At the start of every year, the broadsheets wheel out an article about the food trends of the coming twelve months. And every year, nobody checks the article from the previous January to verify that almost none of the trends became a thing. Peruvian food never took off, beyond a couple of places in London. Neither did corn ribs, hard seltzers, carob, eringi mushrooms.
But it fills a gap for column inches in January, among all the clean eating/“new year new you” articles they dust off and spruce up at the start of every year. And besides, it’s not like anybody’s keeping score: from this year’s predictions, keep an eye out for potato milk, whatever that is. It has another four months to become famous (they sell it at Waitrose, where reviews run the full gamut from “another unsatisfactory milk alternative” to “very neutral tasting”).
Anyway, Reading food trends aren’t like London food trends, because every year since I started this blog the trend has been pretty much the same: you’ll get more cafés, and some dickheads will complain that we have too many cafés. You’ll get more burger places, and some dickheads will moan that there are too many burger places. And, in recent years, you’ll get more American chains and some dickhead will whinge about the Americanisation of Reading. And yes, that last dickhead is me.
The real trends are the ones that blindside you. Late last year and early this year it was biryani places, with a mini explosion of options – Biryani Mama in town, Biryani Boyzz on the Oxford Road and, just opposite it, the interestingly named Biryanish (“it’s sort of like a biryani…”). And then in the last few months, the trend literally nobody saw coming: three Japanese restaurants opening in the space of two months. Did anybody predict that on New Year’s Day?
I’ve always loved Japanese food, but Reading’s never been incredibly well served for it. In the centre, you had Yo! Sushi and Sushimania, and both have their place: Yo! Sushi in particular democratised sushi and acted as an introduction for many people, me included. And I’ve always enjoyed heading to Sushimania after a day at work with Zoe, grabbing seats on the banquette and looking out on the dining room with a cold bottle of Asahi.
More recently Oishi opened down the Oxford Road: I loved it when I went, but for a while it had an alarming hygiene rating which put me off a return visit. And of course there’s Osaka which I liked but didn’t love, although I visited it during one of the weirdest months the world has ever seen. But for a more special meal I’ve always headed to Windsor, to eat at Misugo (recent discovery Miyazaki is an excellent alternative). Did any of Reading’s newcomers have what it takes to displace Misugo in my affections?
Of the three, Intoku was the obvious choice to try first. The others, You Me Sushi and Iro Sushi, are casual, grab-and-go places, whereas Intoku is more upscale and established, part of a small chain that began at a market stall in Manchester and now has restaurants in Chelsea, Windsor and Reading. The latter is their newest, opening at the end of May in the site on Chain Street which had become synonymous with the Tasting House over the course of seven years.
When the Tasting House closed in April last year it was almost impossible to imagine anything else in that spot, but turning up for dinner on Saturday night I was struck by how completely Intoku has transformed it. As the Tasting House all the action was on the ground floor, with the room upstairs more of an overflow or a space for wine tasting events. By contrast, Intoku has flipped it: there’s a bar and the open kitchen downstairs, along with a handful of booths, but the main dining room is upstairs. And a very polished-looking space it is too, with more little booths along one wall and most of the tables at the far end. They’ve opened up the windows looking out onto Chain Street, which makes it a far nicer space, and the furniture is attractive.
I particularly liked the anime art feature wall on both floors (if you’ve ever wondered what a manga Mount Rushmore might look like, this will answer all your questions) although the place seemed a little dark and clubby for me. That might just be about associations. I tend to think of Japanese restaurants as a little humbler in terms of decor. But this was a lot more glam, and the music was Saturday night music too, so I decided just to go with it. I took my seat in one of the booths, only slightly thrown by the head height plug and USB sockets: if you’re a tightwad looking to charge your phone, this is the restaurant for you.
The welcome at Intoku was bright and enthusiastic, and when I was handed my menu I was told that things came out as and when they were ready. It was then that we decided to order in waves as we went along. I wonder if that caused some of the subsequent problems we experienced, because one of the many issues with the service was how difficult it was to attract attention to say that actually, we’d love to order more food.
Intoku’s menu is great – it reads well, it has good range and you find yourself wanting to order a lot of it. It’s wide but not deep, so for instance it covers sushi, sashimi, rice and noodle dishes but it doesn’t have too many of each. Prices are on the heftier side, with sashimi starting around nine pounds, much of the sushi costing a tenner or more and mains going up to eighteen pounds. Where the menu falls down – apart from the fact that it’s just not spelled “artisian” – is that it doesn’t explain things. So for instance it lists its fanciest uramaki without giving you the faintest idea what’s in them, a mistake repeated with the cocktail list.
That would work if the wait staff were engaged and enthusiastic about explaining the menu, but that wasn’t quite the case here. The first sign that it might be a challenging evening in that respect was when our beers arrived, a couple of cans of Sapporo, with no glasses. “I haven’t drunk out of a can since the After Dark” said Zoë. We eventually flagged someone down, and they brought over a couple of highballs, but it was weird to have to ask: if the service had been on it, we wouldn’t have needed to. It was a hot old day, but we weren’t offered water either, so thank goodness the upstairs was air conditioned.
Let’s talk instead about the food, because so much of it was fantastic. Our first set of dishes, the sushi and sashimi, were up there with the best Reading has to offer and easily as good as rivals elsewhere in Berkshire. The soft shell crab blossom rolls were a particular triumph – beautifully assembled and generous with the crab, topped with a smattering of tobiko, one of my favourite things. It might be the closest thing to a bargain on the menu, too: ten pounds gets you eight pieces, whereas at Misugo you pay a pound or two less for four.
Salmon and avocado maki, more modestly priced at six pounds, were also very well assembled, although one end piece had almost no salmon in it. But otherwise everything was well put together, not ragged or untidy. And presentation was nicely done: it’s amazing what you can do with a chopping board from IKEA.
I’ve looked back, and every time I eat on duty at a Japanese restaurant I always order salmon sashimi and I always say the same thing: beautifully cut, pure, fresh, buttery texture, blah blah blah. Well, sadly, Intoku’s rather lets the side down in that respect. It might have been something about the cut but it was more taut, more muscular with none of that gorgeous fattiness that makes it such a pleasant dish to eat. At eight pounds sixty for five pieces, it also felt a little sharply priced.
Having finished that little lot, we decided it was time to make another assault on the menu. And this is where our problems continued, because despite the restaurant being far emptier at this point than when we started it was almost impossible to get attention. I’d seen three different members of staff on the way to my table, but now there was just one. And she seemed more interested in re-laying the empty tables – which wouldn’t see a customer again until the following day – than coming back to ours. Eventually, after some time, we managed to get her over.
“Could we order some more food, please?”
“Of course, I’ll go get my notepad.” So she walked off to the other end of the restaurant, grabbed her pad, came back and took our order. And then off she went, without showing any interest in clearing away our empties. And it wasn’t just her, because when our food was ready another member of the wait staff brought it over and plonked it in front of us without taking away the dishes we’d finished with. Which, again, was plain odd: he was there anyway, why make multiple trips?
This is especially frustrating because the food, when it arrived, included some of the best Japanese food I can remember having. I know bao are more Chinese than Japanese, but Intoku sells them by the pair with a variety of fillings and we had ours with karaage chicken. They were absolutely heavenly. Chicken thigh, with a superbly crunchy coating and a hugely savoury note of Marmite, was crammed into pillowy buns topped with pickles and spring onion, and I can honestly say these were up there with bao I’ve had at Bao, next to Borough Market, and streets ahead of any I’d tried in Reading. I treasured each bite, knowing it would come to an end far too soon.
Ten minutes later, the other two small plates we’d ordered turned up. We asked our waiter if he’d mind taking our empties away and he did, with a look that suggested it had never even occurred to him.
Chicken gyoza were steamed rather than fried – odd that they don’t give you a choice, but good if you want to feel virtuous – and although they were probably the most unexceptional thing we ate they were still decent. Intoku seems to think that dipping is infra dig, so they came with a little pool of a thin sauce underneath them. Four meant no arguments about the spare one – I sometimes think Japanese restaurants give you five of the things because they like to provoke a heated debate – and this felt about its money at just over a fiver.
But the real highlight of this course, and indeed the meal, was the crispy fried squid. I often order this, never with any real expectations, and it’s always pleasant. But Intoku’s was just spectacular – hugely soft and fresh with no give, no bounce, no stubbornness at all. The coating was crinkled and crisp, with a little bit of togarashi sprinked on top. It was up there with the best squid I’ve had anywhere: I don’t know where Intoku get their squid from, but they’re not cutting a single corner.
Again, it was served with a thick chilli sauce underneath it – having it in a dipping bowl would have been easier – but it still didn’t matter because the sauce was exemplary too. So often sweet chilli sauce is jam-sweet with only a hint of heat, but this was a different species altogether. This is the dish to order if you visit Intoku, quite possibly multiple times.
By this point, believe it or not, we’d been there nearly an hour and a half. Despite not being enormously busy, it had been a challenge to place orders and the food had come out on the leisurely side. But it got weirder, because at about twenty-five past nine one of the wait staff came over and told us the kitchen was closing in five minutes. Did we want anything else? Nowhere on the menu does it tell you that they knock off so early on arguably the busiest night of the hospitality week.
“Yes, we’d really like to order some more food.”
“I’ll just get my notepad” she said, and off she went again.
“Why doesn’t she just keep her notepad with her?” said Zoë, who was running out of patience. I couldn’t really disagree.
So we placed one last order – with more of that squid, because it was so irresistible – and we waited. And waited.
About twenty-five minutes later, another member of staff came by and asked if we wanted any more drinks. We said no, but we’d ordered some food quite a while back. Was it still coming? This caused a bit of consternation, and he wandered off before coming back and saying that the waitress had taken our ticket to the kitchen but somehow they hadn’t seen it. It would be on its way. And so, about forty-five minutes after we placed our last order, we finally received it – more of that squid, some bonus gyoza – pan fried, this time – by way of apology and our main courses.
I don’t think this is just the fatigue or the frustration talking, but the mains are the weakest past of Intoku’s menu. Zoë’s katsu don with breaded chicken was the pick of the two, but it wasn’t without its problems. It was a rice dish with a thin omelette on top of it, the katsu sauce, fried onions and breaded chicken, and although it was pleasant it was all sweet and no heat. You’d have struggled to call it a curry.
I had high hopes for my dish, chicken leg inasal. This is apparently a Filipino dish where the chicken leg is marinated in sweet vinegar and braised for nine hours. Did that happen here? It’s hard to say. The chicken was beautifully soft, and taking it off the bone was no challenge (although I’d have struggled to do it with chopsticks), but although there was plenty of evidence of braising there was little or no evidence of marination because it tasted of not much. And there it sat, on a pile of naked rice. No sauce, no moisture, nothing. It was heavy going, monotonous and dry: the perfect metaphor for this review, but not much of a dish.
Two and a half hours after we’d sat down for a relatively quick dinner we paid our bill and headed home. No point heading to a bar for a final drink and a debrief, because we’d spent so long waiting at Intoku that everybody was calling last orders. The chap who took our payment – a hundred and eleven pounds, including a 12.5% service charge – was lovely and apologetic, and we were very English and said it was all fine. But the problem, really, is that it wasn’t.
I don’t enjoy having to criticise the service at restaurants, and I know some people take a dim view of it. They think it makes you look entitled, or like you’re punching down, in a way that criticising the kitchen somehow doesn’t. I know that hospitality is really struggling to get people right now, and that these people are undervalued and underpaid, by both restaurants and paying customers. But stuff like bringing you glasses, checking if you want to order more food, clearing away empties – that’s all basic stuff. That’s before we get on to closing the kitchen at half nine or managing to lose your order minutes after you’ve placed it.
If pointing all that out makes you Little Lord Fauntleroy, so be it. I say this with kindness, but Intoku needs to sort it out. I don’t know how else to put it: Intoku’s food is in places brilliant, but if they don’t get on top of their service I wonder how they’ll survive. Not just because people won’t go back – although their food was so good that I probably will, at least once – but because they’re missing out on chances to feed people more food, sell them more drinks, turn tables quicker and generally be more profitable at a time where every pound counts. When I visited they’d been open three months, but it felt like the opening week. I hope they fix this, if nothing else, so everyone gets to see how good that squid is. We now have a reason not to leave Reading for Japanese food. But Intoku still needs to give us more of a reason to go there.
Intoku – 7.2
30a Chain Street, Reading, RG1 2HX