TGI Fridays

There are plenty of reasons to take against Matt Rodda, my local Member Of Parliament. His faintly gormless look at photo opportunities, for one. His position on Brexit – I’m sorry, I went there – which contains more fudge than Thornton’s and ignores the strongly held views of his constituency. His ineptitude at social media, where he never engages with anyone and sometimes manages to post photographs the wrong way round (he used to be a journalist, apparently: an old media one, I’d guess). And of course there’s the matter of his robotic Twitter style where every description of an event starts with “Good to”: Good to show support for school meals, says one. Good to talk to Katesgrove residents, says another. I dubbed this “Rodda Syndrome” on Twitter and after that he started to mix it up – some Tweets began “Important to”, others began “Interesting to”. It’s a nice try, but I’m not convinced that Rodda’s Twitter feed would pass the Turing Test.

So yes, I have a number of misgivings about my local MP, but the biggest is that he is responsible for the review you’re reading today.

Well, not entirely, because I rather brought it on myself. It happened on the 8th June last year, election day. I headed to the church on Watlington Street to cast my vote (more in hope than expectation) and then I went home, fetched my suitcase and made for the station. I was going to Paris for my first ever solo holiday, my post-divorce present to myself and the opportunity to reclaim one of my favourite cities, to make sure it didn’t become inextricably linked to memories of my marriage. What could possibly go wrong?

Fast forward to about midnight and I was back in my slightly cramped hotel room, several red wines to the good having had a truly repellent meal. They’d plonked me up at the bar on a seat which might as well have borne a plaque saying “exploit the solo tourist”, the plates were small and yet the terrine, which looked like Pedigree Chum, was far too big. I grabbed some chocolate, crisps and a bottle of Orangina from a little Carrefour on my way back to the hotel and when I found the TV in my room had BBC News 24, I realised I’d be able to hear the dulcet tones of David Dimbleby and see the results come in. I’ve stayed up and watched every general election since 1992 and continuing that trend – albeit on the other side of the Channel proving how big, brave and independent I was – made me feel a little less lonesome.

By the small hours, exhausted but undaunted, I and a small number of other Reading Tweeters were staying up for one reason and one reason alone: to see if Rob Wilson would lose his seat. It was very far down the list of Labour targets, but suddenly there was a buzz that we might see Wilson deposed. We don’t have enough time to go into all the reasons why I thought that would be Reading’s Portillo moment (although let’s not forget his nine pence expenses claim for a taxi ride which was physically impossible) but, emboldened by the spirit of revolution – and clearly not rehydrated enough by the Orangina – I took to Twitter. “The exit poll has Reading East falling to Labour. If that happens, I will review TGI Friday”, I said.

Whoops.

I’ve never forgotten my promise, however hard I tried, so on a Monday night towards the end of the year I showed up at TGI’s Oracle branch to finally keep my word. Picking an accomplice for this review proved difficult: originally I had suggested making it a big party to celebrate Wilson’s downfall, but when it came to it that felt needlessly cruel to my readers (and the admin involved in writing up all that food didn’t appeal). Instead I took my friend Sam, a long-standing reader of the blog with extensive experience in hospitality and, more specifically, of working front of house in chain restaurants. Surely, I thought, Sam could help me take a fair and balanced approach to the flagship outpost of one of Reading’s most prominent chains.

“Have you seen Pulp Fiction before?” chuckled Sam as the waitress seated us in a little booth for two, all leatherette banquettes with a good view of the restaurant. Sam is an extremely amiable chap who sounds as posh as you like and, despite only just being in his thirties, can inexplicably get away with calling everybody “kiddo”. He was still sporting a Movember moustache (“it’s on a week’s probation” he told me) and the overall effect was somehow more Battle Of Britain pilot than best-avoided uncle. Actually, despite it being ersatz in the extreme I somehow admired the fit-out of TGI Friday. Everything looked polished and fake without being cheap.

A chorus of “Happy Birthday”, led by the serving staff, erupted at a nearby table. It wouldn’t be the last of the evening.

The menu made decisions surprisingly difficult, but not in a good way. I tried very hard to overcome my preconceptions when looking through it, but it seemed like such a cookie-cutter approach to American food that I found it hard to care. Burgers, ribs, fajitas and tacos were all present and correct, and there were frequent references to TGI’s “Legendary glaze”, which may or may not have been a reference to the expression of the waiter who brought us our first beers. The menu was broken into sections with names like “Rib, Dip, Hooray!” and “Love Me Some Chicken”, which was bad enough but some of the names of the dishes genuinely made me want to get up and leave. Particular offenders included the “Gravy Seal”, a burger which had had the kitchen sink thrown at it and was apparently “a tasty triple trip over sea, air and land” and the “It’s Mine, Nachos!” about which no more need be said.

“I’ve decided” said Sam. “It’s got to be the Warrior Burger.” I knew this was likely: Sam had been talking about this life choice for about two weeks in the run up to our visit. I ummed and aahed and then I saw and heard a spectacle at a neighbouring table closer to the pass which made matters more straightforward; a plate was put down in front of a diner with a sizzle audible from some distance away, and smoke filled the air. Another glance at my menu revealed that this was the “Sizzling Crispy Duck Fajita”, and so my decision was made.

“Good choice, kiddo” said Sam, necking a hefty swig of his Sam Adams. I looked at my Budweiser, one of the only draft beers on offer, and took a sip. It tasted of Budweiser. I made a mental note that more of it might be required.

At this point you are no doubt expecting me to detest every single thing that followed, so allow me to confound both of us by telling you that the first of our two appetisers wasn’t bad. The sesame chicken strips were a hit with both Sam and I: a reasonably generous helping of chicken with a little crunch, some heat from the chilli flakes and some sweetness from that Legendary (I can’t stop capitalising it, because that way it’s more obviously their word and not mine) glaze. The extra dish of dipping sauce, which I think was also glaze, was more than anybody needed, and a mere taste of it confirmed that it was Dignitas for tooth enamel. None the less, I liked this dish: the fried chicken at Soju it wasn’t, but we still polished it off in a state of mild surprise.

The other starter, loaded potato skins, had to be done; I suspect that it’s been on the TGI menu since time immemorial, a 90s time capsule in gastronomic form. The menu said they were “potato skins filled with melted cheese”, and the last time I saw a fib of that magnitude it was on the side of a bus: the skin wasn’t crunchy and moreish and barely featured in the dish. Nor did the melted cheese. Some of the skins had very little: “filled” wasn’t the right description, and “meanly sprinkled” would have been closer to the mark. The predominant feature of the dish was in fact the flesh of the potato, which means they were less potato skins and more just chunks of potato. We’d chosen to have them with bacon, but it was more like highlighter-pink indeterminate mince than lovely, crispy, salty bacon. The whole affair contained more flesh and gammon than the average Question Time audience, and was about as appetising. The sour cream gloop in the middle did nothing to improve matters, and nor did the token spring onions.

“Well, it’s not terrible so far” I said, trying to put a brave face on things as we sat there for what felt like quite some time waiting for them to take our empty dishes away. Terrible was not far away, because split seconds after they were whipped off the table in a monosyllabic fashion our main courses arrived. My duck was set down in front of me completely devoid of any sizzle, smoke or steam, a moment even more lacking in theatre than the renditions of “Happy Birthday” at the other tables (two and counting).

“I’m really sorry” I said, because I felt one of us ought to apologise for what I was looking at, “but this isn’t sizzling.”

“Oh, it definitely is” said the waitress, trying to style it out. There was a pause while I tried to make up my mind whether it was worth explaining what the word sizzling really meant. It probably only lasted ten seconds but in my mind it felt like easily five minutes of awkward silence. It was eventually broken by the waitress.

“I mean, if you touch it you’ll find it’s really hot.”

I looked at Sam, Sam looked at me. Our expressions mirrored one another, and we sat in silence while the waitress brought the rest of our food and left us to it.

“What was that about?” said Sam. “That was like hearing Trump talk about the crowds at his inauguration.”

It was true: there was something post-truth about what had just happened. With hindsight, I actually think that it might have been for the best that my duck arrived without any smoke and mirrors, because it made it easier to get right to the heart of the matter, namely that it was truly awful. It was sinewy, and a struggle to get much meat off the bone apart from the breast, which had a weird, cotton-woolly texture. It was topped with a bizarre salsa which looked a little like finely diced vomit (and, I suspect, more of the Legendary Glaze) and sat on a bed of onions which had no hint of caramelisation, on account of never having sizzled.

This was a dish that really didn’t know whether it was Tex-Mex or Chinese, so decided to fail dismally at both. There were tortillas which were thick and more like cardboard than the thin pancakes which might have worked, and shredded cucumber and spring onion to make the cognitive dissonance even worse. Finally, there was more of the gloopy Legendary Glaze, although this time it had an odd lumpy texture like frogspawn, or a very loose stool. It was sweet to the point of offensiveness, and after I’d assembled a couple of fajitas my fingers were so sticky I wasn’t sure they’d ever be clean again. It could have been worse if I hadn’t had a spoon to dish up the glaze, although admittedly I’d had to ask nicely for one of those (how exactly did they imagine I was going to do it?). By the end I was reduced to scraping all the crud off the duck, eating it on its own with a knife and fork and realising that even that couldn’t rescue matters.

This dish cost seventeen pounds fifty. I thought of all the times I’d had delicious confit duck at Cote, a couple of doors down, for considerably less money. Then I thought of what else seventeen pounds fifty could buy you in this town and I started to feel quite angry, although it could have just been a sugar rush from the Legendary Glaze.

“This is the worst crispy duck fajita I’ve ever had.” I said. “Of course, it’s also the best and, if I have my way, it will be the only crispy duck fajita I ever have. Also, this really isn’t a restaurant for diabetics.”

Sam’s Warrior Burger was no better. It managed to simultaneously be overcooked and lukewarm, which takes some doing but really shouldn’t be considered an achievement. The patties were a tad grey and nothing about the dish looked appetising.

“It’s been cooked with one purpose and one purpose alone” said Sam, “and that’s to eradicate the risk of anybody getting food poisoning.” It didn’t feel like an ambitious mission statement.

“Not a fan then?”

“No. All these whistles and bells like the mozzarella dippers are just there to draw attention away from the poor quality meat.”

“So how much of this do you reckon was previously frozen?” I asked, reckoning that Sam knew a bit about that kind of thing.

“Most of it. Probably the burgers, definitely the mozzarella sticks and probably the bread too. The fries are okay, I suppose, and that dip” – Sam gestured at little dish of what looked like mustard – “isn’t bad. But really, it isn’t good at all.”

The Warrior Burger costs over fifteen pounds. “Maybe lots of people eating here have vouchers” said Sam. Either that or a lobotomy, I thought to myself.

Unable to finish my meal, and eventually bored of the staff’s complete unwillingness to take our empty plates away, I wandered upstairs to wash my hands obsessively like Lady Macbeth until no trace of the glaze remained. The upstairs, almost as big as the downstairs, was completely empty (“there was no upstairs when it was Tampopo” said Sam, sagely, “so god knows where the staff get to change or relax or keep their stuff now”).

Coming out of the bathroom, I discovered a voicemail on my phone from TGI Fridays asking why I hadn’t shown up for my table and whether I planned to. “We’re very busy and we can definitely give the table to somebody else” said the voice huffily. I looked at the deserted tables around me and I wondered whether I’d wandered into some kind of dream sequence. Maybe I hadn’t actually gone to TGI Friday and none of this had ever happened, I thought. Perhaps it wasn’t too late to scrap the review and take Sam to eat somewhere better, like literally anywhere.

Back at our seats our crockery and cutlery was still in front of us. I told Sam about my voicemail.

“That sums this place up” he said. “It’s all so half-arsed. I mean, did you notice the state of the tables and chairs out front on the Riverside when we walked in? If this was my restaurant and the front looked like that, I’d sack myself.”

The waiter took our plates away and asked if we fancied dessert. It was tempting to see if there was anything more sugary than the food I had already had, but morbid curiosity is no justification for throwing good money after bad.

“No thanks mate” said Sam. “I think we’ll just finish our drinks and get round to asking for the bill.”

The waiter wandered off, got the bill and slammed it wordlessly on the table in front of us almost immediately. Finally we had something in common: he was as keen for me to leave the restaurant as I was. But there was one final quirk to the service when the waiter discovered that we planned to pay by card. He came over with the card machine, entered the amount and then wandered off, leaving us to stick our card in and enter the PIN. This struck me as a novel approach and different from literally every waiter and waitress I have ever encountered. Dinner for two came to sixty-seven pounds, not including tip, and it was only Sam’s generosity and good humour that meant that we tipped at all. Personally I would have just paid, departed and then left them a voicemail explaining that I wasn’t going to tip them, but with hindsight I’m glad Sam prevailed.

“The thing is though” said Sam, “the service really was poor. I know some of this is the kitchen’s fault, and some’s the menu’s fault, but the waitress should never have brought a sizzling duck dish that wasn’t sizzling.” And he was right, because even if the food had been middling and indifferent (I should have been so lucky) the service could still have improved matters considerably. It was a meal with no care factor evident anywhere.

There was time for one last sting in the tail, because as we were finishing our drinks Sam examined his pint glass. There – close to the bottom, on the inside – was a grim-looking black smudge of goodness knows what.

“What’s that?” said Sam in horror. We examined it, neither of us wanting to touch it.

“I have no idea, but when the pint was first poured it was probably even bigger. Most of it has probably, err, dissolved.” I realised immediately after I said it that this wasn’t helpful.

“Oh well, I could do with losing some weight. This just wasn’t how I planned to do it.”

Afterwards, commiserating in the pub, I told Sam that I thought that TGI Friday was like the WH Smith of restaurants: I couldn’t understand why it still existed, because you could get everything it did better somewhere else. If you want cocktails you should go to Milk and if you want burgers, you should go to Honest. If you want ribs, you should go to Bluegrass and if you want fajitas you should go to Mission. If you want crispy duck fajitas, you should see your doctor.

But it’s worse than that, because not only do other places do this food better but, without exception, they are cheaper. I could cope with expensive and mediocre, and I could just about cope with cheap and bad, but the combination of costly and diabolical leaves me baffled. Who eats at TGI Fridays these days? And one other thing: this isn’t about snobbishness, it’s about standards. Earlier in the year I went to the Beefeater on the Bath Road, with my family. It wasn’t my choice, and in the run-up I did make a few unworthy jokes about the evening that lay ahead. But actually, the service was lovely, the food was okay and the steak itself was rather nice. I went away feeling a little ashamed of myself, but at TGI Friday I just went away feeling dirty and exploited (and not in a good way, either).

So there you have it, my final review of 2018 is easily the worst meal I’ve had all year and one of the very worst meals I’ve had in over five years of writing this blog. Thank you for reliving it with me (don’t have nightmares) and I only have one last thing to say. It’s this: good to never have to go to TGI Fridays ever again. Important to avoid it for the rest of my days. Thanks a bunch, Matt Rodda.

TGI Fridays – 3.6
Unit 8, The Oracle, RG1 2AG
0344 2646052

https://www.tgifridays.co.uk/locations/get/Reading%20Oracle#/

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Mission Burrito

Sometimes you just don’t want a sit down three course meal (this even happens to me – believe it or not). Sometimes you’re off to the cinema or out down the pub and you just want something quick, easy and tasty. And for years, in central Reading, your only real choice was who made your burger and whether it was chicken or beef – three McDonalds, three Burger Kings and a KFC are testimony to that. That all changed when Mission opened on the Oracle Riverside and gave diners another option which wasn’t griddled or fried and didn’t come with fries: the brave new world of burritos.

Mission is a mini-chain that started in Oxford and has slowly expanded – first to Reading and then further west to Cardiff via Bath and Bristol (someone there must really like the M4). It always makes me proud, as a Reading resident, when places decide to expand to Reading first; back in the days when Bill’s was new it felt exciting and cool that they opened here. But Bill’s is a big chain pretending to be a cuddly independent whereas Mission, for now at least, feels like the real deal, an independent that had a good idea, did well and has grown gradually and organically. But is it any good?

The plot that Mission has in the Oracle isn’t very big – it can be a bit of a squeeze to get a seat and the queue sometimes stretches out the door (a promising sign in itself) but it turns out Sunday afternoons are fairly quiet so I got there and had no trouble getting served or finding a seat. The room is pretty unremarkable – space along one side to queue until you’re up at the counter, and plain dark wood tables with long benches. Get in, get your food, eat your food and go. And that’s fine: I never understood when McDonald’s started introducing what looked like Arne Jacobsen chairs. Who eats a burger in one of those? (Not Arne Jacobsen, that’s for sure.)

Ordering involves all manner of choices. There are three types of dish – burritos, fajitas (which are like burritos but with vegetables instead of rice) or tacos, which are three soft flour tortillas rather than the rigid corn shells so beloved by Old El Paso (and so impossible to eat). There are then three types of filling – beef, chicken or pork. Or if you fancy paying through the nose for a dish with no meat, or are vegetarian and therefore have no choice, there’s vegetables. Then you pick your extras – guacamole or cheese (which cost extra) or pico de gallo and sour cream (which don’t). Finally, just to crank up the number of different types of combinations, you pick from one of three different sauces with varying degrees of heat. The possibilities, as Eddie Izzard used to say on that TV advert about recycling, are endless.

I make it sound really complex but it really isn’t too bad and the staff behind the counter, running a factory line all doing different parts of the process, are very friendly and efficient and in next to no time I was at my table tucking into my choice.

The burritos are big – a twelve inch tortilla liberally stuffed with rice, pinto beans (which had been “cooked in bacon” according to the staff, although I’m not sure what that entails), guacamole and the slow cooked beef. Rolled up and served in foil, it wasn’t possible to eat tidily unless you kept most of the foil in place. It’s not a delicate dainty meal but it wasn’t half bad: I loved the beef, rich and cooked until it had no fight left in it, and the beans, although not really tasting of bacon per se, were smoky and tasty. The guacamole was a little more disappointing – huge chunks of avocado, too coarse if anything, not distributed evenly throughout the burrito. The chipotle sauce didn’t come through at all, leaving me wondering if I’d asked for the wrong one or if the staff just hadn’t glugged on enough. The cheese didn’t register. But I suppose these could be viewed as fussy quibbles about what was basically a big edible pillowcase stuffed with a lot of quite good things (they also do a smaller version, presumably for lunchtime and less ambitious eaters, and a larger version – presumably for Eric Pickles).

The tacos are three thinner six inch discs which are assembled but left open. I had two with chicken and one with pork – just to cover all the bases, you understand – topped with lettuce, sour cream, cheese and a smidge of chipotle salsa. These were also delicious, if almost impossible to eat – you end up trying to roll the edges together but end up with a big sloppy tube, dripping sauce from both ends. (Sounds lovely, doesn’t it: who doesn’t enjoy a big sloppy dripping tube?) The chicken was particularly good, cooked until it was falling apart and perfect with the note of heat from the chipotle sauce it had been roasted in. The cheese, again, was a bit lost in the mix so you could easily leave it out and save yourself the princely sum of thirty pence but the sour cream worked well, offsetting the heat from the salsa. The carnitas was less exciting than the chicken: drier and lacking in flavour with no hint of the thyme or orange zest it had apparently been cooked with.

Mission - tacos

Dotted around the tables were bottles of hot sauce (because some people really like not being able to feel their lips) and big piles of paper napkins (because some people really don’t like to be covered in sauce). I avoided the former, because I’m not that kind of person, and enthusiastically embraced the latter, for similar reasons. That said, I did add a little hot sauce to my last taco and very nice it was too, even if it did require the use of yet another paper napkin. If you are on the fastidious side this might not be for you but if you like getting stuck in and don’t mind reaching the end of a meal looking like you need to be hosed down Mission might be right up your alley.

Drinks options are, unsurprisingly, limited but the Modelo, in a bottle, was exactly as you’d expect. The frozen margarita was I think a better choice – zesty and zingy without the rough edge that tequila can sometimes have, and surprisingly refreshing after the richness of the food.

Dinner for two came to almost exactly twenty pounds and the burritos, fajitas and tacos come in at just under the six pound mark: I was in two minds about whether this was good value (and I still am) although I am pretty sure it represents iffy value for money if you’re a vegetarian. If a vegetarian has to endure a burrito restaurant the very least you can do is give the poor sods free cheese and guacamole, and even that seems a bit stingy.

On reflection, I liked Mission but maybe not as much as I should have done. The food is good, the value isn’t unreasonable, the service is very pleasant and they have a clear proposition. They’re exactly the kind of independent place Reading needs and they do what they do very well. But I was left with the feeling that if a friend said “let’s go to Mission before the cinema” I wouldn’t object, but I’d be unlikely to suggest going there myself. It’s funny how sometimes a place just doesn’t grab you: I guess, like the sauce in my burrito, I felt a little warmth, but not quite enough.

Mission Burrito – 6.7
15A The Riverside Level, The Oracle Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9511999

http://missionburrito.co.uk/