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

https://www.facebook.com/tutusethiopiantablepalmerpark/

The Three Guineas

You weren’t meant to be getting a review of The Three Guineas this week. My companion for this week’s review was my friend Izzy, a veritable girl around town who I’ve known for yonks, and when I gave her a free choice of all the establishments on my to do list she went – rather to my surprise, to be honest – for the Crown On The Bridge, the pub on the edge of Caversham which has recently relaunched with a menu largely revolving around hot dogs and bangers and mash.

Despite this being a quixotic choice in the middle of a summer as hot as balls, I was happy with it. I figured I could meet up with Izzy, hear stories of her latest exploits on Tinder or Bumble (although based on her recent experiences I think she may have accidentally merged them into a single app called Tumble populated exclusively by a freakish parade of emotionally stunted men) and work in a few jokes about Izzy going on a sausage hunt. Really, it was too perfect: she could be Carrie Bradshaw, we’d have a good old gas and I’d get a review into the bargain (I’ll leave you to guess whether I’m more like Miranda, Samantha or indeed Stanford Blatch).

The day before the review, disaster struck: Izzy had had a good week at Weight Watchers and unlike most people, who would fall on a plate of sausages like a hungry beast to celebrate, this meant she wanted to be Sensible. Could we go to The Three Guineas instead, she asked? It has a very tempting looking poached salmon and vegetable dish. Leaving out the fact that, in my book at least, there’s no such thing, I agreed immediately. Are you pissed off with me? she asked. Of course not I replied, mildly pissed off. She knows me well enough to know I was fibbing.

When they first announced that The Three Guineas had protected status as part of the project to build the new station I was surprised. I’d always thought of it as a pretty skanky pub – with a handsome exterior, admittedly, but still not one deserving special treatment. I turned up on a warm day to review it and there were people at most of the tables outside soaking up the sunshine and drinking something fizzy and yellow (so, in that respect at least, very much like its previous incarnation).

But going inside it was clear that the refurb had been done very nicely indeed – the pub was broken up into sections, each with a slightly different feel, but done in a way where nothing was jarring. I especially liked the upper area with a tiled floor and stools, reminiscent of a railway brasserie somewhere much more glamorous and continental, and the dining area with its fetching deep red button-backed booths. I installed myself there, because it seemed to be the main part of the pub which did table service.

To my relief when Izzy came in, resplendent in hipster glasses and a ironically retro Fleetwood Mac t-shirt, she announced that she had eaten very little all day and was keen to make up for lost calories. I was far too pleased by this to say anything petulant about sausages (although I can’t say it didn’t cross my mind) so I bit my tongue and we scoured the menu to try and figure out how to best attack it.

I must say, I found the menu a bit uninspired, especially the main courses. It had the name of the pub’s head chef on it, but I’m not really sure why because I didn’t see much there – fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, burger, curry – that showed any signs of identity, personality or distinctiveness. More interesting was the array of nibbles around the four pound mark, which I assumed were small plates slightly smaller than a conventional starter. That was my excuse for us ordering three of them to share, and I’m sticking to it.

Cauliflower pakora was probably the nicest of the nibbles we ordered – beautifully cooked florets, still with a little bite, and a light and crunchy batter. In a theme that was to continue all evening, however, it wasn’t quite what you’d expect it to be from the menu. Instead of many small florets these were big old buggers, and the “almond coronation mayonnaise” they came with was more like a curry dip. As so often with these things, there wasn’t quite enough of it. Less successful, although still very tasty, was the black pudding Scotch Egg. “Not as good as the Lyndhurst’s” was Izzy’s verdict and I had to agree – it wasn’t at all bad but it was decidedly subtle, especially where the black pudding was concerned (I found it almost undetectable). Most surreally, the “popcorn chicken” was nothing of the kind. I was expecting an upmarket take on KFC and what I got instead was tasty, coated and seasoned pieces of chicken but with absolutely nothing about them that would make you think “popcorn”. They came with a mayonnaise which was meant to have tarragon in it, but I think the tarragon had gone the way of the popcorn.

Lots of quibbles there, but oddly I really enjoyed all the small plates despite the missteps and false advertising. The worst thing about them, though, was how much they made me look forward to the main courses, because that turned out to be the biggest piece of false advertising of all.

My main course sounded amazing on paper: “braised West Country shoulder shepherd’s pie”. It stood out on the menu, begging to be ordered, and the least I could do was oblige. What turned up, though, went past mediocre to verge on insulting. The ratio of filling to topping in a dish is a debate people could have all day. It can be dish dependent, too: if you gave me a rhubarb crumble that wasn’t at least fifty per cent topping, I’d be most disappointed. But, whichever way you want to look at it, a shepherd’s pie which is eighty per cent mashed potato isn’t going to impress anybody in their right mind. Surely this isn’t just me?

I didn’t realise this at first, so I kept taking forkfuls of the mash hoping to hit lamby paydirt, but lamby paydirt never came. When I finally scraped the bottom, literally and metaphorically, it was a thin layer of lamb bulked out with diced carrots which tasted of very little. The spring greens which came on the side were sorry, thin, lukewarm things. Izzy’s menu said that this came with red wine gravy, my menu didn’t: the kitchen clearly had my menu rather than hers. The whole thing cost fourteen pounds and had me ruefully remembering the kind of food that money got you in the Lyndhurst. Instead I had mash, cold cabbage, a few cubes of carrot, some strands of lamb and the unshakeable feeling that they’d seen me coming. They do a better shepherd’s pie in M&S for a fiver. I found myself wishing I’d ordered the poached salmon, and that’s a profoundly sorry state of affairs.

Izzy, after all that, went for the sweet potato, chickpea and spinach curry. It came with flat dippable naans and was topped with a splodge of raita. I tried it and didn’t mind it but it was hard to get excited. It tasted of the sweetness of mango chutney more than the heat of spice, and although I quite enjoyed my mouthful I wouldn’t have wanted to wade through a whole portion of the stuff. Was it better than something you could pick up in a Wetherspoon’s? I doubted it, somehow. Izzy liked it though, at least up to the point where I leaned over conspiratorially and said to her “I’m never happier than when a chickpea’s in my mouth”. That got a grimace, and no doubt a mental note not to come out on duty with me again.

Drinks, by the way, were pretty bog standard and inoffensive. I’ve read a fair few people complaining about the price of pints in the Three Guineas, but they have to recoup their outlay somehow and I fear it’s not long before Reading crosses the Londonesque Rubicon of five pounds a pint and never looks back (in fact, apparently the Thirsty Bear has beaten everybody else to it). I had a perfectly pleasant pint and a half of Cornish Orchard (four pounds eighty-five a pint, in case that makes you wince) and Izzy had a Hendricks and tonic followed by a Diet Pepsi. She specifically asked for cucumber in her G&T and when it arrived the cucumber was a few wispy strands which had presumably gone through a spiralizer. The overall effect was more like algae: truly random stuff.

Service for the first half of our meal was from a young chap who seemed genuinely terrified every time he approached our table. I don’t know if it was his first day, or if he was worried about dropping something – an understandable concern based on how he tried to clear our starter plates away. Maybe he was just struggling to look Izzy in the eye: I’m told some gents find this on the difficult side. For the second half of the meal though our waitress was fantastic – likeable, enthusiastic and engaging, a proper people person (“it’s so nice to look after dining customers”, she told us, “because otherwise I just end up going from table to table picking up empty glasses”). She managed to talk us into ordering dessert too, although this gave The Three Guineas another opportunity to prove that the only consistent thing about them was their inconsistency.

Izzy ordered the chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream. Now, I have a problem with this because I’ve always thought it’s a cake rather than a dessert. It might be that the kitchen at the Three Guineas agrees with me, because what turned up couldn’t really be described as a cake. It lacked the essential – to me, anyway – characteristic of having been – what’s the word? – baked. Instead what turned up was a vaguely rectangular wobbling slab of cake mix. If they’d tried harder it would have been a brownie, but then if I’d tried harder I wouldn’t have got a C in GCSE drama; you’ve got to stop making excuses eventually. “It’s very nice”, said Izzy, “but it’s just goo”.

My ice cream was three scoops, but the one on top was significantly smaller than the other two, like they’d given up partway through: if I’d taken the same approach as the kitchen, this review would abruptly stop here. Again, it’s a real pity because the ice cream was fantastic. It’s from Laverstoke Park Farm and had all the rich silkiness I associate with them – based, admittedly, on many a happy afternoon spent devouring their buffalo mozzarella. I loved the chocolate (what there was of it), I adored the salted caramel and I admired more than enjoyed the orange chocolate chip. But overall the ice cream was even nicer, I would say, than Tutti Frutti – especially in terms of texture. Even then, it rankled that the portion control was so haphazard and, even more oddly, when the bill arrived they’d decided to charge separately for each scoop, making it more expensive. The whole meal came to £64, not including tip.

As Izzy and I strolled across Forbury Gardens, heading to the Retreat for a post-meal debrief, we chatted about the meal.

“What rating will you give it?”

“I don’t know yet, I’ll think about it. The only real rule with ER ratings is that if it’s less than 6.5 I’d be unlikely to go back.”

“So is this right on the edge?”

“Yes, probably.”

Probably is about right, I think. I could see myself stopping there with friends for drinks, or popping in off the train and just wolfing down some of those small dishes. But I keep coming back to the mistakes, and god knows there were plenty. A shepherd’s pie which could almost have been made without the involvement of a single shepherd. A brownie which had never seen an oven. Cucumber like algae. Popcorn chicken which gave no clue as to how it got the name. I’m tempted to be generous to the Three Guineas because they’ve breathed life into a lovely old building, the interior looks great, and the service at the end was as good as any I’ve had in far more illustrious places.

But then I think about the money sunk into the place, and the prime location they have and I think that the food, overall, was just lazy. I keep coming back to places like The Lyndhurst, which get this stuff right and put proper thought into their food. And The Lyndhurst is flourishing despite not having the luxury of a captive, transient and (let’s be honest) possibly inebriated clientele to rely on. Why would I go to The Three Guineas when I can go there? So all in all I can’t recommend The Three Guineas, and that’s a real shame. Unless and until they sort out their food, they’re going to be wasting one of their best assets clearing glasses from tables, and Reading will – in some respects at least – waste one of its most attractive buildings.

The Three Guineas – 6.5
Station Approach, Reading, RG1 1LY
0118 9572743

http://www.three-guineas.co.uk/