Cosmo

How do I sum up the experience of eating in Cosmo? How can I possibly distil such a complex experience, so many different types of food, into a single review? Well, maybe I should start at the end of the meal. There were four of us round the table (I know: people actually wanted to come with me!), looking at our largely empty plates, feeling a mixture of remorse and queasy fear about how our bodies would cope with what came next. Tim, chosen for this mission because he is one of the biggest gluttons I know, paused for a second and said “I don’t think this place is going to help anybody have a healthy relationship with food.”

There was further silence and the rest of us tried to digest what he had said (trying to digest, it turned out, would be a theme over the next forty-eight hours).

“I don’t really feel like I’ve eaten in a restaurant this evening.” Tim went on. “I just feel like I’ve spent time smashing food into my mouth.”

I looked down at the leftovers on my plate – a solitary Yorkshire pudding stuffed with crispy duck and topped with hoi sin (it was my friend Ben’s idea and it sounded like a brilliant plan at the time) and started to laugh hysterically. It might have been all the sugar in the Chinese food, the sweet white crystals on top of the crispy seaweed, but I felt, in truth, a little delirious.

“Nobody should leave a restaurant feeling this way.” said Ben, possibly the other biggest glutton I’ve ever met and a man who has never, to the best of my knowledge, left a restaurant entirely replete. We all nodded, too full to speak. I can’t remember who got onto this topic, but there was a general consensus that we were all dreading our next visit to the bathroom and then, having said all that and paid up, we waddled out onto Friar Street and into the night.

Alternatively, maybe I should sum up the experience of eating at Cosmo by recounting the conversations on Facebook the next day. I won’t name names, but we had I had to sleep with a hot water bottle on my belly to aid with digestion, along with I still feel ill, not to forget the more evocative my burps taste of MSG and – look away now if you’re easily shocked – I just did something approximating to a poo and it wasn’t pretty. Tim was feeling so grotty that he worked from home, all of us felt icky and found ourselves daydreaming about salad or vegetables – you don’t see many vegetables at Cosmo, you know – and hoping for some time in the future when the meal was a distant memory.

The thing is that if I started to sum up Cosmo that way you might just assume that I went with some greedy pigs, we all ate too much, made ourselves poorly and have nobody but ourselves to blame. So maybe I should start more conventionally at the point where we walked in and were escorted to a Siberian table for four right at the back, close to the emergency exit, far from daylight. You go in past a display of bread and vegetables in little baskets (I can only assume this is a heroic piece of misdirection, or some kind of in-joke) and then you wind up in some kind of windowless all-you-can-eat dungeon.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of Cosmo, may I first express my undying envy before going on to explain: it is indeed a gigantic buffet where you can consume as much food as you like for two hours before your time is up and you are asked to leave. Serving staff constantly circle the room while you are up at the cooking stations, whisking away your old plate so that when you sit down you can almost forget just how much food you have consumed. I bet you’re getting peckish just reading this, right?

All major cuisines are represented, provided your idea of major cuisines is largely Chinese and Indian. There are other things on offer – sushi, pizza (or, as Tim referred to it, “random pizza”, when he stuck a slice of one right next to his crispy duck pancake), a big wodge of unappetising pink gammon you were invited to carve yourself, something described as “beef stew”, I could go on – but the general theme is pan-Asian. The “pan” might be short for “pandemic”.

The experience of eating at Cosmo is very different from a traditional meal where you all sit down at a table, decide what you want and then chat away while someone cooks and brings it to you (it’s very different in the sense that Ryanair, for instance, is very different from British Airways). I would say there were very few moments where all four of us were sitting down at once: instead we were frequently prowling from one cooking station to the other, finding things to stick on our fresh plates, wondering if our choices went with one another, wondering whether it mattered, wondering where Ben got the idea of sticking crispy duck in a Yorkshire pudding like a massive demented vol-au-vent (You haven’t lived until you’ve put sushi, Yorkshire pudding and rogan josh together on the same plate said someone on Twitter – hi Pete! – in the run-up to my visit: all I can say is I still haven’t lived, and I’m fine with that).

When we were talking, most of the conversation revolved around one of three topics, namely “this dish isn’t half as bad as I thought it would be”, “try this, it’s truly atrocious” or, and this one was mainly led by me, “what possessed you to put crispy duck in a Yorkshire pudding?”

When you get to Cosmo you’re a bit like a kid in a sweet shop at first (although who over the age of six wants to have dinner in a sweetshop?). The other way that the experience is different to a normal meal out is that as the evening wears on, the mood gets slightly more deranged. Maybe it’s the cumulative effect of all that sugar, maybe it’s the body’s way of expressing Vitamin C withdrawal symptoms, or maybe it’s my fault because I collated a list of all the things people had recommended and I was insistent that we try them all. It was like an I-Spy book or something, and I directed people with military precision: You, go get some sushi. Tim, check out the prawns with ginger and spring onion. I’ll hit the teppanyaki station. Meet you back here in a couple of minutes. All right, let’s move out! If that doesn’t sound like fun then take it from me, the element of co-ordinated planning and being in it together was probably the most fun thing about the evening (well, that and bonding over our bowel movements the next day).

Finally, let’s talk about the food. Between us we ate so many dishes that it’s difficult to go into forensic detail about everything, but as a general rule I’d say the things I expected to be good were poor and the things I expected to be dreadful weren’t quite as bad as I feared. For instance I had the teppanyaki station recommended to me, so I made sure I had some seared scallops (or, more literally, a scallop cut into thin slices and griddled) and some very thin steak wrapped around enoki mushrooms, also griddled. The scallops were pleasant if basic, the enoki tasted of nothing but oil and the steak, if it tasted of anything, tasted of oily mushrooms. Similarly, I went to the grill station and asked for something off the bone and they recommended the pork. It still had a bone in it and I watched the chef slice it on a board before handing it to me. It was some miraculous cut of pork that was made only of bone, fat and crackling, presumably from a pig which had spent its entire life lying down.

CosmoTeppan

What else? Well, Tim pronounced the samosas and spring rolls as “rubbish” (nothing in them, he said), an adjective he also applied to his lamb rogan josh. I tried a bit of the latter and I tended to agree, the lamb and the sauce felt like they had spent their whole lives apart before being stirred together at the last minute, no depth of flavour in the meat, nothing you couldn’t do yourself with a jar of sauce from Loyd Grossman. The tandoori chicken was apparently dry. The most derision was reserved for the “crab claw”, something made of goodness knows what, a wodge of awful, indeterminate homogenous beige material not dissimilar to a washing up sponge. Tim disliked his so much he insisted that Ben try one and Ben, a man I have never known to turn down food, had a mouthful and abandoned the rest. The sushi was also judged to be pretty grim, claggy and flavourless, soggy seaweed and all.

CosmoBuns

There were some slightly better dishes. The chicken satay was nice enough, although certainly no better than chicken satay I’ve had at dozens of other places in Reading and beyond. The stir fried green beans were thoroughly enjoyable, although that might just have been the novelty value of eating something that was actually green. We all quite liked the char siu and the black pepper chicken, although again not enough to tell people to make a beeline for Cosmo just to eat them. The steamed pork buns divided opinion – some of us liked them, some found them just too sweet. Again, China Palace undoubtedly does them better, and China Palace is itself arguably nothing special. Tim liked the pad Thai, and Ben seemed not to mind the southern fried chicken. The crispy seaweed was lovely, but then I could eat crispy seaweed all day. Also in the Chinese section were some miniature hash browns with spring onion: they were about as out of place as I was.

CosmoPork

Before I went to Cosmo someone very wise on Twitter – hello Dan! – said that he treated the place as an all you can eat duck pancake meal. I think this might be the best way to approach Cosmo: again, it was okay rather than amazing but perhaps the trick is to find a dish that never lets you down and stock up on that. We all started on this dish and a couple of us went back to it later on when the other options ran out of appeal. There was also crispy pork, also for pancakes, and I was a little concerned that the pork and the duck didn’t taste quite as different as they could have done. Still, even if it was a bunch of faintly meaty fluffy strands it hit the spot in a way that most of the other dishes couldn’t.

CosmoDuck

“It’s important not to be snobby about Cosmo.” said Ben towards the end of the meal as he ate his trio of miniature desserts, three little sponge cakes (he was the only person to have any dessert – he wasn’t a big fan of them, though). Maybe he’s right: there’s undoubtedly a place for this kind of restaurant and a market for it, which is why there are queues outside it at the weekend. It’s cheap – all you can eat (which, by the end of my evening, had mutated into “all you can bear”) for fourteen pounds on a week night. I can also see it would be perfect for parents, for big groups, for indecisive people or, and I sometimes forget how many of these there are in every town, not just Reading, people who Just Don’t Like Food That Much.

In my ivory tower, enthusing about the likes of Papa Gee, Perry’s or Pepe Sale it’s easy for me to forget that some people just want to get fuelled up somewhere like Cosmo before going on to one of Reading’s many characterful chain pubs, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. And perhaps that’s the point of Cosmo full stop – it doesn’t serve the best of anything, but if quantity and range are the most important things then Cosmo is the place for you. I’m just glad I don’t ever have to participate again, and if that makes me a snob I suppose I’m just going to have to suck it up. Maybe I should get a t-shirt printed or something.

I didn’t mention the service, because it isn’t really that kind of place, but what there was was pleasant and entirely lacking in the kind of existential despair I would experience if I had to spend more than two hours in Cosmo. I’ve saved the cost of the meal until last, for good reason. Dinner for four, including two glasses of unremarkable wine and a couple of bottomless soft drinks, came to seventy pounds. But more importantly, and this is what makes it the most expensive meal I’ve ever reviewed for the blog, it cost ER readers over a thousand pounds. Yes, people made over a grand’s worth of pledges (not including GiftAid) to Launchpad to enable them to continue doing their incredible work for the homeless and vulnerable in Reading, work which has never been more badly needed than it is today. And if you haven’t donated yet, but you enjoyed reading this review, it’s not too late: just click here.

So, veni, vidi, icky: I went to Cosmo, just like I promised I would, and I had a pretty iffy meal, just like you thought I would. No surprises there, and that might well be why you sponsored me in the first place. But now the after-effects have subsided, when I look at how everybody rallied round and chipped in, and most importantly when I think about what all that money will achieve for our brilliant town, it’s hard to imagine I’ll have a less regrettable meal all year.

Launchpad

Cosmo – 5.0
35-38 Friar Street, RG1 1DX
0118 9595588

http://www.cosmo-restaurants.co.uk/locations/reading/

Itsu

Whatever you think of the food, Itsu’s biggest success – for me, anyway – may be how it’s transformed the bottom of Queen Victoria Street, banishing the grisly memory of temporary shop after temporary shop selling nylon shoes or mobile phone accessories. It gives that corner a certain glow, all shiny, fresh and welcoming; it’s strange how even though it’s only been open for a couple of months, it somehow feels like it’s been there forever.

It forms part of a long-established trend, which on balance is probably a good thing, of smaller, more exclusive chains picking Reading to be in the vanguard for any expansion plans. Bill’s started this, of course, and then there was Five Guys, but although Itsu is the latest it’s unlikely to be the last: West Country pizza and cider chain The Stable is rumoured to be opening on Bridge Street, and Bristol-based barbecue specialists Grillstock were linked to a site on Friar Street recently.

Itsu wasn’t top of my wish list of chains (I’d love a branch of Leon or Busaba, personally) but it’s an intriguing prospect – a place offering healthy lunches and dinners low in calories and saturated fats. Salads, smoothies, sushi, sashimi: splendid, surely? I’m one of those people who goes to Yo! Sushi with the best of intentions and then ends up ordering anything and everything the kitchen has to fry, but I decided to put my reservations (and my love of alliteration) to one side and give it a try one weekend lunchtime.

Inside, the chillers are packed full of options – sushi and sashimi on the left and salads on the right (although many of the salads are in fact on a bed of sushi rice, which in some cases can make your dish look more like maki that couldn’t be bothered to get dressed). There’s also a range of hot noodle and rice dishes which you pick up at the counter. I decided to order a little of everything – in the interests of balance, naturally – so I headed up the stairs with a heavy tray and a growing sense of excitement.

Now, before I get on to the food I’m afraid I need to wax lyrical about the view from upstairs, so feel free to skip this paragraph. It really is a gorgeous spot up there, full of tastefully done long tables with stools, USB charging points – which could come in handy if you plan to be on your iPhone for longer than, I don’t know, fifteen minutes – and most importantly a gorgeous first floor view out across town through the lovely floor to ceiling windows. In one direction you get to look up Queen Victoria Street, a symphony in Victorian red brick only equalled by the Town Hall, in the other you get to gaze out on John Lewis, one of Reading’s most handsome and iconic buildings. You can even make out, behind some of the façade, the word “HEELAS” in block capitals on the front of the building, a little detail for those of us who still think of it that way. It made me realise how few restaurants in Reading give you a view to go with your food, unless you happen to be a fan of Ed’s Diner (is anyone, I wonder?).

That architectural diversion aside, let’s start with the good news: the chicken teriyaki potsu (Itsu’s slightly twee way of saying it comes in a cardboard pot) was truly splendid. Lots of slices of tender thigh meat, so much more interesting than breast, sat on top of a big pile of brown rice, itself so much more interesting than white rice. Interesting is the right word in general, because it managed that rare trick of making sure there simply wasn’t a dull forkful – so much going on in the rice, with beans and petit pois adding a bit of crunch, leek for sweetness and little ribbons of piquant ginger running through the whole lot.

At first I thought the dish looked a little dry and that I might need to top up with the sauce bottles at the table, but digging deeper I got to the liquor, a wonderful sweet-salty mixture of teriyaki and broth that made every mouthful magnificent. If I was being critical it was warm rather than hot, but even having said that I could happily eat this every week for a year and never get bored. At little over a fiver it felt fairly priced for lunch and keenly priced for a light dinner, too.

ItsuPotsu

The sushi was less successful. An assorted pack of small maki – seven each of salmon and avocado – felt a bit clammy, claggy and unremarkable. I didn’t mind them, and at about four pounds fifty they clocked in very reasonably compared to Yo!, but they were difficult to get excited about (a shame, because I adore avocado maki). I nearly didn’t order them because I wasn’t sure how much they would tell me about the kitchen’s skills but as it turned out they were badly rolled, with most of the maki having gaps where the seaweed didn’t form a complete circle.

ItsuMaki

Prices in general are quite variable at Itsu, so although these were fairly competitive the sashimi and some of the bigger maki are priced outside the territory of a light lunch on the run. One of the salads I considered buying – a piece of rare salmon, some leaves and some dressing – was just shy of eight pounds, and I’m really not sure who out there is going to buy an eight pound salad from Itsu.

The other dish I ordered, to cover all bases, was vegetable dumplings on a bed of sushi rice. I quite liked the dumplings but quite liked is probably as far as it goes. They’d been steamed and then chilled, giving the outside a texture just the right side of cardboard, but the filling was decent enough. They were sprinkled with something that looked and tasted like togarashi which gave them a bit of oomph and the wee pot of teriyaki sauce on the side added savoury depth to the proceedings. It didn’t quite disguise that texture, but it did make them feel a bit less like a health food.

They came on a bed of rice, a thick layer of carbohydrates which didn’t remotely go and felt like hard work towards the end. You pay a quid extra to have this edible plate, and with hindsight I don’t think it was worth it. I did find myself thinking about Sapana Home, a hundred yards yet a whole world away, where you get a huge plate of freshly-assembled, freshly-cooked momo for only six pounds. I also worried about how many people would never discover Sapana Home because they never looked past Itsu’s snazzy exterior.

ItsuDumpling

I couldn’t quite bring myself to order a “raw smoothie” for just under a fiver (perhaps I’m not cut out for this whole healthy eating caper, because I just found myself thinking I could get a pint of cider and a packet of Scampi Fries in the Allied for that), so instead we went for a couple of drinks from the fridge. Coconut and lime pressé, which isn’t made by Itsu, was light and refreshing, although I got more lime than coconut. The carrot and ginger juice drink (also known as “Detox iii”: what a horror movie that would be), which is made by Itsu, was pretty grim. I was expecting something like the terrific carrot and ginger juice you can get at Bill’s but this was a nasty, thin, watery pastiche of proper juice. Looking at the label I got a vague idea why: water was the single biggest ingredient in it. It also contained a mysterious substance described only as “Thorncroft detox cordial”, which sounds about as enjoyable as an hour stuck in a lift with Gwyneth Paltrow.

That sums up my problem with Itsu, because it doesn’t make healthy eating as fun as the happy-clappy blurb on the website and the pictures of people enjoying volleyball outside the shop suggest it will be. The staff are lovely, and my hot chicken teriyaki dish was beautiful – if I went back, it would be for more of that – but still something about the place jarred with me. Even the cans of Coke in the fridge are a mingey 250ml rather than the standard issue 330ml (drink them if you absolutely must seems to be the message). The meal for two, three dishes and two drinks, came to just over eighteen pounds, which feels like a lot for what we had, especially when you think how much of it was just rice. Also, I’m just not sure when I would eat here rather than spend less and go to a café or spend more and go to a restaurant. I have no doubt that Itsu will do extremely well – the crowds already suggest I’ve got this one completely wrong – but it left me really fancying a KitKat Chunky. Or some Frazzles. Or a chip butty. Something tells me that wasn’t their intention.

Itsu – 6.6
31 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY
0118 4020979

https://www.itsu.com/locations/shops/reading_UK69.html

Misugo, Windsor

At the start of the year, AltReading asked me to contribute to a piece about what people wanted to see in Reading in 2015. So I talked about some of the big gaps in Reading’s restaurant landscape – that we need a tapas restaurant, a pizzeria, a town centre pub doing simple, tasty, well-executed food and so on. It wasn’t until later that I realised that my list of gaps itself contained a gap: Reading doesn’t have a good Japanese restaurant. There’s Sushimania, which can be okay (when it’s not too busy – and woe betide you if it is, because a person can get very drunk on their house white waiting for the food to turn up. Take my word for it) and there’s Yo! Sushi. That’s it.

That partly explains why this week’s review is of a restaurant in far-flung Windsor, the furthest from Reading to date. The thing is, I suspect the reason I didn’t put a Japanese restaurant in my original wish list is that, for years, when I’ve wanted Japanese food I’ve got on the train and gone to Misugo instead. It’s a modest little place just opposite Windsor’s Firestation Arts Centre, about a ten minute walk from the station (a walk which takes you right past a very good fishmonger, a few doors down from the restaurant – something which might explain a lot). It’s nothing to look at from the outside, and pretty understated on the inside. Every time I’ve been (and I’ve only ever been at lunchtimes) it’s virtually empty: it’s rare to see more than one other occupied table. It also happens to do fantastic sushi.

Arriving on a Saturday lunchtime without a reservation, I was delighted to see that they had a booking for a big table, even if it meant that I didn’t get my usual seat next to the window. It’s a long thin room split across two levels and it really is very basic – plain wooden tables, plain wooden stools and simple, elegant (if atmospheric) lighting. But that simplicity feels like a bit of a hallmark which carries across into everything else – unobtrusive service and simple, brilliant food.

The menu is one of those big, tempting ones that requires several attempts in a single sitting (I envied the big table which turned up a little after I arrived – eleven fellow diners would give you the opportunity to try a lot of the options), divided into sashimi, sushi, small hot dishes, rice dishes and noodle dishes. They also do a small, if tempting, array of bento boxes if you want someone to make your tricky decisions for you: I didn’t, but the woman at the table behind me had one and it looked nearly enviable.

First to arrive was the sashimi, which was beyond reproach. If you’re used to Yo with its little dishes, a few small slices of salmon trundling round under a plastic dome on the belt, the sashimi at Misugo – in terms of the presentation, the range and the sheer quality – is like going from a standard picture to HD. So the salmon here came as four beautiful thick slices, beautifully marbled, fresh and clean, as soft as mousse. I’m no expert on sashimi, but I don’t think that marbling and that texture happens by accident or luck. The tuna was firm, meaty and distinctly unfishy (as odd as that sounds). If sashimi has never appealed to you then tuna from Misugo is the perfect gateway fish. Finally, the biggest revelation: four sections of mackerel, complete with shimmering skin. I always order the mackerel and it always blows me away, somehow strong and subtle all at once in a way few dishes (and few people, come to think of it) ever manage. We gently transported them onto our tiger-striped plates with chopsticks, dabbed them in soy, added ginger and popped them in our mouths, and then we were transported ourselves.

Sashimi

Sushi was every bit as good. Avocado maki were plump things, tightly rolled, each with a big fat core of ripe buttery avocado. But there was more going on: a hint of what tasted a bit like lime, tucked between the rice and the delicious green flesh. Again, this was a world away from anything you might pluck from a conveyor belt. Soft shell crab maki – the crab still warm as it reached our table – were gorgeous to look at, the crab almost looking as if it was making a break for it. All of a sudden I didn’t envy that table of twelve half so much, because it was difficult enough sharing these between two.

Maki

The waitress asked if we wanted another look at the menu and saying no felt like the worst kind of folly, so we rounded up more options and ordered again. Vegetable gyoza were gorgeous – lighter than they looked, like crispy islands floating on the smallest, subtlest pool of vinegary dressing. More maki – this time grilled tuna with mango – were also delicious, the tuna soft and the mango fresh and firm rather than soft and ripe as the avocado had been. A little drizzle of sauce over them added a deep, fruity note.

Last of all, the only misfire of the whole meal. Chicken yakitori looked the part – thigh meat threaded like a sine wave onto skewers, grilled, brushed with sticky sauce and scattered with sesame seeds. But they needed to be more: more well cooked – the slightly charred bits were a delight, the rest a bit of a chore – and with more of the gloriously smoky sauce. They were the only thing we didn’t finish, although by that stage we were too full to ask for dessert anyway. Anywhere else, it would have been a good dish, but Misugo had set the bar too high by then. I was sad that they played their worst song as the encore, but I’d loved the concert too much to hold it against them.

Being on the wagon in a Japanese restaurant, it turns out, is less of a hardship than you might think. I was tempted to try Calpico, a Japanese yoghurt drink (and if I’d known it tasted just like Yakult, which apparently it does, I definitely would have) but in the end I opted for something which was described as an “aloe vera soft drink” and tasted a bit like orange squash on a gap year. I liked it enough to order a second, at which point the waitress told me with a smile that you could buy it in Sainsburys, even going so far as to check which my local branch was.

Service was perfectly judged – polite, distant when you wanted to be left in peace but there when you needed it. Nobody at Misugo is ever going to make your teeth itch with excessive – or indeed any – mateyness, and they probably won’t ask whether you enjoyed your food either (most likely because they’re rightly confident that you will). But it was restrained and tasteful, just like everything else. Lunch for two – a total of three soft drinks and eight small dishes – came to £47 not including tip, which I thought was excellent. Even as I left I was wondering why I’d left it so long and when I could go back, and envying anyone for whom this restaurant was their neighbourhood restaurant.

Actually, that last bit might not be entirely true. It’s very tempting, when you eat somewhere great that isn’t in your home town, to say “I wish I could pick this up and move it to Reading”, but on reflection I’m happy to keep Misugo exactly where it is. I like Windsor. I like feeling excited about going there when I get on the train (even knowing that I have to change at Slough doesn’t put me off). I like strolling down Peascod Street, past the boutique called “Cognito” (that always tickles me: as an anonymous reviewer I feel I ought to go in at some point), seeing the fishmonger on St Leonards Road and knowing I’m nearly there. And, perhaps most of all, I like the fact that it’s close enough to get to, but just far enough away that I’ll never tire of it: a balance almost as fine as their food.

Misugo – 8.5
83 St Leonards Road, Windsor, SL4 3BZ
01753 833899

http://misugo.co.uk/

Tampopo

N.B. Tampopo closed in June 2015. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

If I’m honest, I wasn’t predisposed to like Tampopo. It always felt like another link in the vast chain of chains on the Oracle Riverside, a bookend at the opposite end of the shelf to Wagamama. I found the concept a bit strange: food from throughout East Asia, a range of dishes from – among others – Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia. Can you imagine a pan-European restaurant, serving boeuf bourguignon alongside pizza, paella, fish and chips, moussaka, schnitzel and herring? If you can imagine it, and I can’t, would you really recommend that anybody go to it?

So I turned up ready to be underwhelmed, and was pleasantly surprised from the moment I walked in. Like Wagamama, Tampopo offers the threat of communal eating – long tables which imply that, if the restaurant is busy, you won’t be eating on your own. Unlike Wagamama, they’ve made some effort to make that seem less stark and unpleasant – tables feel more compact, the seating is made up of (surprisingly comfy) stools rather than large benches and the lighting is warmer and more attractive, giving the room a glow. On a Monday night there was no danger of sharing a table with anyone, but even if I’d had to it wouldn’t have felt like the end of the world.

The culinary first impressions were also good. Edamame were considerably more interesting than their counterparts at the other end of the Riverside, dressed in chilli and sesame oil and coarse flakes of salt. The wine that accompanied them was also very good – a viognier was light and peachy and the Gewürztraminer was delicious, fresh with (at the risk of sounding like something out of the Carry On films) a strong hint of banana. They do glasses in 125ml, too – something I wish more restaurants would sign up to.

Regular readers will be unsurprised to hear that I ordered the “Tampopo sharing platter” to start. I’m beginning to feel less ashamed about this habit, rationalising it as an opportunity to try as many different things from the kitchen as possible (that’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it). And I’m unrepentant, because it was an excellent choice – a big black slate arrived at the table with six different items from the starter menu, neatly laid out in a grid, each with an accompanying dip or garnish.

StarterThe least remarkable were the coconut prawns – butterflied, breadcrumbed and served with sweet chilli sauce, they were the stuff of sharing platters everywhere. Everything else, though, was either a pleasant surprise or a very pleasant surprise. The chicken satay, for instance: so often a pedestrian space filler served up with some warm Sun-Pat, but Tampopo’s was a world away from that. The chicken was soft and tender (I wondered whether it might be minced rather than the fibrous fillet you usually get) and the sauce was deep, rich, chunky and much more savoury than satays in so many other places in Reading. The corn fritters made a pleasant change from the usual fishcake – lighter, taster and without the slightly disturbing sponginess fishcakes can have. The gyoza were plump and soft, full of minced pork, subtle and lighter to eat than they looked on the plate.

The last two were things I’ve not tried before. Goi cuon were cold, soft rice paper rolls packed with vegetables, noodles and coriander – fresh and clean, if almost impossible to eat tidily (whatever you think of a traditional spring roll, it’s at least easy to dunk in a dipping sauce). Bulgogi, Korean grilled beef, was also good, with a smoky char to it. It came served on a lettuce leaf which is meant to serve as an impromptu wrap – a great idea, although it did mean that the beef didn’t stay hot for long. That was fine though, because it didn’t stay uneaten for long. The only letdown was the kimchi that came with the beef – an oddly bland pile of cabbage without the eye-watering, intense taste I’m used to. It was the only place where the menu felt like it lacked the courage of its convictions.

I’m not one for listing the price of dishes in brackets in a restaurant review – there are other places you can go for that – but this one is worth emphasising: that selection of starters, for two, was £13.95. Pretty impressive stuff, and it built up a feeling of goodwill that the rest of the meal would have to go some to ruin. Good starters are like that.

Another nice touch came when the waitress – who was excellent all evening, friendly and helpful without being matey or patronising – took our empty slate (and extra napkins, because it’s messy stuff) away.

“Was that okay for you?”

“Yes, it was gorgeous.”

“I’m glad you liked it, it’s one of my favourites. I had it for lunch, actually.”

She was also full of good advice on which mains to order and came across as genuinely passionate about Tampopo’s food. Another waitress, later in the evening, asked what we made of the menu and showed real interest in feedback. She also told me that Tampopo was only a small chain (five branches, three of them in Manchester), and that Reading was the baby of the family, having only been open for three years. So much for my preconceptions about eating in a faceless chain – and in fact, a subsequent look at the website suggests that the owners either have a genuine passion for this kind of food or are phenomenally good at faking it. Either way I was struck that all of the serving staff felt like ambassadors for the restaurant, also a million miles from the experience in most chains.

Could the mains live up to the start? Well, not quite. Com Hué, a Vietnamese rice dish, was the biggest disappointment of the evening. It was almost like a Vietnamese paella – rice with chicken, squid and king prawns, along with coriander, red onion, spring onion and carrot. Bits of it were beautifully cooked – the squid in particular was more tender than I’d expected – but the overall effect was a bit restrained for my liking. I often worry with subtle food that it’s my fault for not having a refined enough palate, but the good Vietnamese food I’ve had has positively sung with flavour, whether it be mint or lemongrass or coriander. This had none of that, and I don’t think it was my fault. All the other dishes tasted of something, but this was food with the mute button on. I didn’t finish it.

Main2Happily, the other main course was streets ahead. Khao Soi, a Thai dish of chicken and yellow noodles in red curry sauce, was delicious. The sauce was creamy and coconutty with decent sized but perfectly soft pieces of chicken, the noodles were small enough to twirl and there were tasty crispy onion pieces on top. I was apprehensive because of the two chillies next to it on the menu but actually the flavour was well balanced with loads going on – a good whack of garlic and ginger with the creamy sauce taking the edge off the heat. This is the sort of curry I want to eat on a cold, wet night (and I probably will soon, Reading summers being what they are). What it reminded me of, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, was curry sauce from my local chip shop when I was a kid, when the chippie was a treat, all this eating out was a lifetime away and Thai food was still a few years from hitting our shores. I’m not even sure I’m saying it tasted like that, but it took me back to that magical time when foreign foods were new and exciting without being intimidating.

Main1The side dish was nothing to write home about. I went for wok fried greens – you have a choice of broccoli or pak choi in oyster or tamarind sauce. My broccoli was some kind of mutant strain that looked so much like pak choi that it’s almost impossible to tell apart from it, except for the presence of a few tiny florets. Even wilted it was almost impossible to eat with chopsticks and not quite worth the bother of doing so. A pity, really, because the tamarind sauce – like so much of the food at Tampopo – was really tasty, sweet and sharp at once.

I’ve always found desserts a bit of an Achilles’ heel in this kind of restaurant so I was amazed not only to find a few things I fancied ordering but to really enjoy them into the bargain. There isn’t much on the menu from the Philippines (just the one main) but they contribute one dessert – churros and chocolate (popular since Spanish colonial times, if you believe the blurb on the menu). These were some of the better churros I’ve had in this country; thin piped doughnuts with a good balance of crispy and chewy. Better still, the chocolate sauce was thick, intense and tasted of real chocolate, as opposed to the watery, synthetic chocolate flavoured sauce so often dished up with churros on the continent. They were perhaps a little over-zealously dusted with icing sugar but that was soon tapped off (nothing stands between me and fried dough, I can tell you).

ChurrosThe other dessert was another weakness of mine which I always order on the very rare occasions when I see it on a menu. Black sesame ice cream was gorgeous – there’s something about the hit of those sesame seeds in such a surprising context that really works. This wasn’t the best example I’ve had (a chunk of ice in the middle of it was disconcerting) but it was close enough for me. The other flavour I tried, cinnamon, was creamier and blander and mainly left me wishing I’d had two scoops of sesame instead.

Dinner for two – edamame, three courses, a side and a couple of glasses of wine – came to fifty-nine pounds, not including tip. Again, it’s worth mentioning what good value Tampopo is. Aside from those starters, which I’ve already enthused about, the most expensive main was £12. Neither of the desserts cost more than £3. The Oracle can be a punishing place for restaurants to make a living, and I was impressed by the balance between cost and quality here – and the service, which was miles better than at most Oracle restaurants I’ve been to (Browns and Pizza Express, I’m looking at you).

If I was summing up Tampopo in three words I think they’d have to be these: better than Wagamama. They occupy very similar spaces but Tampopo avoids everything that gets on my nerves about the latter: unforgiving lighting, unwelcoming furniture, the rote instruction that your dishes will arrive in a random order whether you like it or not (I can’t tell you how much this irks me) and the feeling that you are meant to eat your food quickly, leave and go to the cinema. Tampopo isn’t necessarily a place to settle in for an evening, and still feels like somewhere you’d eat before going on somewhere else, but it manages to make that feel like an experience in itself rather than a transaction. I will definitely be back, and in future when I go to a restaurant I might try leaving my preconceptions at home.

Tampopo – 7.6
The Riverside, Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9575199

http://www.tampopo.co.uk/

Sushimania

When Neneh Cherry released her debut album back in 1989 I don’t think she realised quite how much damage she would do to the sushi industry; there’s still a common misconception that sushi equals raw fish, and that puts lots of people off it completely. Perhaps in light of that, the inappropriately named Sushimania has a large koi carp mural on the wall with the words “so much more than just sushi” above it. This, along with the bright red bar and red and black furnishings make the most of what could otherwise be an uninspiring spot, opposite the Hexagon Theatre (surely one of the foremost contenders for Reading’s ugliest building, along with the Civic Centre next to it). It’s taken over from the equally inappropriately named Thai Nine, which used to do all you can eat Thai, and… err… sushi.

In many senses the change isn’t that marked – it still does sushi, the tables and chairs are still the same and the menu is still all you can eat (for £15.80, in fact). But when we arrived, at 8pm on a midweek night, it was clear that Sushimania was still bedding in because, far from the bustling restaurant that used to be there, this was a much emptier venue. Remember Lobster Room? Well, the sinking feeling on being guided to our table was much the same here.

It took a bit of effort, and a little help from a waiter, to understand how the ordering works. There’s a sheet of A4 paper, folded into thirds, printed with the names of all the dishes with spaces to write how many you want of each. There’s also a glossy menu with a similar list, all photographed and funky looking with brief descriptions of the dishes. We picked from the glossy menu but were stumped to find that the menu didn’t tie to the sheet of paper we’d been given. How were we supposed to pick all of our choices when they weren’t all on the order form? How did it work? Well, it turns out there are four different types of dish at Sushimania, and it’s not exactly all you can eat all inclusive after all. Here comes the science bit: you might want to concentrate for the next few paragraphs.

First of all there’s the bog standard all-you-can-eat; order as many times as you like, no more than six dishes on any round. Simple. Then there is the not-quite-all-you-can-eat;  the dish is included in the all-you-can-eat but you have a maximum of three portions in each visit. Fair enough, I suppose. Next there are the all-you-can-eat-but-you-have-to-pay-extra dishes; most of the time this means an extra couple of quid per dish so it’s no biggie, although you won’t know which dishes this is until you look at the order form. The main items here were all the sashimi dishes except salmon, so if you don’t like raw fish you might be pleased to see that Sushimania does charge a premium for it.

Still with me?

Okay, so the final option is for those dishes which aren’t on the all-you-can-eat menu at all. These are full price and appear in the glossy menu, but not on the order form. They have to be ordered by actually speaking to a waiter, something that is otherwise not strictly necessary in Sushimania. This includes a lot of the interesting-looking stuff I’m afraid: many of the more unusual starters like seared salmon and tuna, the bigger sashimi plates and really quite a lot of the main courses. To recap: there are four different types of pricing and working out what your meal is going to cost is the kind of mathematical challenge that makes the numbers game on Countdown look like the two times table.

The good news, though, is that once you’ve navigated your way round the menus and the food begins to arrive, things start looking up.

My first course was a selection of sushi and sashimi, and it’s fair to say that although Sushimania may be more than just sushi, they’ve got the basics right. I love avocado maki (the creaminess of the avocado against salty soy and seaweed is always a favourite – a simple classic) so I was pleased that Sushimania does them very well – plump, well rolled, far tastier than they were at Thai Nine or are at Yo! Sushi just down the road. Spicy tuna maki, with a dollop of piquant orange-red sauce on the top, were also very well done, as were the katsu prawn uramaki and the crispy salmon skin teriyaki hand roll. Sashimi – both tuna and salmon – was also delicious, although the size was on the conservative side, especially when you’re paying a premium for the tuna (not the salmon, although it’s one of the things you can only order three of – remember? honestly, the menu was a minefield).

At this point we were smiling and patting ourselves on the back for making it through the door and navigating the riddles of the menu. The waiting staff were attentive and interested enough to ask what we thought of the food and it was nice to be able to give good feedback and mean it. We each ordered a second glass of the house white (an ugni blanc which was incredibly easy to drink, fresh and light if not particularly complex) and kicked back a little.

On the non-sushi side of things it was more hit and miss. The Japanese starters were generally very good. In particular the tori karaage was terrific; moist chicken thighs fried until the coating was crispy but the meat was still tender inside, a grown up chicken nugget. The chicken gyoza were super light with nice hint of spring onion to them that made them taste clean and fresh. Yakitori chicken skewers were one of my favourites – again, cooked just right, smothered in sticky smoky sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The prawn tempura, though, was adequate rather than great. The batter was too thick and under-fried and they felt like more of a chore than a treat (although I’m afraid I did eat them all – it always feels especially rude to leave something you’ve ordered on an all you can eat menu).Sushi

The Japanese mains were where I really felt let down – especially as most of the mains I fancied weren’t on the all you can eat menu. We only ordered a couple, because we were getting full by then, but even then they were disappointing. The beef yaki soba was a fun-sized portion of noodles with three or four tiny rubbery pieces of beef plonked on top. It was so short on flavour that the one mouthful I had which contained ginger only served to highlight how poor the rest was. The salmon teriyaki was similarly small and underwhelming; normally teriyaki is rich and salty-sweet but this was thin and underseasoned and the fish itself was flabby with slippery skin. It was a shame that these were our last dishes, because it meant that the meal ended on a bit of a low note; I was sorely tempted to order another round of maki but even I’m not quite that greedy.

Instead we decided enough was enough and asked for the bill. Food for two with two glasses of wine each came to £54 including the optional 10% service charge.

When settling up we complimented the waiter again on the food and he seemed genuinely pleased that we’d enjoyed it – which again felt like a change from Thai Nine where the service always had a rather monosyllabic, functional quality to it. When I started writing this review I honestly intended not to take the “old versus the new” angle, but looking back I can see that’s just not possible. And it’s hard not to be delighted that Sushimania is so much better than Thai Nine was. It’s not perfect by any means: I do think they need to sort out their hopelessly convoluted menu, and based on my experience they might want to erase that wording saying “so much more than just sushi” (or improve the non-sushi dishes, which were such a lottery during my visit) but overall there’s an awful lot more to like here than not. Hopefully it won’t be long before people are having to fight to get a table here – at which point I’ll no doubt complain that it was so much better in the good old days.

Sushimania – 7.4
9 Queen’s Walk, RG1 7QF
0333 3320222

http://www.reading.sushimania.co.uk