Bar review: Monkey Lounge

It wasn’t the most clement of evenings when I left my house and wandered through the streets of East Reading in search of Monkey Lounge, the subject of this week’s review. It was already dark at six o’clock, and there was a distinct, thin nip in the air – not see-your-breath cold, but close enough to remind you what see-your-breath cold feels like. It’s really not a reminder I wanted. And the leaves on the pavement of Erleigh Road, usually a golden autumnal carpet to rustle and crackle as you kick them up with your shoes, were a sad and sodden mulch, the last vestiges of a dreary day of stop and start rain. Make no mistake: summer is over, and autumn will be over soon, too. Where did 2022 go?

Monkey Lounge had been on my list for most of 2022 without ever quite reaching the top of it. It’s just along from Café Yolk, where Reading institution the Fruit Bat Bar used to be (I think I drank there once, over twenty years ago, waiting for my washing to finish in the launderette next door), but it opened back in 2020, the year when nobody in their right mind would have opened a bar or a restaurant. 

And yet it’s still going despite everything stacked against it. And that, for me at least, includes the name: it was originally called MNKY Lounge – yes, all capitals – but they’ve sensibly changed their name to the longer version. And no, they have nothing to do with the Lounge group which counts Caversham’s Alto and Woodley’s Bosco among its members (it’s a wonder the group hasn’t sent Monkey Lounge a strongly worded legal letter, to be honest).

Monkey Lounge first came to my attention properly at the start of the year when they sent me a message on Instagram. They said that they were well known in East Reading for their gourmet burgers and warm hospitality and wanted to know if one of my team wanted to try a complimentary meal there (bless them for thinking this blog is a team effort, but I’ve never been one of those saddoes who pretends to have multiple writers cobbling this together).

I declined, as I always do, but I did ask them to tell me more about their burgers. And that was that, because they never replied. But I’ve kept an eye on Monkey Lounge’s Instagram ever since. And I have to say, and I mean this with all kindness, that nothing about it would necessarily induce you to pop in for a meal. A lot of their Instagram feed is sports related, telling you which European football fixture you can watch next on their big screens, interspersed with the occasional picture of their food. 

And the food didn’t look bad, but it didn’t make you want to drop everything and make dinner plans. Although having said that the consistent message on Monkey Lounge’s social media, to be fair to them, is that they think they do Reading’s best burger. It’s a proud boast: the competition is fierce. It’s probably not true. But – and this was running through my mind as I dodged the giant puddles on London Road, and the cars planning to drench me with them – what if it was?

I must have walked past Monkey Lounge a hundred times over the past couple of years without going in. They’ve done a nice job of the outside – it’s covered, and extends across the front of The Wash Box, that launderette, and although there were no heaters it looked like a nice place for an al fresco pint. The big TV fixed to the wall was blaring out sports and the branding still said “MNKY LOUNGE”, which felt jarring (come to think of it, maybe they risk being sued by Donna Karan, too).

But the big surprise was the interior. It’s nothing fancy, a long thin space split into two rooms separated by a ramp, all high tables and stools. But despite that, the longer I spent in it the more I appreciated it. Sitting in the middle section, near the bar, I liked the buzz of it – it was actually pretty full when I got there just after six, and the whole thing almost had a speakeasy feel to it. I wondered how many people, like me, had traipsed along Erleigh Road without ever considering going in.

The bar had a good selection of gins and an interesting-looking cocktail menu, although the beer selection was slightly underwhelming: a couple of options by Camden, Beavertown’s Neck Oil and Corona on draft. They also do their own lager, but I asked the woman behind the bar who made it and she didn’t know. “We’re out of it anyway, I’m afraid” she said.

The menu, on a pegboard behind the bar, offered a small selection of mains, half a dozen burgers and a few more pasta dishes. It was almost compact enough to raise my hopes, but not quite: could they really do all that well? Did their slow-cooked lamb shank really have nothing to do with Brakes Brothers? As I went up to the bar to place my order, I did so more in hope than expectation but I decided to order what I’d been told Monkey Lounge was good at and let the chips – Cajun fries, in this case – fall where they may.

But before I did that, something happened which slightly changed my mind. Because I saw one of the wait staff walk past my table on the way to someone else’s carrying a board piled with chicken wings. And I have to say, they looked good. Big, rugged things, with real substance. And so, out of nowhere, I decided to order them along with my meal. The menu gives you a choice of half a dozen or a dozen, and for an extra pound fifty you can have them tossed in Monkey Lounge’s signature hot sauce.

“Just how hot is it?” I asked the guy behind the bar.

“Oh, it’s pretty hot. Not too hot, if you know what I mean, but it’s definitely hot.”

None the wiser, I decided to go for it. In for a penny, in for a pounding as my other half is wont to say.

Everything arrived together, around twenty minutes later – a good wait, an encouraging one. And if I have one recommendation for you above all others if you come to Monkey Lounge – and you might – it’s to pay their menu respect by ordering your dishes one after another so you give each of them your full attention. Because, as I was to discover, everything merited it. Far more so, in fact, than I expected.

Take my burger, for instance. I’d ordered the Monkey Burger (even with all letters intact, the name of the place is a problem), and it was difficult to tell at first glance, or from the picture below, whether it was going to be any good. But from the first bite I knew I was on to a winner. I’m afraid I’m going to praise Monkey Lounge’s burger by telling you all the things it wasn’t. It wasn’t too big or too sloppy. It wasn’t too smooth or too homogeneous. It wasn’t too bouncy, or crumbly.

That might sound like faint praise, but I promise it isn’t. With burgers I often notice what the restaurant has done wrong, but being unable to find fault with their burger I could move on to all the things I liked. The texture was perfect – reassuringly coarse but keeping its shape, with a nicely caramelised crust. The seasoning was spot on without being overwhelming, and overall the impression was a burger made of good beef and not much else. It wasn’t pink, as is the fashion elsewhere, but it was none the worse for it. 

And everything that came with it was just right – a good slab of salty back bacon, well cooked, not wan and rubbery. Decent cheese – cheddar at a guess, rather than the plastic American stuff. Good burger sauce, crisp iceberg. And long transverse slices of pickle, adding just enough crunch and acidity. The best burger in Reading? This might be news to you as much as me, but it was up there.

The chips exceeded expectation, too. No restaurant makes its own chips, unless it’s Honest (or possibly the Lyndhurst) but that really doesn’t matter as long as you buy in the good stuff and cook it well. Again, Monkey Lounge did exactly that. And again, that’s a rare enough occurrence that it deserves to be mentioned. They were crisp and fluffy, none of them were manky or offputting and a little dusting of Cajun spice lent another dimension (although it would have been lovely if they’d crumbled some feta on them – I’ve tried that combination elsewhere, and it’s next level).

Just to nit pick, and because it’s the only nit I could pick, one of Reading’s burgers deserves a better bun than this. It looked the part, all bronzed and speckled with sesame, but it wasn’t up to the task of containing the burger so every bite just pushed the filling out past the edge. A little thin, too, but replacing it with something more up to the task wouldn’t be difficult. In the end I ended up eating the last of my burger with a knife and fork, like an awful human, but it was worth it.

The wings were pretty decent too. They were, as I’d already seen, hefty specimens with a thick coating – maybe a little too thick – but the meat underneath was yielding. But the winner here was the Monkey Lounge’s hot sauce, which I loved – a proper hot, sour buffalo sauce with a good kick that built over time. If I was working there and someone asked me what it was like, I’d say that it will make your nose run and, by the end of your meal, your eyes water. Possibly marginally more helpful than pretty hot, not too hot but definitely hot, but then I suppose everybody’s mileage may vary.

My burger cost a tenner. The wings – half a dozen of them – cost seven pounds. When I’d finished I had another sip of my Camden Hells and paused for a moment. Had I just had a rather good meal, at Monkey Lounge? It did feel like it. Originally I was going to leave it there and slope off into the night, but the staff were so lovely – asking if I wanted anything else, showing genuine interest in what I made of the food – that I went up to order dessert.

“That was great” I said. “I really enjoyed that burger.”

“Thanks!” said the barman. “It’s not what you expect to find here, is it?”

“Do you make them yourself?”

“Yeah, we do. I don’t think they make the chicken burgers, but the beef burgers are made fresh in the kitchen every day.”

There it was. Ten months after I’d first asked on Instagram, I finally had my answer from Monkey Lounge. There’s too much hyperbole on social media, so you get lots of hucksters calling their dishes famous or legendary, when they’re nothing of the kind, or saying that they do the best such-and-such in town when that’s just wishful thinking. But finding out that a boast like that isn’t a million miles from the truth: what are the chances?

Oh, for completeness’ sake, I did have dessert. It was a red velvet cheesecake, so essentially a cheesecake with added red velvet sponge, topped with a layer of solid chocolate. And however indecent that sounds, funnily enough, is pretty much how indecent it was. They may well have bought it in, as they bought in the chips, but it was so enjoyable that I didn’t care, this strange megamix of two desserts rolled into one, with a gorgeous, thick, sugary biscuit base. They even brought me a little ramekin of double cream, and I loved them for that. This dessert cost four pounds fifty.

Own up, you didn’t have high hopes for this review. And that’s fine: I didn’t either. And yet here we are, close to the end, probably all a little dazed and incredulous. But it’s good that life still has the power to confound – imagine how depressing the world would be if you already knew how everything would turn out, and the ennui that would ensue. But at the end of it all I walked home, back down the Erleigh Road, about twenty eight pounds lighter and positively delighted.

And I realised what Monkey Lounge reminded me of, more than anything. Back when I used to go to Prague on holiday with my old friend Dave, there would always be an evening where he dragged me to a sports bar so he could watch Liverpool lose to some team or other – this was in the Noughties, when they did that a fair amount.

And if you could find somewhere with a big screen, cold beer and something like ribs or a burger to fuel the rest of the evening you could be very happy indeed (appropriately enough, Liverpool were playing the night I ate at Monkey Lounge). And believe me, it’s a compliment when I say that Monkey Lounge rather reminded me of nights like that. I wish their beer selection was better, and the closer I get to fifty the more I prefer chairs to stools, but in the scheme of things that’s all minor.

I’ve always found it odd the way the English differ from our American cousins. They like to say things are amazing, or awesome. We, conditioned no doubt by far lower expectations, prefer to use a sliding scale of badness. So things can be very bad, or rather bad, or bad. And then, at the more favourable end of the spectrum, they gallop along from not all bad to not half bad to not bad, really not bad or, if we’re really raving with enthusiasm, not at all bad.

And I fear I’ve rather pulled that trick with Monkey Lounge by describing all the mistakes they didn’t make and the traps they didn’t fall into. That says more about me than it does about them, and they deserve a better peroration than this. I’m sorry about that. But honestly, I enjoyed it a great deal. It wasn’t bad at all: not in any respect.

Monkey Lounge – 7.7
30 Erleigh Road, RG1 5NA
0118 9664222


Pub review: The Fisherman’s Cottage

When I looked at my to do list to decide where to review this week, I had a shopping list of requirements. Somewhere relatively new or unknown, for starters. A venue with good outside space – because the weather is clement all of a sudden and I know that many people, like me, still feel more comfortable eating and drinking outside. Finally, I wanted to pick a place with an interesting story – either somewhere I reviewed a long time ago that has survived the pandemic, or somewhere that opened since the pandemic began.

I scanned the list several times, fruitlessly, and then I realised it had been staring me in the face all along: it was time to go back to the Fisherman’s Cottage. It ticks all those boxes. Down by the river, with tables out front and an attractive beer garden (complete with faux beach hut booths) out back, it is one of Reading’s best pubs in terms of outside space, much of which catches the sun. And it manages to be both new and unknown, kind of: it came under new ownership last year when it was taken over by Turkish chef and restaurateur Cigdem Muren Atkins.

To say she’s had a baptism of fire would be an understatement. The Fisherman’s Cottage reopened just in time to be hit by our second lockdown in November. They had a couple of weeks of trading in December before we went into Tier 3, or Tier 4, or whatever they called it back then, and then we had a third national lockdown which only began to lift in April. During that time, the Fisherman’s Cottage did its best to adapt and survive: there was a click and collect menu, and every weekend if you walked along the river you saw tables outside groaning with cakes and cookies, for sale to passers-by.

Their neighbour the Jolly Angler grabbed more headlines with its attempt to turn its back garden into a poolside beach bar, but the Fisherman’s Cottage kept plugging away all the same. And now we’re in a weird situation: the pub has been under its present management for over six months, but has only been able to operate as a pub for the past two. I know of a few people who have gone there for a drink, but nobody who has eaten there – so on a beautifully sunny evening, accompanied by my partner in crime Zoë, I strolled down the river to give it a whirl.

“I’ve been looking forward to this all afternoon” said Zoë. “But I’m a bit apprehensive too.”

“I know what you mean. You really want it to be good, don’t you?”

“Exactly. Nobody wants to be talking about a shit meal at a time like this.”

There are few sights more gladdening than a bustling pub, especially on a sunny day, and I was pleased to see that the Fisherman’s Cottage was busy when we got there, with most of the tables out front occupied. Although I didn’t eat inside I can confirm that it’s still an attractive space, with a conservatory, plenty of light and, of course, that garden out back. We decided to eat out front though, mainly because it just felt more like being part of things, people-watching the friends walking past and the cyclists pulling up for a pint.

Speaking of pints, I should talk briefly about the beer, because I know this will disappoint many of the Fisherman’s Cottage’s former clientele. Under its previous management, the same owners as the Greyfriar, it was more of a craft beer destination. That’s not the case now, so you have a choice of the usual suspects – Camden Hells, Estrella, Corona and so on. I can see from Untappd that they do still do some local stuff, with recent check-ins of beers from Disruption Is Brewing and Wild Weather, but the selection is definitely narrower: hopefully the pub might develop this over time.

The menu felt like an attempt to cover a lot of bases, and it was impossible to tell by looking whether it would be good: sometimes you just know, one way or the other, but this was relatively inscrutable. The starters felt like the weakest section, with some dishes that were more sides than starters (fries, potato wedges and so on) and others, like mozzarella sticks, that felt like something you could pick up from any supermarket. Everything was affordable, though, with the priciest starter costing eight pounds.

The mains were divided into sections and felt a little busy, although many were variations on a theme – salads, pasta (the menu didn’t say which kind of pasta, just pasta) and pizza. There were a few curries, most of them Thai, three burgers and half a dozen other mains which ran the gamut from Morocco to Australia and onwards to the Caribbean. It was refreshing to see a pub that didn’t offer fish and chips, but even so the menu felt unfocused – you always worry that with so much on offer, a kitchen won’t do it all well. Pricing was variable, with dishes ranging from around nine pounds to sixteen for the priciest mains (steak or lamb chops, in this case). 

We ordered three starters and a couple of main courses, along with a couple of pints, and our bill came to fifty-four pounds, not including tip. Normally I put that bit at the end of a review, largely because I get my bill at the end of a meal, but on this occasion they brought the bill out straight after I’d ordered. At first I found that strange, but in hindsight it’s how it generally works in pubs – you wouldn’t bat an eyelid paying up front somewhere like Bluegrass BBQ, so it’s probably just the cognitive dissonance between eating in a pub and having table service.

I had the best of the starters, I think. I wanted something closer to Muren Atkins’ Turkish roots, so I’d gone for the courgette fritters. These were probably the best thing I ate all evening – light, crispy, beautifully fresh and reminiscent of many happy holiday meals. The yoghurt and mint dip they came with had a strangely clumpy texture, but there was no arguing with the taste. This felt like good value at five pounds fifty – “I’d order this next time” said Zoë, and I probably would too.

I rarely order calamari in restaurants – it doesn’t usually bowl me over – but Zoë often does, so she decided to go for it. Calamari is a tricky one, because unless it’s very fresh it always has a little bounce. That was the case here, too, but even having said that it was still a pretty good example and better than most I’ve had in Reading. The coating was nicely crunchy and, crucially, stuck to the calamari, and it’s hard to beat sweet chilli sauce as a dip for this, unless you make an excellent aioli or tartar sauce.

“This is decent” said Zoë, “and miles better than anything you’d get from a Prezzo or a Zizzi”. I enjoyed the couple she let me have, although I still think the courgette fritters were a better bet.

We also ordered a cheesy garlic bread, because there isn’t much to dislike about the epicentre of the bread/garlic/cheese Venn diagram. This was a bought-in ciabatta or panino halved and toasted with cheese and some garlic. It cost five pounds, and felt slightly sharply priced at that, mainly because it was lacking in firepower from the garlic.

“It’s a bit generic” said Zoë. “This is all your fault” she added, “because you’ve gotten me used to all the artisan shit. I would have lapped this up before I met you.”

“Are you complaining?” 

I asked the question because I knew the answer: when Zoë and I got together she was a korma eater with an aversion to tomatoes, but years later she can wax lyrical about fresh heritage tomatoes with burrata, khachapuri, or Clay’s ghee roast chicken with the best of them.

“Not at all.” She had a suspicious look on her face, but that might have been because she’d just caught sight of the ketchup bottle on the table. “But it’s frustrating – it wouldn’t take much to really ramp this dish up.” I tended to agree, although mainly I’d have added industrial quantities of garlic.

As the evening progressed a beautiful crimson sunset materialised on the far side of Blake’s Lock, and you could almost believe that things were normal again, that there were no such things as variants and amber lists, anti-vaxxers and virus deniers, people refusing to wear a mask or get a test. Instead there was just a pub table, my favourite person on the other side of it, a crisp pint of Estrella in front of me, empty plates with more on the way. Nothing but goodness, in fact: what a wonderful world it can still be, if you let it.

My reverie was interrupted by our main courses arriving a little more briskly than I’d have liked. But again, it didn’t feel like a significant issue: I imagine many pubs and restaurants are still finding their rhythm when it comes to serving diners. I had chosen the only main course to specifically reference Turkey, the meatballs, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The meatballs themselves were nicely coarse and well-seasoned, not suspiciously homogeneous and smooth. They were served with slices of fried aubergine. It’s a vegetable I often struggle to like but the Fisherman’s Cottage had cooked it nicely, with a good texture, some crispiness and none of the mulchiness aubergine can sometimes have.

Aubergine is pretty inescapable in Turkish cuisine. One Turkish aubergine dish is called imam bayildi which translates as “the imam fainted” – apparently from pleasure, according to a folk tale. I couldn’t quite match that, but I was definitely pleasantly surprised. The whole thing was rounded off by a beautiful, sweet, thick tomato sauce, a pile of white rice and a little foliage. It was a satisfying, unpretentious plate of food and felt like decent value at eleven pounds fifty.

Zoë had decided to brave the pizza section of the menu – a relatively new addition, according to the Fisherman’s Cottage’s Instagram feed – and had chosen one with chicken, caramelised onion and gorgonzola. She really enjoyed it, and made relatively short work of it, and the pieces I tried were pretty good – the chicken and sweet onion worked nicely together, though I thought it needed more of the gorgonzola to bring it all together.

I think she liked it more than I did, though – the base is rolled by hand and the whole thing is cooked in an oven on a pizza steel, but the dough was lacking any lift or bubbling which left the crust feeling a bit flat. In fairness, in that respect it was no different to the pizzas at sadly-departed Tuscany, down the Oxford Road, but the price of this pizza – fifteen pounds – felt on the steep side.

“I don’t think it’s that bad for pricing” said Zoë. “You’d pay that much for a Romana pizza at Pizza Express.”

“It’s more expensive than Papa Gee, though.”

“Anyway, I think it’s very good. I’d order it again.”

The weird thing about having paid your bill at the start is that there isn’t that moment to bring your meal to a close and add that full stop at the end. Service, incidentally, was friendly, efficient and masked, even though we were outside. I’m used to drinking outside in places with a little buzz – the Nag’s, of course, and my favourite right now, the Castle Tap. But it was a pleasant feeling to enjoy a meal surrounded by other people – sitting in the cold outside La’De Kitchen in Woodley on a chilly April evening or being the only people outside Crispy Dosa just doesn’t impart the same warm glow you get from being part of something bigger than you. As we all emerge from our own personal lockdowns, at varying speeds, I imagine there’s more of this to come.

While we waited for the wait staff to take our plates away we compared notes and, with a sense of relief, both decided that we’d enjoyed what we’d eaten. It does feel a little, to me anyway, that the Fisherman’s Cottage is playing it safe with a menu that tries to cover as many bases as possible. That’s understandable, especially at a time when every paying customer counts, but my favourite things on the menu were the Turkish dishes, and it did make me wish that there was more of that on offer. But then Muren Atkins has run restaurants in Turkey, England and the Caribbean, so maybe she’s more interested in offering something more international.

Even so, I’m really pleased that I can cautiously recommend the Fisherman’s Cottage next time you want to eat outside, or have a cold pint outside and eat something decent to accompany it. The food maybe isn’t the main attraction – a short walk onto the Kings Road will take you to the Lyndhurst, where the menu is at a different level – but it’s easily good enough to merit a visit, with some dishes that point to real potential. And it would be nice if the beer list leaned more towards the local, but that might come in time. But the pub is a lovely building, and it makes such a difference to see it being used and enjoyed, as opposed to last summer when it lay dormant at a time when it could have made the best of its riverside setting. I sense that Muren Atkins will look after it well, provided she gets some help from all of us. On this showing, she deserves it.

The Fisherman’s Cottage – 7.2
Kennet Side, Reading, RG1 3DW
07925 336269

Tutu’s Ethiopian Table

In the normal course of events, I never re-review restaurants. It’s a shame, really – restaurants can go through bad or purple patches just like the rest of us – but I’ve always treated my visit as a single snapshot, taken at that moment in time, a faithful record of what it was like to eat there that night and order those things. The further into the future you go, inevitably, the more an element of doubt creeps in that the review is an accurate guide to what your lunch or dinner there might be like.

That said, I’ve reviewed many restaurants which occupy the site of restaurants past: some locations in Reading may not exactly be cursed, but they’re definitely on some rather unfortunate ley lines. So for instance I reviewed the Warwick, at the bottom of the Kings Road and then it became Bali Lounge. Then it turned into the Biscuit & Barrel – I skipped that one – then new Indian restaurant Cardamom. I was all poised to review that one when it closed again, and at some point it plans to reopen as King’s Kitchen. Maybe this time it will trade long enough for me to pay it a visit.

The ultimate problematic location might well be the spot at the bottom of the Caversham Road occupied – at the time of writing, anyway – by Cozze, which I reviewed recently. It used to be a splendid Chinese restaurant called Chi’s Oriental Brasserie, then Chi closed and it was replaced by a Mediterranean place called La Fontana. They moved out into the shires – Twyford or Pangbourne, I forget – and then we got El Tarboush, Reading’s first Lebanese place. When it closed it became Casa Roma (I never reviewed that either) and then they got bored slash desperate and decided to morph into a Mexican restaurant called Las Maracas: same owners, but now with added sombreros! I never went – something about a menu which advertised “jalapeno chilli poopers” didn’t appeal – and I wasn’t surprised when it closed and reopened as Cozze.

Pubs present more of a challenge. They come under new ownership, their menu and their attitude to food can change, but the name often remains the same (or until recently, when the Eldon Arms became the Weather Station and Caversham’s Prince Of Wales rebranded as the Last Crumb). I’ve reviewed the Lyndhurst three times in four years, and I could as easily have done the same with the Fisherman’s Cottage. It’s easier to stay on top of this in town, where I’m more likely to get wind of any changes, but out in Berkshire and Oxfordshire? Your guess is probably better than mine.

Judging an establishment on a single visit is always a gamble. It’s lovely when people contact me on Twitter and say “I went there and it was just as you said it would be”, but I’m not naive enough to think that happens all the time. I’ve had a few visits where I wasn’t too impressed only to find, over the subsequent months and years, that my initial opinion was a little harsh: Sapana Home, for example, or Kokoro. Restaurants have an identity of their own, just like people, and – also just like people – sometimes they make an unfortunate first impression and then grow on you. And, of course, sometimes you just get it wrong.

This week’s review is about as close to a re-review as you can get: Tutu Melaku operated her Ethiopian restaurant at the Global Café for over ten years, being mentioned in the Guardian, winning awards and being widely fêted: it was very much a trailblazer, back when distinctive restaurants in Reading were few and far between. Then, early this year, there was a parting of the ways. Tutu’s Ethiopian Table moved to Palmer Park, to operate out of Palmer Park Lodge, the building which used to be the Chalkboard Café, and the Global Café took on a new chef and started offering a vegetarian and vegan menu.

I reviewed Tutu’s at the Global Café nearly five years ago, and it’s safe to say I was baffled by it. I wasn’t sure where its reputation had come from, or whether it was trading on past glories. But the move looked like an interesting one, and the Instagram feed painted a picture of a happy, vibrant community café, so it felt like time to give it a try in its new home. My other half Zoë and I paid it a visit on a weekday night, leaving the comforting hum of the Wokingham Road traffic behind us as we turned off into Palmer Park. The fairy lights in the window gave the building a welcoming glow, and just beyond it I could see more active people than me playing tennis, making the most of the last of the autumn daylight.

Inside, the place was quite lovely. It’s made up of two biggish rooms, with a beautiful tiled floor, big windows and boldly-coloured walls, all deep blues and burnt oranges. There was plenty of art and a piano in the corner (a sign said not to play it or use it as a table: they have music nights, so I’m sure it sees action then). Picture frames on top of the piano showed off all of Tutu’s awards, including a picture of her with Chris Tarrant – an occupational hazard, I imagine, of attending the Pride Of Reading Awards. A piece of art on the wall gave the history: parts of the building dated from 1891, and the original fireplaces were still present and correct. We sat in the bigger of the two rooms, conscious of being the only customers in it, and listening to the hubbub from the other room.

You order at the counter, and the Ethiopian menu is far more compact than it used to be at the Global Café. You pick three from four of the dishes on offer – one meat, three vegetarian – and pair them with rice or injera, a slightly-sour Ethiopian pancake. It’s ten pounds if you go for all the vegetarian options, and eleven if you have meat. We were greeted by Tutu, who was friendly and welcoming and talked us through everything. She also showed me both Ethiopian beers they do – I went for the superbly named Cold Gold by Habesha, which was very nice indeed.

The food all comes at once, and between us we tried all of the options on offer. You get little steel dishes filled with each of the things you’ve chosen, and although they looked a little small it all added up to a nicely filling meal. The chicken – doro wot, I think it’s called – was very tasty, with a deep, savoury sauce with a spice which gradually made its presence felt. At Tutu’s previous restaurant, you got a single piece of chicken on the bone. Here it was boneless and tender – I would have liked a little more of it, but I was very happy with what there was. The lentils (misr wot) were also really good, a beautifully earthy dish with its own subtly building heat. This felt like the perfect food for the months ahead.

I felt a little dubious about Tutu’s vegetable dishes when I visited her last restaurant. These, although still not perfect, felt a lot better. The cabbage had a good, almost vinegary tang to it and I detected, possibly wrongly, a hint of mustard in it. The carrots and green beans still weren’t to my taste, with a softness that felt more like tinned than fresh veg, but again they went nicely enough with the sauce from the other dishes. Another dish which had improved significantly compared to my last visit was the rice – at the Global Café it was claggy and felt like it had tinned vegetables in it, but this was a pleasing yellow rice which worked perfectly with both the chicken and the lentils. There wasn’t quite enough rice, but we asked for more and Tutu was more than happy to oblige.

At the risk of (a) adding insult to injera and (b) using one of the worst puns this blog has ever seen, the Ethiopian pancake was not for me. It looked and felt like a very wide, flat crumpet, and the vinegary note in it wasn’t unpleasant, but it was cold when I expected it to be hot and it was so floppy that it didn’t really work as a vehicle for sauce or for eating with your hands the way I expected it to. I imagine it has its fans, but I struggled to number myself among them. I bet Chris Tarrant thinks it’s magnificent, mind you (he probably would have loved the Ethiopian lager too, come to think of it). Anyway, there’s always the rice. Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen doesn’t really offer starters or desserts, and we paid at the counter: dinner for two, with a beer and a can of soft drink came to twenty-seven pounds forty.

I’m not sure there’s much more to say about Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen, but I need to try and capture the thing about it which led to the rating you’ll see when you scroll down. Some restaurants are more than the sum of their parts – they just have something indefinable that makes you root for them. And Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen has that – it has warmth, it’s genuine, and it wins you over straight away. I’ve eaten better food, but the night I visited it was exactly what I wanted, exactly how I wanted it. The welcome was lovely, it’s a beautiful room and something about it just worked. Sitting at our table, seeing that bustle in the open kitchen (it was just Tutu and another member of staff in there) I felt like all was well with the world.

Maybe I was wrong five years ago, or perhaps I caught Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen on an off night back then. They might have changed how they do things, to adjust to a different kitchen. At the end of the day, I’m not sure it really matters. But one way or another it’s lovely to be reminded, when you feel like you have everything figured out, that the world never quite loses its ability to surprise.

Tutu’s Ethiopian Table – 7.3
Palmer Park Lodge, Palmer Park Avenue, RG6 1LF
0118 9663938