Round-up: One year of Edible Reading

A slightly different round-up this week; I’m not going to do the usual summary of past reviews. I’m not doing restaurant news this week either, because there isn’t much news: the places which are due to open (CAU, Rynd) are still due to open and nowhere has closed that I know of, unless you’re devastated that Reading has lost one of its two Bella Italias (and if you are, I’m not quite sure why you’re reading this). We do have a gluten free café opening on Cross Street, so there’s that I suppose, but that’s all. Instead, it’s a chance to round up a year in the life of Reading’s restaurant scene, because Edible Reading is one year old.

There have definitely been changes in the last year. As always, we’ve seen a steady churn of restaurants opening and closing: we’ve said goodbye to some, like Kyklos and the Lobster Room, and hello to others, like La Courbe and Coconut. I was sad about Kyklos – it never lived up to its potential, but some of the dishes were good and the service was excellent, and it would have been lovely to be able to eat Greek food (a really underrated cuisine) in the centre of town. The new boys are also a mixed bag – La Courbe does brilliant food but never quite feels like a restaurant, and Coconut isn’t quite distinctive enough to offer something different in a town with plenty of options already.

The more interesting arrivals have been in Reading’s cafés: with My Kitchen and Lincoln Coffee opening in the centre there have never been more alternatives to the hegemony of Coffee Corner. If you add in the other lunch possibilities, like Bhel Puri (another welcome opening in the last year), and the other contributors to Reading’s coffee scene (those lovely chaps at Tamp Culture), this is an area where things definitely feel like they’re changing for the better. I’m just sorry that Cappuccina Café, with its delicious banh mi and pasteis de nata, didn’t stay the course too.

There’s more to food culture than restaurants, and this too is one of the more promising signs over the last twelve months. Reading now has a top-notch wine merchant in the shape of the Tasting House, and The Grumpy Goat offers a mind-boggling range of beers and many of the area’s delicious cheeses. The recent spate of supper clubs in the area also shows that food has never been as important to Reading as it is today, and although we still don’t have enough street food at least we have the artisan market on Fridays, even if the opening hours are plain silly. It’s a start, anyway.

Anyway, I was wondering how else to best round up the year, and then I realised: I am totally out of step with the zeitgeist. Journalism these days is all about lists – you only have to read a Buzzfeed link to figure that out – and I haven’t done a single list all year! What was I thinking? So, without further ado, here’s how I’d like to sum up a year of Edible Reading, with a list. Reviewing restaurants is all about reviewing meals, evenings, experiences – and sometimes that misses the point that there can be great dishes tucked away even in middling meals. So to redress the balance, here for your delectation, in sort-of-alphabetical order, is a list of the ten best things I’ve eaten in the last year while reviewing restaurants for the blog. Zeitgeist here I come!

1. Yum gai yang, Art Of Siam. This salad is all about contrast (and not at all about leaves and lettuce). The chicken is perfectly soft and cooked and the vegetables seem to be purely there for texture as nothing, but nothing, stands up to the flavour of the dressing. It has tons of heat – enough chilli to require a glass of milk or at least a handkerchief – but also has the tartness of fresh limes to create a liquor in the bottom of the dish that’s worth spooning up because it is so fab. The flavour is super intense and salty and is enough to render even me speechless (or that might just be the chilli).

2. Lamb karahi, Bhoj. The little silver bowls of meat at Bhoj remind me of spice bowls in an eastern market which seems very apt for this dish. The lamb (and “juicy baby lamb” at that) has been cooked for so long that it falls apart into shreds at the lightest touch of a fork and the sauce is much drier than the usual British-Indian chunks-of-meat-in-an-orange-sauce affair. Here, it’s more a sticky, rich, spiced gravy with the odd cardamom pod for accidental-eating fun. Order one for yourself because you won’t want to share. I did, and I still regret it now.

3. Chilli paneer, Bhel Puri House. I could never turn vegetarian – it’s just not in my nature – but this dish at Reading’s only (to my knowledge) vegetarian restaurant is so good that adding bacon wouldn’t improve it. High praise indeed! The small cubes of paneer are marinated in chilli and fried. That’s it. But, my goodness, they’re so good! The layer of lettuce underneath is pointless and if you accidentally eat a green chilli thinking it’s a green bean (I mean, who would make such a mistake? erm…) you realise where all the heat comes from. Not so hot that it burns and tingles but enough to make every sticky cube worth fighting over.

4. Bread and butter, Côte.
Bread. Such a simple thing, right? But at how many places in Reading can you get truly decent bread? A two quid basket of bread at Côte is six diagonal slices of what is arguably the best bread in Reading – crispy and slightly chewy on the outside, fluffy and malty on the inside. It’s served with a little pot of room temperature salted butter which melts as it goes onto the warm bread. If you’re canny it’s worth splitting each finger of bread into two to make the most of the surface area. It’s a perfect amuse bouche before getting down to the serious business of ordering (and when you do, Côte’s tuna niçoise also came close to making this list – just saying).

5. Chips and mayonnaise, The Eldon Arms.
A bowl of chips is another simple pleasure that’s often done terribly. Whilst the French fry has its place, proper chips should always be thick cut. In the Eldon the chips were served without pomp, without daft toppings or being put into a pointless gimmicky tiny frying basket: not affected, just bloody delicious. Thick cut, crispy on the outside and fluffy on the outside. Simple. Then served with a bowl of proper (there’s that word again) home made mayonnaise which had enough garlic in it to make enemies the next day but with no fanfare to announce its arrival because, in the chef’s eyes, it was just mayonnaise. It saddens me greatly that the Eldon is closed, and the burgers got all the plaudits but strangely it’s the chips I miss most.

6. Chicken lahsooni tikka, House Of Flavours.
Chicken tikka is one of those dishes that has entered the British lexicon, a shorthand for Indian food that so often gets abused and made into something cheap. This, though, is nothing like the chicken tikka flavour you’d get in a Pot Noodle (and, regrettably, I know this for a fact because I had one recently – never again). The chicken, marinated in spice and yoghurt, is as soft as butter, as if it’s only just been cooked through, no more. The spices are rich and smooth and best of all, in my opinion, there’s lots of garlic too. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice over the top to give it a bit of zing and you have, I reckon, about as perfect as starter as can be.

7. Mixed grill, La Courbe. What’s not to like about a restaurant that can serve up meat in this many different ways and for them all to be really good? The lamb kofte is soft and herby, rather than hot. The chicken is marinated in ginger and cooked so the inside is soft but the outside is caramelised. The grilled lamb comes flavoured with cinnamon to give a slightly sweet taste and cooked so it’s just pink but still soft. The dollop of houmous on the side was surprisingly average, but the superb tabbouleh also deserves special mention: fresh, clean and green.

8. Tuna tartare, Malmaison. Like I said, even bad meals can contain brilliant dishes and despite the gloomy surroundings this dish shone brightly in the Malmaison firmament (only partly because of the glass plate they served it on). The tuna was super fresh and went perfectly with the avocado, truly ripe with that delicious buttery taste. The wasabi and slivers of pickled ginger on the side were perfect dotted onto a forkful of tuna and avocado, and the sesame dressing drizzled round the edge had a slight sticky sweetness which made it worth mopping up. If only the rest of the restaurant had lived up to the food.

9. Crab ravioli, Pepe Sale. As the first restaurant to get the ER treatment it pleases me greatly that Pepe Sale makes it onto this list. The crab ravioli is on the specials menu so often that it should become a standard, especially as it’s so good. The ravioli is perfectly cooked, just al dente, and made fresh that day on the marble counter just inside the door. The fluffy crab inside is more generous than it needs to be (but then that’s probably how Pepe Sale has maintained a loyal following for the past fifteen years). The tomato and cream sauce is rich but not overwhelming so a bowlful feels like a treat not an overindulgence. A year on, one of the first dishes I reviewed is still one of the very best.

10. Fried chicken, rice and peas, Perry’s. Perry’s, despite its size, is one of the more intimidating places I’ve eaten since I started ER. I’m glad I went in, though, because it does food that I would struggle to get anywhere else. The chicken is seasoned, coated in flour and fried and then served with a generous helping of rice and peas. Calling it rice and peas is one hell of an understatement, mind. This a side dish on the scale of your mum’s best stew – rice and peas cooked in stock, herbs and spices that are too numerous for me to identify. There’s plenty of chilli in there but the whole flavour is more sophisticated than plain old chilli suggests. Even if it wasn’t an amazing dish in its own right, I’d want it on this list because, more than anything, it symbolises food I would never have eaten if I hadn’t started this blog.

Getting that list down to just ten dishes was no mean feat – no room, sadly, for the ribs at Blue’s Smokehouse, the churros at Tampopo, the truffle ravioli at Ruchetta and countless others. It just goes to show how much good food is out there in and around Reading if you know where to look – and sometimes even if you don’t – despite our reputation as a clone town.

When I started Edible Reading I did wonder if there was enough here to keep me going. A whole year of weekly reviews, the majority of them in central Reading, suggests that I may have been worrying unduly. Without a doubt, the best thing about the last year has been the involvement from everyone who reads the blog – commenting, passing on reviews, Retweeting and getting involved with the conversations. And even now, every time someone tells me they’ve tried and loved a restaurant after reading an Edible Reading review it absolutely makes my day. So please don’t forget to request places you’d like to see reviewed – and if you think I’m missing that one great dish that you order time and time again, add your two pence in the comments box.

House Of Flavours

I’d always told myself that I wouldn’t review curry houses, for lots of reasons. Reading has a lot of them, all over the place, for one. For another thing, the local papers cover them extensively and frequently. I’m not sure how they do it, after all it must be difficult to review an Indian restaurant every month. I mean, it’s all just different meats in different orange sauces most of the time, isn’t it? And who really cares which place does the best korma/bhuna/biryani anyway, especially when people tend to have a curry house that they go to out of habit and comfort.

So why is this week’s review of House Of Flavours? Well, people kept recommending it. It got mentioned on Twitter a lot. A few people asked me to go review it, and more than one said “you really should go”. So the contrarian in me thought “why not?” and that same contrarian quite liked the idea of going in December, when most people’s thoughts are turning to slightly more traditional warming food.

House Of Flavours is a little bit out of the centre, not far from the library, in a spot that has seen mixed fortunes over the years. It used to be Ha! Ha! (which I still miss, believe it or not), and then it was some tapas restaurant whose name escapes me, then an ill-fated pub that closed on Sunday afternoons, and then Mangal, the Turkish place which has gone up in the world and relocated to St Mary’s Butts.

Despite that, when I visited on a Saturday lunchtime (the December diary being what it is) I was impressed to see that the front room of this admittedly sizeable restaurant was pretty much full, almost exclusively with Indian families. I nearly left again when I thought this might be due to the all you can eat buffet they were offering (and nobody needs a review of one of those, in my opinion), but to my relief they were also offering their full menu so the very polished waiters talked me into staying. I’m glad they did.

The House Of Flavours’ menu is an intimidating tome. If you look at it on their website you get some idea of this; twenty-four pages long, and you don’t get to the a la carte menu until page fourteen. Before that it’s all drinks – a lot of drinks – and the set menus (at the moment a “Christmas menu”, though god knows how different that is to their usual set menu – I didn’t see any stuffing bhajis or turkey jalfrezi, thank goodness). The set menu featured a lot of the familiar dishes you could get anywhere else, but wading through to the a la carte things started to get a lot more interesting – a wide range of regional specialities, very well described, along with a range of vegetarian dishes so impressive I even considered ordering some of them.

We got the clichéd poppadoms while waiting for our starters and even these made me begin to feel like I was in a restaurant that happened to serve Indian food rather than an Indian restaurant. Two of the poppadoms were plain and delicate but the third was studded with nigella seeds and the taste and texture were something else. The raita was thick and fresh, not the insipid liquid you usually get. The mango chutney was also speckled with cumin and nigella, probably the best I can remember eating, and the onions (offered instead of the usual lime pickle) were finely diced and spiced, as tasty as they were antisocial. So often this is just a way to eat something, anything, while you’re waiting for your starters to arrive but these felt like they had a purpose all their own. It was a promising beginning.

The starters, by and large, lived up to that. The lahsooni chicken tikka was just gorgeous – three sensibly sized pieces of chicken, marinated in yoghurt and spices and cooked beautifully. Everything about the flavour and texture of these worked perfectly – the spicing came through with the right intensity at the right speed and the meat was so tender. I was simultaneously sorry they were over so quickly and delighted that they were perfect – always the way with a truly great starter.

Lahsooni Chicken Tikka

The other starter was maave ki seekh, which is described on the menu as “root vegetables and cottage cheese flavoured with ginger and cooked in a clay oven”, and it was delicious if not entirely what I was expecting. The texture was rather like partially cooked gingerbread, cooked on a skewer; the outside was slightly firm and the inside was a delicious warming paste. If it had any vegetables in it I couldn’t truly tell but it was still very tasty, especially with a squirt of lemon juice and a few sprigs of – properly dressed – salad on the side. I keep thinking about what I can compare it to and falling short. Was it like falafel? Not really. Like a bhaji? No, that’s not right either. Maybe this is another reason why I shy away from reviewing Indian restaurants, because I don’t have the vocabulary to do them justice.

Maave Ki Seekh

By this stage I thought I was probably onto a winner, although I’ve been disappointed at that stage many times (how many restaurants have you been to where you’ve thought I wish I’d stopped at the starters? For me it’s hundreds). But the mains didn’t let the standard drop. Shahi chicken tak-a-tak (named, according to the very informative menu, after the noise it makes popping away on the skillet) is one of those sizzling griddled dishes you always get jealous of when someone else at your table orders it. This one was no exception: so much more than just a pile of meat and onions, it came with a rich hot sauce with plenty of tomato. How hot? Well, I didn’t lose all feeling in my mouth but tissues had to come out at the table – I hope that’s not too much information, but until someone comes up with a Richter Scale of food heat it’s the best I can do. I loved it.

Shahi Chicken Tak-a-TakAgain the heat was really clever; it built up slowly, in layers, rather than pulverising you from the start. I’m not going to say “oh, it was genuine Indian food” because I’m not Indian and I wouldn’t know, but I’ve been to India once and it reminded me of the food I had when I went – that intelligent, calculated use of spice. Again, the chicken was soft and tender, not firm and unyielding, although after the starters I wouldn’t have expected anything less.

Having said all of that, the other dish was indeed chunks of meat in an orange sauce. Well, almost anyway – the mahi dum anari was sizeable chunks of fish, soft to the point of falling apart, in a silky sauce. This sauce was much more delicate, almost sweet but again the spice worked brilliantly. I wish I could do it justice by describing it better, but I might try and improve my skills in this area by going back to House Of Flavours. The other delight in this dish was the pomegranate on top – I was sceptical about this but its sweet pop under the teeth went superbly with the dish. According to the menu, this dish was served to Barack Obama on his last state visit to India; I wasn’t moved to take a selfie, but I did take a picture of the dish (it doesn’t do it justice any better than this paragraph does).

Mahi Dum AnariNormally in a curry house this would be accompanied with some pilau rice and a big fluffy naan but again, I was moved to try different things. The mutter pulao was rice rich with peas and with just the right amount of cumin, another revelation in a meal packed with revelations. The paratha was even better, buttery, chewy and soft at the same time and layered in a way which somehow reminded me – I don’t know why – of the pastry on the bottom of a tarte tatin.

ParathaNobody goes to an Indian restaurant for the drink, but I feel I should mention it because the wine list has three Indian wines on it. I tried two: the sauvignon blanc was decent if slightly thin on flavour but the cabernet sauvignon was spot on – properly hearty and feisty enough to stand up to the spices in my meal (I might have had a bottle, but it was all Kingfisher on the opposite side of the table to me, which is fair enough I guess). They also have two pretty creditable dessert wines – a Sauternes and a Californian red muscat – at very reasonable prices, albeit not for a full glass.

The reason I know about the dessert wines is that I couldn’t stay away from the desserts. I have a real penchant for gulab jamun so I was thrilled to see them on the menu. If you have a sweet tooth and you’ve never tried them, you’re missing out; they’re doughy balls – made from curdled milk, but don’t let that put you off – deep fried and then served soaked in a sugar syrup tinged with cardamom and rose water. The portion here is only small (two balls – no jokes, please) but that turned out to be plenty, especially if you don’t share them with anyone, as I didn’t.

The total bill for two people, for three-ish courses with a couple of drinks each came to £65. You could eat more cheaply than that if you stuck to one of their set menus but even so I felt this was very good value. I mentioned the service in passing at the beginning of the review but it is worth another mention too – very polished, very smooth and only there when you needed it. The whole experience felt very different to most Indian restaurants I’ve visited in Reading.

How to sum this place up? Well, how about doing it like this: I remember when I first found out that this place was opening, and I remember walking past the sign and reading the name. House Of Flavours? I thought. That’s a ridiculous name. It’s just going to be an Indian restaurant, and Reading needs another one of those like it needs another Italian. Now I’ve been, I know how wrong I was; it’s the perfect name for the restaurant and it sums up exactly what they offer – more than anything, the flavours are what I remember. I can’t think of many higher compliments for a restaurant than this, but even before I’d left I was already planning my return. Thinking about what flavours I’d like to sample next.

House of Flavours – 8.3
32 – 36 Kings Road, RG1 3AA
0118 950 3500