Vel

I was on holiday in Bologna, buying a gigantic wedge of Parmesan in a food market of all things, when I got a message telling me that Matt Farrall had died. For those of you who didn’t know him, Matt was a raconteur, rambler, writer for the Whitley Pump and possibly the proudest Reading resident you could hope to meet.

He was one of the very first people ever to persuade me to give up my anonymity. He interviewed me for the Pump last year – we went to the Turk’s Head (back when it was good), ate food by Georgian Feast and just chatted and chatted. I kept waiting for the interview to start, and it never did – Matt seemed far more interested in speculating on the relationship status of the couple at the table next to us. Were they just splitting up? Just getting together? Not even a couple at all? It occupied us for much of the evening, as did the meatballs, the khachapuri and Matt’s inexhaustible supply of anecdotes, none of them less than uproarious.

But of course, Matt’s sly genius was that he still managed to get me to talk, the way curious people and natural writers do, and I told him many things I wasn’t expecting to: about my past, my family, all manner of information. He was smart like that. I still have the recording of that interview, and it’s more a document of a lovely evening than an interview at all; we were nearly a podcast waiting to happen.

Our paths crossed several times after that. We were both at the Hop Leaf celebrating the landlord and landlady’s tenth anniversary; to his credit, he didn’t reveal my secret identity to his pub buddies that night, at least not in front of me. We were at the same table for the first ever Saperavi Party at the Island, where he charmed the socks off my mother while eating more of the Georgian food he had come to adore. Matt was nothing if not charming: to know him was to love him, and even if you never met him you got that feeling from his writing. Good writers do that. You feel like you know them; you wish you could beetle off to the pub with them.

I went to his funeral, on a gorgeous sunny May afternoon, and the crematorium was so packed that tons of us were just standing outside, taking in the speeches, listening to the impeccable selection of music and, in my case, fanning myself with the programme. It was almost like being at a rock concert, and – not for the first time since I got the news – I found myself wishing Matt had known just how much he was missed. Matt had packed many different lives into just shy of fifty years, and I wonder if anybody knew the whole person or whether we all just got one fascinating facet. It was definitely hard to imagine a more eclectic crowd – colleagues, family, friends from way back. Glen, who runs Blue Collar. Adam from the Whitley Pump. Claire from Explore Reading. Afterwards we all went to the Back Of Beyond and drank until chucking out time, old friends and new. I like to think Matt would have approved.

I planned to put together a tribute to Matt but, for reasons I won’t go into here, it never quite happened. Nevertheless I wanted to do something to mark his passing, and I couldn’t think of a better way than to visit the venue of one of his last ever reviews for the Whitley Pump, Vel, a South Indian restaurant in his beloved Katesgrove. I took my mum, who remembered him fondly, although I did have to point out to her in advance that no, a dosa wasn’t basically a posh Findus Crispy Pancake.

Vel is described on its website as a “South Indian Kitchen & Bar” and I think what that means is that it’s made up of two rooms, with a view of the kitchen from one and the bar from the other. It’s actually quite a handsome, neutral, uncluttered restaurant – bare wood floors, tasteful bare walls, attractive muted wood panelling, nice tables and sturdy chairs. The bar is a fetching tiled affair and the kitchen – open and visible through the glass – might make for an interesting spectacle if you had a view of it (I saw a couple of the chefs putting long skewers on the grill at one stage, but that was about all I managed to catch). We took a table in the first room with the bar, close to the window so I could make the most of the natural light.

“It makes such a difference” I told my mum, herself no photographic slouch. “My food photos in winter are no good to man nor beast.”

“It’s not a bad table” my mum responded. “Good view of the wheelie bins.” I sometimes forget that my mum is more leafy Bath Road than downtown Katesgrove.

The place was almost completely empty when we arrived, but we had plenty of time to review the menu before we were approached by the waitress. They’ve made some effort to walk diners through it by breaking it up into sections – interestingly named ones, actually, from “Get Tempted” (starters) to “Get Fired” (starters from the grill or tandoor) and onwards to “Keep Calm Curry On” (which rather screams “get help”) and “Rice Rice Baby” (which is verging on “delete your account” territory).

That’s all well and good, but the next level of detail about what the dishes actually are was missing in action. For instance, the section covering dosa (or “thosai” on this menu) – entitled “Get Girdled” for reasons which escape me – had a plethora of bases and toppings or special dosa without really explaining what they all meant. Never mind, I thought. We’ll ask the waitress, that’s the whole point. What could go wrong?

“What’s the difference between a plain dosa and a ‘paper roast’?”

“One paper roast. What else would you like?”

“Err, no, we’d like to know a bit more about the paper roast.”

This went on: every time I asked about a dish I had to then explain, sometimes in excruciating detail, that I wasn’t ordering the dish but simply asking for more information. I don’t know whether it was a cultural thing, or a language barrier, or Vel having a bad day but whichever way it was I didn’t like it. It made me feel difficult, patronising or ignorant and none of those are how you want your customer to feel. I was tempted to get my mother involved, but the benefits of her cut glass diction would have been easily offset by the gathering storm of waspishness, so I thought better of it.

We got there in the end, drank our Kingfishers and, once the starters arrived things were positive. Gobi 65 is one of my go-to starters and Vel’s version was close to spot on. The bright red, almost scarlet colour was arresting and the coating was nicely spiced. The cauliflower underneath was lovely and firm and the florets were all a sensible size. But six pounds fifty felt ever so slightly on the steep side for a plate of veg and if you’re going to charge that they have to be crisp and absolutely piping hot and these weren’t quite that.

The mutton pepper fry was delicious – tender pieces of mutton in a lovely peppery sauce with just the right level of heat. But again, this was eight pounds and there wasn’t a lot of it and that did give me cause for thought. The crockery – and I don’t often talk about this in restaurant reviews – was attractive stuff with just a hint of sparkle in the glaze, but ultimately when they only put the mutton on half of a small plate and pad out the rest with iceberg lettuce I did find myself assessing the balance between style and substance.

I’ve always found dosa a bit confusing, and I’m never sure when they’re meant to make an appearance in a meal. Are they a starter? A main course? A light lunch? You might know better than me: we wanted to try one but neither of us fancied having it as the feature attraction, so we ordered one in between our starters and mains to give it a try. It looked gorgeous – a giant burnished cylinder of wafer thin pancake wrapped round some potato masala. It came with a little bowl of sambar (a sort of curried lentil stew, for the uninitiated) and three chutneys, one with coriander, one with tomato and nigella seeds and what I think was a coconut chutney.

Never having excelled at dosa I asked our waitress for some advice on how to eat it. She came out with some words and gestures and lots of smiles, but I was left none the wiser. So my mother and I just had at it, tearing off pieces and dipping as best we could. It was lovely, in truth – the masala was warming with green chilli and spring onion studded through it, the potato just the right side of firm. I loved all the chutneys, especially the tomato one, and the dosa itself was paper thin and beautifully buttery. Again, though, the pricing seemed steep – eight pounds was an awful lot more than I ever remembered paying at Chennai Dosa.

This was the point when things started to go wrong for Vel – not in terms of the food, but because of everything else. By now, two other tables were occupied and it seemed the kitchen couldn’t cope with having three sets of customers at the same time. So we waited and waited, saw food arriving at other tables, and waited some more. Our waitress brought poppadoms to our table by way of apology – a lovely thought but, really, yet more food was the last thing we needed.

It also gave us time to order more drinks, which also didn’t go smoothly.

“I’d like a half of Kingfisher please, and a prosecco.”

“A Kingfisher and a second?”

“No, a prosecco.”

A blank look. I was forced to resort to pointing at the menu and trying to speak as clearly as I could, which again was an uncomfortable experience. She wandered off and eventually returned with my half and an individual bottle of prosecco.

“I didn’t realise you wanted presco” she said. I decided to leave it there.

All told it was easily half an hour until our main course arrived, and few main courses are worth that wait. My mother had ordered the Chettinadu fish curry, having been talked out of the milder Kerala fish curry by the waitress. That almost redeemed the “presco incident”, because the sauce it came in was splendid – all the heat coming from black pepper rather than spice, but if anything even more interesting for that. The sauce, again, had lots of nigella seeds speckled in it and I also caught a note of roasted onion. The fish, which was apparently kingfish, was a cutlet with the bone in the middle and I liked that too: it broke into firm meaty flakes like a swordfish rather than being the soft mushy white fish you sometimes get in Indian curries. My mother started out a little underwhelmed by the dish but by the end I think she too was won over, if a tad full.

My chicken biryani was competent but not exciting. The pieces of chicken were well cooked and not dried out, and the rice had something about it but there were still a few bland clumps in there. There were plenty of cloves and cardamom and cinnamon, but they made the last bits of the biryani surprisingly difficult to eat as you were constantly sifting it for inedible bark and pods.

“It’s okay, but nowhere near as good as Royal Tandoori’s” said my mother. My mother is prone to compare all dishes with the best version she’s ever had, but I had to admit that she was right. The Royal Tandoori version has cashew nuts and just the right amount of mint and it did rather show this up. Even if it hadn’t, the following night I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the lamb biryani at Clay’s Hyderabadi and that – the rice fragrant with saffron and rosewater – blew this biryani squarely out of the water.

We didn’t investigate the dessert options (just as well, because looking at their menu I’m not sure there are any) so instead we settled up and moved on. Vel has been open for nearly four months, and I find it a bit dubious that it still only takes cash: for some that alone would be a deal breaker. Our meal came to sixty-two pounds, not including service. We could have spent less by ditching the dosa but, any way you cut it, this wasn’t a cheap meal for this kind of food in this kind of location. I’ve probably said enough about service already, but it would be unfair not to add that our waitress was lovely and friendly throughout, just a little wayward.

Is Vel worth a visit? You’ve probably formed your own view from reading this, and that will depend on how close you live to it, how important value for money is to you and whether you fancy paying cash and navigating some rather challenging service. Katesgrove and Whitley deserve good restaurants as much as anywhere else in Reading but, with the exception of Gooi Nara and the excellent Dhaulagiri Kitchen, I’m not sure there’s much to stop local residents making the trip into the town centre instead, despite all Vel’s interesting dishes (and, let’s not forget, attractive crockery).

Matt Farrall would tell you to give it another go if he was still with us, I’m sure, but that was Matt all over: a true local champion, a permanent optimist and a huge fan of the underdog. We saw eye to eye about a lot of things, but I never quite got his love of the likes of Sweeney Todd and Pau Brasil. The review over, my mother and I traipsed down Whitley Street behind a triptych of underdressed young ladies, their skin tone the kind of burnt orange that probably features on the Dulux colour chart as “Double Plus TOWIE”. I took her to the Hop Leaf for a pint and a debrief.

“It’s a nice pub, isn’t it?” said my mother, who – unsurprisingly – hadn’t been to the Hop Leaf before.

“Yes, I think so. It was one of Matt’s favourites.” I said.

My choice of venue had been deliberate. It’s what he would have wanted.

Vel – 7.0
73-75 Whitley Street, RG2 0EG
0118 9758551

https://eat-vel.co.uk/

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Gooi Nara

I first went to Gooi Nara in late 2016; I was on what I suppose you could loosely have classed as a date, with somebody I suppose you could loosely have classed as a vegan. I sat there trying to sound enthusiastic about tofu (not a skill I’ve ever mastered, truth be told) and then I ate my disappointing bibimbap while all around me, the other diners were wolfing down Korean barbecue, grilling a plethora of delectable looking meats on the hot plate in the middle of their tables. They all seemed to be really enjoying themselves, and as the weeks passed I came to think of that evening more as a metaphor than as an actual meal.

Naturally I wanted to take a more suitable dining companion when I went back on duty and, on reflection, there was only one suitable candidate – my friend Claire. Not only had she actually been to Korea but, in her review of Korean restaurant Soju for her website Explore Reading, she’d been responsible for teaching me pretty much everything I knew about Korean barbecue (admittedly not much).

Much has happened since Claire last accompanied me on a restaurant review, most significantly that Explore Reading had begun publishing restaurant reviews. A lot of people have asked me if I mind that, and of course I always say I don’t mind in the slightest, Reading benefits from a variety of restaurant reviews and that it’s not right for one site to have a monopoly. That said, it’s a running joke between Claire and I that she’s going to take me down; first she took on Alt Reading, which finally announced that it was quitting – for the time being, anyway – this week, and now she’s coming after me.

I’m mainly joking, of course. Mainly. In the run-up to our trip to Gooi Nara I make some gags about how it will be like the infamous dinner at Granita where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown agreed when the former would stand down in favour of the latter. After doing the joke I realise I’m not entirely comfortable being cast as everybody’s favourite grinning war criminal.

“I’ve always had a soft spot for Gordon Brown,” says Claire, “but then I like an underdog.” It made sense, on reflection: we each spend a lot of time championing Reading, so perhaps we both do. In any case, I strolled up the hill to the restaurant on a quiet Monday night with no plans to announce my retirement.

I’m always struck by how often I start a description of a restaurant by saying “it’s a long thin room”, like it’s the equivalent of “it was a dark and stormy night”. Well, brace yourself, but Gooi Nara is indeed a long thin room, but a surprisingly attractive one. One side was covered in slate-effect tiles, with a couple of wood stores in the wall that would no doubt come in completely useless in fuelling the fake fire showing on the wall-mounted widescreen television. The other side was a vibrant burnt orange, with oblong shelving units populated, in a slightly OCD manner, with little objets. There were dark wooden beams spanning the ceiling, such a pleasant change from the ten-a-penny industrial pipes and bare bulbs which always give a place a slightly unfinished look. I really liked the place.

“It’s funny, I wouldn’t necessarily say this is authentic Korean, but it has that feel about it” said Claire. “It’s sort of homely, but in a good way – even down to the windows.”

The first surprise came when I looked at the menu. Gooi Nara has a sister restaurant in Guildford called Sushi Nara, and as a result I was thrown to see that aside from a Korean menu there was also a whole menu of Japanese dishes – sushi, sashimi and the like. It was tempting to order some, because Reading still needs an excellent Japanese restaurant and Taberu, on the Oxford Road, is still doing delivery only at the time of writing. On reflection, though, I decided to remain steadfast: I had turned up to eat Korean barbecue, and eat Korean barbecue I bloody well would.

Not that you have to do that, of course: the Korean menu alone was massive. There were plenty of starters, although some, like takoyaki (octopus balls) and pumpkin korroke felt like they were on the run from the Japanese section of the menu. There were soup dishes and rice dishes, noodle dishes and hot pots and – as I remembered from my previous trip – plenty of tofu and bibimbap. But the trick with barbecue, Claire told me, was to order your meats of choice, cook them on the hot plate in front of you and dip them in vinegar and sesame oil before placing them on a lettuce leaf, adding kimchee and beansprouts and then wrapping the whole thing up and popping it in your mouth. I’m not the biggest fan of finger food, but put that way it’s hard to imagine a more enjoyable way to eat.

Before that though, we tried one of the starters I had my eye on – the seafood pancake. It turned up cut into squares, on a paper doily on a wicker serving dish, a bit too fiddly and faffy (“We Want Plates need to be told about this” said Claire, waspishly). It was a little fiddly too to pick up with chopsticks and dab into the dish of dipping sauce which, as so often, was too small to be useful. That all said, it really was lovely stuff. Claire told me these were made with wheat flour, but if anything the texture was so starchy that it reminded me of a potato cake – more like a latke than a pancake. Despite that, it wasn’t heavy at all, and the spring onion throughout gave it texture and freshness. I got squid in the pancake, and I may have missed the shrimp – we all make mistakes – but the menu also advertised octopus and I’m pretty sure I’d have noticed that. Still, the pancake was seven pounds fifty, so if it seemed too good to be true, perhaps that’s because it was.

The support act out of the way, it was time for the feature attraction. The waiter came and switched on the hot plate at our table, the meat arrived and, not for the first time, I wondered how anybody ever managed to convince themselves that they enjoyed eating tofu. We’d decided to try all three of the main food groups – pig, cow and chicken, don’t you know – and the first to go on the barbecue was the spicy sam gyup sal, long thin slices of pork belly, deep-red with marinade, a veritable bar code of meat and fat. On the hot plate, the smell was terrific and the transformation beautiful, and Claire and I took it in turns to poke and turn with the tongs until it was impossible to hold back any more (I spent most of that time banging on about the Maillard reaction, and Claire spent most of it nodding and humouring me).

It tasted even better than it looked or smelled, and I loved the ritual of coating it in vinegar and sesame before tenderly resting it in the centre of a lettuce leaf, topping it with brick red kimchee and devouring the whole lot. The kimchee added sourness and crunch without being quite as fiery as some kimchee can be. The spice on the pork, again, built to a crescendo rather than went off like an explosion, and the whole thing was the kind of dish that you can’t help but grin while eating.

It would be a lazy piece of observational comedy to say that you’re basically paying money to cook your own food, but that would be to underrate the service; every time a hot plate got too crusted with meat and residue to use, the waiter would come along, deftly hook it out with a nifty device and pop in a new one. He also gave us advice on what to grill in which order, and regularly kept us topped up with bottles of Asahi (Claire offered to give me a crash course in Soju, but then said it was basically vodka, at which point I found myself really fancying a cold beer).

“Do you know how they clean these?” said Claire, probably well aware that my answer, inevitably, would be no.

“No.”

“They use a lemon. You just scrub the hot plate with a lemon and it all comes off.”

I found myself thinking of those colour supplement adverts that tell you vinegar has magical powers and can clean pretty much everything around the house.

“So, the pork is better than Soju, I think” said Claire, “although here they bring it already cut into strips and at Soju they sort of bring it in a big slab and you cut it up yourself with scissors.”

It would be an even more lazy piece of observational comedy to say you were expected to chop your food as well, so I decided not to mention it. In any case, more meat was on the way. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the ju-mul luk (the beef) when it arrived, because it was in thick cubes and I had been expecting thinner slices. But any doubts I had were caramelised into oblivion as the beef sizzled on the grill, the coating of garlic and sesame searing and producing the most glorious aroma. It was far more tender than its thickness might suggest, with a splendid whiff of garlic which lingered long in the memory (and possibly even longer on my breath).

Last of all, we went for the chicken bulgogi gooi, thighs marinated in soy and sesame. These were probably the most disappointing thing we had – it had been sliced too thinly and broke up into very small pieces on the barbecue. It also had less marinade, so it was the only thing to keep sticking to the hot plate and burning. Still pretty good, but just a bronze medallist in this setting.

“It’s a shame really, because bulgogi is the thing in Korean restaurants” said Claire.

“And it’s the one thing they could have brought out whole” I said. “Just imagine laying a marinated flattened thigh out on that hot plate.”

“The chicken is definitely better at Soju, but the rest is probably better here. And that pork is incredible.”

Claire was right about that. I was also struck by just how good value everything was. Each plate of barbecued meat was a hefty, generous portion and the chicken and pork only cost seven pounds fifty. Even the beef was still less than a tenner. We’d ordered three different plates, but two people could easily get by sharing two – well, two people where one of them wasn’t as greedy as me, anyway.

“You can tell this is good”, I said, “because I’m already trying to work out what I’ll have when I come back.” In my mind, I was already mentally choosing between the feather blade beef and the prawns with lemon and pepper and – predictably – deciding it really wouldn’t be a crime to order both. And possibly a bibimbap. But there were limits even to my hunger, so we stopped there. All that food and six bottles of Asahi came to sixty-eight pounds, including a pre-added ten per cent service charge which I had no problem at all paying.

On the walk down the hill to the Hop Leaf for a post-meal pint and debrief, I asked Claire how she would describe the clientele at Gooi Nara.

“Oh, it was mixed. The table behind us were clearly Chinese – I heard them talking – but the big table nearest the loos were definitely Korean. And this restaurant is near the university, so I expect they get a lot of university students.”

Claire had effortlessly clocked all the other diners, their nationalities and the likely market for Gooi Nara’s food, all while pretending to listen to me talk about the Maillard reaction. She’d had her back to the lot of them. It was like something out of The Bourne Identity, and not for the first time I found myself thinking that if she starts reviewing restaurants regularly it might be the end of my blog. It was a suspicion compounded when we compared notes in the pub about what ratings we’d give Gooi Nara: they were a cigarette paper apart.

I’ve thought a lot about the right word for my visit to Gooi Nara since the meal, and it boils down to a really simple one: it was fun. Fun is an underrated quality in eating out, I think. So much about restaurants is either po-faced or functional at the moment, and when it’s not it’s the type of enforced jollity and zany fun that always reminds me of mandatory corporate away days. But Gooi Nara was properly enjoyable from beginning to end, with an element of playfulness that set it apart from the formula of starters, mains and dessert. I can imagine going back with a big group of people and mucking in, although the one thing I would say is that the barbecue takes up a lot of space on the table, so things could get decidedly cramped in a bigger group. But that aside, Gooi Nara comes highly recommended and I’m really looking forward to going back. Having fun, eating great food and making new friends: I wouldn’t be at all disappointed if this visit, too, becomes as much a metaphor as a meal.

Gooi Nara – 7.9
39 Whitley Street, RG2 0EG
0118 9757889

https://www.facebook.com/GooiNara/