The Dairy

It was love at first sight when I first laid eyes on The Dairy. I’d been paying a visit to the MERL on Upper Redlands Road earlier in the day and I’d dimly remembered that The Dairy, one of the bars which was part of the University, was just down the road. I’d never been, so in the spirit of adventure I did a bit of research, checking out the sadly departed Matt Farrall’s excellent article on the subject for the Whitley Pump). Later that week, I dropped in for a drink.

When I got there, I was thoroughly charmed. It took a bit of finding – it’s pretty much completely unsignposted, and you access it by going up a ramp only to find an unadorned door with a simple plaque next to it saying “The Dairy” in a plain, municipal-looking font. Once I got there, though, I liked the look of the place: it’s made up of two big rooms with clean, white walls, sizeable tables (high ones in the main room, lower ones in the back room), comfy furniture and a wide array of decent beers on keg, including four different craft lagers and representatives from many of our local breweries: Siren Craft, Wild Weather and Elusive, not to mention other breweries like New Wharf and XT.

It’s a university bar, but it was open to the public and seemed to have a pretty varied clientele. Not only that, but even without a student discount you could get a pint of good, well-kept craft beer for around three pounds fifty. I found myself making a mental note that this could make a great place for board games nights with friends, or for a quiet pint on the evenings when I fancied a change of scenery from my usual haunts (it was sleepy on a week night at the start of term).

Then I spotted the menu. Now, normally I would never have considered The Dairy as a venue for a food review, but there were lots of interesting touches on the menu which made me wonder. Jerk chicken, curry mutton and Jamaican vegetable stew all looked different from the usual fare and even the burgers, complete with a very now charcoal brioche, seemed slightly out of the ordinary. I took a picture of the menu and resolved to come back to see if this could be the kind of hidden find which always lifts my spirits.

Returning on a Saturday evening with my partner in crime Zoë, The Dairy was much more obviously a student bar and was far busier. I felt a tad decrepit grabbing a stool at one of the high tables, and then swapping it for one better equipped to support my child-bearing hips. That feeling wasn’t helped by looking around to see hordes of young people watching the big screens, playing pool, eating all-day breakfasts (not something on the menu I had ever considered ordering, in all honesty, and especially not at eight o’clock at night) and generally not appreciating that they were slap bang in the middle of the best years of their lives.

I wandered into the back room to see if any tables were available there, but was greeted by such a wall of noise that I thought better of it. I did spot one gentleman at another table who was even older than me, and that reassured me enough to grab a menu. Broadly speaking it divided into two sections (unless you count a very small selection of starters and salads and – of course – that all day breakfast): world food and burgers. We quickly decided to try one of each and I went up to the bar to place the order. None of the dishes costs more than a tenner and once you hand over your card (the whole place is cashless) they give you a little gadget which buzzes when your food is ready, signalling for you to go and pick it up from the hatch. Easy peasy.

The first warning bell rang when the gadget buzzed, no more than ten minutes after placing my order; that felt quick enough that I wondered whether a microwave had been involved. I approached the hatch to find the food had been set down in front of me, but with nobody on the other side to greet me. The shelves behind were full of stuff from Brakes, another disconcerting sign. I would have just taken the dishes and gone back to the table but one of them, the mutton curry, was missing the advertised naan bread and mango chutney. Instead there was a small bowl of what appeared to be giant, wan-looking chips, stood upright. I waited, but nobody appeared, so I said “excuse me” as loudly as I dared and a lady wandered in from what I assume was the kitchen.

“I’m sorry, but I’m waiting for a naan bread” I said, doing the English thing of apologising for expecting to receive what I had ordered.

“It’s a mistake with the menu” I was told tersely. “It’s wrong. You don’t get naan bread, because it’s a Caribbean curry. These are yuca fries.”

Never mind, I thought, carrying everything back to the table and picking up some cutlery from the bar. The mutton curry was Zoë’s, but I managed to try enough of it to dispel the rumour that it had been microwaved: surely it would have been hotter if that was the case. The meat was a tad chewy – not undercooked per se, but not enjoyable to eat and the spicing in it was probably best described as subtle. It was definitely luke-warm, though, and for nine pounds the portion felt a little on the mean side. I didn’t try the yuca fries (although I did google them to find out that they were made of cassava) but Zoe ate a few without any real enthusiasm. They looked like the kind of thing you might use to insulate a loft.

“What do you reckon?” I asked.

“It’s just not hot. To be honest, I’d rather go to Clay’s.” She had a point – I would far rather have spent a little more and had an infinitely better curry elsewhere. I had a feeling the list of places doing a better curry than The Dairy – and this in itself was pretty alarming – probably included Wetherspoon’s. Still, I’ll say this for the mutton curry: it wasn’t the chicken burger, which is an early front runner for the single worst thing I’ll eat in 2019 (let’s hope it bags that prize, because I don’t really want to think about what, if anything, could beat it into second place).

The charcoal brioche was weirdly, cloyingly sweet. The bacon – back, cooked to miserable limpness – was indifferent and salty. The burger itself was breaded and I’m not sure whether it was baked or fried but the coating had the texture of an asteroid with no discernible seasoning: the chicken, once you got to it, at least recognisably had started life as a fillet but after that it had been not so much cooked as mistreated. The thin slice of American cheese on top had been completely unmelted by the lukewarm contents of the brioche. I wasn’t sure how the kitchen had managed to overcook something, yet it still wasn’t hot: I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

The “barbecue glaze” underneath it had the sort of gloopy sweetness which gave me bad flashbacks. There was something odd about the taste of the fries: it could have been that they were tepid, it might have been that they were stale, it might have been something else altogether. Running through the possibilities in my mind started to bring on reflux. I left a fair amount of this dish, and most of the fries, and things have to be pretty bad before I do that.

If the food had been good, there would have been more drinks. We would have checked out the dessert section of the menu and ordered the churros (“plain and caramel filled… served with butterscotch sauce”). But the food wasn’t good, and I needed to leave before I was completely put off The Dairy as a watering hole, and for that matter put off churros for life. The meal, along with a ginger beer and a very pleasant pint of Eisbar, a “Vienna style lager” by XT, came to just shy of twenty-two pounds. Service at the hatch had been pretty perfunctory, but the bar staff had been lovely and friendly (and one of them was very apologetic about it being her first shift). The whole thing seemed to reinforce my overall view, namely that The Dairy was a great place for a quiet drink but that nobody should consider eating there.

As we left, I was torn between feeling a little queasy and really wanting to eat some chocolate, or at least something that didn’t taste of the chicken burger. In the end I thought better of it, but that burger sat uneasily with me for the rest of the evening.

“I suppose the obvious comparison is the Oakford” Zoë had said while we were waiting for our food, before anticipation transmuted into disappointment, and I think in many ways she is right. For cheap, cheerful burgers, at least – although having done some research since the burgers at the Oakford are a little more expensive, mainly because fries are extra (though I don’t think anybody in their right mind would pay extra for The Dairy’s fries). But really, I couldn’t think of a good comparison: where else would the food have been quite so underwhelming?

I don’t know whether The Dairy’s dishes do come from a Brakes lorry (from the section of the website marked “for students”, perhaps), and you could say that I should have known better than to expect great food from one of the university bars. All I can say is that I was taken in by the menu, but more to the point I wrongly thought that the pride The Dairy had put into its drinks offering would be matched by the food. So I do have a new favourite watering hole, along with a salutary lesson that even after over five years of doing this I remain more than capable of making the wrong call and picking a duffer. I still recommend going to The Dairy for a nice pint if you’re in the area (and the benches out the front might be lovely on a summer’s day). Just make sure you’ve eaten beforehand.

The Dairy – 4.6
Building L14, London Road Campus, Redlands Road, RG1 5AQ
0118 3782477

https://www.facebook.com/londonroadcampus/

Advertisements

Himalaya Momo House

A disclaimer before we get started this week: I have form with Himalaya Momo House. I’d never eaten in the restaurant before, but I have friends who live in Caversham Park Village (or CPV, as I’ve come to refer to it) and when I visit them and they’re too frazzled to cook, Himalaya Momo House has become their takeaway of choice. Sometimes they have it delivered, usually we wander through the green spaces of almost-south-Oxfordshire-but-not-quite to pick it up. Every time we have, even though it’s in one of those vaguely purgatorial 60s rows of shops (like Woodley Town Precinct and no doubt countless others) the welcome has always been kind, friendly and warm and the people eating in there seem to be having a lovely time. The food, in my experience, has been thoroughly decent, too.

That ordinarily wouldn’t have been enough to prompt me to review it: after all, it’s a way out of town (albeit on the pleasant and surprisingly quick 23 bus) and Indian restaurants can be found everywhere in Reading. But I heard a number of people on Twitter enthusing about it, and I decided that it wouldn’t be fair to let my happy memories of it as a takeaway cloud its potential as a restaurant. So three of us, including my CPV resident friend Angela, paid it a visit on a weekday night to test it out properly (with a list of recommendations of dishes to order from Angela’s husband Frank, which I treated less as suggestions and more as a non-negotiable shopping list – he was at home with the kids after all, it seemed the least I could do).

The room is basic and tasteful – plain squishy high-backed leather dining chairs, crisp white linen and attractive framed black and white photographs on the walls. There were even a couple of pleasant-looking tables outside in an optimistic attempt to introduce café culture to the area. Even on a weekday night a fair number of tables were occupied and there was a nice buzz to proceedings.

Two of the starters had been suggested by Frank and were variations on a theme. A quarter of Tandoori chicken came plain and unadorned – unless you count the salad (and who does?) and a weird splodge of two sauces that looked a bit like a manky spider’s web. I loved it – simple and unmucked with, although I would have liked some raita with it. It had just the right combination of crunch and tenderness, although it seemed like a small portion: only later did I realise that I was used to sharing an entire tandoori chicken with Frank (and if that sounds gluttonous, let’s just say I’ve seen him polish off an entire Nando’s chicken – extra hot – in one sitting, so I was very much along for the ride).

HimaTandoori

Chicken sekuwa I liked less – cubes of chicken on a skewer dusted in, among other things, chilli flakes. The menu talks about a marinade but I didn’t get any of that, so no depth of flavour and no tenderness that would come from marinating the chicken. It was a little dry, a little tough and, compared to the tandoori chicken, a little surplus to requirements. That said, none of the starters were north of four pounds so nothing was exactly a costly blunder.

HimaSekuwa

Angela is a vegetarian, so she went for the pani puri (described on the menu as “mostly liked by ladies”, a rather unfortunate piece of gender stereotyping if ever there was one). They were almost like bubbly crisps filled with red onion, cubes of potato and – I think – chickpeas, and eating them is both enormous fun and a race against time. You pick one up, fill it with tamarind sauce through the hole in the top and eat it in one go before the whole thing disintegrates, the gastronomic equivalent of disconnecting the wires to the bomb with the timer blinking 00:01 in red. I tried one and liked them an awful lot – far cleaner and tastier than at, for instance, Bhel Puri House, where if you’re not careful with the sauce you end up chugging a whole mango lassi with your mouth on fire.

HimaPani

The mains took ever so slightly longer to turn up than I would have liked, but when they did they were an interesting bunch. We’d tried hard not to just order the bog standard kormas and jalfrezis so stayed on the house specials and Nepalese offerings instead.

The most interesting was the dumpak lamb, which came in a copper pot, topped with a thin chewy layer of naan, speckled with nigella seeds. The meat steams under the bread, and the whole thing was pretty glorious – the lamb tender, the sauce rich and thick. What I had done, entirely by accident, was order something a little like a pie: you can argue that a dish with a lid isn’t really a pie, and I have some sympathy with that argument, but you can’t really argue that accidentally ordering a pie is ever anything less than splendid. The sauce was beautiful mopped up with the plain naan or stirred in with the keema rice, a cracking dish of rice and minced lamb, again impressive value at four pounds.

HimaRice

Sherpa chicken was more divisive. The menu mentions nutmeg, chilli and fresh mint, but I didn’t get any of that. If anything, the sauce was fruity and sweet with something I couldn’t place – pineapple or mango, maybe. I quite liked it, although it wasn’t on a par with the dumpak lamb. My companion who ordered it pronounced it pretty ordinary. The tarka daal on the side was lovely, though – sticky, salty, reduced to something thick and intense (although having eaten their daal lamb in the past, I expected nothing less).

HimaDhalChick

The vegetarian main was the thali, and again I managed to wangle a small taste of something from each of the compartments on the metal prison tray. It was almost enough to stop you missing meat: a vegetable curry with peas, firm chunks of potato, cauliflower, thin sliced green beans and a little heat. Another section contained a lovely spinach dish, not spicy at all but rich with tomato. There was more of that daal, to add a savoury note, a generous helping of naan and a dome of white rice shot through with cardamom. Last of all, a cold dish almost like a paste, again with plenty of tomato in it. I liked the whole lot, probably more than thalis I’ve had at other Nepalese restaurants in Reading (and having been to Dhaulagiri Kitchen, that’s quite a high bar these days). Angela loved it.

HimaThali

The three of us were too full for dessert, so once the mains were cleared away and we’d begun the long, protracted process of digestion we got the bill and settled up. This is where it gets complex, because on weekdays Himalaya Momo House does a deal where you can get a starter, a main and rice or a naan for a tenner – impressive value indeed (although that didn’t apply to the vegetable thali, which seemed a bit mean). What that means is that although the bill for three – including two huge crisp bottles of Mongoose beer and a disappointing lukewarm mango lassi – came to fifty-two pounds it would ordinarily be a little more. All the more reason to pay it a visit on a weekday evening, I’d say.

Service was lovely and friendly, if maybe stretched a little more thin than I was expecting – and all the serving staff were enthusiastic, kind and interested in feedback. As a little postscript, I heard from Angela later that week – she had been back to Himalaya Momo House to pick up some takeaway (that tandoori chicken for Frank, no doubt) and the waiter had remembered her and everything she usually ordered. “When will you come back?” they asked her as she picked up her groaning carrier bag. That’s lovely attention to detail, and I think it’s that kind of place, the sort where you might want to cultivate the status of a regular.

I think it’s obvious that I was charmed by Himalaya Momo House. The challenge is working out how much of that charm would translate to someone who doesn’t live near Caversham Park Village and would have to make a pilgrimage to eat there. Tricky. I loved the place, my other companion wasn’t so sure. “Just another suburban curry house”, she said. I don’t know about that. I think it’s worth a punt if you want to try something new, or go for a nice drive or take that 23 bus. You can report back and tell me I’m wrong. Would I have gone out of my way to eat there? I honestly don’t know, but it does make me glad I have friends who live in the area.

Himalaya Momo House – 7.5

28 Farnham Drive, Caversham Park Village, RG4 6NY
0118 9484818

http://www.himalayamomohouse.co.uk/

Standard Tandoori

Reading’s food scene has come on in leaps and bounds in the time since I started writing Edible Reading, nearly three years ago. The Tasting House, The Grumpy Goat, Pop-Up Reading, Tamp Culture, I Love Paella, Caversham Jam Lady, Roast Dinners Around Reading, C.U.P., Bakery House… hard to believe, perhaps, but back in 2013 Reading was a very different place. It makes me wonder what Reading might be like in 2019, whether people on the Reading Forum will be saying things like “do you remember Nando’s? Those were the days” and “what did that place on Gun Street used to be called? You know, the one that does Korean barbecue-ceviche fusion cuisine and has all those giant 3-D chess sets on the mezzanine floor”.

One thing Reading has always had, though, is iconic dishes. Whether it’s the suckling pig at Pepe Sale (which needs to be eaten to be believed, only on a Friday and Saturday night and only if you order it before they run out) or Kyrenia’s kleftiko, cooked into strands of surrender, whether it’s London Street Brasserie’s fish and chips, the Top Toastie at Shed or Beijing Noodle House’s glorious duck fried noodles there are some items on Reading’s menus that have attained almost mythical status. This week, I went in search of one I had missed.

It all started with a Tweet from regular reader Steven Burns (hi Steven!) a few weeks ago about Standard Tandoori. When I go there, he said, I have to make sure I order the “Standard Super Dry Fry”. Accept no imitations, he told me. But there was more. “It’s quite possibly my favourite thing in the entire Reading food scene. I try to save it for special occasions lest I tire.” That, ladies and gentleman, is an accolade I simply had to investigate. If he was right this could be another culinary Holy Grail to stick in Reading’s already overstocked trophy cabinet, and that was a prospect I simply couldn’t resist.

Standard Tandoori is on the edge of what is colloquially known as “Welshtown”, the warren of streets off the Caversham Road with names like Newport Road, Cardiff Road, Swansea Road, Barry Place. I noticed on my walk there that born again Mexican joint Maracas had closed, and made a mental note to cross it off my list (a lot of people think that’s a difficult spot, but Papa Gee and Standard Tandoori itself are in the same area and have been doing nicely for years, thank you very much). I also spotted a very tasteful Ercol chair in the window of Epoch3 and wished I had space for it in the spare room, but that’s another story.

Standard Tandoori is a bit unlovely on the inside. Standard also describes the tables, and is probably too high praise for the rather tired-looking conference-centre chairs in shabby red velvet. The big room is broken into sections by curious partition walls with a big porthole in the middle and a surprisingly tasteful lightshade filling some of that circular space. The partition walls are covered in wallpaper which is best described as “disco pebbledash”. It’s all a bit odd and I wasn’t sure whether I liked it or not, the restaurant interiors equivalent of modern art.

I hadn’t been for a while and the menu looked more tasteful and well set out than I remembered, in a font and format which pays a knowing nod to House Of Flavours, a place which has rather raised the bar for this sort of thing. I didn’t realise beforehand that Standard Tandoori is ostensibly a Nepalese restaurant, although I didn’t take full advantage of this. After all, I was hunting big game here: the Standard Super Dry Fry. The rest might well have turned out to be also-rans.

I don’t normally mention the poppadoms at Indian restaurants (and I don’t always order them), but these were noteworthy for what was there and what was missing. No mango chutney – which thoroughly discombobulated me – and in place of my beloved lime pickle something really interesting which looked similar but had pieces of what I think was pickled carrot. Sweeter and lacking that acrid sharpness of a really good lime pickle, but a lovely thing to start with. Eating at an Indian restaurant, in my experience, always involves a tactical decision about what food to leave. I finished the poppadoms gladly, even though I knew I was just postponing that decision to the end of the meal.

Starters, which arrived not long after, were a frustrating bunch. Macha pakora was soft white fish in thick, spiced breadcrumbs served with a little dish of tamarind sauce: not offensive by any means, and all done pretty well, but somehow unexciting. The breadcrumbs had a nice flavour and the colour and thick texture I associate with the recently endangered Findus Crispy Pancake. The fish was delicate, and the tamarind sauce was sweet, but somehow it still felt more like the stuff of Iceland than of eating out.

Lamb choila on the other hand, from the Nepalese section of the menu, was plain tough. You could see how the dish could have worked – the little hits of chilli, the curry leaves, the pieces of onion and little crispy ribbons of fried onion on top, all things that really could have enhanced some perfectly done lamb. But this wasn’t that: nearly all of it was edible but some was chewy in a way I didn’t enjoy. Much of it resisted the cutlery, and might have even defeated a steak knife. I left one piece in particular, because sawing through it was an effort beyond me.

StandardStarters

Service was friendly throughout – chatty, friendly, pleasant – but the starter plates were left in front of us for really quite some time. So was that single piece of recalcitrant lamb; I looked at it, wishing I’d left something else to cover it with. It made me wonder how my digestive system would cope with the rest, not at all an enjoyable exercise in mindfulness.

We were asked if we were ready for the mains, and by the time our starter plates were collected we pretty much were. Even so there was still a bit of a wait before they came out – not an unwelcome one, as it happened. It gave us time to drink a bit more of the house white, a pleasant and fruity sauvignon blanc which wasn’t overwhelmed by anything we had ordered.

I wanted to try a dish to benchmark the Standard Tandoori. I was tempted by the chicken achari, a sweet and sour number with mango which sounded right up my alley, but in the end I went for karahi lamb, curious to see if it could compete with Bhoj’s glorious, sticky interpretation of that dish. It was clearly some relation, but perhaps a step-sister: the lamb wasn’t as tough as that in the choila but it didn’t fall apart the way I wanted it to. It wasn’t quite as dry and savoury as at Bhoj, so there was plenty of sauce. Lots of chillies in there too, inviting you to eat them or leave them (I hedged my bets – by this point I’d got quite used to doing so). The taste felt less smoky, less complex, more route one. The fried onions on top were – again – a nice touch, although probably also an exercise in diminishing returns by this point.

StandardKarahi

The fact that there was plenty of sauce was handy for the pilau rice and the paratha. The rice was good – only so much you can say, really, but nice to see some cardamom pods strewn in there, booby traps though they are. The paratha was a bit of a poor excuse, I thought. I’m used to beautiful, rich, buttery multi-layered paratha, almost like a savoury croissant, whereas this just felt like two wholemeal pitta breads stuck together like limpets. If the sauce had been better, I’d have been sadder; scooping is a beautiful, magical thing, but it just wasn’t happening that night.

Finally, the star of the show: the Standard Super Dry Fry. It was a good example of how appearances can deceive, because when it arrived I did find myself thinking “is that it?” It looked like the kind of Campbell’s Cream Of Tomato Soup based curry I’ve spent my whole life trying to avoid ordering (and failing every single time I set foot in Reading’s now-departed old school Indian restaurants like Khukuri and Gulshan). Well, as it turns out that did it a disservice.

It did what it said on the tin: properly dry, the sauce condensed down to be sticky and intense. The chicken was beautifully cooked – again, on the dry side but perfectly so. And I do agree that there’s something about that sauce. It’s almost the perfect curry, I would say: the balance of spice, nowhere near overpowering, was interesting enough to appeal to people who would normally opt for the beigeness of a korma or a pasanda, while the taste was sufficiently complex that chilli demons too might give it a whirl. More fried onions, too, because that seems to be a hard habit to break. I really liked it, and I’m glad I tried it. Was it alone enough to justify a trip to Standard Tandoori? Yes, probably just about. Would I go back specifically to have it again? Probably not.

StandardSDF

I would have had a pistachio kulfi for dessert if I hadn’t been so full (and the one I saw at a neighbouring table looked quite lovely) but as I implied earlier, all meals in an Indian restaurant – like all political careers – end in defeat. I waved the white flag with some rice, some karahi sauce and one limp quadrant of paratha in front of me. It probably tells you something that every single morsel of the Standard Super Dry Fry was gone. I found room for the Elizabeth Shaw style mint that came with the bill, though, because if you can’t eat that something has gone badly wrong. The whole thing, with those two glasses of wine, came to forty-two pounds not including tip. I felt full, I felt a little bit underwhelmed, but I certainly didn’t feel ripped off.

Standard Tandoori, like many of Reading’s old stagers (Garden Of Gulab, I’m looking at you here) feels like a restaurant which may well have been amazing once and is now merely good. I’m glad I went, and I’m glad I tried the Super Dry Fry, although it won’t be ending up in my metaphorical trophy cabinet of iconic Reading dishes. But perhaps that misses the point, because the map of Reading will look different for each of us. For me it will always be about the karahi lamb at Bhoj, or the jeera chicken starter at Royal Tandoori, a plate of chicken festooned with toasted cumin seeds which gets more delicious every time I have it. Your mileage will undoubtedly vary, and life would be very boring if we all went to the same places all the time (plus, people would have worked out who I am by now). For me at least, the search for the next big thing continues. But then again, there wouldn’t be much of a blog for you to read if it didn’t.

Standard Tandoori – 7.0
141-145 Caversham Road, RG1 8AU
0118 9590093

http://www.standardtandoori.co.uk/

Chaiyaphum, Cane End

I have a funny relationship with Thai food, I think. It would never be my first choice when suggesting a meal out with friends but when I go to one I always like it. “Like” is the operative word here, though: I rarely love it. It would probably take a more discerning palate than mine to distinguish between the fishcakes or the pla chu chi I’ve had at all the Thai restaurants around Reading. So instead it comes down to the price and service, arguably the cherry on the cake rather than the cake itself. Sometimes a single dish will stand out, but my meals at Thai restaurants have generally been been solid and respectable – neither stellar nor sad, just somewhere comfortably in the middle.

This all dawned on me, as it happens, when I sat down at Chaiyaphum and started to go through the menu.

The decision to go to an out of town restaurant seems to happen increasingly when I am on a vegetarian week – for those of you new to the blog, my New Year’s resolution last year was to review one vegetarian main course per month – and here I was again, jumping into the car to go and eat tofu (not sarcasm: I was actually looking forward to trying the tofu). Chaiyaphum is up on the A4074 just before the turning for Gallowstree Common, the road towards Oxford which, like hundreds of others across the UK I’m sure, has the nickname “the seven bends of death”. The building itself is an old red brick pub on a crossroads where I can imagine highway robbery used to happen (ironically I once ate at the Pack Horse just down the road, where it was still very much taking place).

Inside, though, you’re under no illusions that you’re in a restaurant not a pub. Goodness, but it’s purple. The walls are purple. The ceiling is purple. We’re talking somewhere between Dairy Milk and Quality Street purple. Properly purple. That makes it sound awful, but actually I rather liked it, and the whole thing is decked out with statues of Buddha, art and artefacts, a picture of the Thai king and queen and, incongruously, a whacking great piano in the bar area. We ate in the room off to the right, a split level affair, with a nice view out onto the garden. A few tables were reserved when we got there, which was encouraging as we were literally the first people to arrive.

I don’t normally talk about background music in a restaurant, but I’m going to make an exception here just to say that Chaiyaphum had managed to get hold of the most surreal easy listening album of all time. I’d never heard hotel lobby soft jazz cover versions of Womaniser, Moves Like Jagger, Sweet Child O’ Mine and The Only Girl In The World before, and I can safely say that if I never do again it might be too soon. It took me right back to the Nineties, when adverts on late night ITV would proudly offer compilation CDs which were “not available in any shops”, usually with good reason.

Anyway, back to the food. The menu was almost identical to every other Thai restaurant menu I’ve read on duty, which made me wonder whether what we get is the anglicised version, watered down just enough to make it seem exotic yet safe. And therein lay the problem for Chaiyaphum, something I was pondering throughout my meal there – because when a restaurant is a little way out of town, especially when you have to drive to get there, being much the same as other local Thai restaurants just isn’t going to be enough. It has to be better, cleverer, more distinctive: otherwise why make the effort?

The starters were a mixture of the safe and the unknown. Starting with the safe, the chicken satay was a pretty good example. I think the meat was thigh rather than breast – always a good thing, in my book – but either way it was juicy and well marinated, tender with (I’d guess) some lemon grass. The satay was also good: deep, rich and earthy, although I always wish there was about twice as much sauce. But, and you can see the trend starting to come through loud and clear, it was good but not great. The sesame chicken toasts were just lovely, and eating them made me slightly sad that Thailand has this and we just get fried bread. It’s probably hard to excite anybody writing about these – I mean, you know exactly what they will look like, what they’ll taste like, how they will be, that exquisite balance of crunch and tenderness. And yet they rarely disappoint: these certainly didn’t, covered with sesame, packed with chicken and then fried to the point of decadent filth. I dipped mine in the small pot of chilli sauce (again, wishing there had been a little more) and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I knew I’d hardly taken a risk.

ChaiyaStarters

The third starter was more of a venture into the unknown, mainly because I find it very hard to turn down soft shell crab when it graces a menu with its presence. It came battered and fried, obscured by a cornucopia of other lovely things – lots of finely chopped garlic, fried onion, spring onion and a fair few slices of red chilli. I liked this dish an awful lot – the crab was delicious, the batter was light and delicate and all the gubbins on top really made every mouthful magnificent. It came with two pools of brown sauce – the menu describes both a pepper sauce and a Thai garlic sauce and I have no idea which this was but it really wasn’t needed and didn’t add an awful lot. At the end, after the crab was demolished (and it didn’t take long) we raced round the plate with our forks making sure not a scrap of the nice bits was left: all that remained were the sauces and the ubiquitous vegetable flower.

Main courses continued the trend. Gai pad himmaparm, recommended by the waitress, was a good example of a Thai chicken stir fry. This one had cashews, a few pieces of halved baby corn and plenty of vegetables – why is there always so much onion? – and was decent if not outstanding. The sauce was rich with chilli and especially garlic (nobody has ever gone wrong by giving me too much garlic) and was tasty but not life-changing. As so often with these things, it came in a flat shallow dish which meant that not only wasn’t there enough sauce but what sauce there was was blessedly difficult to get on to your plate, stirred in with the coconut rice where it belonged.

ChaiyaChicken

I’d been looking forward to the massamun tofu. Ordering it was, to some extent, playing percentages: I figured that one of my favourite things about eating Thai food was that glorious mixture of slightly sticky coconut rice and a sweet, spicy sauce, so if the tofu didn’t work out I would still get to enjoy most of the dish. The tofu itself wasn’t bad – you got lots of it, big hefty pieces, and they had some texture and contrast to them. That said, there was a slightly sour taste to it which seemed odd against the massamun sauce. The sauce itself also didn’t quite work – all sweet, no savoury, not enough punch or spice. Perhaps, because it was a vegetarian dish, there wasn’t any fish sauce in it to add that contrasting note. The potatoes in it, weird corrugated edges and all, were soft and floury and not quite right. Ditto for the slices of carrot, again tinned-vegetable soft. There were a few crisped fried onions on top, but not enough. By the time I got to the rice and sauce stage, ostensibly the highlight, my heart just wasn’t in it.

ChaiyaMassamun

We both had coconut rice – the waitress asked if we wanted one between two and we decided against it, but we should have listened to her as one would have been quite enough. It was – bit of a theme here, isn’t there – pleasant: edible but not incredible.

We’d over ordered on the starters (wilfully if I’m honest, in case the whole tofu thing didn’t work out) so there was no chance of having dessert. We both had a glass of house sauvignon blanc – nice, fresh and easy to drink, if perhaps not quite as cold as I’d have liked – to start, and my companion also had a bottle of Tiger, after being told at extensive length about all the beers that were currently out of stock. I had a diet coke and didn’t hugely feel like I’d missed out.

Service was lovely. There seemed to be two waiting staff on and they were looking after quite a lot of tables, but regardless of how busy they were they were friendly, polite and happy to make recommendations. Beautiful uniforms, too – maybe a funny thing to notice, but there you are. The food took just about the right amount of time to come out, and all the other tables looked happy. I saw families with small children, a couple of chaps enjoying dinner together and, just across from me, a birthday celebration (with the exchange of bags from Fortnum & Mason – fancy!). They all looked like they were having a brilliant time, and I wondered why I wasn’t quite so enamoured.

The total bill, including a ten per cent service charge, was sixty-three pounds. Interestingly that service had been pre-added – perhaps the south Oxfordshire red trouser brigade (there was a very eye-catching example right next to my table, a veritable rhapsody in scarlet: I could barely stop gawping at him) aren’t so keen on tipping the staff. Anyway, it all seemed fair enough to me and the service was one of the high points so I wasn’t bothered, though I can imagine it would rankle with some diners.

As we drove away we were discussing whether Chaiyaphum was good enough to merit a drive out of town. As you can probably tell by now, my answer is not really. It’s by no means a bad restaurant: the food was decent, the service was charming, the room managed to be bling and tasteful at the same time, purple paint and all (I did find I left really wanting an individually wrapped hazelnut in caramel: the power of subliminal advertising). But ultimately, there is no USP for Chaiyaphum unless you live round the corner. It’s stylish, but so is Thai Table. The service is friendly, but it’s just as good at Thai Corner. The food is quite nice, but Thai food seems to be quite nice everywhere, and never better than that. Ultimately, it’s just not enough to get me to leave Reading and head for the Chilterns. Maybe this restaurant is for the red trouser brigade and they see it the other way round: because they can go to Chaiyaphum there’s nothing to make them go into town. Each to their own, and thanks but no thanks. Maybe next time I’ll go to Oli’s Thai in Oxford, which I’m told blows them all out of the water.

Chaiyaphum – 6.8
Reading Road, Cane End, RG4 9HE
0118 9722477

http://chaiyaphum.co.uk/

Dhaulagiri Kitchen

I never go anywhere expecting to have a bad meal – I mean, why would you? – but if I’m honest there are occasions where I step through the front door of a restaurant and I get a bad feeling right from the off. The welcome is disinterested, or the furniture is tired, or the menu looks uninspiring or the music is awful. I’ve not even eaten anything yet, but from that point onwards I’m hoping that my preconceptions can be turned around. Sometimes they are, but usually they’re not: for some reason if it looks like an iffy restaurant and it feels like an iffy restaurant, more often than not it turns out to be an iffy restaurant.

Of course, conversely there are times where you just get a good feeling from the moment you take your seat. But this isn’t so straightforward; I’ve been to many places that looked right and felt right, places where the menu makes you hyperactive with indecisive excitement but still, there can come a point in the evening where you realise you’ve settled down to a duff meal. When that happens I chalk it up to experience, I make mental notes, I come home and I write a review where I try to be kind, knowing that most of you will look at the number at the bottom, possibly skim the rest and say – to yourselves, to friends or to other halves, Well I won’t be going there then. Them’s the breaks. They can’t all be hidden gems. They can’t even all be gems, let’s face it.

The reason for all this preamble is that Dhaulagiri Kitchen won me over right from the start. I liked it, I wanted it to succeed, I was rooting for it. And as a result, because I like an underdog and I wanted it to do well, eating there was a surprisingly nervy experience, a bit like walking a culinary tightrope except that I wanted them, rather than me, not to put a foot wrong.

It’s a little spot at the top of the Basingstoke Road, where Portuguese restaurant O Beirão used to be, and the first surprise was that none of the décor had changed. So it was still neat little tables with red-checked gingham tablecloths, and it was a bit odd to think that last time I had sat there I was eating piri piri chicken and drinking house red from a terra cotta cup. But somehow it still felt homely, warm and welcoming. A lively group of six was in one corner talking and placing their order, and we were shown to a table by a smiling, happy waiter.

The service at Dhaulagiri Kitchen was so good that I want to talk about it a lot, and it was another reason why I instantly liked the place. I was asked things I’m not usually asked – how I am, where in Reading I’m from, how I found out about the place. I was told things I’m not usually told – what’s good, that everything is made on site, how proud they are of their food and their pickles (they had me at pickles – I love pickles). In the course of the evening they constantly checked up on us, asking us if we needed anything else, bringing unsolicited glasses of water, offering advice on the menu. It’s a proper family business, one of them told me towards the end of the evening, and the chef and all the staff are related. It seemed like a happy place to work and that rubbed off on the kind of place it was to eat in: it felt like eating with family in a way that restaurants so rarely do.

Technically it’s a Nepalese restaurant although the menu goes wider than that, so there’s some Nepalese food and some more generic Indian dishes. I took some advice from the staff and I generally tried to steer towards the Nepalese options, which got a brilliant reception from them and yet more interest and questions. Had I tried momo before? Did I like the thali? I also got loads of detail about what went into the dishes, more than I can remember and repeat here. The enthusiasm was infectious, and again I found myself hoping against hope that the food could even begin to match everything else.

They brought us a couple of poppadoms while we waited for our orders to arrive, and impressively they were free. I liked them – still warm, light and crispy – and I liked the dips they came with too. I doubt they make their mango chutney but it was paler and more interesting than many I’ve had in Indian restaurants, but more importantly the lime pickle (did I mention I like pickle?) was sour, sweet and salty; a veritable triathlon for the tongue.

We tried to stick to Nepalese for the starters, and it was about this point that I stopped worrying about being on a tightrope and just started enjoying myself. Sekuwa was three stonking big hunks of baked lamb, deliciously spiced and tender without being pink. I absolutely adored it and shared some reluctantly, especially as the waiter had by this point brought me what he called mint sauce but which was in fact a raita which set them off perfectly. But it was worth doing so I could also sample Dhaulagiri’s chicken momo – something I wanted to do if only to compare them with those at Sapana Home.

DhauLamb

Normally I’m all about pan fried momo, with that slightly caramelised, crispy exterior, but I found this positively changed my mind. Here they come steamed, five neat parcels with a small bowl of spicy chilli sauce. The filling was subtler and more delicate than Sapana’s and, although I hate to admit it because I love Sapana’s momo, all the better for that. The chicken was mixed with finely chopped onion, lemongrass and chilli (and probably other flavours that I’m not quite sophisticated enough to detect) and really, the whole thing made me delighted that I’d sacrificed some of that glorious lamb after all. Both starters – and you might want to read this twice in case you don’t believe it the first time – were less than four pounds.

DhauMomo

The mains came just as I was beginning to feel peckish again and I was really looking forward to the thakali thali, another Nepalese speciality and one the waiter got properly animated describing to me. It truly was an embarrassment of riches. There was a chicken curry, tender pieces of chicken, not a bone in sight, in a thin but savoury gravy. There was a delicious vegetable curry, big firm pieces of cauliflower and cubes of potato, all cooked to still have bite as well as flavour. Fresh spinach came flash cooked with the crunchy surprise of soy beans and a note of sesame. There were what I think were pickled radish (more pickles!) and another pickled vegetable which almost looked like bark but was dried and marinated and packed an awful lot of flavour into a deceptively small helping. Only the dal disappointed – I think this is a Nepalese thing because I remember being unmoved by Nepalese dal in the past, it had a note of evaporated milk and was a bit too grey and gloopy for my liking. A minor criticism though, really, when the plate had so many things to try, combine and enjoy. I was delighted later, when asked if I had enjoyed it, that I could be so unreservedly enthusiastic, just as the waiters had been.

DhauThali

The chicken makhanwala was meant to have butter, fenugreek and cashew nuts in it, but if anything it was dangerously close to a korma, the Ronan Keating of curries. It just about managed to pull it off by being just a little more interesting (although being more interesting than Ronan Keating might not be much of a challenge). So there was an almost marzipan hint to the sauce – perhaps the cashews were ground, because I certainly didn’t find any whole ones – and just enough complexity that I didn’t feel I’d sold myself short. Would I have it again? Maybe not, given all the other wonders on the menu, but I certainly wouldn’t say I was disappointed. I had a plain naan with it – I’d always pick naan over rice, I think – and it was spot on if not out of the ordinary. But that is, after all, what you’re looking for from naan bread and it was perfect for scooping up spare sauce from both main dishes.

DhauChicken

We drank a Cobra and a Diet Coke, which tasted exactly how Cobra and Diet Coke taste, and the whole meal came to thirty-two pounds, not including tip. I couldn’t help thinking, as I paid the bill, that it was almost exactly as much as I’d spent on eating at Handmade Burger Co. the week before; that realisation made me want to stand outside Handmade Burger Co. handing out flyers to Dhaulagiri Kitchen.

Normally I would say that one of my only regrets is that I was too full to have a dessert but, looking back, I don’t think I was offered one and looking at the menu I’m not sure they do them at all. Instead the waiter asked if we wanted a coffee, we said no and again there was that warm exchange of enthusiasm: we were delighted to have had such a lovely meal, they were delighted to have had happy customers. It’s the transaction all restaurants are aiming for, and when it goes as well as that it hardly feels like a transaction at all. They’ve been open for about four months, and they said it’s going reasonably well with locals, although I can see that a restaurant in a spot like this might need all the help it can get.

So yes, sometimes you go to a restaurant and everything looks good, and you spend half the meal worrying that it won’t live up to your expectations, that beneath the veneer something will go wrong. But don’t worry, because this isn’t that story. This is the story of a place that looks nice, isn’t flashy, wins you over and does exactly what a restaurant should do: cook you nice food, be friendly, take care of you and make you feel like the world is a slightly better place. Stories like that are some of the best stories there are, and as a restaurant reviewer they’re my favourite stories to tell. As I left I promised the waiter that I’d tell some friends about Dhaulagiri Kitchen: hopefully I’ve kept my promise.

Dhaulagiri Kitchen – 7.8
63 Basingstoke Road, RG2 0ER
0118 9759898

http://www.dhuaulgirikitchen.co.uk/