Gooi Nara

I first went to Gooi Nara in late 2016; I was on what I suppose you could loosely have classed as a date, with somebody I suppose you could loosely have classed as a vegan. I sat there trying to sound enthusiastic about tofu (not a skill I’ve ever mastered, truth be told) and then I ate my disappointing bibimbap while all around me, the other diners were wolfing down Korean barbecue, grilling a plethora of delectable looking meats on the hot plate in the middle of their tables. They all seemed to be really enjoying themselves, and as the weeks passed I came to think of that evening more as a metaphor than as an actual meal.

Naturally I wanted to take a more suitable dining companion when I went back on duty and, on reflection, there was only one suitable candidate – my friend Claire. Not only had she actually been to Korea but, in her review of Korean restaurant Soju for her website Explore Reading, she’d been responsible for teaching me pretty much everything I knew about Korean barbecue (admittedly not much).

Much has happened since Claire last accompanied me on a restaurant review, most significantly that Explore Reading had begun publishing restaurant reviews. A lot of people have asked me if I mind that, and of course I always say I don’t mind in the slightest, Reading benefits from a variety of restaurant reviews and that it’s not right for one site to have a monopoly. That said, it’s a running joke between Claire and I that she’s going to take me down; first she took on Alt Reading, which finally announced that it was quitting – for the time being, anyway – this week, and now she’s coming after me.

I’m mainly joking, of course. Mainly. In the run-up to our trip to Gooi Nara I make some gags about how it will be like the infamous dinner at Granita where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown agreed when the former would stand down in favour of the latter. After doing the joke I realise I’m not entirely comfortable being cast as everybody’s favourite grinning war criminal.

“I’ve always had a soft spot for Gordon Brown,” says Claire, “but then I like an underdog.” It made sense, on reflection: we each spend a lot of time championing Reading, so perhaps we both do. In any case, I strolled up the hill to the restaurant on a quiet Monday night with no plans to announce my retirement.

I’m always struck by how often I start a description of a restaurant by saying “it’s a long thin room”, like it’s the equivalent of “it was a dark and stormy night”. Well, brace yourself, but Gooi Nara is indeed a long thin room, but a surprisingly attractive one. One side was covered in slate-effect tiles, with a couple of wood stores in the wall that would no doubt come in completely useless in fuelling the fake fire showing on the wall-mounted widescreen television. The other side was a vibrant burnt orange, with oblong shelving units populated, in a slightly OCD manner, with little objets. There were dark wooden beams spanning the ceiling, such a pleasant change from the ten-a-penny industrial pipes and bare bulbs which always give a place a slightly unfinished look. I really liked the place.

“It’s funny, I wouldn’t necessarily say this is authentic Korean, but it has that feel about it” said Claire. “It’s sort of homely, but in a good way – even down to the windows.”

The first surprise came when I looked at the menu. Gooi Nara has a sister restaurant in Guildford called Sushi Nara, and as a result I was thrown to see that aside from a Korean menu there was also a whole menu of Japanese dishes – sushi, sashimi and the like. It was tempting to order some, because Reading still needs an excellent Japanese restaurant and Taberu, on the Oxford Road, is still doing delivery only at the time of writing. On reflection, though, I decided to remain steadfast: I had turned up to eat Korean barbecue, and eat Korean barbecue I bloody well would.

Not that you have to do that, of course: the Korean menu alone was massive. There were plenty of starters, although some, like takoyaki (octopus balls) and pumpkin korroke felt like they were on the run from the Japanese section of the menu. There were soup dishes and rice dishes, noodle dishes and hot pots and – as I remembered from my previous trip – plenty of tofu and bibimbap. But the trick with barbecue, Claire told me, was to order your meats of choice, cook them on the hot plate in front of you and dip them in vinegar and sesame oil before placing them on a lettuce leaf, adding kimchee and beansprouts and then wrapping the whole thing up and popping it in your mouth. I’m not the biggest fan of finger food, but put that way it’s hard to imagine a more enjoyable way to eat.

Before that though, we tried one of the starters I had my eye on – the seafood pancake. It turned up cut into squares, on a paper doily on a wicker serving dish, a bit too fiddly and faffy (“We Want Plates need to be told about this” said Claire, waspishly). It was a little fiddly too to pick up with chopsticks and dab into the dish of dipping sauce which, as so often, was too small to be useful. That all said, it really was lovely stuff. Claire told me these were made with wheat flour, but if anything the texture was so starchy that it reminded me of a potato cake – more like a latke than a pancake. Despite that, it wasn’t heavy at all, and the spring onion throughout gave it texture and freshness. I got squid in the pancake, and I may have missed the shrimp – we all make mistakes – but the menu also advertised octopus and I’m pretty sure I’d have noticed that. Still, the pancake was seven pounds fifty, so if it seemed too good to be true, perhaps that’s because it was.

The support act out of the way, it was time for the feature attraction. The waiter came and switched on the hot plate at our table, the meat arrived and, not for the first time, I wondered how anybody ever managed to convince themselves that they enjoyed eating tofu. We’d decided to try all three of the main food groups – pig, cow and chicken, don’t you know – and the first to go on the barbecue was the spicy sam gyup sal, long thin slices of pork belly, deep-red with marinade, a veritable bar code of meat and fat. On the hot plate, the smell was terrific and the transformation beautiful, and Claire and I took it in turns to poke and turn with the tongs until it was impossible to hold back any more (I spent most of that time banging on about the Maillard reaction, and Claire spent most of it nodding and humouring me).

It tasted even better than it looked or smelled, and I loved the ritual of coating it in vinegar and sesame before tenderly resting it in the centre of a lettuce leaf, topping it with brick red kimchee and devouring the whole lot. The kimchee added sourness and crunch without being quite as fiery as some kimchee can be. The spice on the pork, again, built to a crescendo rather than went off like an explosion, and the whole thing was the kind of dish that you can’t help but grin while eating.

It would be a lazy piece of observational comedy to say that you’re basically paying money to cook your own food, but that would be to underrate the service; every time a hot plate got too crusted with meat and residue to use, the waiter would come along, deftly hook it out with a nifty device and pop in a new one. He also gave us advice on what to grill in which order, and regularly kept us topped up with bottles of Asahi (Claire offered to give me a crash course in Soju, but then said it was basically vodka, at which point I found myself really fancying a cold beer).

“Do you know how they clean these?” said Claire, probably well aware that my answer, inevitably, would be no.

“No.”

“They use a lemon. You just scrub the hot plate with a lemon and it all comes off.”

I found myself thinking of those colour supplement adverts that tell you vinegar has magical powers and can clean pretty much everything around the house.

“So, the pork is better than Soju, I think” said Claire, “although here they bring it already cut into strips and at Soju they sort of bring it in a big slab and you cut it up yourself with scissors.”

It would be an even more lazy piece of observational comedy to say you were expected to chop your food as well, so I decided not to mention it. In any case, more meat was on the way. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the ju-mul luk (the beef) when it arrived, because it was in thick cubes and I had been expecting thinner slices. But any doubts I had were caramelised into oblivion as the beef sizzled on the grill, the coating of garlic and sesame searing and producing the most glorious aroma. It was far more tender than its thickness might suggest, with a splendid whiff of garlic which lingered long in the memory (and possibly even longer on my breath).

Last of all, we went for the chicken bulgogi gooi, thighs marinated in soy and sesame. These were probably the most disappointing thing we had – it had been sliced too thinly and broke up into very small pieces on the barbecue. It also had less marinade, so it was the only thing to keep sticking to the hot plate and burning. Still pretty good, but just a bronze medallist in this setting.

“It’s a shame really, because bulgogi is the thing in Korean restaurants” said Claire.

“And it’s the one thing they could have brought out whole” I said. “Just imagine laying a marinated flattened thigh out on that hot plate.”

“The chicken is definitely better at Soju, but the rest is probably better here. And that pork is incredible.”

Claire was right about that. I was also struck by just how good value everything was. Each plate of barbecued meat was a hefty, generous portion and the chicken and pork only cost seven pounds fifty. Even the beef was still less than a tenner. We’d ordered three different plates, but two people could easily get by sharing two – well, two people where one of them wasn’t as greedy as me, anyway.

“You can tell this is good”, I said, “because I’m already trying to work out what I’ll have when I come back.” In my mind, I was already mentally choosing between the feather blade beef and the prawns with lemon and pepper and – predictably – deciding it really wouldn’t be a crime to order both. And possibly a bibimbap. But there were limits even to my hunger, so we stopped there. All that food and six bottles of Asahi came to sixty-eight pounds, including a pre-added ten per cent service charge which I had no problem at all paying.

On the walk down the hill to the Hop Leaf for a post-meal pint and debrief, I asked Claire how she would describe the clientele at Gooi Nara.

“Oh, it was mixed. The table behind us were clearly Chinese – I heard them talking – but the big table nearest the loos were definitely Korean. And this restaurant is near the university, so I expect they get a lot of university students.”

Claire had effortlessly clocked all the other diners, their nationalities and the likely market for Gooi Nara’s food, all while pretending to listen to me talk about the Maillard reaction. She’d had her back to the lot of them. It was like something out of The Bourne Identity, and not for the first time I found myself thinking that if she starts reviewing restaurants regularly it might be the end of my blog. It was a suspicion compounded when we compared notes in the pub about what ratings we’d give Gooi Nara: they were a cigarette paper apart.

I’ve thought a lot about the right word for my visit to Gooi Nara since the meal, and it boils down to a really simple one: it was fun. Fun is an underrated quality in eating out, I think. So much about restaurants is either po-faced or functional at the moment, and when it’s not it’s the type of enforced jollity and zany fun that always reminds me of mandatory corporate away days. But Gooi Nara was properly enjoyable from beginning to end, with an element of playfulness that set it apart from the formula of starters, mains and dessert. I can imagine going back with a big group of people and mucking in, although the one thing I would say is that the barbecue takes up a lot of space on the table, so things could get decidedly cramped in a bigger group. But that aside, Gooi Nara comes highly recommended and I’m really looking forward to going back. Having fun, eating great food and making new friends: I wouldn’t be at all disappointed if this visit, too, becomes as much a metaphor as a meal.

Gooi Nara – 7.9
39 Whitley Street, RG2 0EG
0118 9757889

https://www.facebook.com/GooiNara/

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Round-up: the last few months

Well, it’s been four months since I stopped writing reviews on ER, and three months since I published anything on the blog. It’s a weird feeling: the keyboard is dusty, my writing muscles are flabby and unflexed and, of course, life has gone on. Free of the constant need to keep visiting the new, I’ve been able to relax and enjoy eating at my favourite places, whether that’s grabbing momo at Sapana Home on the way back from work, guzzling beautiful massaman beef at Thai Table (I’d quite forgotten how good it is) or my occasional midweek treat of chicken biryani from the lovely Royal Tandoori. I’ve hopped on the train and discovered new favourite restaurants elsewhere (the peerless Branca in Oxford, I’m looking at you). I’ve even been known – conceal your shock if you can – to make the occasional trip to Pret, to Nando’s or to (judge all you like) KFC.

It’s been liberating, as has slowly starting to eat again without having to wonder If I Like It or Whether It’s Good Value, to be able to visit a restaurant without thinking about its concept, its relationship to food trends, without imagining how the final paragraph will read before the final mouthful has been swallowed. This must be how English Literature graduates feel when they finish their degrees and try to learn how to read for pleasure again although I suspect that, just as Jason Bourne can never forget all the emergency exits in a bank, I’ll probably never be able to read a menu without thinking “how much?”, “that won’t work” or “not that AGAIN”. Oh well, c’est la vie.

Anyway, not only has my life gone on, but the culinary life of Reading has moved on too. With that in mind, I thought it might be useful to offer a little round-up (just like old times!) of all the changes since I hit publish last. Here’s hoping that it’s useful.

Closing

The big surprise was RYND, which closed in August at very short notice. I was never a fan, although I admired the way they ran their Twitter feed (apart from the occasional passive aggressive favouriting of Tweets by me saying I wasn’t a fan) and I liked the way they tried to offer something different by showing films, putting on comedy and all that. I suppose once Bluegrass opened just down the way doing actual proper pulled pork and burgers RYND lost much of its USP and perhaps the name stopped looking edgy and cool and started looking like someone had accidentally switched on caps lock by mistake.

Also closed were, err, most of the places I reviewed in Wokingham by the looks of things. Gluten-free Jessy’s – a place I’d really wanted to like, without any real success – became trading-free Jessy’s, and Jackson’s California Lake stopped doing its high-end food in the evenings while the chef looked for somewhere more suitable. Again, a pity but not a tragedy.

We also lost My Kitchen & Coffee in September, forced out I suspect by the plethora of similar places in town. I feel for My Kitchen, because although I quite liked it it was always the bridesmaid, never the bride when I was picking somewhere to have lunch. The food wasn’t quite good enough, the room wasn’t quite attractive enough and the coffee certainly wasn’t enough of a draw. I remember when C.U.P. opened everybody said that Reading wasn’t big enough to support another coffee place: at the time, I thought they were wrong, but maybe they were right and My Kitchen, the weakest link, paid the price.

Oh, and Ed’s Easy Diner in the Oracle closed too – but if you’re sad about that I’m not quite sure why you’re here.

Moving

Another interesting trend, which made my old reviews a little bit tricky to edit, is the musical chairs that has gone on over the past few months as restaurants moved house in the hope of ending up in a better neighbourhood. First to move was Bhoj, which went from its home down the Oxford Road (next to SkunkWorks, fact fans) to a spot a couple of doors down from Pepe Sale. I’ve not been since the move, but everyone who has gone has told me two things – that the food is as good as ever and that it’s a bit dead there. I hope that shift works out for them (Reading without karahi lamb would be a far poorer place), and perhaps they’ll benefit from better parking there if nothing else.

Back in Wokingham, Sanpa Stores moved from its spot on Peach Street to the building vacated by the unfortunate Jessy’s. Again, I’ve not been but that’s a good move because it’s a lovely building with lots of period features (listen to me, I sound like an estate agent) and the food at Sanpa – especially those fantastic garlic prawns – deserves a far wider audience. Fingers crossed that they continue to do well.

Last of all, Reading’s original nomad I Love Paella moved to its third address in a year, leaving The Horn to relocate at The Fisherman’s Cottage. An interesting tradeoff – The Horn is widely thought to have a bit of a rough clientele in a good area whereas the Fisherman’s Cottage, now all craft beer and beards, linked to the Greyfriar in some nebulous way I don’t fully understand, has a lovely clientele but is in a bit of a rough area (I walked down Orts Road once: it was like being in Grand Theft Auto: Reading). Well, I’m sure they’ll flourish there – I for one would eat I Love Paella’s food in a bus shelter, if that was the only option.

Winning

A couple of awards worth mentioning, both of which tell you a lot about the establishments in question. Back in September the Reading Retail Awards gave Restaurant Of The Year to Himalaya Momo House, a move which made my heart sing: I love that place (the award was sponsored by Deliveroo, which is a bit like Nigel Farage judging Exchange Student Of The Year, but never mind). Then in November Restaurant Magazine gave Coppa Club one of its “R200 awards”. Was it for best food? Best décor? Best service? No, of course not: instead the Sonning establishment won “Best New Scalable Concept”, which essentially means they are going to pop-up soon in ex-branches of Strada all over the country. I don’t know about you, but this is exactly what I’m looking for: why go to a lovely restaurant when you can get in on the ground floor of a seriously whizzy scalable concept? Sign me up!

Opening

Reading has been surprisingly blessed with quite a few new establishments since I last wrote, all in the last few months. First of all there was Public Reading, in the spot vacated by RYND, a “new concept” involving games, craft beer and burgers served by “pop-up caterer Relish”. Well, where to start? I mean, it’s only a new concept if you’ve never been to, say, the Nag’s Head or the Lyndhurst, both of which have had board games knocking about for yonks. For that matter, it’s only really a new concept if you’ve never been to or heard of Hoxton or Shoreditch, have never read the Guardian, never watched Nathan Barley etc. etc. But beyond that it sounds suspiciously like SMASH (note again the over-enthusiastic use of caps lock) which has brought together the unholy trinity of craft beer, artisan pizza and – yes, I’m afraid so – table tennis. I’m sure Public Reading is lovely if you like that sort of thing, but personally I’ll be in the Nag’s eating some dry roasted peanuts, drinking a pint of Stowford Press and playing Cards Against Humanity.

Where else? Anatolia Restaurant has opened where Faith Kitchen used to be before it got shut down – I’ve not been but I’ve heard good reports, although it only has to be better than Mangal was and sadly that isn’t difficult. Speaking of the Lyndhurst, that has reopened too with an interesting and promising menu. The chicken burger I had on my first visit was okay, but the toasted cheese and marmite sandwich was a very nice touch and I’ve rather got hooked on their Scotch eggs with brown sauce which are a glorious synthesis of firm sausagemeat and spot-on runny yolk and a real treat at only four pounds. Nice cloudy cider, too.

One of the most interesting openings was Gooi Nara on Whitley Street in October, bringing Korean food (and specifically Korean barbecue) to Reading. One to take your carnivorous friends to, I think: there’s a hot plate in the middle of every table and a menu packed full of dead flesh for you to order and cook there and then in front of you. I went in a smaller group and was unimpressed by the dolsot bibimbap (I hate to say it, but Coconut’s was better) but I felt I hadn’t ordered brilliantly and would gladly go back and try it again. Lovely kimchee, incidentally, and the interior is very handsomely done.

Perhaps even more significant was Nomad Bakery – confusingly named as it’s not really nomadic and much more than a bakery – which also opened in October. It’s a bakehouse and café on Prospect Street in Caversham, on the site formerly known as Delicious, and a very interesting prospect indeed. Run by Pop-Up Reading, with the considerable assistance of Reading’s redoubtable Caversham Jam Lady it’s rather a powerhouse of Reading’s food scene, offering superb bread, jam, a regularly changing menu of specials, some homewares and spectacular fudge by Reading’s Hartland Fudge (the After Eight fudge, topped with emerald-green minty crystals, rather rocked my world recently). I’ve only been once, because it’s not really my side of the river and I’m not at that end of town for lunch often, but everything I tried was jolly decent and friends of mine are huge fans (“better than Ottolenghi” was one particular paean of praise I heard recently). Also the menu is largely vegetarian, although you could be most of the way through your lunch – and utterly delighted with your choices – before you realise that.

Revolucion de Cuba finally opened in late November, in the old HMV building on Friar Street. This prompted a huge amount of nostalgia from me for the good old days when Friar Street had a massive HMV and the Friar Street Bookshop rather than a string of nacky pound shops, a derelict mall and the questionable delights of Lola Lo. But all that said, I went to Revolucion de Cuba a little while back for a quick drink and what they’ve done to the place is really quite impressive. It’s a lovely fit out, the live music was a really pleasant surprise and the menu looked decent. Could it be the closest we’ll come to Wahaca, or is it a huge spot waiting to become Sodom or Gomorrah on a Friday and Saturday night? Time will tell.

Last of all, bringing us bang up to date German restaurant and bar Bierhaus opened last week on Queen’s Walk, between Pepe Sale and Bhoj (an area my stepfather likes to wryly refer to as “the demilitarised zone”). It’s not a cuisine I’ve ever had much exposure to, but you’ve got to give them credit for trying something different so if you want big steins of beer, bratwurst, schnitzel or (if this tickles your pickle) pork knuckle then Bierhaus might be the place for you. I know people who are keenly anticipating this one, although I’ve also heard gripes from the CAMRA brigade that it only does one German beer on draft (shows what I know because I heard that and thought: how many do you need?). I’m glad it’s managed to open before the end of winter because that all feels like wood-panelled comfort food to me. I’ve not been myself, but the picture of the schnitzel, sauteed potatoes and sauerkraut I saw on their Facebook page made me peckish.

Of course, that’s not all because there are always new places in the pipeline. So at some point we’ll get a branch of Comptoir Libanais, the Lebanese chain restaurant. In the Oracle’s latest attempt to squeeze returns out of finite space – because it’s all about the Benjamins with those guys – this will be in a new patch of the Riverside. Comptoir Libanais, good though it might be, opening just down the road from the terrific Bakery House reminds me of the time when Abercrombie and Fitch set up shop at the end of Savile Row. I hope Reading’s diners remember which side their pitta is buttered, so to speak.

And finally

Thanks to everybody who has told me they miss the blog, miss my reviews and all that. It’s brilliant to see so many people still stop by to read the lists and figure out where to eat next, or ask me for recommendations on Twitter, or click on the archive links when I send them out. I do keep being asked whether I’ll go back to it, or what I’ll do next. I’m still trying to make up my mind (I haven’t exactly been besieged with offers to write for other publications!) but I expect I’ll have a better idea in the New Year.

As soon as I’ve figured it out, I’ll let you know.