Restaurant review: Shree Krishna Vada Pav

When it comes to food and drink, Reading is an especially interesting place. You may find this hard to believe at times, but it’s true.

I don’t mean all the stuff that’s obvious to you, especially if you’re a regular reader of this blog. I don’t mean our coffee culture, or our street food scene that’s the envy of towns for miles around. I don’t mean our two local breweries with taprooms, or excellent pubs like the Nag’s and the Castle Tap selling fantastic craft beer and cider. I don’t mean the jewels in our restaurant crown – places like Clay’s, the Lyndhurst, Kungfu Kitchen or Vegivores. I’m not even talking about our network of local producers and the independent shops, like Geo Café and the Grumpy Goat, which sell their stuff. You know all that already, although I suspect a lot of people who live here still don’t. 

No, I mean interesting in terms of the world outside our food-loving, indie-supporting echo chamber. Because a lot of businesses have clocked that Reading – with its university, its prosperous populace and its tech employers, just the right distance from London – is the perfect place for them to open another branch of their restaurant chain and make pots of cash. They have us down, mistakenly I like to think, as something of an Everytown, the perfect testbed for their particular flavour of the hospitality experience.

In fact, two very different types of businesses have Reading in their sights. The first, tapping into that affluent, well-educated demographic, are smaller, more targeted chains. They’ve often seen Reading as their first attempts to expand west (Honest, Pho) or east (The Coconut Tree), or just picked it as one of the first stops on a journey to nationwide ubiquity (Itsu). And this still continues, albeit to a lesser extent: we’re getting a Leon and a Wasabi this year, don’t forget.

But the second type is more interested in Reading as Everytown, and often we are the lucky Petri dish they squirt their pipette into before deciding whether to open branches elsewhere. And this is, I’m afraid, often an American thing. It’s no coincidence that Reading got one of the first Five Guys, got a Chick-Fil-A, albeit briefly, got a Taco Bell and a Wingstop and a Wendy’s and has a Popeyes on the way. Such is life: newly added to the Tube map, but somehow equidistant between London and the good ol’ United States. 

These big American chains with plenty of money are aided and abetted in their mission to slightly worsen Reading by our local media – which posted dozens of stories about Wendy’s, mainly because they were too dumb to think critically for even a split second about whether Reading getting the first Wendy’s in the U.K. was actually a Good Thing. But it also points to just how much is going on in Reading, and how interesting the battle will be between all these factions fighting it out for your money. No wonder Jonathan Nunn, the editor of Vittles, called our town a “fascinating anomaly”.

“Why is this the subject of your interminable preamble this week?”, I hear you say. I thought you’d never ask. The reason I talk about all of this is that the subject of this week’s review is that rare thing, a chain choosing to plonk a branch near the centre of town that people can get genuinely excited about. Because Shree Krishna Vada Pav, a small chain selling vegetarian Maharashtrian street food which started out in Hounslow and only has three branches outside the M25, comes here with an excellent reputation.

Eater London, which tirelessly covers everywhere worth eating outside Zone 1, has enthused about SKVP on numerous occasions. They classed it as one of London’s best Indian restaurants, and one of West London’s best value restaurants. And they said it served one of London’s finest sandwiches, on a list rubbing shoulders with greats like Beigel Bake’s salt beef bagel and Quo Vadis’ legendary smoked eel sandwich. Eater London aptly summed up what SKVP do as “carb-on-carb masterpieces”, and commented elsewhere that their dishes (carbs stuffed into a soft bap) had a “curious affinity with snack culture from the north of England and Scotland”. 

So you might not have heard of Shree Krishna Vada Pav, or you might not have known they were coming to Reading, but one way or the other this is a strangely big deal, despite the grand total of zero coverage in Berkshire Live or the Reading Chronicle. But who needs them anyway when you’ve got me, so this week I headed there on a Monday evening with Zoë to try as much of the menu as I could.

It’s at the edge of town, opposite the Back Of Beyond, and once you get past its Day-Glo orange exterior it’s fundamentally a very long thin room with a view of the kitchen and a corridor heading to the back – and presumably the loos – which seems to go on forever. (“I know” said Zoë. “I used to come here when it was Julia’s Meadow and I thought it was like the fucking TARDIS”). A panel down one wall gave a potted history of the chain which opened its first branch in 2010, although the founders go further back than that, having met at college in Mumbai at the turn of the century. I found all that oddly sweet, which is no doubt the desired effect.

Apart from that the interior was best described as functional – basic furniture, a mixture of tables for two and four and cutlery on the table. It looked very much like a fast food restaurant, albeit one with table service. The music was just the right side of overpowering, although I found I liked that.

“I don’t know how unbiased I can be” said Zoë as we took our seats. “Have we ever had a meal for the blog where I’ve been this fucking starving?”

She had a point. We got there around eight o’clock, having not eaten since a light lunch, and irrespective of how tempting the menu might be there was very much a strong urge to order nearly everything. That said, looking at the menu didn’t make that any easier. It was two things: cheap and huge, not necessarily in that order. It was split into sections, each of which contained an embarrassment of riches: a variety of pav and other bap-based dishes, some Indo-Chinese dishes, some chaat, some sandwiches and wraps, a section of “bites to enjoy” and some signature dishes marked as “SKVP recommends”. And the carb on carb struggle is real: if you want an onion bhajiya sandwich, this is the place for you.

It’s possibly an indicator of how you should eat here that the handful of curries are squirreled away in the furthest corner of the menu, and ordering any of them never occurred to me. But also the pricing positively implores you to order lots of things and share them – the most expensive dishes are around six pounds but most are less than that. I took this as encouragement to take an approach much like the numbers game from Countdown: a couple from the top and the rest from anywhere else. We ordered – please don’t judge – eight dishes in total and our bill came to just under thirty-two pounds. That didn’t include any drinks, because SKVP didn’t have any mango lassi and we didn’t especially fancy anything else: there is, unsurprisingly, no alcohol license.

I do have to say that although the set-up says fast food, ours was far from that. We ordered at ten past eight, and it wasn’t until half an hour later that food started coming to our table. That’s not a problem of itself, but it’s worth mentioning because the restaurant ostensibly closes at nine. And weirder still, the customers kept coming: we were by no means the last table seated or the last people to get their food. I’m pretty sure that SKVP has been busy from the day it opened, and on this showing that’s not going to change any time soon. I should also mention at this point that the staff were quite brilliant, although clearly under the cosh. 

We ordered a lot of food – if you go, you don’t need to order anywhere near as much as we did – and it all came to the table over the space of five minutes. Again, I’m not complaining but it was an odd approach to bring nothing for half an hour and then literally every single thing. I would have preferred a steady stream of dishes, but that might just be me. But don’t be fooled into thinking that low prices mean small portions: you’ll get very full very fast if you make the same mistake we did.

Your challenge, if you go, will be narrowing it down. We had to try the vada pav – it’s in the name, after all – and although I liked it I’m not sure I loved it or preferred it to Bhel Puri House’s version. It really is a carb overload: fried potato served in a cheap white floury bap with a variety of chutneys. I think you kind of have to have it, but I don’t know if I’d have it again – the chutneys were excellent, sharpening and and elevating it, but the potato was a little too much stodge and not enough crunch. Zoë had the version with cheese (plastic hamburger cheese, I think) and she absolutely loved it. That might be the Irish in her.

“Can you believe this only costs two pounds?” I said.

“It’s a bit of old veg though, innit?” came the response, between mouthfuls. Did I mention that we were both ravenous?

More successful (and, frankly, slightly insane) was the “aloo bomb”. I’d wanted the paneer bomb – the sandwich, incidentally, lauded by Eater London as one of the capital’s peerless butties – but it was off the menu that night so they subbed it for the aloo bomb. It’s hard to do justice to this but essentially it’s a spiced potato sandwich that has been battered and fried and it’s every bit as nuts as that description makes it sound: Glaswegians, it turns out, aren’t the only people who will batter anything. 

A portion comes in two triangles so you only need one between two but it’s well worth ordering, if only to tick it off. It struck me as a vegetarian cousin of Gurt Wings’ infamous chicken burger in a glazed donut with candied bacon on top: you’d want to try it once to say you’ve had it, but you mightn’t order it again for at least twelve months.  Who am I kidding? When I go back that paneer bomb has my name on it.

Possibly the best dish was that reliable staple, the chilli paneer. Reading has always been spoilt for this by Bhel Puri House, where the tricky decision is whether to have chilli paneer, paneer Manchurian or – as I have on occasion, again, please don’t judge – both of them. SKVP’s version is beautifully pitched between the two – a little hot, sweet and savoury all at once, staying on that highwire without putting a foot wrong. The paneer was just caramelised enough without being crispy or burnt and this was one dish where, even though we were full to bursting, we made it a personal mission to ensure that not a forkful remained.

“You could come here and have a portion of that to yourself and a vada pav and that would be you sorted” said Zoë. “You could come here for lunch when you’re working from home, you lucky bastard.”

I’d be lying if I pretended the idea hadn’t crossed my mind, although they’ve have to take less than half an hour to bring it.

If the other dishes were less successful, it was still just the difference between rather good and very good. I quite liked the onion bhajiya, I really liked the red onion studded throughout them and I adored the little fried green chillies they were festooned with. But although greaseless they were a tad dried out for my liking: what they really needed was a chutney of some kind. And fried momo were more doughy than their Nepalese cousins, and probably didn’t bring enough to the table. But once you’ve had a spiced potato masala in a deep fried sandwich and a samosa, a third carby vehicle for it is probably overkill by anyone’s standards.

The samosas, by the way, were excellent. My benchmark for these is Cake & Cream up on the Wokingham Road (where they’ve recently gone up in price to a still-ludicrous seventy pence). But I reckon SKVP’s match them nicely, with a filling flecked with chilli that starts out gently hot before going on to clear out every tube you have from the neck up. You can have them on your own – you get four for a ridiculous three pounds fifty – but we had them bundled with a really delicious, deeply savoury and soothing chickpea curry which was one of the milder, less aggressively hot dishes of the evening. Five pounds fifty for this lot, if you can believe it.

I don’t know to be impressed or faintly disgusted with myself that we ate so much of what we’d ordered but eventually we admitted defeat, although not before picking away at the last peppers and spring onions from the chilli paneer. We waddled out into the night, and headed to the back room of the Retreat for a bottle of chocolate stout and a post-meal debrief: I wouldn’t say it was the stuff of Shakespeare, as it mostly consisted of us saying “I’m so full” to one another after a suitably pregnant pause, but it was a debrief nonetheless. The pause probably seemed less pregnant than I did.

It probably won’t surprise you, now that we’ve got to the end, to scroll a little bit further down and see the rating. I loved SKVP. I didn’t care that it took half an hour to turn up, I didn’t care that I missed out on that paneer bomb and, perhaps most significantly, I didn’t care in the slightest that I’d had a meat free evening. It gets an unqualified thumbs up from me, and I imagine a lot of you would enjoy it, even if it’s just for a quickish bite to eat at lunchtime, or before the pub (good luck catching it at a quiet time, though). And I suspect that my selections from this menu were probably pretty mainstream and tame: I look forward to trying more of it.

SKVP’s closest equivalent is Bhel Puri House – which I still love, don’t get me wrong – but it strikes me as offering something very different to Reading’s other vegetarian Indian restaurants, Madras Flavours and Crispy Dosa, both of which focus their menus elsewhere. And SKVP also achieves that underrated thing which not enough restaurants succeed in pulling off: it’s fun. Fun from start to finish, fun looking through the menu, fun picking too much stuff, fun eating somewhere unlike the rest of Reading, fun eating a deep fried potato sandwich. One hundred per cent fun. It was even almost fun lying in bed that night, feeling like a python slowly digesting a mongoose it had swallowed whole. Almost.

So maybe Reading’s story isn’t written yet. And that’s an encouraging thing to realise, that with big U.K. chains to the left and bigger U.S. chains to the right we still have the chance to be stuck in the middle with our independent heroes, our restaurants and pubs, breweries and cafés, producers and shops. And in that happy place, I like to think there’s also still room for someone like SKVP – an occasional epic, incongruous, glorious curveball.

Shree Krishna Vada Pav – 8.1
97 Kings Road, Reading, RG1 3DD
07900 345120

https://skvp.co.uk
Delivery via: Deliveroo

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Restaurant review: Medlar, Chelsea

All restaurants have distinct personalities, just like people. And, just like people, we encounter them in different ways: you might meet them by chance, or be introduced to them by friends. You decide you’d like to see them again, and over time the relationships you have with some restaurants become friendships themselves. You introduce your other friends to these places and you’re delighted when they hit it off, sad when they don’t quite gel.

Restaurants can be many different kinds of friends. There are the ones you see all the time, because they’re your neighbours, or the ones that live further away that you have to make an effort to visit. Ones you go to when you want to be cheered up by a night of dumb fun, and the ones you’re drawn to for a deep and meaningful evening. Ones where you can be yourself and come as you are, and ones where you must dress up and be on your best behaviour, become a marginally improved version of yourself.

Sometimes you don’t go to a restaurant for a long time, and when you return you’re reminded of exactly why you liked them. I saw one of my oldest friends a few weeks ago, the first time since last March, and although we had much to discuss, in all important respects we picked up where we’d left off. Some restaurants are like that. Restaurants see us at our best and our worst and they welcome us all the same, and conversely we forgive their off days, as we overlook them with people we care about. 

And, of course, those friendships sometimes end. We drift apart, our tastes change, we move towns, we lose them in divorces. Sometimes the restaurant simply ceases to be, and we mourn it. But there are always new restaurants to go to, new friends to make. Of course restaurants are like friends: we celebrate with them, we commiserate with them. We spend time with some of them to forget momentarily about our own lives, with others because they have become part of our lives.

That’s the genius of restaurants and the friendships they create. The best restaurants connect us to something bigger than us, they build a community. If you didn’t know that before, surely the last year and a half has written it in big. Look at the outpouring on social media when Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen reopened after sixteen months. It was like a friend coming home after far too long away. Some people felt surprisingly emotional when they went through those doors again, me included.

One of my oldest friendships, as restaurants go, is with Medlar in Chelsea. It’s been open for ten years, in which time it’s been written up by most restaurant critics, gained a Michelin star, lost it for reasons nobody could really fathom and dealt with it by shrugging and carrying on regardless. I must have been going to Medlar for eight years or so, with friends and family, pre and post divorce. I’ve introduced all manner of people to the joy of Medlar. The prices on the prix fixe have gained a few pounds over the years, but so have I. On my last visit, pre-pandemic, I took Zoë there to pop her Medlar cherry. We’d not been together long at that point, and I wondered what she’d make of it, but I needn’t have worried. She was an instant convert. She ordered better than me: I didn’t realise, at the time, that this was the shape of things to come.

When a restaurant has traded for ten years it becomes largely immune to trends, but, far from the hype machine, it risks getting forgotten. I went through a phase of eating at much-hyped London restaurants, the latest big thing each time, and I usually came away thinking “that was okay I guess, but I wouldn’t go back”. But Medlar wasn’t like that: I never had a bad meal, and even the least magnificent was on the money. So when I decided to go to London a few weeks back I asked on Twitter if anybody had any recommendations for al fresco dining. I’m sure the places mentioned in my replies would all have been worthy choices, but in the back of my mind I was always thinking or I could go back to Medlar: I was delighted when none of the suggestions caused me to hesitate, even for a second.

Medlar is in Chelsea, but not the nice part. If you go down the Kings Road it’s all very chi-chi until the Bluebird building (which Zoë tells me features frequently in Made In Chelsea: fucked if I know, I’ve never watched it) and then it starts to get scruffy. The Brutalist World’s End Estate – could a name conjure less hope? – is across the way and although Medlar itself looks genteel from the outside, it looks out on a branch of Mail Boxes Etc, over the road. 

Inside though, all is peaceful and calm. It’s a long thin room broken up into sections – a beautiful one at the back with sunshine flooding through a skylight, a middle one full of booths, all smart mint-green button-backed banquettes, and a plainer room at the front. We initially had booked one of the tables outside but the sun was scorching, so we moved to a table next to the open French doors, mini John Lewis fans on the table, whirring away. There were perspex screens between the tables, and everything felt safe and well spaced. 

Medlar runs a prix fixe menu for lunch and dinner, and lunch has always been a steal: I remember when it was thirty pounds for a three course lunch, outrageous value, but even now at forty pounds it still feels reasonable. There are seven options for each course, and some – crab raviolo with bisque sauce, duck egg tart with duck hearts and lardons – have been on the menu so long I imagine they have protected status. Perhaps that’s why they lost their Michelin star, for not being seasonal enough, but I’ve had both those classics more than once and I’d rather they kept the dishes than kept the star.

We started with a pair of stunning aged Comte gougeres. It was odd to taste Comte without that familiar crystalline grit, but odd in a good way, and the pastry was dense yet airy. By this point we’d been served a choice of bread from a wooden tray (Medlar’s focaccia is another thing of wonder) and we’d been brought water and a glass full of ice cubes, which was regularly taken away and replenished throughout our meal. We’d chosen our wine, and everything was right in my little world. A proper lunch, a leisurely one where you get through a bottle of wine and have nowhere you need to be afterwards, is a holiday in its own right, if you choose the right place.

Speaking of wine, that was the first misstep. We’d ordered a bottle of Riesling by Pegasus Bay, a stellar producer from New Zealand. They brought it, opened it and then explained that it wasn’t cold enough. So they poured a little into our glasses and took it away to try and get it colder quickly. But they didn’t succeed, because it was only reached the right temperature at the end of the meal, by which time we’d drunk most of it. It was still a fantastic wine, but we had it far from its best: given that it cost around sixty pounds I’d have expected them to give us the option to choose another, rather than opening it when it was barely chilled.

But the food was as good as I remembered. As on our previous visit, Zoë picked the best of the starters – thin slices of pork loin served in a sauce almost like a consommé, topped with thin, crisp onion rings, salty splinters of pecorino, girolles, cubes of fondant potato and a grassy, intense salsa verde. It was a dish where you could construct an almost infinite number of different forkfuls, each of them magical, and I looked at it with a level of envy that only intensified when I tried it.

“Pork, onion, potato and cheese – no wonder I love this dish” said Zoë. “It’s the Irish in me” (I look forward to the day when she has the passport to prove it).

I could have, should have gone for one of my favourite starters from the menu, for old time’s sake. But it was a hot day and I wanted to avoid the tried and tested, so I chose the gazpacho. If I wasn’t absolutely bowled over by it, that’s probably because it’s a soft-spoken dish even when done as skilfully and fastidiously as this. The cubes of scallop were super-fresh, pristine and elegant, but if I’d known it was padded out with cucumber – I’ve never been a fan – I would have chosen something else. Superb olive oil had been used but didn’t break through, hesitantly clearing its throat when it should have sung. Cobnuts added texture and a second dimension, but overall it was too mild-mannered for me. I consoled myself with another piece of focaccia.

By this time the restaurant was filling up. They charge reasonable corkage at lunchtime, which explained one chap lugging what appeared to be a jeroboam of claret. Medlar clearly has a reputation and a regular clientele, because many of the diners were well-upholstered: a florid, blazered buffer at the next table was humblebragging away to his friends (“I’m still seven hundred pounds in credit with the Royal Opera House” being one gem). I’ve missed people watching, and watching these people was another level completely from sitting in the Workhouse courtyard, seeing who wanders past.

Zoë’s main is a mainstay of the Medlar menu and if she hadn’t ordered it I would have – glorious, soft rump of beef, served pink and fanned out with blobs of shallot purée, along with a portobello mushroom stuffed with snails in Café De Paris butter. You also got a side salad and a hefty helping of a beautifully made Béarnaise, with an almost medicinal hum of tarragon. Zoë was sceptical about the snails in particular but I talked her into ordering it, reasoning that if she didn’t like them I could swap with her – so of course, when it came to it, she loved the whole lot. Again, no two forkfuls need be the same, but every forkful was marvellous.

My dish – bit of a theme here – was good but not at the same level. Barbary duck came pink, also fanned out (they love a bit of fanning around at Medlar) on mange tout, with a jug of a fantastically sticky jus. But the second half of the dish, the confit duck tart, was problematic. It felt like it had wandered in from a completely different meal, one where you wouldn’t have a sticky jus. But also, it wasn’t a tart: plonking ingredients on a thin disc of pastry as a means of displaying them doesn’t constitute a tart, however much you might want it to. So the stuff on the edible coaster – the confit duck, roasted courgette and tomato, the ribbons of fennel, even the almost-rubbery ricotta gnocchi – were very nice, but they had nothing to do with the rest. I know the weather lately has made us all uncertain whether it’s summer or winter: this dish had a similar identity crisis.

We ordered chips to go with both distinctly carb-free dishes. They come with more of that marvellous Béarnaise, but usually they’re better than they were that day: they didn’t have that brittle crunch they needed, although as a vehicle for tarragon-infused indulgence they did just fine.

The dessert course comes with suggested pairings, and this was the first time the restaurant felt truly pricey: the cheapest dessert wine came in at a tenner but the rest were in the region of fifteen pounds for a glass. I liked my Beerenauslese, which had a note of sharpness alongside the sweetness, and Zoë loved her Australian Riesling. But neither was worth quite that much money.

Never mind: gladly the dessert we’d both chosen properly saved the day. It was a festival of chocolate and cherry, a deep dark delice surrounded by dots of cherry and griottine cherries, crowned with an orb of almond ice cream and a brittle tuille made from cocoa nibs. The almond ice cream – extraordinarily smooth, with hints of marzipan – and the cherry lent the dish a touch of Bakewell, and the whole thing amounted to a proper desert island dessert. We ate it in silence, interrupted only by the duffer at the next table holding forth to his unfortunate friends.

As we waited for our bill, the staff brought over one last treat, velvety chocolate truffles and pieces of marshmallow which tasted of sweet, concentrated passion fruit, a little miracle. Aside from our slightly lukewarm wine, service was perfect – attentive but nicely distant, very efficient indeed, far better than service I’ve had at places which have retained their Michelin star (l’Ortolan springs to mind). Our three course meal, with a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses of dessert wine – and those gougeres right at the start – came to two hundred pounds, which included an optional 12.5% service charge. 

We left nicely full, edges a tad blurred, and strolled down the Kings Road, pausing now and again to stumble into a(nother) ridiculously expensive boutique. Exactly how many branches of Joe & The Juice does one road need? I thought to myself (the answer, as far as the Kings Road is concerned, is two). I tried on crazy glasses in Moscot – it turns out that Woody Allen-style glasses are best left to Allen – we ambled round Peter Jones, we walked to Belgravia and made a pilgrimage to Les Senteurs, one of my favourite shops on the planet. In the sunshine, you could nearly convince yourself that the city was almost normal.

So yes, it wasn’t a perfect meal. And Medlar might not have been completely at the top of its game when I visited them, but even on a relative off day they could teach pretty much any restaurant in Reading a thing or two – about food, about service, and about doing the same thing day in, day out for years, without getting bored, rebranding or chasing fads. It’s an underestimated quality in restaurateurs: the patience to build something up, to stay focused, to not lose interest. And if I picked Medlar up and dropped it, say, in the space Bill’s is currently wasting they would easily be one of the best restaurants the town has ever had. For my part, it was an absolute pleasure to go to London and catch up with an old friend. All things considered, I’d say they’re doing pretty well. I won’t leave it so long next time.

Medlar – 7.9
438 King’s Road, Chelsea, London SW10 0LJ
020 73491900

https://www.medlarrestaurant.co.uk

The Hero Of Maida, Maida Vale

Despite the name, over six and a half years I’ve reviewed lots of restaurants which aren’t in Reading. To paraphrase David Brent, my world doesn’t end with these four walls. When I’m finished with Reading, there’s Henley, Windsor, Wokingham. You know. Newbury. Goring. Because I am my own boss.

Bracknell.

But I’ve always steered clear of reviewing London restaurants. I suppose part of that is analysis paralysis: how would you even go about picking which restaurants to visit? There are hundreds of London restaurant bloggers (not to mention influencers) swarming around all the hottest new restaurants, all the must-visit openings, so it’s hard to imagine anybody would be interested in my (provincial) opinion. And how useful would it be to my regular readers? You might be in London from time to time, but how likely would you be to go out of your way to try somewhere on my say-so? That’s why I’ve always stayed in my lane, remaining local with the occasional foray further afield on the train.

So what changed? Well, recently one of the restaurant bloggers I read wrote a review of a little Malaysian restaurant just round the corner from Paddington Station. It did what, in an ideal world, all restaurant reviews would do: it made me feel like checking the place out. After all, I’m in London reasonably often, I nearly always come home via Paddington and having decent food options to explore while I wait for an off peak train would be a very welcome development. I Retweeted the review, plenty of people showed an interest and at that point I decided: there would be no harm in adding the occasional review of venues in and around Paddington, to help out if you are in London and want to try out a good restaurant before coming home.

I picked Maida Vale for my first London review because that area has always been one of my favourite parts of the city. You leave Paddington by the exit that takes you right out onto the Grand Union Canal, turn left and meander past all the boats and the offices of Paddington Basin, the fancy gleaming bars and restaurants that have sprung up to cater for all those workers. Cross one of the pretty bridges you come to and you’re in Little Venice, ten minutes’ walk or a single Tube stop from Paddington but a world away in all important respects.

It’s loveliest in summer, but at any time it’s a house envy-inducing stroll. The Warwick Castle, tucked away on a sidestreet, is a lovely mews pub and not far from there is the equally gorgeous Formosa Street with the Prince Alfred, a cracking public house with little booths where you have to duck under a low door to pass from one to the next. If I didn’t have such a magnificent local already, I might well spend my days wishing it was mine.

The Hero Of Maida is just a little further out, on the border between Little Venice and Maida Vale, and in a previous incarnation it used to be called the Truscott Arms. I had a friend who worked in London and I used to go down after work on a Friday afternoon to meet her for a boozy dinner in that neck of the woods. We’d always stop for one last snifter at the Truscott Arms – it closed later than other establishments – before weaving back to the station and drunkenly going our separate ways, me on the Burger King Express back to Reading and her on a terrifying-sounding night bus to Tooting.

I was sad when the Truscott Arms closed but when I heard it had reopened as the Hero Of Maida under the supervision of Henry Harris (of legendary Knightsbridge restaurant Racine) offering a take on classic French cooking, I made a mental note to visit one day. So on a sunny weekday lunchtime my friend John and I paid it a visit, to finally break my London reviewing duck.

It’s a very handsome, light, airy room that instantly draws you in – tasteful muted tones, an attractive wooden floor, gorgeous tiles and a long, curving zinc bar. There’s a separate restaurant area upstairs (open in the evenings but not at lunchtime) but I didn’t feel I was missing out. Lovely tables, too, with button-backed banquettes looking out. It was quiet when we turned up, with a solitary customer plugged in and tapping away on his computer. We sat at the front by the windows, making the most of the afternoon light, although I did wish after a while that we’d grabbed a banquette. On the plus side it means my photographs are better than usual, but the drawback was that poor John was caught in a direct shaft of sun for some of the meal and had to keep shuffling his chair to one side.

The menu changes regularly and on the day we visited it was compact and appealing – just five starters, four mains and a sharing dish (pie for two, an offer I always find hard to refuse). A blackboard behind the bar offered a few other dishes, and although they were listed as bar food they seemed equally restauranty to me. Crucially, one was the same pie in an individual portion: a great relief, because it meant I didn’t have to implore John to change his mind. On another day I would have gone for another special: crispy lamb breast with salsa verde, six almost unimprovable words. “It’s National Pie Week”, our waiter told me, and in the end that made my decision for me.

There was a good selection of beers and we were slightly early for our booking so we started with a pint. My Notting Helles was pleasant enough, if not the most imaginative choice, but John enthused about his pint of Peckham Rye, a very nice-looking amber ale. Later I wished I’d gone for the coffee stout by Magic Rock, but we’d moved on to wine by then. It was a pretty decent wine list too, with plenty available by the carafe, but we settled on a chardonnay from the Languedoc which came in at just over thirty pounds for a bottle. It sounds odd to praise a wine based on all the things it wasn’t, but at the risk of sounding like Goldilocks it somehow seemed appropriate: not too dry, not too sweet, not too oaky, not too expensive. The list said it was a good alternative to a white Burgundy, and I thought that was spot on.

I’d been sorely tempted by the steak tartare, but with a pie on the way I decided to balance light and shade a bit by choosing a more delicate starter. Ibériko tomatoes with burrata felt more a test of sourcing than cooking, but even so I really enjoyed it.

The tomatoes weren’t as good as ones I’d rhapsodised over in Spain but they were close enough, with plenty of freshness and a judicious spot of salt. The burrata felt more like mozzarella to me – completely firm in the middle without any of the glorious creamy messiness of a good burrata – but that struck me rather than irked me. The salsa verde brought it all together, as did some greenery which wasn’t listed and which I didn’t recognise. It had a slightly vinegary bite but I couldn’t place what it was – not samphire, not salty fingers, not (I think) monk’s beard, but a perfect match in any event. Winning enough to overcome a couple of slight missteps: a dish, in many ways, emblematic of the whole meal.

John had chosen grilled mackerel with ‘nduja which, again, is a combination that sat up and begged to be chosen. I thought it looked fantastic, with a generous whack of the fiery, brick-red good stuff. John liked it, but not without reservations.

“I like the skin to be crispy, and this is a bit, well, flaccid. Flaccid is never a good word, is it?”

“No, it’s like damp. ‘Moist’ can be a good thing, but ‘damp’ never is.”

“There’s always ‘wipe down with a damp cloth’, I suppose” said John, equably. “Something else about this dish isn’t quite right. This stuff.”

That’s how we discovered that John, like me, is not a fan of radicchio – although, as a man who gets a vegetable box weekly, he’s very fortunate to only just be figuring that out. I understood though – again, the radicchio wasn’t mentioned on the menu and it did slightly skew the dish. I didn’t get to taste it, but from the look of the plate, also strewn with wild garlic and capers, I think I would have enjoyed it. John did find a few sizeable bones which had escaped the filleting process, though, another glitch that rankled.

John was properly delighted with his main course, though. Guinea fowl came two ways, with a hefty piece of the breast and a gorgeous-looking thigh complete with crispy skin. It was all on top of some silky celeriac puree, along with a big, coarse wedge of smoked Morteau sausage – we Googled it to make sure it was nothing like andouillette – and, apparently, “tropea onion”.

“This is lovely. I’m usually more of a starters man and main courses can feel like a bit of a let-down, so it’s a real pleasure to get such a good main course. And it’s a really big portion of guinea fowl, I wasn’t expecting that.”

I thought that was a good point – this didn’t feel like a little, cheffy plate assembled with tweezers but a proper, hearty dish put together with the diner firmly in mind. Good value at nineteen pounds, too.

My pie was, as so often, more a casserole wearing a hat and the pastry lacked the indulgence of a good suet crust. But underneath, you hit paydirt: a sticky tangle of slow-cooked lamb shoulder and a rich, savoury sauce, punctuated by coarsely chopped garlic and carrot. The greens that came with it were nice enough taken for a swim in the pie filling, but hardly the feature attraction. The whole thing was delicious but it just didn’t feel as much like a proper pie as I’d hoped; it was best described as high-ceilinged, with plenty of breathing space between the filling and the crust.

Many of these niggles were redeemed by the Hero Of Maida’s chips, which were as good as any I’ve had – huge, ragged-edged things, all crunch and fluff. I was initially dubious because they came skin-on, but even that didn’t detract. They were four pounds a portion, and I was relieved that John and I had the foresight (or greed) to order one each. I used mine to absorb every last molecule of the sauce left in my pie dish.

The dessert menu was also compact – just the four options – but we were on a roll and had no intention of letting that stop us. The list of dessert wines was equally streamlined, but we found a Coteaux de L’Aubance on it which was stunning, the colour of late summer afternoons with a clean, poised sweetness. The first sip was one of those little heavenly moments you want to remember for ages: our food so far had been lovely, the only plans for the rest of the day were a bimble from pub to pub talking about all sorts and, in my mind, I was an honorary resident of Maida Vale already.

Desserts were inconsistent in the same way as the starters, but the kitchen had garnered enough brownie points by then to earn some latitude. So for instance, my lemon posset was all out of kilter: far too big, and too cloying without the sharpness it badly needed to cut through. Instead, it felt like a big bowl of something very close to clotted cream and the crumbled amaretti biscuits all over it didn’t do enough to counteract that. It wasn’t what I ordered, or what I really wanted, but on the other hand there are worse things to do in life than eat a large bowl of clotted cream and, when push came to shove, I found I didn’t mind at all.

John’s rhubarb and custard pavlova sounded terrific on paper but again, wasn’t quite there. The rhubarb, John said, was delicious and he really enjoyed the hazelnut praline which played an equally starring role. “But this meringue”, he said, “I hate to say this but it feels shop-bought.” I saw him struggle to break it up and it seemed to be lacking any of the chewiness which would have made the dish perfect. Even so, I looked at his dessert and thought that I would gladly have ordered it myself.

Service, from one chap who seemed to be doing everything that lunchtime, was friendly without being faux-matey, knowledgeable and happy to talk about the dishes and offer recommendations. Again, it might be that if you came to the Hero Of Maida of an evening or on a busy Sunday lunchtime you might have a different experience, but I thought we were really well looked after. Three courses, a couple of pints, a bottle of white wine and two glasses of dessert wine came to just over a hundred and fifty pounds, including that old chestnut the “optional” twelve and a half per cent service charge. You could eat here for less, but I thought it was decent value.

You’ll have read all of this and you’ll already have an idea about whether the Hero Of Maida is the kind of place for you. You might think it’s ever so slightly too far from Paddington or a little too expensive, but I really enjoyed the place. And to save you the effort of questioning my verdict, I’ve already asked myself: was I being charitable because I was having such a nice afternoon? Was I letting the restaurant off the hook when, closer to home, I might have been harsher?

I don’t know. It’s possible. Maybe I was looking at the world through dessert wine-tinted glasses but if so, all I can say is that I thoroughly recommend doing so. Next time you’re in London and you’re on an off-peak ticket you could do a lot worse than booking the Hero Of Maida, especially when summer comes, and crossing the canal to treat yourself to something different before riding the rails back to Gare du ‘Ding. Make sure you get some chips: you’ll thank me for it.

The Hero Of Maida – 7.5
55 Shirland Road, London, W9 2JD
020 39609109

https://theheromaidavale.co.uk

Feature: Dining elsewhere

This might be hard for you to believe, but Reading isn’t perfect. Even I, with my bad habit of standing on the virtual soapbox and shouting about its best bits, know that. I’ve talked in the past about all the types of restaurants I’d love to see open in Reading, from indies to (some) chains, but this week instead of a review I thought I’d go one step further and talk about some of my favourite restaurants outside Reading. These are places I would love to pick up and plonk somewhere in town, even if I know in my heart of hearts that they wouldn’t necessarily fit in.

This is by no means a list of the best restaurants anywhere, by the way. Often your favourite restaurant isn’t necessarily the best – the food might not be as flawless, the service might not be as polished, but simply put your favourite restaurants are the ones where you have the best times. Your mileage, should you ever get to one of this lot, will undoubtedly vary. And it’s not definitive, either: I missed out countless places in the interest of limiting this to half a dozen, including little bistros in Paris, sweet sun-kissed tavernas on Greek islands, Michelin starred joints deep in the Cotswolds and establishments from Toronto to Glasgow, from Prague to Istanbul. Loving restaurants is a wonderful thing, I think. Loving lists the way I do also brings a lot of joy. But trying to combine the two, it turns out, is rather an agonising pursuit.

Pierre Victoire, Oxford

(Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor)

Reading doesn’t really have a proper French bistro. A few places have come close (and Brebis is only a train ride away) but you’d hope a town the size of Reading could sustain somewhere like Oxford’s Pierre Victoire. Originally part of a now defunct chain (which at one point included Reading, so maybe we don’t deserve another after all) this place has thrived by offering some great classics, an amazing value set menu (where starters and desserts are only two quid each. No really) and proper French service – you know, the sort where they always seem slightly amused by you but want to charm your socks off none the less.

Despite being a pretty big restaurant, getting a table here is a real challenge unless you’ve booked ahead (which I singularly fail to do) so I sometimes end up eating here at lunch instead of dinner, just to make sure I do get to try it. On my most recent visit I tucked into a gorgeous quenelle of smooth chicken liver pate followed by a big stainless steel pot of moules marinière with skinny fries. I also nicked some of my companion’s potato rosti (sitting underneath a splendid, crispy confit duck leg) which would have been worth the price of admission alone. Lunch for two, including a crazily reasonable half bottle of Côtes du Rhône, came to thirty-six pounds. Thirty-six pounds! The tables are all squished together – which normally would annoy me, but here I like it because of the people-watching potential – and I never leave without wishing I could put Pierre’s in my pocket and bring it back on the train with me. Reading could really do with a little more ooh la la, n’est-ce pas?

Great Queen Street, London
Great-Queen-Street-Interior(Photo from the restaurant’s website)

I know that London is arguably the most exciting dining scene in the world right now. I know that every cuisine is represented, to dazzling effect, and that every month new places open, shifting the dynamic of the place ever so slightly. It must be lovely to have all that on your doorstep to choose from, from the high end to street food with every permutation in between. I know all that, and yet – and I know this will make me sound like a hick from the sticks – I have had so many disappointing meals there you would not believe.

I follow the critics, I ooh and aah over the meals (both the pictures in the papers and the ones they paint with their effortless sentences) and yet I’m so often underwhelmed. Whether it’s a neighbourhood restaurant a little off the Tube network, an old stager offering faded but charming grandeur or Michelin starred luxury on the top floor of some tall building, I often end up on the train back from Paddington thinking “what am I missing?”. Probably a lot, but what it means is that when I do go in I want to find somewhere central, reliable and decent that I can book in advance, where I won’t have to queue round the block for hours or spend two hours pretending I’m having more fun than I am.

At the moment, for me, that place is Great Queen Street. Just off Drury Lane, part of a group which includes legendary Waterloo gastropub The Anchor & Hope and Oxford’s Magdalen Arms. It’s just perfect – dark, clubby, welcoming and totally disinterested in being cool. The menu is the kind of unpretentious list where you want to order practically everything and the wine list is full of inexpensive delights (plenty from the Languedoc, I’m happy to say). Last time I went, I shared a chicken, leek and tarragon pie, all rich creamy filling topped with flaky pastry but with that beautiful slightly soggy layer just beneath, like a business class Fray Bentos, and I liked it so much I nearly wept. I would say that once you eat there, you’ll never go back to Sweeney and Todd – but to be honest you could say the same once you eat at Sweeney and Todd.

Bosco Pizzeria, Bristol

Despite discovering (if that’s even the right word, seeing as loads of you told me you loved it but just didn’t want me telling everyone) Papa Gee last year, I am still yearning for a comfy neighbourhood pizzeria. Well, I sort of found one, but the problem is that it’s on the Whiteladies Road in Bristol. And I always seem to end up there when I visit Bristol, despite it being a city with so many amazing restaurants (Wallfish in Clifton, for one, or the wonderful tapas restaurant Bravas). It’s not even Bristol’s coolest pizzeria – the up and coming Flour And Ash has taken that title – but it remains one of my favourite places to eat.

I’m normally there for lunch, but it’s the kind of restaurant that has perfected offering something for everyone, whether it’s small groups, dates or family outings. The menu is brilliant, with great antipasti (especially the burrata and coppa – to be honest I could gladly live off some combination of those two) leading up to the genuine highlight, the pizza. The base is light, chewy, ever so slightly charred and bubbly. The toppings are simple but steer clear of cliché. And – no small thing this – I love the service. It’s tattooed, passionate and informal (or, in a word, “Bristol”). I do rather collect pizzerias, especially abroad (La Briciola in Paris, Linko in Helsinki, I could go on) but there’s something about Bosco. Writing this now I can imagine sitting at a window table with some montepulciano, waiting for my pizza to arrive. And as much as I love Papa Gee, its slightly down at heel style and all, I’d love to see somewhere like Bosco dropped into one of the empty sites in the centre of Reading. That would be gert lush.

Bodegas Castañeda, Granada

Granada is the true home of tapas, where every alcoholic drink is accompanied with a small plate of free food, be that a basic wedge of tortilla or a helping of salty, crumbly manchego. If you love food then that alone is reason enough to visit, even without a visit to the beautiful Alhambra, the stunning Moorish fortress which stands sentinel over the city from its position at the top of a very steep hill. Well, that and the sherry. And the wine. And the more sherry.

Anyway, Bodegas Castañeda is in the heart of the city (one street along from, confusingly, an inferior establishment with almost exactly the same name) and, for me, it epitomises eating in Andalucia. Yes, there are still free tapas (the habas con jamon, broad beans with rich, savoury nuggets of ham, for instance) but the clientele here knows that the stuff you pay for is worth the jostling at the bar, which runs almost the entire length of the shallow, wide room. The staff, a wry bunch of super-efficient, slightly hangdog aproned men, serve sherry from large casks, pouring with a flourish that is more for entertainment than taste, and watching them work as a unit always fills me with admiration (and, probably more importantly, gratitude).

You need your wits – and your elbows – about you to eat at Bodegas Castañeda, but the rewards are enormous: simple, savoury slices of the delicious jamon that hangs over the bar, thick pieces of mojama – cured tuna – topped with almonds and drizzled with olive oil, the saltiest bacalao draped over the smallest slices of bread, an embarrassment of riches. My mouth is watering now, something of a Pavlovian reflex which I get almost every time I think about Granada. All that and you can eat and drink like royalty (and get royally sloshed) at Bodegas Castañeda for less than forty euros, provided you’re happy to muck in and try speaking a little Spanish. Believe me, it’s worth the effort.

Bonjardim, Lisbon
BonjardimI love Lisbon so much, and it has a much underrated food scene. Of course, there are the famous egg custard tarts and the port – everyone knows about those – but there’s so much more to it than that. Beautiful seafood, surprisingly good cheeses, petiscos that give any tapas out there a run for its money and my personal favourite, ginjinha, a rich sticky cherry liqueur sometimes served in (and you might want to brace yourself for this bit) an edible chocolate cup. Drink the liqueur, destroy the evidence, eat some chocolate into the bargain: trust me, some messy nights can begin this way.

Despite that, my favourite restaurant in Lisbon is in many ways one of its most basic. Bonjardim isn’t far from Rossio station, with a restaurants and tables on both sides of a little alley. It’s known as “Rei dos Frangos” (the king of chickens) and they aren’t kidding, because that’s what you order if you know what’s good for you. A whole spit-roasted chicken for two turns up with some slightly unnecessary chips, and it’s the most glorious, amazing, intoxicating thing. The skin has been rubbed with lemon, salt and oil until it’s almost brittle with the intense taste of wonderful crackling. Underneath, the meat is perfect; there’s a little pot of peri peri sauce you can brush on, if you feel that way inclined, but I’ve never seen the need. You just sit there, in the evening warmth, eating chicken and drinking wine or a frosted pint of Super Bock, watching the hawkers and the buskers wandering past on a seemingly eternal loop. Maybe we won’t ever get the weather, and it’s probably just my fanciful imagination, but I can picture something like this on Queen Victoria Street.

Can Paixano, Barcelona

I could have picked so many places in Barcelona for this piece. One of the finest meals I’ve ever had was in its Michelin starred restaurant Cinc Sentits, a meal so amazing that I wrote down every single course I ate in the tasting menu and for months after I could just get out the piece of paper, look at it and sigh. But last time I went, I found the strangest thing – the less informal a place was, the more fun I had.

So although I enjoyed the proper old-school glamour of the “rich man’s paella” at Set Portes, the real delights came from the stand-up tapas joints, places like El Bitxo and the venerable El Xampanyet, where the waiters effortlessly swish from table to table offering to top you up with cava (and people think the Italians have a monopoly on offers you cannot refuse). This reached its apex at Can Paixano, a little bar on the edge of the old port on a seemingly lifeless sidestreet – a long thin room with no discernible furniture where people jostle at the bar for saucers of cava at little more than a Euro a glass. Meat hangs from the ceiling and the no-frills menu behind the grill tells you what’s on offer. You order some chorizo or morcilla and sip your drink (slightly off-dry rose cava for me, since you asked) while it’s sliced and grilled or fried in front of your very eyes. Last time I went, a group of young Irish chaps were there, clearly unable to believe their luck having chanced upon the place completely by accident. I bet they were wishing their home town had somewhere a little like Can Paixano: I know I was.

So, those are some of my favourites. Why not chip in in the comments section and let me know some of yours?