Global Café Kitchen

Reading’s vegetarians and vegans have never been served terribly well. Back in the day there was Café Iguana, which I still miss (my order was usually a Roma toasted sandwich and their delicious, if whiffy, garlic and herb fries). It was scuzzy but lovable, the service was haphazard and the whole thing was distinctly, well, nineties, but I was very sad when it closed. For a long time after that, the only destination for vegetarians was the brilliant and unsung Bhel Puri House, and plenty of people didn’t even know it existed.

It’s only in the last couple of years that things have started to shift. We’ve seen restaurants raise their game: now there are many places with credible meat-free (or plant-based, or whatever you want to call it this month) options. So now we have Pho where most of the menu can be made vegetarian or vegan, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen which has an excellent vegan selection, and Honest which first introduced an excellent vegetarian fritter and then added a trailblazing vegan burger. I keep meaning to do a round-up of the best places for vegetarians in Reading – another gap in the market – and the main thing that delays it is the growing plethora of options.

In parallel, Reading saw two completely meat-free venues open this year. The first, Miami Burger, offered a vegan take on American fast food and closed its doors last week shortly after announcing a deal to sell its products in Morrisons. A cynic could almost believe that the restaurant was always just a shop window to land that kind of contract (a conspiracy theory hardly helped by Miami Burger rewriting history to describe the Reading restaurant as a “test kitchen”).

Either way I never visited Miami Burger – known to some as “Brexit Burger” because of the political views of its owner, a man who left the Tories for UKIP and once pondered on his blog whether the unemployed should have their votes taken away – and I’m not convinced I’ve missed much. Besides, for five pounds you can get one of Bhel Puri’s amazing vada pav, and that’s more than enough veggie burger for me.

The second meat-free restaurant is a more interesting proposition. Global Café for many years was home to Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen, a much-celebrated Reading establishment which left me baffled when I visited it on duty many years ago. Tutu left this year to take over a site in Palmer Park which used to belong to the Chalkboard Café, and as a result Global Café has taken on a new chef and is offering a regularly changing vegetarian and vegan menu under the moniker Global Café Kitchen.

I was having a drink at Global Café with my mother and my stepfather the fateful night we went to review Lemoni, and looking at their menu I was very tempted to change our plans and eat there instead. It was small (four or five main courses and a couple of starters) and reasonably priced (mains were around a tenner). But most crucially, it all looked worth eating: from a tempura mushroom burger to a vegetarian rendang, from Sri Lankan dahl to a halloumi and tabbouleh salad, I could happily have ordered practically anything on the menu. I wasn’t alone, either; my mother in particular would much rather have eaten at Global Café than Lemoni, so much so that we agreed to come back the following week and give it a whirl, with my stepfather in tow.

The Global Café hasn’t changed in many years, and I suspect you either think it’s one of the last great Reading institutions or an anachronism you haven’t felt the need to visit for a very long time. I veer more towards the former – even though it’s a tad on the scruffy side I’ve always had a soft spot for it. The area at the front, near the bar, gets lots of light from the lovely big windows and if all the tables and chairs don’t match and don’t seem to be designed for eating at or drinking at, it doesn’t necessarily matter. Nor does it matter that there’s a sofa randomly plonked there, with a big metal trunk serving as a table. It’s Global Café: that’s just how it is.

My stepfather found the long trip downstairs to the loos genuinely alarming (“it smells of damp down there”) and was a bit baffled by the different-coloured lights in the wicker lightshades (“you’d think they’d be LED bulbs, wouldn’t you?”) but I wouldn’t describe him as the target market for this kind of place. He was more impressed with the selection of local beers, as was I, but because it was a school night the three of us opted for an alcohol-free Erdinger Blue apiece while we decided what to order. It’s my top tip for anyone who likes the taste of beer and wants to cut down on their alcohol intake – and it cost less than £3 a bottle, considerably cheaper than the crazy prices charged at some of Reading’s pubs.

There were only a handful of starters, but all the mains from our previous visit were still on the menu, along with a couple of specials – a spiced potato and cheese “Bombay burger” and what was described as a “Banana Blossom burger”.

“What’s the banana blossom burger?” I asked the dreadlocked chap behind the bar (no table service, so that’s where you place your order).

“It’s not made from banana, it’s another part of the banana tree. It sort of has the same texture as chicken.”

“Sounds interesting.”

“They’re changing the menu all the time. I’m not even a vegetarian, but I really like the food here.”

“How long have you been running the new menu?”

“About three months, we’re still getting used to it really.”

I wasn’t sure whether this exchange inspired confidence or eroded it – but I liked his honesty and I liked the sound of the banana blossom burger, so I changed my mind about what to eat and ordered it instead.

Our starters arrived reasonably quickly, brought I think by the chef. The menu had three, one of which was soup, so we ordered the other two planning to share them. The best of them was the crispy fried aubergine, cooked with a beautifully light touch and free of all the stodge and mulch I associate with aubergine done badly.

This stuff was better than versions I’ve had of the same dish, berenjanas con miel, in Andalusia and the little tweaks to make the dish vegan only added to the appeal: vegan labneh had a very pleasing touch of coconut, and the miel de cana (vegan honey) was hard to distinguish from any other kind of honey. We all ever so politely made sure we had our fair share before nicely bargaining over the final piece. A really good dish, although at six pounds it felt like it should have been a bigger portion. “I could have eaten one of those on my own” said my mother, echoing my feelings. Still, I guess that’s what happens when you share two starters between three: if you go, order your own.

The other starter was a very different kettle of quinoa. Flatbread with marinated tomatoes, olives and dip sounds like just the thing to graze on while you wait for your food to arrive, but this was a lukewarm warm-up act. The tomatoes – cherry tomatoes halved – were pleasant enough, and the olives, small and pitted, were the kind of thing you could get in any supermarket.

The houmous, though, was worse than anything you could get in a supermarket – I’ve no doubt they made it themselves, but it had no lightness, no evidence of olive oil or garlic or tahini. Calling it a dip was optimistic because it didn’t have the texture for dipping: you’d have had more luck using it to cement a wall. We did our best to scoop it on to the heavy, unremarkable flatbread.

This rogue’s gallery came to four pounds – for the same money you could have a much bigger bowl of the best houmous in Reading just up the road at Bakery House, and they’d throw in piping hot, fresh-from-the-oven pitta bread into the bargain. It felt like the restaurant had bought those little, weird-shaped dishes, and then struggled to decide what to serve in them. The answer, I think, is Not this.

The themes of the starters – glimmers of talent, inconsistency and slightly sharp pricing – followed through to the main courses (which arrived pretty quickly), although these were generally far better. My mother’s choice, the parippu – Sri Lankan dahl – was earthy and creamy with a nicely gradual heat. Her verdict was that it was “a bit monotonous” – although I suspect that, texturally at least, that’s always the way with dahl. The toasted coconut on top helped, but it needed something like toasted seeds for texture and what it really needed was plenty of fresh coriander. The rice was somewhat clumpy – brown rice might have been better – and the flatbread wasn’t required: there wasn’t enough of the dish to be able to use it. If that all sounds like faint praise, it shouldn’t entirely – I enjoyed it, but even at eight pounds it felt like it could have been a little bigger and better.

My stepfather had chosen the rendang – in this case a chickpea curry with aubergines and courgettes. I’m used to rendang being made with long-cooked, sticky strands of beef and having an intensely savoury taste. This dish didn’t have any of that, feeling more like a massaman or a Thai curry with as much sweetness as heat, if not more. Again, I liked it, and again I felt that it was a little keenly priced: eleven pounds for this one. My stepfather seemed to enjoy it, too, and polished it off in short order.

This brings us to the appropriately alliterative banana blossom burger, which I’m delighted to say was an eye opener. It didn’t have the texture of chicken, after all that: it reminded me more of artichoke hearts, and you got a couple of pieces rather than a single patty. But the coating around the banana blossom was very good – salty and savoury, reminiscent of shame-free KFC. The bun was strong enough to stand up to everything in it (so unlike, say, Honest’s buns which always seem to go soggy at the bottom) and the ripe avocado and mango mayo in it finished it off nicely.

This was a revelation to me, and I hope Global Café Kitchen moves it off the specials menu so more people can try it. A chap at the table next to me ordered it and when it arrived at his table I butted in to enthuse to him about how much I’d liked it. “It’s a bit like KFC!” I said, to which he mournfully replied “I’ve never had KFC” (I asked him his verdict as we were leaving: he thought it was too salty, so Christ knows what the poor guy would actually make of KFC).

Also, I really liked Global Café Kitchen’s fries – clearly hand-cut and prepared on the premises – and the sweet tomato sauce and (presumably) vegan mayo they came with were both tasty, too. My stepfather had some “dirty fries” although it wasn’t clear what made them so sinful or indulgent: the “beetroot aioli” mainly seemed to be finely diced beetroot and the sesame seeds felt a bit unnecessary. They were still very good, though, because their fries are very good.

There isn’t much more to say about Global Café Kitchen than that – there was no dessert section, and we’d been fed so quickly and efficiently that there was nothing more to do but to head out. Our whole meal – two starters, three mains, those extra fries and three beers – came to almost bang on fifty pounds, not including service.

Service was really friendly and likeable but had a general air that they were still getting the hang of things. We had to ask for side plates, for instance, and the speed with which our mains came out gave the impression that the restaurant didn’t have masses of customers, so was used to just cooking things and getting them out of the door almost straight away. Three months should be long enough to get those teething troubles under control but, much like everything else about Global Café, I was prepared to overlook some of the less polished aspects.

Reviews like this are the hardest to conclude. A hatchet job writes itself, a rave review also builds to a natural, logical crescendo, a rallying cry of sorts. It’s far more difficult to write the sort of nuanced summary that makes half your readers think the mark at the end is far too harsh and the other half believe that you’ve let a restaurant off the hook. All the same, here goes: much of what I ate at Global Café Kitchen wasn’t perfect, and much of what I liked felt too small or too expensive (or ever so slightly beige) but in terms of imagination and range there is still plenty to celebrate.

They offer a genuine vegan menu (nearly all the dishes are vegan, and they say the rest can be made vegan on request) which offers a wide range of dishes, tries different meat substitutes rather than just doling out the same old tofu and – most crucially – offers real and interesting choices. I could have ordered any of the main courses we tried that night, and a couple we didn’t, without feeling like I was missing meat at all. There’s a lot to be said for that – whether you’re vegetarian or vegan, or know somebody who is that you’d actually like to have dinner with once in a while. Or, for that matter, if you’d just like to do your bit to eat more sensibly and help the planet from time to time. That you can do so without donning a hair shirt is quite an achievement, even if in 2019 it shouldn’t feel that way.

I never made it to Miami Burger – deliberately, I’m afraid – but the one thing I heard about it from my vegan followers was how nice it was just to have somewhere where they could order everything on the menu. Those people should make their way to Global Café and support a kitchen that may not be doing everything right quite yet but definitely has the right idea. And the rest of us? We should consider following suit from time to time, and supporting a Reading institution – one which, it seems to me, has picked up the torch from Café Iguana and is doing its best to carry it forward into an uncertain future.

Global Café Kitchen – 6.9
35-39 London Street, RG1 4PS
0118 9583555

https://www.risc.org.uk/global-cafe/global-cafe-kitchen

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Tutu’s Ethiopian Table

As of April 2019 the Global Café has a new vegetarian menu and Tutu cooks at her new café in Palmer Park. I’ve kept this review up for posterity but the restaurant it describes no longer exists. I’ll visit the Global Café and Tutu’s new café in due course.

Usually, when I eat at a restaurant I have a pretty good idea whether I’ll enjoy it fairly early on. First impressions are important – the welcome, the service, the room, the menu – but even if they aren’t good, you normally know by the time you taste those first few forkfuls of your starter. Not to say there aren’t still chances to save the day: a knockout main course can redeem all sorts of prior disappointments, although by that stage it’s increasingly unlikely. And if everything else has underwhelmed you up to that point, a dessert (if you order one) is only going to be damage limitation, however magnificent it might be.

Tutu’s Ethiopian Table was a huge puzzler for me, because it didn’t fit that pattern at all. I was undecided from the moment I sat down to the moment I finished, and even afterwards I found myself mulling it over and weighing it up for quite some time. This in itself puts me out of step with most of Reading: Twitter is regularly awash with people raving about Reading’s well-established Ethiopian restaurant, not to mention the string of awards and mentions in the national media (one of my friends, ever the curmudgeon, was the solitary voice of dissent – “good luck with that, it’s just slop” he said when I mentioned that I was planning to pay it a visit).

Perhaps it would be easier to talk about what I liked and didn’t like. So for instance, I liked the room. I wasn’t expecting to, but the section of the Global Café at the front of the building is a lovely, bright, buzzy place, full of people and with lovely old jazz playing in the background. It may be a bit scruffy, but it’s so likeable that it didn’t matter. (I wouldn’t have felt the same, however, if I’d been stuck in the back room – long, windowless and distinctly cold and uninviting.)

I liked the service at the counter, too – no table service which makes sense as Tutu’s is only part of the Global Café which also does coffee, tea and all sorts of interesting alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, some of them Fairtrade. Everyone was friendly, engaging and genuinely funny (“I’m going to blow your mind now,” said one of the bar staff to another customer, “I’ve accidentally dished up your cappuccino in a latte cup and your latte in a cappuccino cup”). I wasn’t so convinced about the unsmiling, functional service from the staff at Tutu’s, who just plonked the plates on the table and left.

The menu gave a choice of seven vegetarian dishes and four meat dishes, with a choice of rice or injera (a thick, flat pancake), or you could opt for a platter – one meat dish and two vegetable dishes – for the same price. We went for platters, partly out of indecision and partly to try as much of the menu as possible. The indecision was strangely appropriate, because if I couldn’t make up my mind about the experience of eating at Tutu’s, it turned out that I couldn’t make up my mind about the food either.

So I liked the doro wot, chicken on the bone in a rich spiced sauce. I liked that an awful lot, in fact. The chicken was so soft, so tender and so well cooked that taking it off the bone was no challenge at all, and once I’d done that I was struck by how much of it there was. The sauce was magnificent too, sticky and delicious with a heat which gradually, subtly developed without ever being too much. By the end of the dish my mouth had a wonderful, warm glow; if I went back to Tutu’s, I think I’d just order this dish, as nothing else I tasted came anywhere close to it.

I didn’t like the keya sega wot – beef in a remarkably similar sauce – anywhere near so much. The beef was everything the chicken wasn’t. It needed a lot more cooking; none of it passed the two forks test and one piece was downright wobbly in a way best not remembered, let alone written about. There also wasn’t much of it – I counted less than half a dozen pieces, none of them huge.

I liked the injera, like a thick flat sourdough crumpet you could tear off and use to eat your food, almost an edible plate (and who among us has never fancied one of those?). It was a bit of a soggy experience, perhaps, but still a fun one – and the slight vinegary note in it worked better with the sauce than I expected. I was less keen on the rice – a little dome of yellow rice with what looked suspiciously like frozen vegetables in it, it didn’t feel like it added an awful lot to proceedings.

Tutu

This, I’m afraid, is where I largely ran out of likes. The vegetable dishes were bland variations on a theme, and it’s hard to be positive about any of them. Fosolia, described as “a dish of subtly flavoured fried green beans and carrots” was a mulch of green beans and what looked like tinned or frozen carrots which tasted of beans, carrots and nothing else (so very subtly flavoured, then). I couldn’t see how this could possibly have been fried, either, because fried food doesn’t normally wind up this damp.

White cabbage and potatoes and collard greens and potatoes were very close relations and again, were basically soggy brassica with cubes of potato. One was apparently cooked with exotic herbs and spices, but it reminded me of my school dinners and trust me, there was nothing exotic about those. The other featured garlic, in theory at least (I could barely tell the two dishes apart). Last of all, the difen misr wot, green lentils in sauce, was impossible to either like or dislike. The lentils had a nice bite but it was just a puddle of brown blandness. Maybe nothing could live up to the sauce which came with that chicken and beef, or perhaps my palate just isn’t developed enough to pick up both ends of the spectrum in Tutu’s food. I’m not sure I could tell which it was by that stage, and worse still I’m not sure I cared.

I’d rather end on a positive, so I will say that my Ubuntu Cola – a fairtrade African version that is never going to appear on a tacky red festive truck outside the Oracle – was very tasty indeed. But then, like much of what I enjoyed in my visit, this had more to do with the Global Café than it did with the restaurant. The whole bill came to around twenty-three pounds, and to my shame I left really, really wanting a big slice of cake somewhere else.

So, did I like Tutu’s Ethiopian Table? I should have, I wanted to, but did I? I don’t know, what do you think?

Tutu’s Ethiopian Table – 5.7
35-39 London Street, RG1 4PS
0118 9583555

http://www.tutus-ethiopian-table.com/