Restaurant review: Intoku

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
0118 3045263

https://intokurestaurants.com/intoku-reading/

Restaurant review: Miyazaki, Maidenhead

We were on the train to Maidenhead, Zoë and I, and both of us realised that neither of us had been to the town in the best part of twenty years. Travelled through it on countless occasions, of course, as everyone has. Changed trains there a couple of times to go to Marlow, too – usually for indifferent meals out, come to think of it. But had either of us ever got off a train there, exited through the barriers and explored the place? I didn’t think so, and nor did Zoë.

We were there to visit Maidenhead’s shiniest, newest hospitality venue – not a restaurant, but the second branch of Windsor’s craft beer bar A Hoppy Place. Zoë wanted to write it up for the magazine she edits and having had her plans to attend the grand opening thwarted by the train strike, she was keen to pay it a visit as soon as humanly possible. 

But where to eat beforehand? Maidenhead looked to be the town that restaurants forgot. A rummage through Tripadvisor – don’t judge, there was virtually nowhere else to look – suggested that most of Maidenhead’s restaurants were actually in the town’s affluent satellite villages. But then I guess if you lived near Bray or Cookham Dean, would you really go into Maidenhead of a night out? The town centre boasted a Kokoro and a Coppa Club, but I couldn’t say I fancied either of those known quantities.

And then I remembered my physio, who lives in Maidenhead, recommending Miyazaki to me. It’s a little restaurant at the unfashionable end of town which has been serving up Japanese food to the people of Maidenhead for something like seven years. No fuss, no drama, just uniformly good reviews on Tripadvisor and Google, all of which gave the vague impression that Miyazaki’s fans were quite comfortable with it remaining a well-kept secret. I phoned up on a Friday evening and was pleasantly surprised to find that they could fit in a booking for the following night.

It wasn’t the loveliest of walks from the station, and I sense that there’s an awful lot of development under way in Maidenhead. Miyazaki was on a little run of shops and restaurants, rubbing shoulders with pizza and kebab takeaways, just past the purgatorial horrors of “The Honey Pot” (remember when Reading had one of those?) and the thumping music of an O’Neill’s already in full swing. “There’s a reason why they always have an O’Neill’s near the train station”, said Zoë sagely. 

Once we reached Miyazaki, though, it stood out like the opposite of a sore thumb. Nestled between joints called Sizzlers and Tennessee Fried Chicken, a building site on the other side of the road, it looked completely out of place. No garish shop front, no big red letters and brightly-lit laminated pictures of the food on display like its neighbours, just a simple space. 

Inside, the neutral, unfussy tables couldn’t have seated more than twenty people at a push, and the long thin room was beautifully lit, the light from the summer evening pouring in through the curved, graceful floor to ceiling window. Tasteful prints and drawings were dotted on the plain white walls. Just two other tables were occupied when we got there at quarter to eight – which saddened me a little. But it was a very hot evening, and the restaurant was doing a roaring trade in takeaways, neatly packaged and on the table by the bar, waiting for delivery drivers to pull up outside and take care of them.

Miyazaki’s menu was the kind that reassured you instantly. Some people, spoiled by the compendious likes of Sushimania or Yo! Sushi, would have found it restrictive but I liked the fact that it did what it did, and didn’t try to offer everything. Just three types of sashimi, a few more nigiri and just over a dozen sushi rolls in two different sizes. There was also a selection of side dishes, along with a very small selection of what you might call mains – three curries, two different noodle dishes and a range of udon soup noodles. 

And even with such a restrained selection I saw dishes I’d never heard of or tried. Yasai kakiage, a sort of vegetable tempura fritter. Sunomono, a crunchy, vinegary cucumber salad. Chicken nanban, a deranged-but-inspired-sounding dish of fried chicken in a tangy coating, served with, of all things, tartar sauce. If I have one regret about this meal, it’s that I can’t tell you what those three taste like: I’ll know after next time.

Instead we stayed on safer ground, but we were richly rewarded all the same. Salmon sashimi was as perfect an example as I can remember – rich, smooth, glossy diamonds of perfect pink, just needing a dab of soy to perfect them. We liked it so much we ordered another portion. Mackerel sashimi was a little less successful: the skin looked like it had been torched, and the slight tinge of vinegar suggested it was cured rather than raw. I liked it more than Zoë did, which might have been a factor in us ordering more salmon.

Sushi rolls kept up a high standard. With a relatively compact menu a lot of these were variations on a theme, but even so I enjoyed everything I had. The small avocado maki were the kind of dish I could gladly eat every day for the rest of my life, and the avocado was splendidly buttery – ripe but not overripe, no hint of those telltale brown edges that always fill me with sadness. 

Larger spicy tuna rolls with a little dab of fiery red sauce inside had a surprising kick, as did the pale ribbons of ginger on the plate – it’s always encouraging to see this more natural colour, rather than the standard-issue hyper-real pink ginger you so often get. And assembly was pretty good: there were a few ragged bits of nori here and there but generally they were put together deftly, and just the right size that you could eat them in one glorious go.

All the larger sushi rolls hovered around the eight pound mark, which struck me as very good value. Another set with both avocado and salmon were probably my favourite, and so much more than the sum of their parts, speckled on the outside with black and white sesame. I’m always reminded, when I eat food like this, how nice it can be to eat something almost-virtuous, so pure-looking. That feeling always dissipates by the time the next portion of fried chicken comes along but it’s nice to experience it all the same, however fleeting. 

It helped, I’m sure, that the setting was so pared-back and ascetic, but also it’s so rare – for me at least – to find really healthy food that I actually like. By this point it was nearly quarter past eight and we were the only customers left in the restaurant, and I would have felt guilty about keeping the staff if it wasn’t for the still-steady stream of takeaway dishes coming out of the kitchen. Their work was far from over, so Zoë drank a second bottle of Sapporo, I had some sweet, fresh plum wine in a glass tinkling with ice and we ordered one last wave of dishes.

Doing so proved, if nothing else, that the period between fried chicken dishes – in my life, at least – is never that long. Karaage chicken is a staple order of mine, in Japanese restaurants and anywhere else I can find it on a menu, but Miyazaki’s was one of the best I’ve had anywhere. Normally it comes plain with some mayo on the side (and I’m absolutely fine with that) but this had been tossed in a tangy red sauce which took it somewhere even better. All soft thigh meat, crunchy coating and gnarled edges with a little spike of heat, it was up there with the nicest things I’ve eaten this year. Chicken gyoza felt a little more boilerplate, but even boilerplate chicken gyoza are still better than the majority of things you can pop into your mouth. 

It’s a shame that I saved the worst til last, but our final two noodle dishes suggested that the kitchen’s strengths lay elsewhere. You can have soba or udon noodles with chicken katsu, fried prawns or vegetable korroke, but either way the underlying dish didn’t quite come together. My soba noodles – a neatly petite portion – were nice enough I suppose, but the sauce they had been lightly stir fried in had a slightly off-putting sweetness when I was hoping for more savoury depth. And my three breaded prawns, tasty though they were, didn’t feel like they really went; I resorted to eating those with my fingers and then ploughing through the noodles, but it didn’t feel like a cohesive dish, or a hugely enjoyable one. 

I think Zoë picked better with the katsu chicken, which was nicely done, but other than the gauge of her noodles her dish was subject to much the same problems. These two dishes are only available at dinner time, but to be honest when I go back I’ll probably just order more sushi, because that felt like where Miyazaki truly excelled. Or I might just leap into the unknown reaches of the menu, and see whether Japanese fried chicken with tartar sauce is as chaotic and magnificent on the plate as it is in my imagination. Either way, I also plan to sample their extensive and impressive selection of sake.

I know it’s a little perverse of me to review a restaurant in Maidenhead this week, because Reading has had two Japanese restaurants open in quick succession: Intoku, where the Tasting House used to be, at the end of May and Iro Sushi, replacing Raayo on Friar Street, at the beginning of July (a third, You Me Sushi, opened a few doors down from Iro yesterday). But I thought Miyazaki was worth exploring, because restaurants that have been doing their stuff for years with no fuss are often overlooked in favour of shiny new places. Or, possibly, bandwagon-jumpers. 

And it was right that I did, because Miyazaki is quietly splendid and well worth celebrating. I’m not inclined to let those final two dishes detract from what was a truly wonderful meal a twelve minute train ride from Reading in surroundings that really couldn’t be more incongruous. Service was flawless, the room has a sort of touching humility which I liked very much and if our meal wasn’t cheap – it came to just over ninety pounds for all that food and a couple of drinks each, not including tip – it was worth every penny. 

And if you need somewhere to go in Maidenhead for a post-dinner drink, I can thoroughly recommend A Hoppy Place which has excellent outside seating and had two phenomenal imperial stouts on keg when I visited, both of which I enjoyed a great deal. You could go to O’Neill’s instead of course, but you don’t need to leave Reading for that, although you would need to take leave of your senses. I will get to the likes of Intoku and Iro in due course, but the standard they have to reach has already been laid down, in a little sanctuary a matter of minutes away on the Elizabeth Line. And if they turn out to be disappointing, I know exactly where I’ll go to get over it.

Miyazaki – 8.1
63 Queen Street, Maidenhead, SL6 1LT
01628 785377

http://www.miyazaki.co.uk

Takeaway review: Osaka

The sort-of roadmap back to normality was announced last month and you could almost hear, online and among friends, a cautious but relieved exhalation. Pubs and restaurants announced their plans, the days got longer, my parents were both vaccinated, my barber booked me in for a haircut on a date some months away. There were some sunny days, at long last, and when I walked through Forbury Gardens I could see people sitting on the grass, as if you could wish summer into existence by force of will alone.

And yet now we’re in March I see a lot of people looking back; the earth has completed its orbit around the sun, and everybody seems in a reflective mood. So we remember the last time we went to a pub with friends, the last time we hugged our loved ones, the last time we took a train to London or a bus to Kennet Island; someone I follow on Twitter posted recently that it was the anniversary of the date on which he is pretty confident that he contracted Covid-19.

We’ve had a year largely in stasis and it gives all the little historic moments, all those Facebook memories, enormous power. This weekend a year ago I held my last pre-Covid readers’ lunch at the Lyndhurst. Even at the time, it was an event that felt slightly more of a gamble than I might have liked – but we knew so little, back then. In any event the tables were spread out, there was hand sanitiser at every table and everybody had a pretty good idea that this was probably the last big social event they would attend for the foreseeable future. 

I am hugely fortunate: if I had to pick a day to recall over and over across twelve relatively barren months, I couldn’t have chosen a better one. My birthday is in the not too distant future, and it will probably be even more of a non-event than the last one. At least I had some kind of party last year, even if I didn’t understand that at the time.

That delicious lunch at the Lyndhurst, nearly a year ago, was my first encounter with what I’ve since termed the clock of terror: that anxious seven day wait after you do something that involves an element of risk. Seven days of scanning and anxiety: is it a sore throat, or just allergies, or the arrival of the Big Bad? My own personal clock of terror has been reset dozens of times this year, and it never gets much easier. The prospect of a humdrum, quotidian life absent of risk or fear (or, at least, with a lot less risk and fear) can’t arrive soon enough.

The last meal I had on duty before the restaurants closed, a year ago today, was at Osaka, the Japanese restaurant in the Oracle that took over the spot that used to be Café Rouge. I liked a lot of my food, and I loved the way they’d made over a tired and unloved site. When I went, I thought I can fit in one more review on the blog without fully grasping, at the time, just how pointless that would be. I should have known, really: lockdowns aside, when you’re looking at a restaurant hoping it won’t get busy, when you find yourself in a hurry to pay up and leave instead of enjoying a leisurely midweek lunch, you aren’t in the right frame of mind to review it. 

The week of lockdown I wrote a piece about it, but you couldn’t really call it a review. It was more of a diary piece, and it started an enjoyable few months of writing posts on the blog that weren’t just about restaurants, to keep myself occupied and give people something to read. People were very kind about them, and I kept going until just after the first big lockdown came to an end. Then I took a break, then in our third national lockdown I said I’d have a go at reviewing takeaway restaurants, and here we are.

I also said that when I went back to eating in restaurants, Osaka would be the first restaurant I reviewed. But a year has passed and we aren’t quite there yet, so to mark the occasion I thought I would review their takeaway this week instead. And flicking through the menu on a Monday night, I found myself wishing I hadn’t left it so long; I adore sushi and sashimi, and I couldn’t quite believe I haven’t eaten it for a year. I guess the problem is that the list of things we all haven’t done for a year is so long you forget half of what’s on it.

You can only order via Deliveroo, and the range is slimmed down compared to the restaurant menu – a handful of starters, just over half a dozen maki, the same for nigiri and only two types of sashimi. There’s no tempura, no temaki, no platters or bigger selections, either, so the selection is considerably more limited than at Sushimania, Osaka’s closest competitor. The pricing is comparable, but all over the place: some items are more expensive at Osaka, others at Sushimania with little rhyme or reason behind it. 

Osaka also has main courses on its menu, ramen, rice and noodle dishes, all priced around the twelve pound mark. I decided to steer clear of them, partly because I figured sushi and sashimi would travel better – with no danger of going cold – and partly because once I started looking at all that sushi and sashimi I pretty much wanted to eat that and nothing else. Moreover, Deliveroo was running an offer that gave you twenty per cent off provided you spent over twenty pounds: not difficult at the best of times, but easy as pie when you’re scratching a year-old sushi itch. 

Delivery was free of drama and in very good time – I placed my order just after seven o’clock, and about half an hour later the man was at my door with a couple of bags. Plonking them all on a couple of little tables in the living room, I was struck that although sushi was convenient to have delivered, it probably loses out more than most food when you compare it to eating in the restaurant. Japanese food is all about precise arrangement and beautiful presentation, and that’s something you can’t really replicate when you package food for delivery. So instead everything was crammed into black plastic trays with a clear lid – and I did find myself thinking that the black plastic might not be recyclable. 

There felt like an awful lot of packaging, too: I wasn’t sure, for instance, whether a separate plastic sachet of ginger, wasabi and soy sauce with every single item was strictly necessary. It felt odd, too, that they supplied all these condiments but no chopsticks – there was probably a tick box for these when ordering but I wasn’t used to asking for asking for cutlery for a delivery order (for obvious reasons) so I didn’t spot it. Fortunately, it turned out that we had a couple of pairs of in the house: the ones pictured below, which I thought were adorable, were commandeered by my public transport-loving partner in crime.

We kicked off with the one hot dish we’d ordered – crispy chicken karaage – a portion each because we were too peckish to share. I loved this: it’s a reference dish I often order in Japanese restaurants and I think Osaka’s rendition is up there with any I’ve tried (with the possible exception of Gurt Wings’ “JFC” at Blue Collar on Fridays, which is Death Row stuff). 

Good tori karaage is trickier to do than you might think, and many versions either feature breast meat which is a little too dry or thigh which is just a tad too bouncy. Perhaps it’s all in the marinade, but the texture of Osaka’s was bang on, the coating light and crispy with no grease or oiliness at all. I squeezed my lemon over the generous helping of fried chicken, dipped it in the thick mayonnaise, sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds, and ate in rapt contentment. 

One way of offsetting having a whole portion of fried chicken to yourself is to eat something as clean as sashimi, so we each had a portion of salmon sashimi to ourselves, too. You got three expertly cut slabs of fish for your money – just under five pounds – and they really were terrific, marbled, almost buttery things. If only everything that was good for you tasted as marvellous (or contained as few calories as) sashimi, the planet would be a very different place. And even if it wasn’t, I might be a lot slimmer. The sashimi came, as it always does, with a big pile of spiralised mooli, and I wondered, as I always do, who actually eats that bit: slim people, probably.

I’m not generally a fan of nigiri, but I always make an exception for unagi, or grilled eel. There’s something about this especially meaty, muscular fish, strapped with seaweed to a lozenge of sushi rice, that makes for a perfect mouthful. Osaka’s were decent – and pretty good value at four pounds forty – and the eel had plenty of oily flavour, but I would have liked a little more of the savoury sauce on top.

The rest of our dishes were all variations on sushi rolls and, like the rest of the food, they were impeccably done, tasteful and a model of restraint. Avocado maki are another of those reference dishes – done well, there’s nothing quite like that gorgeous creamy avocado hugged by rice, all dabbed in a tiny pool of soy. These were very well assembled – no looseness, no nori not quite meeting in the middle – and the avocado was wonderfully ripe with no browning. 

It seemed a little strange that each maki was made up of several smaller slivers of avocado rather than one big strip, but it made no difference to how enjoyable they were. Spicy tuna maki were also extremely good, with the fiery tuna perched on top of the sushi rice rather than encased by it – these were definitely the punchiest thing I ate, and a dish I’ll make a beeline for when I order again.

Finally, we had ordered an uramaki roll – these are bigger, longer affairs, all of which hover around the twelve pound mark. The selection through Deliveroo was very limited – just the five on offer, as opposed to the twelve on the restaurant menu – and the purist in me ruled out the two featuring crushed tortilla as a fusion bridge too far. Fortunately the one we ended up going for, the green dragon, turned out to be an excellent choice. This had katsu prawn, a baton of avocado and thin strips of cucumber in the middle of the rice with avocado daubed on top, the whole thing then crowned with Japanese mayonnaise (Kewpie, at a guess), a drizzle of dark unagi sauce and, last but not least, a little cluster of tobiko, or fish roe. 

Typing that all out makes it sound incredibly busy, and I was worried approaching it that it would taste too muddled, but it really was a masterful dish. The many flavours and textures could have jostled for supremacy, or tried to shout each other down, but in reality the whole thing was harmonious and superb. I especially liked the fact that the cucumber was so finely cut – so often you get a big watery ingot in the middle of your sushi – and the crunch largely came from the katsu prawn instead, with everything else almost symphonically arranged. 

Again, I imagine this dish is quite a looker in the restaurant but distinctly jolie laide when delivered. Not that that bothered me in the slightest: I’ve taken more than enough pictures of the university’s Lego Building to prove that I have a soft spot for the unconventionally attractive.

Our meal for two, including a 20% discount, came to just under forty-five pounds, not including tip. And although I feared at the start of my meal that I’d still be hungry at the end of it I found myself nicely sated: all those small bits of rice here and there add up, and you find yourself full almost by stealth. Some people will think that’s pricey, and I understand that you could get a lot more food for far less money, but to some extent I feel that runs the risk of missing the point.

I’ve found Osaka’s food far more difficult to sum up than usual: it’s technically very competent, and much of it is delicious, but because it’s so polite and precise, so well done and well behaved, the danger is to damn it with faint praise. It does feel like the menu is less suited to sharing than the likes of Sushimania, and more limited too, so I can see that if you wanted a sushi feast you might spend your money elsewhere. But if you compare individual dishes I’d say that Osaka is better, in terms of its attention to detail and quality of execution (a more interesting comparison might be with Oishi down the Oxford Road which, confusingly, offers delivery both under that name and the nom de plume Taberu Express).

Also, more than with most restaurants, I sense that Osaka offering its menu for delivery involves a number of compromises. Those kind of compromises wouldn’t trouble, say, a burger joint, but for sushi and sashimi it must be frustrating to present your food in a format so far from the ideal. Personally, I’m delighted that they made those compromises so I could spend some of my Monday evening enjoying their immaculate food. Resetting the clock of terror is one thing, but resetting the clock of sushi is a far happier experience. 

For all of the time I’ve spent looking back, I do wonder what the world will be like in March 2022. Perhaps we’ll look back on all our Timehops and Facebook memories and we’ll struggle to remember what it was like to feel and behave the way we once did. Maybe it will be like seeing Bobby coming out of the shower in Dallas, feeling like we’ve had the strangest dream, the kind that fades quicker than we can tell it to somebody or write it down. In any event I’m looking forward to that future, when the restaurants we love are thriving again and the people we love are sitting at our table. When it comes – and it will come – Osaka will be one of the places I go to celebrate.

Osaka
The Oracle, Unit R16, Reading, RG1 2AG
0118 957 3200

https://www.osakarestaurants.co.uk
Order via: Deliveroo

Sen Sushi

I’ve always, I think, been a contrarian at heart. I really don’t like being told what to do. Few things irk me more than people using that Twitter trope “Retweet if you agree” (often I do agree, but I never Retweet). Or when someone tells you to “drop everything and read this”. I used to have a very opinionated friend who was always telling me what I should listen to or read: weekends away at his house in Kent were a bit like being in the musical equivalent of North Korea, being educated in whatever records 6 Music had told him to like that month.

The contrarian in me is why you get a review of Sen Sushi, the little Japanese restaurant at the Three Tuns end of the Wokingham Road, today. I know everybody wants to read a review of Osaka, the gleaming new Japanese restaurant in the Oracle. I completely understand why – the fit out looks superb, the menu has an impressive range and the buzz so far has been good. But something in me thought: what about Sen Sushi? It’s been there a few years, I had it recommended to me recently, and if not now, when would I go? So I hopped on a number 17 bus with my partner in crime Zoë to see if Reading had an undiscovered gem I hadn’t got round to visiting yet.

It’s a little restaurant that can probably seat less than twenty people. The front room has stools up at the window looking out, and a low table complete with tatami where you can sit cross-legged, provided you take your shoes off first. The back room has about half a dozen seats up at the counter where you can watch your sushi and sashimi being prepared. Behind the counter are a fryer and a gas range with four big weathered-looking woks, shiny with oil. That’s where we decided to sit, close to the action, and we had our pick of seats as we were the first customers that evening.

At this point, I pontificated to Zoë about how in many restaurants, being able to see the kitchen up close was considered a positive selling point. However (as we shall see) as the evening went on I started to wonder if it was such a good thing after all.

The menu was pretty big and covered all bases – hot starters, sushi and sashimi, rice and noodle dishes. We decided to try a bit of everything, but started with sushi and sashimi. Our waitress was lovely and polite but giving her our order was an interesting convoluted affair – she then went into the other room, printed off a ticket and came back to put it on the counter for the two chefs doing the cooking and prep. Admittedly, this made more sense when I realised that Sen Sushi also gets a fair amount of takeaway orders which also join the queue.

It really was fascinating watching as one of the chefs flattened the rice on the mat and cut strips of tuna, rolling the whole thing in front of us. Or seeing a beautiful piece of salmon come out of the fridge and be precisely cut into slices with an ultra-sharp Global knife. The wonderful thing about sitting at the counter is that there’s no hiding place in the kitchen: I found myself quite transported by the whole affair, and could have gawped at it for ages. I was possibly more transfixed than Zoë, who by this point was wondering why they hadn’t switched the heater on and was considering wandering over to the coat rack to retrieve her scarf.

The salmon sashimi was easily the nicest thing I ate at Sen Sushi – a really fine piece of salmon, beautifully marbled, soft and buttery. It was better than any sashimi I’ve had in Reading and probably up there with my favourite Japanese restaurants. The spicy tuna maki and avocado maki were fine but no more than that – initially they forgot that the tuna maki were meant to be spicy so they were whisked away and topped with a blob of sauce and a sprinkling of what I think was togarashi. Zoë thought they were a little ragged and lacking in uniformity, I was inclined to be a bit more charitable. Those reserves of goodwill got used up throughout the rest of the meal.

For our second round, we went for chicken gyoza, karaage (Japanese fried chicken) and, just to break up the chicken motif, some soft shell crab maki. The problem with sitting at the counter is that there’s no hiding place in the kitchen, so we saw a chef retrieve a tupperware container full of dumplings and another full of chicken nuggets – I thought it was from the fridge, Zoë reckoned the freezer – and put them in the fryer. Only the soft shell crab was done there and then, battered and then put in the fryer.

All three dishes were moved between the two fryers at what felt like random intervals, so I’m not sure how Sen Sushi would keep, say, vegetarian gyoza separate from the fried chicken. That’s especially ironic because I’m pretty sure they gave us vegetarian gyoza by mistake. They were oddly claggy, and the filling felt bulked out with something stodgy like potato. Zoë generously said I could have her last one and I said “no, I insist”, a sad inversion of how those discussions are meant to go with good gyoza.

Ignorance is bliss, and I wonder how I would have felt about the fried chicken if I hadn’t seen it being decanted from tupperware in front of my very eyes. I probably would have liked it more – the edges were nicely gnarly and crispy, and the meat was tender enough. But normally karaage comes with mayonnaise on the side, whereas Sen Sushi slathered the whole thing with wasabi mayo and a fruity sauce. Wasabi is strong enough, and enough of an acquired taste, that they should have left that choice to the diner: I found it off-putting. “You should have the extra piece, you’re hungrier than I am” I said to Zoë: a transparent attempt to dress up my lack of enthusiasm as gallantry.

Soft shell crab is one of my favourite things, so I was sorry that Sen Sushi’s maki also fell short. They looked the part, a fairly generous portion, the rice studded with tobiko, but putting both cucumber and avocado in with the crab and then drizzling the whole thing with mayonnaise and fruity sauce crowded out the flavours and felt like overkill. They were poorly rolled, too – half of the rolls weren’t closed off properly and fell apart when we tried to pick them up with chopsticks. I saw the chef struggling with rolling them: he had a couple of attempts and then clearly thought Fuck it and had one last half-hearted stab at massaging the sushi rice into the gap. Again, there’s no hiding place in an open kitchen.

What I was also quickly discovering about sitting next to an open kitchen was that it was impossible to have an honest conversation with your dining companion about whether the food was any good. “What do you think?” said Zoë. “Mmm” I replied, non-committally and in earshot.

Being overheard was even more of a problem when the mains turned up, because they were the low point of the meal. Zoë’s teriyaki udon noodles with char sui came in a high-sided, thick rimmed ceramic bowl. She whispered something to me which I couldn’t make out but which I was later told was “dog bowl”. And it’s true, it did look like a dog’s bowl. “I expected to get through it and see a picture of a bone on the bottom” she told me.

But there was no danger of getting through it, because it wasn’t nice at all. The noodles were thick, slippery and strangely oleaginous, the sauce bland and thin. And the char siu was nothing of the kind. Fidget & Bob’s exemplary char siu is so beautifully cooked that it falls apart when prodded with a spoon, and comes to the table anointed with a stunning sticky-sweet sauce. Sen Sushi’s char siu, by contrast, is three thick slabs of pre-cooked pork taken out of yet another tupperware container and chucked in the wok at the end to warm through. It was hard even to tear apart with your teeth, and not worth the effort.

My dish wasn’t cooked until after Zoë’s had been served up – an odd course of action in a kitchen with multiple woks and indeed multiple chefs. I had a rice bowl with braised Taiwanese pork and again, it was an unsettling thing to eat. Disturbingly uniform little cubes of pork were served in a dark sauce which managed not to be sweet, or spicy, or even savoury, just a sort of dark brown white noise. There were a few bits of spring onion scattered on top, but they just left me wishing for more food without that mushy texture.

I didn’t want to draw the parallel, but although Zoë’s dish had come in what looked like a dog’s bowl mine – chunks of meat in a thick but strangely flavourless gravy – was the one that felt like it belonged there. I ate as much as I could face. We weren’t asked why we’d left so much of our main courses, which meant that I didn’t have to fib about how full we were. That said, something about those last two dishes did make you feel unpleasantly full: they didn’t sit easily, and it wasn’t until much later the following day that I felt like eating again.

It’s a shame the food was so iffy in so many places, because the service – from the waitress and the chefs – was pleasant, friendly and attentive for most of our meal. Nice enough that I feel like a bit of a shit for slating the food, but not so nice that they asked whether we were happy with everything, or so nice that I volunteered that information. Sen Sushi does a few desserts (mostly mochi and a matcha ice cream) but we felt like we’d given them enough money already, so we paid and made our escape.

Dinner for two – all that food, two bottles of Kirin and two cans of San Pellegrino – came to just shy of sixty pounds. Perhaps I’m a traitor to the cause for pointing out the inconvenient truth that chain doesn’t necessarily mean bad and independent doesn’t necessarily mean wonderful, but I’m afraid you would get a far better return on that sixty pounds eating at Wagamama or Yo! Sushi than you would at Sen Sushi. You’d also be better off eating at Sushimania, or Kokoro, or taking the train to Windsor and eating at Misugo. And I don’t know how good a cook you are, but you’d probably also have a better meal at home doing a stir fry.

One of my favourite Japanese restaurants is a little place called Chez Taeko in Paris. It’s part of the Marché des Enfants Rouges in the Marais, and it’s just a few little benches and tables and a small menu, on a chalkboard, of sushi, bento boxes and rice bowls. All the food there is beautiful, and when I went there last winter I sat uncomfortably close to my fellow diners, under a heater, with limited elbow room in a little temporary structure like a gazebo enjoying terrific crispy chicken and rice, maki and then concrete-grey sesame ice cream, like edible Brutalism. I honestly couldn’t have been happier.

At the end when I went round the corner to pay the bill I saw the tiniest kitchen, the staff in it working flat out, serving up terrific dish after terrific dish to the lunching Parisians. I so wanted Sen Sushi to be like Chez Taeko, to have the potential to become a happy place, but it didn’t even come close.

“It really did look like a dog bowl” said Zoë when we were safely ensconced back in our house, the meal an uncomfortably recent memory. “If my mum or dad had been there when they served that up they would have wet themselves.”

“You didn’t like it at all, did you?” I said. My initial thoughts had been that the sushi was pretty good and perhaps mitigated the disappointment of the other dishes, but the more time passed, the more I felt that I was being too kind.

“No, I really didn’t. I wouldn’t go back. And it was so cold in there – they had a heater on the wall, why the fuck didn’t they switch it on? And what about the gloves?”

“The gloves?”

“Sometimes the chef was wearing blue gloves and sometimes no gloves at all. What was that about?”

“Well, he wore gloves when he was handling raw fish though, didn’t he?”

There was a pause: Zoë was clearly deciding whether to break bad news to me.

“Not always. And I didn’t appreciate one of the chefs taking a fag break while we were eating our main meals with the back door open, so I had my dinner with a side of Benson & Hedges.”

Again, I hadn’t noticed that.

“It’s a real shame,” she went on “because I wanted to like them, but that char sui was just… it wasn’t good at all.”

“You’re right, I’m afraid.”

Zoë’s accompanied me on nearly twenty reviews by now: I’m starting to think she deserves some kind of promotion (or time off for good behaviour, at the very least). As for me, I’m sure I should learn something from this whole experience. But I fear I’m far too contrarian for that.

Sen Sushi – 6.0
199 Wokingham Road, RG6 7DT
0118 9664636

https://sen-sushi-japanese-restaurant.business.site

Oishi

I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten somewhere quite as apologetic as Oishi, the new Japanese restaurant on the Oxford Road. I turned up on a Wednesday evening to find the place completely empty; I asked the waitress whether it was okay to have a table for two, and she mumbled something about how most people come in to get takeaway, or phone up for delivery. That didn’t feel like either a yes or no, but then she smiled, said “yes, sit anywhere” and gestured around her. It’s a Spartan room, but tasteful and nicely kitted out, and I took a table in the window, reasoning that if people walked past at least they’d know somebody was eating there and maybe they’d come in too.

There was further confusion when the menus were handed out. There’s no way of getting round this: they were takeaway menus, proudly advising that you could have free delivery within a three mile radius if you spent fifteen pounds (which, incidentally, is pretty reasonable). Not just takeaway menus, but takeaway menus for Oishi’s branch in Brentford: the telephone number had been scrubbed out and a Reading number written underneath it in scratchy blue biro. On the plus side, at least we weren’t in Brentford.

“Would you like a drink?” said the waitress.

“Do you have a drinks list?”

There was a pause, long enough for me to realise that there was no more a drinks list than there was a menu.

“We don’t serve alcohol.”

Well, I’ve had more promising starts to a meal out, I said to myself.

Anyway, that’s getting ahead of ourselves. First, the context: I’d wanted to visit Oishi ever since it opened in August. Reading has long needed a Japanese restaurant that could rival the likes of Misugo in Windsor or Kyoto Kitchen in Winchester, both of which are terrific. I’m also a fan of Oxford’s Taberu, and when they announced that they were opening a second branch down the Oxford Road I thought my prayers had been answered.

At first things went well: Taberu did the place up (previously the first home of sadly departed and much mourned Indian restaurant Bhoj – there was a lot of burnt orange to paint over) and began serving takeaway with the promise that they’d open as a proper eat-in restaurant later on. Then, somewhere along the line, it all went awry: opening as a full restaurant never happened, then Taberu closed completely and then, after much speculation, it reopened as Oishi. Oh well, at least they didn’t have to redecorate.

I especially wanted to try Oishi because I recently ordered food from Sen Sushi, Reading’s other Japanese restaurant at the opposite end of the 17 bus route, and I’d been so disappointed. Having sushi delivered on a Friday night felt like a massive treat, but what turned up was mediocre: oddly wan salmon sashimi, sinewy, badly-cut tuna sashimi, yakitori chicken skewers with a bonus knot of gristle. I wanted to support small independent businesses, but this wasn’t as good as Yo! Sushi.

My dining companion this week was my friend Jerry. Now, Jerry is a very dangerous man to go out with on a school night. He likes a drink, but he’s retired and consequently he never, ever has to get up for work the next day: many’s the time I’ve forgotten this fact and meandered home from Jerry’s flat of an evening, rather too much wine to the good, only to face a painful awakening the following morning (and a message from Jerry, fresh as a daisy, saying what a lovely evening it was). More significantly, and uniquely among people who have accompanied me on reviews, Jerry doesn’t actually read the blog, so I can say what I like about him without fear of reprisal: believe me, the temptation to claim that he sports a mohawk is considerable.

Not only that, but Jerry told me in the run up to our meal that he’d never had Japanese food before. Looking through the menu, I found myself wondering what the least intimidating dishes might be for a newcomer. The usual suspects are all present and correct – a small selection of sashimi, some sushi (maki, uramaki and hand rolls), some hot starters and a range of hot main courses – rice dishes, noodle dishes and ramen, mostly. In the end I decided to go for a sort of greatest hits: I could try and pretend this was to fully test the range of the menu, or to give Jerry the best possible introduction to Japanese food, but by now you’ve probably figured out that it was more to do with greed and hunger.

“Have you really never eaten Japanese food?”

“No, I haven’t! The closest I’ve ever got is Wagamama.”

Jerry’s education began with the classics. I have a real weakness for soft shell crab, so I ordered some soft shell crab uramaki (“I was going to put in a request for those!” he said excitedly) and they were one of the first dishes to turn up. The presentation was endearingly amateurish – I’m used to slightly more precision and focus on clean lines – but they looked good, coated in bright orange tobiko (fish roe, the wonderful stuff that pops under your teeth), plonked on a board with a small pile of ginger in one corner and a dab of wasabi in the other. They were nicely rolled with no gaps or ragged edges, and the addition of a little cucumber added a nice textural crunch. If I had a criticism it was about size (don’t let anybody ever tell you it’s not important) – I’m used to having the same dish at Misugo where it feels like a sea monster is trying to escape from the rice, whereas these were somewhat diddy by comparison. At eight pounds it was the single most expensive dish we had, and probably not quite worth that.

I also ordered tempura prawns, mainly to ease the culture shock for Jerry: most people have eaten something like this at some point in their lives, after all. They never amaze and they rarely disappoint, but actually I was quietly impressed by Oishi’s rendition. Often menus claim that it’s tempura batter but what you get is stodgy, or greasy, or you take one bite and the rest of the batter falls off. These were very nicely done indeed – light, delicate and lacking in oil. They came with a pretty anonymous dipping sauce.

“It’s all very clean-tasting, isn’t it?” said Jerry. By Jove, I thought, he’s got it.

Sashimi came next: a big test for me, especially after such an iffy experience at Sen Sushi. Oishi has a limited sashimi selection – no sea bass or mackerel here – so again I opted for the reference dishes, in this case tuna and salmon. The slices were beautifully marbled, nicely sized and well-cut, with beautiful colour to them, but again the presentation was a tad haphazard. There was no daikon and the fish was fanned out on what looked like seaweed, which slightly affected the flavour of the pieces at the bottom.

That was a pity, because otherwise the sashimi was quite beautiful. I know some people are funny about raw fish, but for me there’s something magical about salmon sashimi in particular – the almost glossy texture, the way it manages to be both oily and pure all at once. The tuna was just as good – firm, meaty and expertly cut, everything as it should be. I dipped mine lightly in soy sauce and rhapsodised, while Jerry – showing a leaning toward the ascetic that was news to me – ate his au naturel. Oh, and there were two random and completely pointless slices of lemon: if you need these, you probably shouldn’t be eating sashimi, and I imagine they’d give purists conniptions.

By this point, I was starting to feel like things might turn out rather nicely, although I was also increasingly aware that this might have been the longest I’d ever been in Jerry’s company without imbibing alcohol of some description. Not that it seemed to deter him in the slightest as he launched into a long and very entertaining story about going to a wedding in North Devon only to meet the village character, a lady of advanced years who had booted out her husband because of his failure to perform, exhausted the limited pool of locals via Tinder and ended up working in a massage parlour because she’d said, he told me, “I might as well get paid for it”. Where did he find these people? I wondered.

Jerry concluded his tale just as our – presumably slightly aghast – waitress turned up with the next dish, duck gyoza with a little dish of hoi sin for dipping. Now, these are a stable at the likes of Yo! Sushi and Wagamama, and Oishi’s were fairly similar to the gyoza you can get at those places, but even then there were little differences – some finely chopped cucumber, or possibly spring onion, in the filling just adding another dimension. Nice work.

Finally, what I suppose you’d class as our main courses arrived. I’d given Jerry first choice, after talking him through the options, and he’d gone for chicken katsu curry. “It’s sort of breadcrumbed chicken breast and rice and a curry sauce, but it’s not a really hot spicy sauce.” I said. “It’s kind of mild and creamy, you know, like a chip shop curry sauce.” I think that latter reference is what sealed it, and when it was placed in front of Jerry I realised I had inadvertently described it perfectly. It was indeed some rice, some breaded chicken and some curry sauce, all separate, practically deconstructed you could say. I used to have a friend called Fiona who had to eat every component of her meal separately – first the potatoes, then the veg, then the meat, never crossing the gastronomic streams (well, it takes all sorts). All I can say is that Fiona would have loved Oishi’s chicken katsu curry, although I wasn’t so sure about the self-assembly aspect myself.

None the less, as before, Oishi may not have got the presentation right but the content was very good indeed. The chicken was just right – a brilliant juxtaposition of crispy and tender – and although the breadcrumbs mightn’t have been panko it was far too tasty for me to care. The sauce was sweetly mild but a very long way from inoffensive, and the rice was, well, rice. I personally would have poured the sauce over the rice and chicken and had at it, but Jerry ended up dipping the chicken and forkfuls of the rice into the sauce like some kind of exotic fondue; I found it far too endearing to correct him. Oh, there was also some salad but I don’t think Jerry touched it. I kind of found that endearing too.

My main course was teriyaki chicken, and I so enjoyed it. It was a very generous portion of chicken thigh in a bowl, on top of a bed of plain rice and at first I had reservations because it looked perfectly sticky but I thought everything underneath would be dry. How wrong I was: all the teriyaki sauce had percolated through the grains of rice, leaving a glorious sweet reservoir at the bottom that simply made everything delicious. Not only that, but the dish had plenty of other stuff going on – the crunch of beansprouts, carrots and red onion, every mouthful perfect in contrasts of flavour and texture. And the chicken, although I might have liked it absolutely piping hot, was beautifully cooked. This dish was on the menu at six pounds fifty and I couldn’t believe what superb value it was – a feeling that was only marginally dented by being charged seven pounds fifty for it when the bill arrived.

Service was truly lovely thoughout – the lady who served us was so friendly and polite (after the baffled and diffident start) that it truly saddened me that there were no other customers eating in the night that we went. There was a regular stream of deliveries going out the door, and a couple turned up to pick some food up towards the end of our visit, but even so it felt forlorn to be the only people sitting there enjoying such good food. “We did have some tables in before you arrived”, the waitress told us and I fervently hoped that was the case.

Everything we ate that night, along with a Diet Coke (for Jerry: what do you take me for?) and a pomegranate green tea (for me: that’s what you should take me for) came to fifty pounds, not including tip. None of the dishes we had cost more than eight pounds and many – the katsu, the teriyaki chicken, both sets of sashimi – felt like impressive value. We left with warm – if sober – goodbyes and an steadfast conviction that we’d be back before long, which is exactly how you want to feel at the end of a trip to a restaurant.

“Wasn’t it lovely?” said Jerry, clearly a convert to Japanese food.

“It really was. Now shall we have a debrief at the Nag’s?”

“Absolutely!”

Independent restaurants, in my experience, rarely get everything right on day one, week one, or month one. Very few spring forth fully-formed and fully-realised in the way that, say, Bakery House or Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen did. They make mistakes, they learn, they correct. Early adopters are helping with the beta testing, and it’s a high wire for small restaurants: do you open before you’re totally prepared, or do you wait until everything is perfect? Taberu waited until it was ready for eat in customers which never came, and then it closed. Oishi has done it the other way round: it’s serving customers without necessarily being confident about how to do it.

And this is where we come in. Because when places like Oishi open, what they really need is customers. Not just any punters, but customers who are prepared to overlook the glitches, the lack of booze, the slightly scruffy presentation and the rather apologetic approach. But look at what you get in return: beautifully cut, delicious sashimi. Tender chicken thighs in sweet sticky sauce with the freshness of finely cut carrots. Spot on katsu curry. But more than that, you get the knowledge that you’re doing your bit, helping that restaurant to grow and evolve, to serve a community and improve a town. I think that’s a pretty good deal: but I would, because I like to think that I’m that kind of customer. I reckon some of you might be, too.


Oishi – 8.0

314 Oxford Road, RG30 1AD
0118 9599991

https://www.oishi-reading.co.uk/