de marisco, seafood rice that might rival a paella, or bacalhau a bráz, a sort of salt cod scrambled egg dish with matchstick potatoes? 

Everywhere I looked a different genre of gastronomic temptation was waving from the menu, shouting “pick me!”. And of course, the problem with looking up all these different Portuguese specialities was that Google always seemed to throw up the platonic ideal of each dish, a picture of every single one as its absolute best self. It partly wanted to make me order from O Português, it very much made me want to hop on the next plane to Porto and, perhaps most of all, it made me hope that ordering from O Português would make me feel less sad about the fact that I couldn’t so much get on the RailAir, let alone fly to Portugal at the drop of a hat. 

I deliberated, I horse-traded with my other half Zoë and we placed an order for that evening – two starters and two mains, coming to just over thirty-six pounds, including delivery and service charge. Then we got on with our day, but every now and again, on our afternoon walk, I would remember that I had this takeaway to look forward to and I thought what I always think with these review meals: I hope it’s good.

We’d ordered our food to arrive at seven pm, and the JustEat experience was pretty efficient, painless and slightly early. We were told at just before twenty to seven that our rider was on his way, and he pulled up outside the house barely five minutes later. Most of our food was in foil containers with cardboard lids, all recyclable, and one dish we’d ordered was in polystyrene. At the time I thought nothing of it, but later Zoë said “considering it’s less than ten minutes down the road it’s just not hot enough” and, on reflection, I tended to agree.

O Português’ starters mostly read like unpretentious bar food and I was excited about trying them. The first of them, pica pau, was thinly cut pork or beef in a spicy, beery gravy with pickled vegetables: the name translates as woodpecker, and the idea is that you pick away at it with a cocktail stick while drinking a cold Super Bock (or, in my case that evening, a beautiful bottle of Alhambra 1925, a birthday present from a friend). 

That sounds fantastic in theory, but O Português’ version was a bit challenging in practice. There was plenty of beef, most of it reasonably tender, but I didn’t detect any spice and next to nothing you could describe as gravy. Instead, there was a lot of pickled cauliflower and carrot, so much so that the sharp tang of vinegar was the main detectable flavour of the whole lot. I was inclined to give O Português the benefit of the doubt: I suspect this dish was reasonably authentic and probably just not for me. But I love pickles and I still found this a bit acrid; Zoë, who despises vinegar in all its forms, couldn’t cope with even a forkful of this dish. Strangest of all, it was a lot of food for six pounds fifty: if you liked it, you’d describe it as amazing value. If you didn’t, it was just cheap.

Fantastic in theory probably also sums up the other starter we had, another iconic Portuguese dish and again, meant to be robust rather than fancy. I had been tempted by the prego no pau, a “nailed” steak sandwich with garlic – apparently – literally hammered into it, but instead I went for bifana, which is probably the national sandwich of Portugal. And again, some of the problems with it may have derived from the disconnect between reading all about how amazing these could be in theory and then eating O Português’ in practice. 

In the wonderful theoretical world of the internet, the pork loin used in a bifana is thin and marinated, soused in flavour. In the real world of the polystyrene container in my living room, the pork was thicker, drier and, it seemed to me, ever so slightly overcooked. There was a good pungent waft of garlic underneath the pork, but it felt like it had been added afterwards rather than cooked alongside it. Perhaps if I’d had this in a tasca somewhere in the Bairro Alto, I’d have loved it, but on my sofa it lacked that power to transport.

Zoë liked it more than me – “thank god for bread and pork” were her exact words, but that might be because she had so little time for her main course. She had gone for the frango grelhado, grilled chicken, thinking that it was a classic Portuguese dish and relatively easy to get right. Now, ordinarily in these takeaway reviews Zoë plays a relatively minor role. On this occasion, however, I’ll have to quote her extensively, because she disliked her dinner so much that I ended up resorting to grabbing my phone, opening the Notes app and taking dictation at numerous points throughout the rest of the evening.

“It’s a mirage” she started. “It looks like it’s going to be a delicious baby chicken, like the ones from Bakery House, but actually it’s just a carcass covered in tasty skin.”

The forkful Zoë had let me have taste indeed have a tasty coating and I’d rather liked it. I wasn’t sure it was better than Nando’s, and it definitely wasn’t better than the best roast chicken I’d had in Lisbon, but it wasn’t terrible.

“You know that bit of chicken I let you try? That was most of the meat there was on the whole thing. It had more bones than Cemetery Junction. And another thing: it tastes to me like it’s been reheated. It feels like a quarter of chicken you’d get from a chicken shop.”

I supposed it was possible. I knew, for instance, that Nando’s precooked its chicken before finishing it on the grill: perhaps O Português did likewise. As if to prove her point, she lifted the whole scrawny thing up. It dangled uselessly from her fork, as if from a gibbet.

“It’s tough in places. I think it’s been reheated. It’s the chicken I feel sorry for. If it’s going to die, it should at least give somebody some pleasure. And the chips are just cold and hard.”

They’d looked pretty decent and home made on the plate, but apparently not.

“What about the rice?”

“It’s okay, but it’s rice. How wrong can you go with rice?” 

She had a point.

I’d picked my main having scrolled through O Português’ social media and when it turned up, it definitely looked the part. Arroz con pato, or duck with rice, sounded really promising. And again, it was a huge portion – tons of rice with what looked like shredded duck leg tumbled through it, and crispy slices of chourico and what looked like smoked pork on top. I mean, on paper, how good does that sound? And even looking at the picture below – well, it does look the part.

And yes, in theory, this dish should have been a standout. But there’s that word, theory, again: in reality it somehow managed to be less than the sum of its parts. The chourico was lovely and smoky (you smelled it the instant the lid came off the foil container), there was plenty of duck and even the smoked pork – which I’d normally approach with caution – was salty and tasty. But somehow, none of that flavour had made it into the rice and so the whole thing was heavy going. 

And again, portion size and cost made for a confusing combination – this dish was eleven pounds, was far more food than I could physically eat and wasn’t tasty enough that I was remotely disappointed about having to leave some. If you liked it, it would be phenomenal value. It seemed especially odd compared to the chicken dish, which was also eleven pounds but, even by comparison, poor value. Poor value compared to Bakery House’s wonderful boneless baby chicken too, come to think of it.

Later, when we were emptying quite a lot of our dinner into one of Reading Council’s exciting new food recycling caddies, she pointed to a clump of something beige in the foil dish. “See that? That’s where I spat a chip out.” I’ve had some iffy chips in my time, often bad enough that I’ve not bothered finishing the portion, but spitting one out isn’t something I’ve ever had to do. The meal left a disappointment which lingered for the rest of the evening, only slightly redeemed by eating some phenomenal chocolate brownies (another birthday gift, as it happens).

I’ve really not looked forward to writing this review, and I’ve rarely taken less pleasure in saying that somewhere wasn’t my cup of tea. I so wanted to like O Português, and I very much wanted to be reminded of everything I love about Portugal. And I find myself in a difficult position because, despite having visited that country several times, I couldn’t even begin to tell you whether the dishes we ate were authentic. It might be that they were, and that I like Portuguese food less than I thought I did, or that they weren’t. 

Or it could just be that the restaurant just had an off day. I don’t even know, really, which is the best case scenario, out of those possible outcomes. I’m sure that O Português has enough of a customer base that this is no skin off their nose, but I still feel sad that I can’t recommend them. I wished that everything I had eaten had been smaller, better and more expensive – and wanting all three of those things from a restaurant, all at once, is just not how it should be.

All I really know is that a small independent restaurant, pretty much the only one of its kind in Reading, cooked a meal I very much struggled to enjoy, and a large part of me dearly wishes this week’s review had reported different news. We still have no tapas restaurant since the sad departure of I Love Paella, and I’m yet to find a Portuguese restaurant in this country that feels like it does their food justice. If you want chicken perfected on a grill, Bakery House remains the place to beat. And if you want the closest thing to Portuguese food here, I’m afraid you’ll have to head to Nando’s. Nando’s isn’t Portuguese either – it’s South African, as a matter of fact – but you probably knew that already, didn’t you?

O Português
21 Wokingham Road, Reading, RG6 1LE
0118 9268949

https://www.facebook.com/OPortuguesInTown
Order via: JustEat

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