Kobeda Palace

Should you decide to go to Kobeda Palace my first piece of advice would be this: don’t use Google Maps to get there. Rather than suggesting the right route, down the Oxford Road and just past Workhouse Coffee, it inexplicably directs you to Wilmslow in Manchester, a drive of over three hours (and very few restaurants justify that kind of round trip). I later discovered why: looking at the front of the laminated menu while waiting to pay the bill, I discovered that Reading’s is the second branch in a tiny chain of two – although, just to make it more difficult, the Wilmslow one is actually called Kobeda Place. Confused? Me too.

Anyway I’ve been going to this Afghan grill house for ages and I’ve always wanted to review it, but one thing stopped me – for a long time, it had a one star health and safety rating. And then, just before Christmas, I went to Kobeda Palace to grab a quick pre-Nag’s Head bite to eat with some friends and there it was on the door, glowing with an unearthly light: a new Scores On The Doors sticker with a four-star rating awarded a few weeks previously. Could I hear angels singing, or did I just imagine that part? Either way it felt like my first present of the festive season, and I made a mental note to go back early in 2016.

I also made a mental note to make sure I took one of my friends who is quite possibly the biggest carnivore I know – put it this way, it’s no coincidence that Kobeda Palace has opened where Gilberts Meat Market, with its mildly terrifying statue, used to be. You smell the charcoal even as you approach the building, and it doesn’t take long to realise that this is not somewhere to go with the vegetarian in your life; the menu does say “VEGETABLE DISHES AVAILABLE – Please ask for details”, but it’s hard to imagine what they would be. So a date went in the diary, and three of us turned up there on a Friday night (before going on to the Nag’s Head funnily enough. Predictable I know).

It’s quite an odd room to eat in. It’s very plain and functional, with the grill and the counter facing you as you go in. The rest of the room is made up of tables and high-backed brown banquettes which seem to have been placed almost at random. The overall effect is a little incongruous – it should divide the room into little booths but instead it just looks strange (I remember when it was just tables and stark, rigid chairs, and this manages to be an upgrade without necessarily being an improvement). That said, it was packed: all around me were families with nicely-behaved kids and little clusters of gesticulating friends. The waitress kept wandering past bearing plates and making me crane and scan the menu, wondering what they had ordered. The table next to us had a couple of gentlemen at it, each eating a whole chargrilled chicken, tearing the skin and flesh off the bone with their hands and dipping it in a bowl of houmous; just watching them made me hungry and envious.

Kobeda Palace really isn’t a starters, mains and desserts place: it’s all about grilled meat in a range of combinations and permutations, served with naan or rice (which makes me wonder, again, what those vegetable dishes could possibly be). We tried as many of them between us as we could, which turned out to be quite a lot of the menu. Lamb chops, which turned up that hyper-real shade of brick red which almost looks Photoshopped, were judged the pick of the bunch, tender if not pink, with a level of heat closer to lip-tingling than tongue-scorching. The lamb tikka, a similarly freakish colour, were almost as good, each cube scored almost in half so they could check it was done.


Chicken tikka I struggled to like quite so much – you got more of the smoke and char than of any flavour beneath, and the texture of a couple of pieces was not quite right. And then there was the eponymous kobeda itself, a long cylinder of lamb kofte. It was splendid; I’ve had it before and found it a bit offputtingly soft, perhaps too reliant on rusk, but this was truly magnificent, if impossible to describe well without flirting with innuendo. Also wonderful were the huge, chargrilled halves of onion – soft, sweet and blackened. All of this came on the naan, the other big draw here. Stretched and made on the premises, these were almost edible plates, long and rectangular, just asking to be torn up, wrapped around hunks of meat and crammed into greedy mouths.


I know, rationally, that there were also a couple of plates of some sort of salad: lettuce, some cucumber, a couple of pitted olives, various other vegetation. I also know that there were some sauces – something like a raita, a punchy hot red sauce and a herby green sauce. But truth be told they didn’t really feel like the kind of thing to hold my attention for very long, under the circumstances.

The best dish of the evening, though, was something we picked out of curiosity. Kobeda Palace also does a karahi chicken and a karahi lamb, so we ordered the former and it was a revelation. The sauce was thick and complex with no slick of oil, full of chilli and nigella, curry leaves and coriander, fine batons of ginger strewn on top (“it tastes like a really good Vesta curry” said one of my companions – if that had really been true the Eighties could have been so much more enjoyable), and scooping it up with that perfect naan was an unmitigated delight. But the chicken was gorgeous – on the bone but well-jointed and easily separated from it, tender from slow-cooking in a way that grilled meat could never be.


There was no alcohol licence, so we drank mango lassi by the jug, which is especially easy to do when a jug is only five pounds (in fact, even if they had been licenced I might have stuck to the lassi). The second jug never quite arrived, so instead once we’d finished our meals the waitress came over apologetically with three glasses, and I’m not sure she charged us for all of them. That was the service in general – friendly but a bit harried. In other restaurants I might have taken against this but somewhere like Kobeda Palace which is deliberately quite no frills I found it impossible to resent. Oh, and the mango lassi was good – especially the second batch which was ice cold, refreshing and cleansing without being cloying. Dinner for three (and we ate far more food than is strictly sensible) came to pretty much forty pounds on the nail.

How to sum up a place like Kobeda Palace? Well, let’s do the downside first. It’s a little bit scruffy, just the right side of chaotic and in an area where many people would have to go out of their way to visit. Some people will be put off by the lack of an alcohol licence, others will find it far too meat-centric. It’s also a bit nippy if you get a table by the window, as I did, the back room on the way to the loos is strangely threadbare and the toilets are best described as a work in progress. So yes, I can honestly say that if you’re the kind of person who’s bothered by that kind of thing, Kobeda Palace is not for you. But all the people I ate amongst that Friday night had other priorities – food and company, the things restaurants should really be about. I’m with them, and I found it all rather marvellous; I fully expect to pay it another visit soon (for a big bowl of karahi chicken – to myself, this time). But I used to eat there when it had a one star hygiene rating, so what do I know?

Kobeda Palace – 7.4
409-411 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA
0118 3271400



Bart’s closed in February 2018. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I have a lot of sympathy for Bart’s: I visited them in the first week of 2014, one of the deadest times of the year for restaurants. If you’re a restaurant, all your potential customers are either enduring their first few days back in the office or making the most of the last precious time before work can no longer be avoided, still working through leftovers, groaning cupboards and packed fridges. And, of course, lots of your potential customers have resolutions in mind – spend less, eat less, exercise more – and none of those are exactly compatible with eating out.

It must be difficult working in a restaurant in early January. Bart’s only had two tables occupied for all the time I was there that evening, and I was at one of them. I bet they were wondering why they’d bothered opening at all. Was eating there similarly difficult? Well, yes and no.

Bart’s is a funny place, on the Wokingham Road between Cemetery Junction and Palmer Park. It’s a big restaurant, with a total of three dining rooms, one of which is used for private dining. On the night I visited, the main dining room was almost the only room that was lit, which led to an eerie feeling that you were eating in a restaurant which was only half-open. But the welcome was warm, the other diners (regulars, I think) looked happy and the room itself was comfy and not unattractive. The twinkling fairy lights behind my table lent everything a festive – if hyperactive – glow.

The service was lovely throughout: if my waiter was unhappy to be back at work so soon after New Year you would never have known, and he made conversation without sounding phony before leaving us to pick our way through the menu. It wasn’t a menu which filled me with excitement. I showed it to a friend before the visit and she said “that’s the kind of stuff you’d find in a Harvester” and that’s bang on: prawn cocktail, breaded mushrooms, steaks, lamb shanks, burgers, cheesecake and brownies, all present and correct. But that didn’t necessarily mean it would be bad, of course – those dishes are on menus for a reason, and well executed they can be delicious.

The wine list is short – a handful of wines by the glass – but all the ones we tried were delicious, and none of them cost more than a fiver. The Corbières was soft, fruity and unchallenging and the Graves was a little more peppery. I had a Chenin Blanc with my main course and that too was very serviceable. Another pleasant surprise came when the waiter brought over a couple of amuse bouches. They were an excellent start: guacamole topped with chives tasted fresher than I expected, and little cubes of chicken liver pate on slivers of Melba toast, along with some caramelised red onion, were also promising.

It was the last faultless course I saw from the kitchen, and therein lies the problem with Bart’s. If I was going to describe what they do, I’d say they make some really good food, they make some ordinary food, but the main thing they make are mistakes: too many mistakes, in fact.

The starters included the best dish of the night. The ribs were delicious: a reasonable portion, slathered in a sticky barbecue sauce and putting up no resistance to a fork, falling from the bone in meek surrender. I didn’t get much of the advertised paprika in the sauce but it was so delicious that I didn’t care. Even the salad was tasty – properly dressed (with a hint of rapeseed oil, I think) rather than just a pointless adornment.

Barts - ribs

The other starter was a let down – Bart’s describes its calamari as “overnight marinated, dusted in Chef’s special recipe flour and crispy fried”. It didn’t taste as if it had been marinated at all and the coating was nothing special, special recipe flour or no. There are better calamari to be had in many Reading restaurants – London Street Brasserie, Carluccio’s, Jamie’s Italian, even Bill’s – and cheaper calamari to be had almost anywhere. At that price – £8.50 for seven measly rings of squid – I did wonder what was in the marinade. Unicorn tears, perhaps.


The mains were also strewn with errors. The sea bream didn’t live up to the promise of the menu because, although the flesh on both generous portions of bream was cooked well, the skin was flaccid, not crispy as advertised. This was off-putting – not just because I love crispy fish skin, but also because it left me wondering exactly how this had been cooked. The mashed potato was meant to contain lemon, but I didn’t get any in what was a giant unfinishable mound of mash. I would have liked more haste, less speed, more lemon, less potato.

You can’t go to a grill house and not order a steak, so naturally I did. The twelve ounce sirloin was a gorgeous piece of meat, with very little fat or waste, well marbled and nicely seasoned. But – and this is an enormous but, in a steak restaurant – it was medium well rather than the medium rare I’d ordered. There’s no excuse for that – especially when the dish is your speciality and the one thing customers should be entitled to expect you to get right time after time. It’s not as if the kitchen was rushed off its feet, either.

What I hate most about getting a steak cooked wrong is that it gives you the most unpalatable choice of all: which is more important to you, eating at the same time as your friends or getting the dish you had ordered? To my shame, on this occasion I didn’t send it back, or complain. Maybe I was being charitable because I too had just worked on a day when I’d really rather not and I hadn’t exactly put in my most productive shift either.

Barts - steak

The side dishes were a collection of mistakes expressed through the medium of vegetables. Sautéed potatoes weren’t anything of the kind, just baby new potatoes boiled and then flashed in the pan to have colour but no texture. Steamed broccoli with almond flakes were exactly that and nothing more. If the flakes had been toasted and the broccoli had been tossed in a little butter it might have been interesting, but as it was it was just florets, nuts and a strong sense of being underwhelmed.

If we’d left then, and we nearly did, this would have been a different review. But, against all odds, Bart’s redeemed itself through its desserts, which were extraordinary. Warm caramelised rice pudding with sautéed mixed berries was divine – a deep pot of creamy rice pudding with a middle later of something like a berry jam. On the top was a nicely bruleéd layer of sugar which gave a fabulous toffee taste to the rice pudding.


The other dish was recommended by the waiter. Poached pear in almond soup sounded interesting on paper, and more adventurous than most of the dishes on the menu. When it turned up it was glorious. The pear – although not huge – was soft, dark and delicious with the red wine and port it had been poached in. The “almond soup” was probably better described as liquid marzipan, creamy, grainy and sweet. I complimented the waiter on it and he told me that the soup was the chef’s own creation – and he looked proud on his behalf. One last mistake though, because it was too asking too much to expect Bart’s not to make one: the supposedly cinnamon ice cream, which would have been perfect, was plain old vanilla.

Barts - pear

At the end of the meal the manager came over and asked us if we’d liked the meal. Slightly won over by the desserts and the superb service we said yes, at which point he brought over a couple of complimentary nightcaps and a form for us to fill out to get a loyalty card. I was a bit fuzzy on the details by then but it seems like you can become a member to enjoy various undisclosed benefits (I didn’t sign up, so I’m afraid I’ll never find out what they are), as well as twenty per cent off your next bill. Our bill was a hundred pounds, including service, for two people, three courses each and five glasses of wine, and I thought that was okay but not amazing.

I’ve thought about the meal at Bart’s a lot and I still can’t quite make up my mind about it. You can probably tell. Some of the food was really good, the wine was great, it was a nice cosy room and the service was excellent. But there were so many mistakes, all over the place, from the minor to the major to the fundamental. A steak house that can’t cook steaks as ordered is getting the basics wrong, and no personable greeting when you arrive is ever going to make up for that.

I wasn’t expecting great things from Bart’s – I walked down the King’s Road with a growing sense of dread – but in the end, even though it wasn’t a brilliant meal, there were plenty of surprises. I wasn’t expecting the best of their food to be as good as it was, or for the service to be so good. What I really wasn’t expecting, though, was to come away from it disappointed that I couldn’t rate them more than I do. Maybe they were just having a bad day at the office and suffering from New Year blues, just like I was, and I can’t rule out going back later in the year to see if they can do better. But going three times in fifteen months, like the local paper did? No. Not unless you paid me.

Bart’s – 6.2
21 Wokingham Road, RG6 1LE
0118 9662268