Jamaica Blue

It happens less than it used to, but every now and again I still review somewhere because of a recommendation or a request from a reader. You have Anna to thank for this one, because a month ago she left this comment on the blog:

This might seem like a weird suggestion, but how about trying the new Jamaica Blue cafe at the Royal Berkshire Hospital… Looking at their website it seems like a successful Australian chain, they have only four branches in the UK. I’ve popped in a couple of times after appointments and the coffee was great. I was very pleasantly surprised by the range, quality and freshness of their lunch options, really nice deep filled flans and unusual sandwich/ciabatta choices. So nice I’d even consider dropping in if was in the area and I didn’t have an appointment.

My curiosity was piqued. Partly because this was a hard sales pitch to resist: a promising new café in town that almost nobody knew about? How could I stay away? But more to the point, I live very close to the hospital, and many’s the time working from home that I’ve sloped up the Craven Road to visit the AMT just inside the main entrance. If the weather’s bad I have a Café Maya, and if the weather’s good (by which I mean anything above twelve degrees with no rain) I have a Froffee, that hypnotic, magical milkshake made with ice cream, espresso and dreams. But I never get any food there, and Café Yolk never quite feels worth the additional walk. I made a mental note: next time I was working from home I’d go to Jamaica Blue and try it out, a rare solo excursion.

It’s odd going for lunch in a hospital, you know. It’s odd using the hand sanitiser on the wall-mounted pumps and going down long corridors lined with art best described as enthusiastic, dodging the beeping buggies that sedately trundle past you. It’s odd walking past the queue for the pharmacy, past the fracture clinic, past Respiratory Medicine. For someone with a touch of hypochondria like me, all those department names read like Panini stickers you’re yet to collect: got, need, need, need.

What’s also odd is reaching the spot where Jamaica Blue is, by South Block Outpatients, near where they do the blood tests, and seeing what looks like an actual proper café just plonked in the middle of a hospital. On one side of their stylish blue partition it was all people waiting for appointments at grim, municipal-looking tables. On the other side, people were sitting at much more fetching tables in comfy chairs, tucking into food. Snazzy brass-effect light fittings hung from the ceiling and a range of canvasses on the back wall spelled out the range of coffees on offer. Were these people actually ill, or just gastronomic tourists like me? Was everybody else in on the secret? Or perhaps this was just a mirage, an oasis among the sand dunes stretching out for miles.

A small queue was forming at the counter so I took my place and looked at the embarrassment of riches in the cabinet. Anna was right – many tempting things were there. An antipasti focaccia looked like it might be the real deal rather than, as so often, a ciabatta using a fake ID. The ciabattas and bagels appeared pretty standard issue, but there were plenty of other interesting options. I considered the tortilla stack, the deep feta flan and the sausage rolls (I considered the sausage rolls for some time, in truth) before narrowing my choice down to a binary one just as I got to the front.

“What’s in your chicken pasta bake? Do you heat it up?”

“Yeah, we definitely heat it up. Hold on.”

She went to fetch someone to talk me through what went in to the chicken pasta bake. It was a big, appetising-looking slab and I could see chicken and tomato through the cross section. A friendly chap came up to the counter and explained to me everything that went into one, in such exhaustive detail that I couldn’t possibly remember it all. I did remember one phrase though, which stuck with me: “There’s cheese at every level”. A lovely sentence to apply to food (if less so to, say, a nightclub).

“And your croque madame, is the egg cooked to order?”

“Of course it is” came the reply, making me feel ever so slightly stupid for asking. But I’d have had to ask in a Costa I wanted to say, but it would have sounded peevish. Besides, Costa would never do a croque madame.

“I’ll have the croque madame.” I said. The gentleman behind me, having heard the sales pitch, ordered the chicken pasta bake. I made a mental note to try and avoid sitting near him, in case of food envy.

“How long have you been open?” I asked one of the ladies behind the counter as I waited for my coffee to be made.

“About eight months.”

“What’s somewhere so, well, nice doing here?”

She smiled as if she was asked this often. “Maybe we’re just here to make people’s trips to the hospital more pleasant.” Again I wondered: was this whole thing some kind of dream sequence? Everyone serving me was so pleasant, so happy and, seemingly, so proud to be dishing up possibly the only decent food in the Royal Berks (I was surprised, heading home afterwards, at how full Pumpkin was).

I took a seat at the banquette with my coffee and waited for my sandwich to arrive. The latte was beautifully presented, nicely smooth and had a slightly bitter note but was on the right side of burnt. Jamaica Blue make much of their coffee – and you can buy it for consumption off the premises – and I liked my latte a lot, although it didn’t quite reach the heights of a Tamp or a Workhouse. An older couple next to me had got freshly squeezed orange juice and were rhapsodising about it.

“That’s so lovely, it tastes of real orange” he said. She took a sip of hers and let out a contented sigh in agreement.

“It’s nice in here” she said. Maybe that staff member was right: how often did anybody say that in a hospital?

My croque madame took long enough that I could be completely satisfied that they’d taken their time over it and done things properly. It looked quite gorgeous – good bread, well toasted, an egg (poached, not fried) perched on top and dusted with what looked like smoked paprika. Only the big pile of rocket – somewhat the Scrappy-Doo or Godzuki of the dish – jarred slightly.

Cutting into it, I was even more impressed. Good quality, thick ham, nothing processed or reformed about it. A delicious gooey mixture of cheese and mustard, forming a punchy, claggy layer at the bottom. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, a proper madam. It felt like a bargain at four pounds ninety (although the sign had said it cost 4.9: you can tell what kind of café it is when the price is to one decimal place, the man behind me in the queue had said, and I think he had a point). If I was being fussy, the top should also have been covered in the cheese mixture, or at the very least brushed with oil to give it a gorgeous, burnished quality. If I was being fussy, for that matter, I’d have done away with the rocket.

But I didn’t feel like being fussy, I felt like finishing my croque madame and working out what to order next time. I gazed at the blackboard with drinks, and all I could see was excuses to visit again. Chilled lattes! Milkshakes with real ice cream! Granita! Most tempting of all, affogato!

“Look at that” said the older gentleman at the table next to me as his panini arrived. “It’s oozing with cheese.”

A solo lunch cost eight pounds and for that I got a croque madame, a large latte and – to my surprise – a new place to come for lunch when I work from home.

Jamaica Blue definitely won’t be for everyone. It’s the wrong end of town for many, and I know quite a lot of people would be too freaked out by hospitals to consider setting foot in one unless they had to, let alone eating in one. But, all that aside, I liked it very much. I admired the bloody-mindedness of doing food like that in a location like that, and as one of the more unusual places I’ve visited in nearly five years of doing this blog I almost think it deserves a visit for novelty value alone. It’s even open seven days a week, so perhaps the next time I go to the excellent local food market in St Luke’s on Erleigh Road I’ll just have to stop there for brunch on my way.

Jamaica Blue – 7.2
South Block, Second Floor, Royal Berkshire Hospital, Craven Road, RG1 5AN
0118 9758168

http://www.jamaicablue.co.uk/store-locations/

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Sam’s Wraps

You can still eat Sam’s Wraps at their van on Broad Street or their kiosk in Forbury Gardens, but the shop closed in May 2017. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I’ve wanted to review Sam’s Wraps for some time. It’s a proper Reading success story, starting out as a van on Broad Street before expanding to also take over the café in Forbury Gardens. Then, this year, came the logical next step: they took over premises in the town centre on Cross Street, the one that isn’t Queen Victoria Street but runs parallel to it, a funny street full of barbers and salons (and A Stitch In Time, the alterations place which has a special place in my heart). I would have reviewed Sam’s Wraps sooner but every time I’ve tried has been a Sunday and, despite the claims of the sign on the door, it’s never been open when I’ve strolled up to it. Even approaching it on a Saturday lunchtime I was half expecting it to be shut, and delighted when it wasn’t.

It’s a basic but tasteful place – a few tables in the front section and then another room out back, nicely lit through a skylight, with attractive, functional furniture. You order at the counter looking up at the menu, then take your wrap through and get stuck in. And the menu is limited in a way which is also appealing. The clue’s in the name, but there is a range of hot wraps (jerk chicken, piri piri chicken, curry chicken) and cold wraps (the main ones I remember were prawn and something called “vegatarian”, spelling which mightn’t fill you with confidence). I had the jerk chicken, my companion wanted to try the prawn but they had sold out so she went for piri piri instead.

The experience is familiar to anyone who’s ever been to Mission Burrito – the staff toast a 12 inch flour tortilla in front of you and ask you if you’d like it spicy. If you say yes, they take less than a teaspoon of innocuous looking chilli relish and smear it a molecule thick across the tortilla (more on that later). Either way they then spoon a really generous portion of chicken – slow cooked, in little dice – into the wrap from the chafing dishes behind the counter. You then decide whether to add cheese before choosing from a plethora of other fillings: cucumber; red onion; finely diced pepper; iceberg lettuce; gherkins; and jalapeno. Finally, you pick a sauce and then they assemble the whole thing, secure it with two carefully placed cocktail sticks, like sandwich acupuncture, pop it on a plate and off you go with it.

What this basically means is that the two wraps we had were similar if not the same, and both were bloody gorgeous. They’re huge things, and impressive value at four pounds (cheese costs fifty pence extra), but what also impressed me was just how well they were filled and what good quality everything was. We had the piri piri chicken – smoky and slightly hot but not mouth-stingingly so – with cheese, beautiful crunchy fresh peppers, strips of cucumber and sweet chilli sauce and it was a delight from beginning to end. The jerk chicken, by contrast, was with Reggae Reggae Sauce, cheese, lettuce and sweet, cold slices of gherkin and was equally good, although because I had this wrap with a smidge of the chilli relish by the end my tastebuds had been thoroughly nuked and my tongue felt like it had been put in a vice, doused in petrol and set alight. If you like heat, have the chilli relish and enjoy yourself, but if you’re in two minds give it a wide berth. Either way I’m not sure the cheese really adds a lot, especially for fifty pence.

Sam'sWrap

Oh, and I was dubious about how effective the cocktail sticks would be but the guys at Sam’s Wraps really do know what they’re doing, because they make it very easy to eat with your hands; also, once you get past a certain point in the wrap you can pull one out and feel ever so slightly like you’re playing Kerplunk.

I’m afraid that’s all there is to it, this week. I went to Sam’s Wraps, I tried two different wraps and they were absolutely splendid. I could tell you that I had a cup of Earl Grey which was nothing special. I could tell you that service, if a bit dour, was very efficient and well done; not much to do in a sandwich shop except explain and execute, but that was all present and correct. They even re-did the jerk chicken wrap after accidentally adding chilli sauce instead of Reggae Reggae (thank heavens they did, or it would have been hotter than the sun). I suppose I should tell you that the whole thing cost ten pounds thirty for two wraps and a solitary cup of tea, and that they really should sell bottles of milk if they’re going to serve anything with that chilli relish. But that’s it. Sam’s Wraps is not flashy, it’s not showy but it’s very good at what it does and without tapdancing it’s really rather terrific. If only the same could be said of this review.

Oh, and as I left I saw a big sign in the window saying “NOW OPEN SUNDAYS”. Bloody typical.

Sam’s Wraps – 7.6
8 Cross Street, RG1 1SN
0118 4379318

Sam’s Wraps

Caffeine & Cocktails

As of September 2017, Caffeine & Cocktails no longer opens for lunch Monday to Friday. I’ve not taken this review off the lists, but bear that in mind if you’re thinking of dropping in for a coffee and a toasted sandwich during the week.

One thing I often complain about is big, bloated menus; huge things with a bewildering array of dishes leaving you to wonder how you can possibly avoid a dud. Indian restaurants and Chinese restaurants are especially prone to this, but actually it’s an issue in many restaurants. Like a CV, a menu should be short and to the point, it should advertise what you do well and it should never outstay its welcome. Just as nobody needs to hear about your Duke Of Edinburgh Award from umpteen years ago, I don’t think diners want a plethora of options knowing full well that the only way that kitchens can do them all is through the ping of the microwave or the sinister hum of the engine of the Brakes Brothers lorry. It’s no coincidence that the first thing Gordon Ramsay used to do in Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares was slash the size of the menu (well, that and criticise people’s omelettes).

I mainly tell you this because, if it gets nothing else right, Caffeine & Cocktails succeeds admirably in this department. Six options for breakfast, three options for lunch, two for dinner. Breakfast until 11, lunch until 3, meat and cheese boards from 3 until 6. Over half of the choices are meat free. There’s an elegant simplicity to this that I wish other establishments would learn from (although paradoxically Dolce Vita, right above Caffeine & Cocktails, has a colossal menu and I’m still yet to have a bad meal there). I turned up right on the cusp of eleven am with a companion, ready to sample both the breakfast and lunch sections to give as full a picture as I could.

Caffeine & Cocktails used to be Mix bar, a place I never much liked with horrible garden furniture (nobody should have to sip a cocktail sitting on a huge faux marble bench) and a ludicrous “private area” behind an unnecessary velvet rope. Every time I used to walk past after last orders I could see the clientele standing outside, clanging away on cigarettes, a relentless doof-doof-doof noise coming from the Stygian depths within and it made me long for my bed with a nice cup of tea, a hot water bottle and Just A Minute on the iPlayer. In short, it made me feel ancient.

The transformation is sleek and striking. It’s a long thin room with attractive parquet-effect tables, clubbable Chesterfields, a dark concrete floor, indoor trees, gorgeous herringbone tiled walls and industrial light fittings. It really is quite lovely without trying too hard (unlike, say, RYND) and a surprisingly pleasant place to while away time. Only one thing lets it down, and that’s the dreary sexism of the graffiti in the toilets. Marriage is a workshop… where husband works and wife shops”, said one quote in the gents’. Why did the Mexican push his wife down the stairs? Tequila said another. It feels a bit like they invited Donald Trump to the loos with some chalk and told him to go crazy, and that crassness really lets the side down. The irony – they have the most beautiful Aesop handwash at the sink, but you still leave the bathroom feeling unclean. The ladies’ toilets, if less positively offensive, are equally lazily stereotypical with references to diets, cocktails and Taylor Swift.

Anyway, let’s talk about the food. Caffeine & Cocktails only does three sandwiches and I went for “The Cheesy One”, a mixture of cheddar, Comté and Emmental with onion chutney and mustard, mainly because I’d been a couple of times shortly after opening, ordered that sandwich and always been impressed. Something about that mixture of cheeses, when toasted, really works – the gooey elasticity of the Emmental, the punch of the mature cheddar and the grit of the Comté is a holy trinity, perfected by the sweet chutney and the tangy mustard. So I was saddened to find that when my sandwich turned up it completely failed to live up to my happy memories – it was barely hot at all, the cheeses were still cold at the centre of the sandwich, the flavours failing to come alive.

It was definitely meant to be toasted, I could tell that by touching the bread, but clearly a half-arsed job had been done. It wasn’t that it had been cooked and left lying around, it had just never been cooked properly in the first place. And although there were quite a few tables occupied on a weekend morning, it’s not like they were rushed off their feet. Such a sad waste of potential: without the transformative power of the grill the sourdough, which should have been slightly charred, oiled outside and oozing within, was just a chewy, anticlimactic wedge. If I’d never had it before, I would have been disappointed. As it was, I spent the rest of my lunch wondering whether I was more or less disappointed because I knew how good it could be.

CaffeineSandwich

The toasted sourdough also made an appearance in the other dish I ordered, from the breakfast menu. This time it was topped with “smashed” avocado (how very Shoreditch, 2014) with feta and tomatoes. Studded through the avocado were a few pieces of chopped red chilli but even with this the dish was lacking in oomph and needed something – a touch of lime, some salt, mint, or a lot more chilli – to elevate it from quick make at home breakfast to something with more flair. That’s maybe a little harsh – the topping was nice, not ungenerous and the cherry tomatoes added beautiful sweetness. But the bigger problem was the bread – toasted sourdough really wasn’t (unless it had been wearing factor 50 at the time) so what should have been light and crispy was instead soft, tough and somehow dried out. Another attempt to find a great breakfast in Reading ended unsuccessfully, I’m sorry to say.

CaffeineSmashed

The drinks were a mixed bag. Loose tea is apparently from Good & Proper (Caffeine & Cocktails, Good & Proper… what is it with all these ampersands, I wonder?) and I’m sure it’s both those things but if you order Earl Grey you get a stump teapot full of hot water and a solitary bag of Twinings on the side. Basic verging on just not good enough, I’d say. Coffee is from Monmouth, and I’m reliably informed that the latte, while oddly thin and watery, tasted very nice. It was however, in keeping with all of the food, just not hot enough. The weird sugar, a mixture of white and brown cubes and lumps, also didn’t fill me with confidence. Lunch for two – a sandwich, a breakfast, a tea and two lattes – came to seventeen pounds. Service was nice and friendly, and maybe I should have given them the opportunity to prove how good it was by sending my food back, but I just couldn’t face it. I guess you’re more forgiving when it’s just a sandwich, or maybe the hassle just doesn’t feel worth it.

I’m inclined to be forgiving with Caffeine & Cocktails. I didn’t have the best of visits, but I’ve been enough times to know that they had an off-day when I turned up on duty. And there are definitely positives: it’s independent; it’s stylish without sacrificing comfort; it has that clever, sensibly compact menu. On the other hand, if you only do a few things you have to do them well. There just aren’t any excuses. I really wish they’d been on song because that toasted sandwich, at four pounds, is far better than anything you could get at Pret or Picnic for the same money (especially if you dip the corner of it in a little pool of their very tasty, beetroot-purple, sugar-free ketchup). It clearly adds something to Reading’s food and drink culture, to the extent where I even found myself wondering whether its cocktails could finally replace the sadly departed Sahara. So despite the misfire I’ll be back to give them another chance. I’ll pass on using the bathroom, though.

Caffeine & Cocktails – 7.0
Unit 5, The Walk, RG1 2HG
0118 3485103

http://www.caffeineandcocktails.co.uk/

The Sushi Maki, Newbury

I spotted The Sushi Maki earlier this year, on a trip to Newbury to pay a return visit to Brebis, one of my restaurants of last year. I literally did a double-take when I walked past it, on the market square: A sushi restaurant? In Newbury? Not only that, but it looked lovely – lots of little tables with people huddled round them on tasteful wooden seats which looked like a cross between chairs and stools, along with a row of diners lined up at the bar. It was bright and buzzing on a Saturday night, and I did that thing I often do when I pass a restaurant I like the look of: I slowed down to a stop outside the menu, read it and made an extensive mental note before moving on.

This is a pipe dream I know, but I occasionally daydream about getting some cool Edible Reading business cards printed and dropping them off surreptitiously in restaurants and cafes to try and spread the word. Although I can picture the front perfectly (the lion logo, printed on crisp good quality card stock) the words on the back are harder to imagine. Would it just have the website link? A quick biography of some description? One thing you could definitely include in the blurb, though, is this: Will travel for sushi.

Well, if you live in Reading you kind of have to (once you’ve tired of Yo!, anyway). But I don’t find that a hardship, because I just adore the stuff. Done well, sushi is a real art form – in the literal sense – and so once I clapped eyes on The Sushi Maki I knew that going back was inevitable, if only to see whether it could supplant Misugo, my go-to sushi restaurant in Windsor, in my affections. After all, Newbury is an awful lot easier to get to – a nicer train trip, out through the beautiful West Berkshire countryside, with none of the horrors of changing at Slough.

Returning for a weekend lunch visit the place was much more serene, but if anything with less people you could see even better what a little, tasteful restaurant it was: a handful of high tables, seats at the window and along the bar, capacity for barely more than twenty people. Smart without trying too hard, a look I particularly admire. Each place was laid out with a small bowl for soy sauce, a red paper napkin and a pair of chopsticks – just the right side of the divide between pared back and austere.

I once read somewhere that in Japan restaurants specialise, so you’ll get a sushi restaurant, or a yakitori restaurant, or a ramen joint. In that sense if no other, The Sushi Maki is authentic: the menu is small, without the distraction of bento boxes, rice or noodle dishes, katsu curry or big plates of tempura. Instead it really is practically all sushi and sashimi, mostly familiar combinations with a few daily specials up on the blackboard behind the bar.

Now, from here on in it starts to get tricky. Much as I love sushi, it turns out that it’s quite difficult to write about, mainly because it’s all variations on a theme – rice, fish and, well, some other stuff. And there’s only so much you can do to lift the monotony, especially when the main other thing you’re eating is sashimi which is made of, err, the same fish you’ve just had in the sushi, most likely. So if what follows is a bit too much like a list I’m sorry, and you’ll have to take my word for it that it was more fun to eat than it was to read about.

We started with the sushi roll selection – four lots of four sushi rolls, the daily special up on the chalkboard. Some of this was downright beautiful like my favourite, the crunchy tempura prawn, all light clean flavours, a swoosh of teriyaki on top with – and I’ve never tried this before – what seemed to be crisped rice on the outside. The same technique was used in the spicy tuna roll, which was equally tasty (although it looked like there was mayonnaise inside, which I found a tad strange). Snow crab and cucumber rolls had that jarring mayo too but even so they were a delicate delight, with shreds of crab meat and laser cut slim batons of crunchy cucumber, specks of white and black sesame seed dotted around the outside (how I love sesame!). Last but not least, the salmon and tobiko roll was probably the closest to the kind of thing you’d pick off the conveyor at Yo!, salmon and avocado on the inside but loads of tobiko – bright orange roe – on the outside (not everyone will like the idea of that, but I take a certain childlike glee in feeling those tiny spheres burst between my teeth). That selection, sixteen pieces for fourteen pounds, felt like decent value.

SushiMaki1

We did go for a second round of sushi, out of pure gluttony. I had to have the spider crab roll because soft shell crab is one of my favourite things in all the world (how do these poor creatures survive when they’re so fragile and so delicious? I’ve always wondered) and it didn’t disappoint. The crab was lightly battered and fried – fairly recently, I’d guess, because it was still warm – and formed the centrepiece of big, thick sushi rolls topped with more of the teriyaki sauce and, in something of a kitchen sink approach, more of that tobiko. Only the avocado maki disappointed – the avocado was in big buttery chunks, but the maki weren’t well rolled and the seaweed didn’t quite meet perfectly. Still, bad avocado maki is better than no avocado maki, or indeed good most other things (except Frazzles. Gotta love Frazzles).

SushiMakiCrab

Oh, and we also had something called “sunshine roll”, mainly because of the name, with sweet prawn and cucumber inside, pieces of salmon sashimi draped on top and some more teriyaki sauce and tobiko to finish it off. This was so big that biting into it would have caused it to collapse, so instead I simply distracted my companion (“is that a wolf spirit fleece that woman is wearing?”), unhooked my jaw and gave it my best shot. I just about pulled it off. Anyway, the sunshine roll was quite nice, if not standout, and by this point I did feel like I was just eating something which felt like a slightly different permutation of everything I had eaten before. And that was the problem with the sushi in general, I think. It was nice. It was pretty. It was delicate. But it was all a bit lacking in distinct personality. Or maybe I just ordered too much of it, although I’m struggling to process the concept of too much sushi.

I also tried the sashimi, out of a combination of completism and gluttony. It was all good quality, beautiful sections of marbled fish and, just like the sushi, tastefully presented. But here I was mainly struck by how much you paid for how little. So the usual suspects, the salmon and tuna, were both lovely specimens – but three pieces of the latter cost you five pounds fifty. The mackerel (three pieces for a fiver) was also delicious and came topped with spring onions in soy, one of the only attempts to jazz up the presentation at all. Again, I liked it but I was very aware that down the road in Windsor you get more sashimi for less money, and you also know it comes from the fishmonger practically next door.

SushiMaki2

The drinks were good. I had a couple of thimbles of sake (50ml each, apparently) that had a gorgeous almost sweet taste which became even better once I’d started eating the sushi, all smooth with just a hint of banana. It was at room temperature and personally I’d have preferred it chilled, but maybe that’s me being a sake heathen. My companion has a thing about drinking beer with sushi – your guess is as good as mine – and apparently the Asahi was lovely. Service throughout was polite and quiet, almost shy, although neither the waitress nor the chef appeared to be Japanese (and neither was the name on the license, to my Western mind). The restaurant was busy with groups, lone people and a fair bit of takeaway trade but I never felt ignored or neglected and the total bill for rather a lot of food, plus two drinks each, was sixty-four pounds excluding tip.

So, a nice lunch then. But nice enough? Hmm, probably not quite: at some point in the meal – possibly in between the first batch of food we ordered and the second, failing that definitely between finishing the second batch and the bill arriving – I started to realise that The Sushi Maki was not going to become my go-to sushi place. It’s not a bad restaurant, by any means, and if it was in Reading I would probably go there quite often. The people of Newbury are lucky to have it right in the centre of town, and I can see it would be a good place for a light lunch, but I couldn’t imagine spending an evening there or it being a destination of itself. I found myself longing for the low tables at Misugo, the atmospheric lighting, the wider menu. Eventually, I just found the stools a little bit too high and uncomfortable, the tables a little bit too cramped, the sushi a little too pricey, and I’m afraid that’s the moment – pardon the pun, but it’s been coming for the whole review – when the scales fell from my eyes.

The Sushi Maki – 7.3
23 Market Place, Newbury, RG14 5AA
01635 551702

http://www.thesushimaki.co.uk/

Cosmo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CosmoTeppan

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

CosmoBuns

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

CosmoPork

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

CosmoDuck

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

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

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

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

Launchpad

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

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