The best of Reading

A few weeks ago I was having a drink with a Reading sceptic. Everyone knows at least one person like this: you almost certainly do, or maybe you are one (although if you are, reading this must be a bit like the experience I have on the rare occasions when I click on something by Richard Littlejohn). For instance, I used to have one friend – note the use of the past tense – who constantly whinged about Reading and how underwhelming it was. Even Portsmouth, where she used to live, was better, she said.

Once, bored by this recurring theme, I asked her whether she’d ever been to the Progress Theatre, taken in comedy at South Street, done the art Open House weekends in Whiteknights or Caversham, read Alt Reading or been to a gig at the Oakford, or indeed anywhere. The answer to all those questions was no: she had to get a babysitter to go out in town of an evening, she said, and she’d decided in advance that none of those things justified the expense. Whose fault was it, I wonder, that she found Reading so disappointing?

Anyway, I was strolling back along the canal with this particular Reading sceptic and, ever so nicely, she said that I made a good fist of sticking up for Reading and banging the drum for Reading but implied that really, I was just rolling a turd in glitter. She challenged me to name half a dozen places worth eating in Reading and I managed it, after a fashion, but I felt uncomfortably put on the spot. Perhaps I was just a little rusty, my well-prepared speech about how much I love this town gathering dust on the shelf.

The way some conversations do, it weighed on my mind for days. After all, if I can’t mount a convincing defence of the place after nearly three years of reviewing independent restaurants here, things must be pretty bleak mustn’t they? And it’s true that lately I’ve found myself on the train to Oxford a lot, eating brunch at the Handlebar Café, having a spot of lunch at Pierre Victoire or enjoying (well, loving actually) dinner at Branca. Each time I’ve been there I’ve walked past a new, interesting place – tapas restaurants, bakeries, little wine bars. I’ve even contemplated what it would be like to write Edible Oxford, and I felt a little guilty when I realised how fun that sounded.

Things happened the following week which quite restored my faith. On Thursday, I took a friend to the Fisherman’s Cottage for dinner. It was Tapas Thursday, and you could get a bottle of Estrella with a dish of crunchy bravas and rich aioli for a fiver, or failing that try a dinky sandwich filled with plump, smoky chorizo. I watched the pub fill up with people eating and drinking and I felt a tug of pride that I Love Paella, which I’ve been going to since it just dished up a handful of dishes at Workhouse Coffee down the Oxford Road some evenings, had grown to this and found a home where it was appreciated and where it belonged perfectly.

My friend doesn’t eat fish, and initially grizzled about the prospect of going to a place called I Love Paella, but when the chicken paella materialised in front of us, packed with plump beautifully seasoned thighs, his reservations vanished. It was a truly brilliant evening: for some people, cooking is how they show love but for me, with my negligible skills in the kitchen, it’s always been about finding nice places for people to eat. We stopped by the Lyndhurst for a drink after that. “You must try the Scotch egg some time”, I told him because, even with a full stomach, I couldn’t help myself.

The following night I was meeting my dad and I took him to the Turk’s for Georgian food from Caucasian Spice Box. If you think I’m gleeful when I eat a dish I love, you should meet my dad: he may well be where I get that from. And his face was a picture as beautiful dish after beautiful dish arrived at our table – coarse meatballs like faggots strewn with pomegranates, spiced chicken thighs with a sauce made from ground walnut, slices of soda bread stuffed with firm yet elastic cheese, a little dish of jonjoli, green tangy strands which were like a cross between seaweed and capers.

As my dad sighed, declared himself replete and asked them to box up a couple of chicken thighs to take home to my stepmother (just before helping himself to another baklava) I realised how lucky I am to live in a town with such brilliant, diverse, independent offerings.

I’ve lost count of the amount of times I go to another town, find a restaurant and think “if only this was near me I’d eat there all the time”. But the grass is always greener, and the truth is we have loads of those kind of restaurants here. So, all in one place, here’s a list of bite-sized reviews of the best of Reading: ten independent restaurants I’d recommend to anyone – new to this town, or a long-standing resident – who wants to discover the kind of food we have here. If you’re a regular reader then apologies for telling you things you probably already know but, if you’re not, this might be a decent place to start reading the blog.

Anyway, if all else fails, it’s a handy link you can send to any Reading sceptics you might not have converted yet. Hope you enjoy it.

Bakery House

The perfect example of the kind of restaurant I like – unfussy, unpretentious and serving brilliant Lebanese food. Houmous studded with shreds of roasted lamb, tiny pungent sausages, a whole boneless baby chicken crispy from the charcoal grill, puffy pittas still full of air like edible balloons ready to be dipped in sauce. You’ll reek of garlic the next day, but the chances are you won’t care. (82 London Street, RG1 4SJ)

Bhel Puri House

Reading’s only vegetarian restaurant and still a great place to go for lunch when you don’t want sandwiches. Nearly always full of families enjoying Indian street food, the service is lovely and the chilli paneer – cubes of caramelised cheese peppers – is one of the very best things you can eat in Reading. It’s always worth picking something as a punt from the menu, because when it works it can be a revelation, but if all else fails the Punjabi samosas are delicious. In summer you can eat in the courtyard it shares with Workhouse Coffee, one of Reading’s best natural sun traps. (Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF)

Caucasian Spice Box

Some of the nicest, friendliest service in Reading and a kitchen which does what restaurants should do but rarely manage – offer a short menu with no duffers where everything is worth a try. Georgian food is an eye-opener to anyone like me who has had rather jading experiences of food from Eastern Europe, and Caucasian Spice could easily convince you that you have a new favourite cuisine. When I go, I find it almost impossible to veer from the meatballs (probably the best I’ve ever had) and the spiced chicken thighs. But if you’re vegetarian the bean stew is also very tasty indeed, and if you’re taking someone who’s can’t see past pub food they can eat the very credible fish and chips while you give them the mother of all food envy. There’s usually beautiful baklava after you finish your mains (a lovely touch) and although they don’t promote it the pub also serves Georgian wine which goes beautifully with everything. (The Turk’s, 31 London Road, RG1 5BJ)

Dolce Vita

Dolce Vita has a nice space and warm, welcoming service: going there always feels a bit like a cross between eating out and eating at home, especially if you become a semi-regular. Some of the main menu doesn’t do it for me – there are better pizzas elsewhere in Reading, and I’ve occasionally found the pasta a little overcooked – but many of the meat dishes are spectacular (particularly the saltimbocca), the set menu is uniformly packed with interesting stuff and if there are any Greek dishes on there they are always worth snaffling. The perfect example of how a good restaurant is so much more than the sum of its parts. (19-23 Kings Road, RG1 2HG)

I Love Paella

I’ve waxed lyrical about it already but I Love Paella and the Fisherman’s Cottage has turned out to be such a perfect marriage that it’s now almost impossible to imagine one without the other. Tapas Thursday, with a constantly changing range of miniature dishes for – no, this isn’t a misprint – two pounds is the best day to go, but in my experience any day is a good day to eat I Love Paella’s food. The eponymous paella is a thing of wonder, but so are the grilled goat’s cheese with tomato jam, the stunning empanadas and the perfect combination of two gastronomic wet dreams that is ILP’s salt cod churros. (The Fisherman’s Cottage, 3 Canal Way, RG1 3HJ)

Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus

I celebrated my thirtieth birthday in Kyrenia, as it was then called, so long ago that Tony Blair was still Prime Minister (and it’s not just the prospect of being thirty again which makes me look back on those days with nostalgic fondness). It may have a different name now many years later, but the place has aged a lot better than I have. It still has the same beautiful, elegant, simple décor. It still has tables packed close enough together that you feel like you’re sharing an evening with strangers in a good way (and apologies if you’ve ever had a table near one of my birthday celebrations) and the big windows at the front steam up. It still has tremendous service from people who have been working there all this time. And, most important, from salty firm halloumi to chargrilled spirals of octopus, from soft succulent kleftiko to firm, porky sheftalia, it still does magnificent food. (6 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG)

Kobeda Palace

One of the most unprepossessing places I’ve ever been on duty, Kobeda Palace still feels like a well-kept secret despite my attempts to publicise it. When I first went I was seduced by the kobeda – wonderful kofte kebabs cooked on the grill and dished up on huge, hand-stretched naan. But on return visits I’ve found myself completely addicted to the karahi chicken – served on the bone with a sauce resplendent with ginger. Buy as much of that as you can persuade your companions to share – they sell it by the half kilo – and make sure you get a giant naan to use to scoop up every last mouthful (or, if you can’t persuade your companions, do it anyway: I did). Oh, and a jug of mango lassi is five pounds. Five pounds! (409-411 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA)

Papa Gee

Papa Gee, more than anywhere else, was the sleeper hit of Edible Reading. I never thought it was a real restaurant, expected to find it a bit of a joke and lo and behold, I had to quickly pack away my sneer as it became apparent that I was eating easily the best pizza not only in Reading, but for miles around. The pizza is still the reason to go, whether you opt for the fiery fun of the “Sofia Loren”, all chilli and sausage or what’s always been, for me, the ultimate pizza: the “Napoli”, with anchovies, garlic and (in my case) extra capers. But last time I went they had a brilliant new street food section on the menu, and it’s still worth picking up some of their zucchini fritti even if they don’t go with anything else you’re having. Papa Gee’s fate is in question, as Easy Hotel wants to buy the premises they’re in and sling them out after over ten years making the best of that unpromising location. Go while you can, show your support and let’s hope Gaetano either stays put or finds better premises; I daydream that one day he’ll replace TGI Friday in the Oracle. (138 Caversham Road, RG1 8AY)

Pepe Sale

The original and best, the first place I ever reviewed. Ignore the interior (although it’s less ugly than it was four years ago, and they’ve finally put up some decent artwork). Instead, lose yourself in the food – fresh filled pasta, roast suckling pig, a whacking great piece of fillet steak on rocket, chicken wrapped in pancetta, antipasto topped with a single crispy piece of fried pecorino. If they have an off night I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, and if you get served by Marco you can truly watch a master at work at the front of house. (3 Queens Walk, RG1 7QF)

Sapana Home

My restaurant of the year last year and still one of my favourite places to grab a quick solo meal right off the train at Reading. Always doing a buzzing trade with Reading’s Nepalese community, you should make a beeline for the momo (pan fried chicken for me, thank you very much). Personally I can eat all ten of the blighters, although existential sadness starts to set in after momo number six – that makes me sound like Lou Bega, I’m afraid – when I begin to realise that my gorgeous meal is coming to an end. But you could do a lot worse than trying some of the other dishes too. Chicken fry is quite magnificent, the chow mein has grown on me after initially being somewhat indifferent and, best of all, the samosa chaat is absolutely gorgeous – warm chunks of samosa, yoghurt, tamarind, crunchy sev and smiles. (8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG)

The thing is that, as with any list, you could just as easily take exception to what’s been left out as to what’s been included. So I didn’t find room for a trio of excellent Indian restaurants in the shape of House Of Flavours, Royal Tandoori and Bhoj. I couldn’t make space for Reading’s higher end choices, London Street Brasserie, Forbury’s, Cerise. I skipped our fine lunch and coffee scene, so I’ve neglected to mention Shed, Workhouse or Picnic. No Mya Lacarte, Nomad Bakery or The Tasting House, either. It’s terrific, on reflection, that making this list involved deciding who to omit rather than desperately scrabbling around to find ten names which barely fit the bill. This town has an increasingly unfair reputation for chains when really, the best of Reading is all about the independents, doing their bit to make our town individual and idiosyncratic.

More importantly, there’s a bigger gap. Because the other thing that’s left out of this list is the plethora of new restaurants that have opened. Each one has its own context in Reading, its own narrative and it raises its own questions. Does 7 Bone really do the best burgers in Reading, and will they be good enough to withstand the arrival of Honest and Byron in the future? The Lyndhurst posts beautiful pictures of its dishes, but can it really become Reading’s first destination pub for food? Is Gooi Nara’s Korean barbecue worth the trek up Whitley Street and will Soju be better when it opens downstairs in Atlantis Village? Is Bierhaus an inspired idea, or a gimmick in search of some decent food? Does the Crown On The Bridge’s refurb offer a reason to cross the river? Are Firezza’s pizzas a serious rival to Papa Gee’s? For that matter, are the Fox And Hounds’? What about the Thirsty Bear? So many questions, no answers. If I was sitting at home or in the office reading this, I’d want to know. Not just that: I’ve written it, and I still want to know. It feels like a book with the next chapter missing.

And that, as you’ve probably figured out by now, can only mean one thing.

It’s time to come back.

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Kobeda Palace

Should you decide to go to Kobeda Palace my first piece of advice would be this: don’t use Google Maps to get there. Rather than suggesting the right route, down the Oxford Road and just past Workhouse Coffee, it inexplicably directs you to Wilmslow in Manchester, a drive of over three hours (and very few restaurants justify that kind of round trip). I later discovered why: looking at the front of the laminated menu while waiting to pay the bill, I discovered that Reading’s is the second branch in a tiny chain of two – although, just to make it more difficult, the Wilmslow one is actually called Kobeda Place. Confused? Me too.

Anyway I’ve been going to this Afghan grill house for ages and I’ve always wanted to review it, but one thing stopped me – for a long time, it had a one star health and safety rating. And then, just before Christmas, I went to Kobeda Palace to grab a quick pre-Nag’s Head bite to eat with some friends and there it was on the door, glowing with an unearthly light: a new Scores On The Doors sticker with a four-star rating awarded a few weeks previously. Could I hear angels singing, or did I just imagine that part? Either way it felt like my first present of the festive season, and I made a mental note to go back early in 2016.

I also made a mental note to make sure I took one of my friends who is quite possibly the biggest carnivore I know – put it this way, it’s no coincidence that Kobeda Palace has opened where Gilberts Meat Market, with its mildly terrifying statue, used to be. You smell the charcoal even as you approach the building, and it doesn’t take long to realise that this is not somewhere to go with the vegetarian in your life; the menu does say “VEGETABLE DISHES AVAILABLE – Please ask for details”, but it’s hard to imagine what they would be. So a date went in the diary, and three of us turned up there on a Friday night (before going on to the Nag’s Head funnily enough. Predictable I know).

It’s quite an odd room to eat in. It’s very plain and functional, with the grill and the counter facing you as you go in. The rest of the room is made up of tables and high-backed brown banquettes which seem to have been placed almost at random. The overall effect is a little incongruous – it should divide the room into little booths but instead it just looks strange (I remember when it was just tables and stark, rigid chairs, and this manages to be an upgrade without necessarily being an improvement). That said, it was packed: all around me were families with nicely-behaved kids and little clusters of gesticulating friends. The waitress kept wandering past bearing plates and making me crane and scan the menu, wondering what they had ordered. The table next to us had a couple of gentlemen at it, each eating a whole chargrilled chicken, tearing the skin and flesh off the bone with their hands and dipping it in a bowl of houmous; just watching them made me hungry and envious.

Kobeda Palace really isn’t a starters, mains and desserts place: it’s all about grilled meat in a range of combinations and permutations, served with naan or rice (which makes me wonder, again, what those vegetable dishes could possibly be). We tried as many of them between us as we could, which turned out to be quite a lot of the menu. Lamb chops, which turned up that hyper-real shade of brick red which almost looks Photoshopped, were judged the pick of the bunch, tender if not pink, with a level of heat closer to lip-tingling than tongue-scorching. The lamb tikka, a similarly freakish colour, were almost as good, each cube scored almost in half so they could check it was done.

KobedaMeat1

Chicken tikka I struggled to like quite so much – you got more of the smoke and char than of any flavour beneath, and the texture of a couple of pieces was not quite right. And then there was the eponymous kobeda itself, a long cylinder of lamb kofte. It was splendid; I’ve had it before and found it a bit offputtingly soft, perhaps too reliant on rusk, but this was truly magnificent, if impossible to describe well without flirting with innuendo. Also wonderful were the huge, chargrilled halves of onion – soft, sweet and blackened. All of this came on the naan, the other big draw here. Stretched and made on the premises, these were almost edible plates, long and rectangular, just asking to be torn up, wrapped around hunks of meat and crammed into greedy mouths.

KobedaMeat2

I know, rationally, that there were also a couple of plates of some sort of salad: lettuce, some cucumber, a couple of pitted olives, various other vegetation. I also know that there were some sauces – something like a raita, a punchy hot red sauce and a herby green sauce. But truth be told they didn’t really feel like the kind of thing to hold my attention for very long, under the circumstances.

The best dish of the evening, though, was something we picked out of curiosity. Kobeda Palace also does a karahi chicken and a karahi lamb, so we ordered the former and it was a revelation. The sauce was thick and complex with no slick of oil, full of chilli and nigella, curry leaves and coriander, fine batons of ginger strewn on top (“it tastes like a really good Vesta curry” said one of my companions – if that had really been true the Eighties could have been so much more enjoyable), and scooping it up with that perfect naan was an unmitigated delight. But the chicken was gorgeous – on the bone but well-jointed and easily separated from it, tender from slow-cooking in a way that grilled meat could never be.

KobedaKarahi

There was no alcohol licence, so we drank mango lassi by the jug, which is especially easy to do when a jug is only five pounds (in fact, even if they had been licenced I might have stuck to the lassi). The second jug never quite arrived, so instead once we’d finished our meals the waitress came over apologetically with three glasses, and I’m not sure she charged us for all of them. That was the service in general – friendly but a bit harried. In other restaurants I might have taken against this but somewhere like Kobeda Palace which is deliberately quite no frills I found it impossible to resent. Oh, and the mango lassi was good – especially the second batch which was ice cold, refreshing and cleansing without being cloying. Dinner for three (and we ate far more food than is strictly sensible) came to pretty much forty pounds on the nail.

How to sum up a place like Kobeda Palace? Well, let’s do the downside first. It’s a little bit scruffy, just the right side of chaotic and in an area where many people would have to go out of their way to visit. Some people will be put off by the lack of an alcohol licence, others will find it far too meat-centric. It’s also a bit nippy if you get a table by the window, as I did, the back room on the way to the loos is strangely threadbare and the toilets are best described as a work in progress. So yes, I can honestly say that if you’re the kind of person who’s bothered by that kind of thing, Kobeda Palace is not for you. But all the people I ate amongst that Friday night had other priorities – food and company, the things restaurants should really be about. I’m with them, and I found it all rather marvellous; I fully expect to pay it another visit soon (for a big bowl of karahi chicken – to myself, this time). But I used to eat there when it had a one star hygiene rating, so what do I know?

Kobeda Palace – 7.4
409-411 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA
0118 3271400

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