Feature: The 10 Reading Dishes You Must Try Before You Die (or relocate)

It’s a while since I did a feature on the blog, but this one has been percolating for some time. Eighteen months ago I went on holiday to Malaga, and although it was a mixed bag, one thing I really loved was the food culture. I did a food tour which took me from restaurant to market to bar to restaurant, trying the best dishes from the best places, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself (I also spent much of the time apologising to all the lovely Europeans in my tour group about the Brexit referendum result, but that’s another story).

When I visited, Malaga was celebrating “Tapas Month” – well, it’s got to beat Veganuary – and participating restaurants had teamed up to put together a tapas trail across the city, each one offering a special edition tapa for a couple of Euros, only available for that month. I spent much of my trip wishing I could stop and try all the dishes – that, and wishing that I was on holiday with someone who would want to.

When I returned home, I pondered whether either of those things would work for Reading, but decided it was just too difficult in practice. What was I going to do, walk them to the farmer’s market and then take them to Sapana Home for momo? No dice: Reading was too small, and it definitely didn’t have enough of a small plates culture, so I abandoned the idea.

This year, I vaguely revisited the idea of readers’ events, namely lunches, and we’ve had two very successful ones so far – at Namaste Kitchen in January, and I Love Paella in May. At the latter, the kitchen (headed by the redoubtable Edgar) put together a set menu including a special dish: ox tail empanadas. They were easily one of the loveliest things I’ve ever eaten at I Love Paella: meat cooked into sticky, yielding strands, deeply savoury, all wrapped up in that astonishing light pastry.

If you were there, you’ll know how good they were, and if you weren’t you’ll have to take my word for it, because they were on offer for one day only. So I didn’t manage a tapas month, but for just one day we got our very own exclusive Reading tapa. If they’d made it on to the menu, they’d easily be one of the must-try dishes in Reading. But what else fitted that description, I got to thinking. What were Reading’s culinary equivalents of the Seven Wonders Of The World?

So my initial idea morphed into exactly that, and it crystallised when I was down the pub with, of all people, Martijn Gilbert, the outgoing CEO of Reading Buses. Martijn has kindly agreed to come out on duty with me before he leaves for pastures new (my way of saying thank you, you could say, for the splendid app which allows me to reply to texts from my mother like “what’s your ETA this evening and would you like a gin when you get here?”). But before that, I spent an evening showing Martijn round the splendid pubs of the Village and I found myself wondering: what should be on his gastronomic bucket list before he heads off to the North East to take up his shiny new job?

That’s when I decided – I would compile the list of Reading Dishes You Must Try Before You Die (or, less melodramatically, relocate). After painstaking research and contemplation, I’ve boiled it down to ten signature dishes which, I think, demonstrate the many faces of Reading’s magnificent independent restaurant scene. With one exception, they are dishes you can only get in Reading, or at least only get this version of here: and that means that there are no chains in this list, however much I like Honest Burgers or Franco Manca’s lovely anchovy and caper pizza (I’ve relaxed this rule for number 6, but it’s a tiny chain with two branches).

I’ve applied a couple of other rules: one was that I only picked one dish per restaurant, which excluded a lot of wonderful dishes. Another was that they had to be dishes from permanent restaurants, which meant that sadly, Peru Sabor’s delicious ox heart anticuchos and the incredible spiced chicken wraps from Georgian Feast didn’t make the cut. I should also add that I am not a vegetarian or a vegan and I have chosen on merit rather than by quota, which means only one vegetarian dish makes my list.

But you could fill an impressive enough list with all the other dishes that didn’t make the grade, from Papa Gee’s Sofia Loren pizza to Shed’s Top Toastie, from House Of Flavours’ lahsooni chicken tikka to London Street Brasserie’s fish and chips. You’ll doubtless have your own favourites which I’ve missed, and hopefully you’ll comment telling me how wrong I am: lists like this are made to be disagreed with, and that’s as it should be. But in any event, I hope there’s at least one dish on this list you’ve never tried, and that this piece makes you feel like giving it a whirl.

One final thought before I begin: this could have been a very different list if Namaste Kitchen was still offering its old menu, or if Dolce Vita was still with us. If nothing else, I hope people try some of these dishes out so I’m not lamenting the loss of any of these restaurants a year from now. And in a year’s time, who knows what this list might look like: after all, the venison bhuna from Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen already looks like a contender in the making, and that place has only been open a couple of weeks.

1. Big pot cauliflower, Memory Of Sichuan

Because, it turns out, Chinese bacon is a thing.

I can’t lie: Memory Of Sichuan can be an intimidating restaurant to walk in to. Most of the customers aren’t Western, and the ones that are aren’t eating from the proper menu, the one with all the good stuff on it. And even the proper menu can be quite an eye opener, with all sorts of dishes you wouldn’t recognize or wouldn’t want to try – duck blood here, pig’s ear there, like a cross between Old Macdonald Had A Farm and A Nightmare On Elm Street. But the big pot cauliflower is well worth it: I suspect it may have more going on than any of the other dishes on this list. So there’s cauliflower, of course, lovely firm florets of the stuff, but there’s also bacon like char siu, colossal quantities of garlic, spring onion and soy beans. By the end, at the bottom of the pot, you have a sticky, sweet mixture of all of the above just waiting to be chased round the dish with a fork, relentlessly hunted down and consumed. Order it and enjoy – and feel a little sorry for everybody there who’s making do with sweet and sour.

Memory Of Sichuan, 109 Friar Street, http://www.memoryofsichuan.co.uk/web/

2. Charsi chicken karahi, Kobeda Palace

The pride of the Oxford Road.

Earlier in the year I went to a house party on Brunswick Hill. I was reluctant about going, but I promised I would attend provided I could slope off and have dinner at Kobeda Palace – well, it was just round the corner after all. But the Oxford Road’s Afghan grill house is well worth a hop on the number 17 bus (the 17 bus route is the backbone of Reading, don’t you know) any day of the week. The thing to do, if you can persuade your friends, is to order a huge dish of the chicken karahi – they sell it by the quarter of a kilo – and some naan and spend your time grabbing some chicken, shredding it off the bone (which never takes long) and scooping it up with the naan, along with the beautiful sauce packed with coriander, chilli and ginger. If you can’t persuade your friends, order half a kilo and have at it on your own. This really is one of Reading’s unsung, unforgettable dishes hiding in plain sight in one of Reading’s most unglamorous and little-known restaurants. The party, since you asked, was okay I guess. But the chicken karahi was out of this world.

Kobeda Palace, 409-411 Oxford Road, http://www.kobedapalace.co.uk/

3. Chilli paneer, Bhel Puri House

Vegetarian perfection, cubed.

I’ve written about Bhel Puri’s chilli paneer so many times you may be bored of hearing it, but it bears repetition: whether you’re vegetarian or not this is one of the very best things you can spend your money on in Reading. I introduced a good friend to this dish recently, after a long absence, and I got to experience just how wonderful it is through the eyes of somebody else. She enjoyed it so much her face struggled to register it, and instead you got an expression as if she was trying to solve an especially hard Sudoku. It’s so good it almost induces consternation, and I can sympathise: the first time you get that combination of crispy, sticky cheese and sweet green pepper – and the delight of spearing both with your fork and eating them in a single mouthful – is something you simply do not forget.

Bhel Puri House, Yield Hall Lane, http://bhelpurihouse.co.uk/

4. Dak-gang jeong, Soju

It’s KFC, but not as we know it.

It’s not even a month since my review of Soju, but from the moment I first ate their fried chicken I knew this was a dish I would be evangelising about to all and sundry. The coating was just right, the flesh underneath was spot on, the sauce had just the right mixture of hot and sour without any sweetness. I’ve thought about it dozens of times since, and wondered whether it would be over the top to go back simply to order the chicken and a cold beer, followed possibly by another portion of chicken and a cold beer. An instant classic.

Soju, 9-11 Kings Walk, https://www.thesoju.co.uk/

5. Double duck scotch egg, The Lyndhurst

Pub food, done right.

This choice will probably come as no surprise – The Lyndhurst won my World Cup Of Reading Restaurants earlier in the year on Twitter with good reason – but it’s still a thoroughly deserved entrant in my top ten. The Lyndhurst has transformed in the last eighteen months or so, offering a range of classic pub food (excellent fish and chips and a very creditable burger) along with cheffier, prettier things: I was particularly bowled over, on a recent visit, by a pork chop with a breathtaking wild garlic pesto. But the Scotch egg is the centrepiece – a generous duck egg, wrapped in duck meat and cooked so the outside has that crispy crust, the meat hasn’t dried out and the golden yolk is the perfect texture for oozing. I’ve even ordered one when I’ve just been at the Lyndhurst for drinks: is that just me?

The Lyndhurst, 88-90 Queens Road, http://www.thelyndhurstreading.co.uk

6. Gaeng massaman, Thai Table

The ultimate comfort food.

Most Thai food I can take or leave, but I always console myself with knowing that the bit at the end, where all that’s left is the coconut rice and the warming, aromatic sauce, is the best part. Thai Table’s massaman curry turns that on its head because although that bit is still amazing, the beef is simply spectacular – cooked until it completely falls apart, no resistance or (worse still) bounce at all. If I was feeling a bit defeated by life, or worried about the state of the world, I can’t think of any dish on this list I would sooner eat. The spice is there, but sweetened with the coconut milk and the fish sauce the whole thing comes out feeling like an embrace.

Thai Table, 8 Church Road, http://www.thaitable.co.uk/

7. Lamb shawarma wrap, Bakery House

The sandwich of the gods.

Bakery House’s menu is an embarrassment of riches, many of which could easily have made it onto this list. The baby chicken, more boneless than a Tory Remainer and far more appetising, is one of my favourite things to eat there – as are the perfectly light falafel, not to mention the chicken livers, in a rich sauce which manages to be both fruity and fiery. But in the end, it was impossible to look past the lamb shawarma. How Bakery House manages to pack such rich flavour into shards of lamb I will never know, but when you team that up with a smudge of tahini, salad and sharp, crisp pickles you have the perfect sandwich. Well worth a short lunchtime walk out of town and miles better than anything you could pick up at the likes of Pret A Manger.

Bakery House, 82 London Street, http://bakeryhouse.co/

8. Quiche Lorraine, Workhouse Coffee

Greg’s 1, Gregg’s 0.

Workhouse Coffee might not be everybody’s first choice of a lunch venue. It has little to offer the tea drinker – owner Greg Costello seems to hold tea drinkers in much the same regard as I hold members of Britain First – and you may want somewhere with wi-fi, or comfy seats, or even a readily accessible loo. You might want to see the prices of everything clearly listed, and who could blame you? These are all fair challenges, but what you can’t knock is the wide array of baked goods and sandwiches he lays on (figuratively not literally, thank Christ). I once Tweeted that Workhouse’s quiche Lorraine should be available on the NHS and I stand by that. It’s a marvel: crumbly buttery pastry, creamy egg, salty bacon and ribbon upon ribbon of sweet, caramelised onion. Order one for lunch when you have some time to spare (they don’t arrive at your table too quickly) and properly take your time eating one of Reading’s great dishes. Far more expensive than the steak bakes up the road on the market place, but worth every single penny. I’ve eaten this many times, but never stopped to take a photograph: I think that tells its own story.

Workhouse Coffee, 10-12 King Street, http://www.workhousecoffee.co.uk/

9. Spiced chicken salad, I Love Paella at The Fisherman’s Cottage

Yes, I picked a salad. Deal with it.

This is, no doubt, where I will part company with many of you. How could I overlook the empanadas? The goat’s cheese, its surface golden and grilled, served with tomato jam? The salt cod churros, the kind of fishfingers Captain Birdseye would make if he actually gave a shit about food? And the chicken paella, the seafood paella, the arroz negro? Have I gone mad? Well, maybe, but the understated star of the menu is the spiced chicken salad. This chicken – thighs, as always with ILP – is beautifully spiced and liberated from the starch of a paella or some bravas it really sings. The salad – leaves and halved cherry tomatoes – might look like not much, but it’s everything. And the dressing is oil but no vinegar, leaving a dish that is all sweetness and spice with no sharpness. Ironically I’d never have had this dish if it wasn’t for my mother – it’s the kind of thing she would order and I would avoid like the plague – but I went to ILP with her once and she chose the chicken salad. My exasperated eye-rolling was replaced with powerful food envy. I’ve been ordering it ever since. (N.B. I Love Paella has now left the Fisherman’s Cottage and is looking for premises elsewhere in Reading. I understand the Fisherman’s might still do a chicken salad, but I haven’t tried it so can’t recommend it.)

I Love Paella, 3 Canal Way, http://ilovepaella.co.uk/thepub/

10. Suckling pig, Pepe Sale

Roast dinners around Reading.

I’m often asked what the best roast dinner in Reading is, and I always cop out, telling people I don’t really review Sunday lunches. Reading used to have a magnificent blogger who did exactly that, and now he has moved to London where he writes brilliant weekly reviews. I’ve always thought that Sunday roasts are best done at home where you can have them exactly how you like and time everything perfectly. But actually, on reflection, there is a clear candidate for the best roast in Reading, the only drawback being that you can only order it on Friday and Saturday nights. Pepe Sale’s suckling pig is a phenomenal piece of work – beautifully dense slabs of pork, no sign of dryness, along with a crackling that’s so good you could almost weep. I realised in the course of writing this piece that I don’t have a photo of this dish, which is the cosmos’ way of telling me to go back soon.

Pepe Sale, 3 Queens Walk, http://pepesale.co.uk/

So, come on then: what did I miss?

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Memory Of Sichuan

Early last year I received a lovely email from a woman called Claire. In it, she said that she’d noticed from my review of Chinese restaurant Happy Diner – now defunct, as it happens – that I’d wished I had a Mandarin speaker with me. As luck would have it, Claire had just returned from six years in Shanghai working for Time Out, and she kindly offered her services if I ever needed a dining companion who could decipher the (always more interesting) Chinese language menus in such places. In particular, she asked if I needed any help reviewing Furama, which had recently rebranded as Memory Of Sichuan. It was her favourite cuisine, and she said she could help me try out all the best dishes.

It was a brilliant offer, but back then I had a regular dining companion, and anonymity to consider, so I said thanks but no thanks. Eighteen months on, all sorts of things have changed – not least that Claire has gone on to become the editor of Explore Reading and the town’s Queen Of New Media. Things have also changed on my side, and now that I’m recruiting, cajoling and pressganging people to accompany me on reviews I couldn’t think of a better person to come and try out Memory Of Sichuan with me. Fortunately she said yes, which is why you get to read this review today.

In the run-up to the visit, I looked at the menu online, completely bewildered by the options. Pig’s ear, frog’s legs, tripe, duck blood curd: everywhere I looked there was something I didn’t much fancy trying. Who knew that China had quite such an amazing array of fauna and so few scruples about hacking it up and exposing pretty much any part of any of it to a direct heat source before dishing it up to customers? The descriptions of some of the dishes had definitely been lost in translation too, especially something called Sichuan Mentioning Surface (“ignore that”, said Claire, “those are dan dan noodles”).

I felt apprehensive as the evening approached, even more so when I reviewed the Trip Advisor reviews for some vague idea of what to expect. The general consensus seemed to be of disappointing food and service which was rude verging on openly hostile. Again, Claire was reassuring. Most of those reviews seem to be about the (less exotic) all you can eat menu, she said. “Besides,” she added, “brusque service is authentic. I once had a waitress tell me to fuck off. In China, if you’re not shouted at by waiting staff you’re paying too much money for your food.”

This, along with a promise that we wouldn’t order any offal, put my mind mostly at rest and so we turned up at the restaurant on a rainy weekday evening ready to take our chances. Claire was hoping for a Proustian reminder of the city she had left behind, I was hoping to make it through the evening without having to suppress my gag reflex. What could possibly go wrong?

The interior was about as nondescript as restaurants get, so much so that I struggle to recall it now. A carpet with one pattern, chairs with another. Biggish tables covered with crisp white tablecloths. It said conference centre more than restaurant: really, if you placed whiteboards in every corner you’d half expect a team building exercise to break out. A small smattering of the tables were occupied, and the vast majority of the customers were Chinese.

“Notice what’s different about this place?” said Claire.

I was stumped.

“No sofa. In all your other reviews of Chinese restaurants, you talk about the sofa at the front, but there isn’t one here.”

She was right: no takeaway on offer. I reflected on the menu at the same time as being impressed that she had done her homework. If anything, it was even more intimidating than it had been online – a huge thing, with far more dishes than I remembered. There were still more terrifying sounding dishes (“crab ovary with fired (sic) bean curd”, anybody?) and notes at the bottom of the page tersely telling you that the dish you ordered might bear no relation to the photographs in the menu: on reflection, I decided this might be no bad thing. One section, to ram this point home, said “NO Imagination on Physical Vision” in big stern letters in the middle of the page.

Even stranger was the other difference between the paper menu and the menu online: the prices had been massively hiked. Every dish we had considered ordering had gone up in price, usually by around three pounds. On one level, this is just one of those things: not all restaurants are brilliant at keeping their websites up to date. But on the other hand, Memory Of Sichuan had been open a couple of years at most, so it was hard to understand why they’d increase the price of some of their dishes by something approaching fifty per cent. And in some cases, it just made it impossible to pick a dish without the order sticking in your craw. Ten pounds ninety for sautéed green beans? How could green beans possibly cost that much unless they had either been covered in gold leaf or cooked by my therapist? It was almost worth ordering them just to find out, but ultimately we decided that this might well be how a fool and their money achieved a conscious uncoupling.

Of course, you probably reckon by now that this review is hurtling towards a horrifying denouement. If so, think again, because all of what we had was interesting, much of it was rather good and some of it was spectacular. The first dish to arrive was described on the menu as “Hunan mouthwatering chicken”, although Claire told me that this is often more literally translated on menus in Shanghai as “saliva chicken”. This didn’t raise my hopes enormously, but what turned up really was beautiful – tons of chicken with thin batons of cucumber, sesame seeds and peanuts, all sitting in a thin but potent sauce.

Claire told me that they boil the chicken and then almost blanch it in cold water to stop it overcooking and ruining the texture, and it really pays off – I was worried it would be rubbery, as chicken in Chinese restaurants can often be, but this was like the very best roast chicken a few hours later, when you want to cram it in a sandwich despite knowing that you’re still full. I’d say the Sichuan dish, though, might be an even better thing to do with the stuff. “The sauce isn’t as brick-red as I was hoping” said Claire, “but the flavour is all there.” And she was right, it was simply extraordinary: hard to describe, but almost like a grittier, earthier satay with none of the cloying sweetness satay can have.

This was also my first encounter with Sichuan heat. “It’s very different to what you’re probably used to” said Claire, “it builds up more gradually and it numbs the tongue.” She pointed to the black specks, Sichuan peppercorns. And it’s true – it was hot, but not excruciating, and the anaesthetised feeling in my mouth made me feel like I’d just crunched on a Tyrozet. But more to the point, it just tasted fascinating. I’d not had anything like it, and if I’d just looked at the picture on the menu I’d never have ordered it. I spooned more of the sauce onto my plate, tamped some plain white rice into it, made a pig’s ear of eating it with chopsticks and found myself excited about what was to come.

The two relative duds were, I think, the dishes Claire was relying on most to induce a madeleine moment. Ma po tofu, silken tofu in a spicy sauce with minced pork, managed to leave me nonplussed and Claire disappointed. “It’s not wobbly enough”, she said, showing that she’d spent long enough in China to forget that unless you’re talking about panna cotta or jelly, “wobbly” is rarely a good adjective in food. But the worst crime was that something so exotic could be so bland. Perhaps it was muted after the chicken (the chicken was a tough act to follow) but I didn’t see much to like about it. For my tastes, the tofu was pleasingly firm, but there wasn’t enough minced pork, there were no contrasts of texture in the dish and I wasn’t fired up to finish it.

Dan dan noodles are Sichuan’s traditional street food dish, and they’re named after the pole – carried across the shoulders with a basket at either end – used by the street vendors who originally sold the dish to passers-by, something that sounded a lot more interesting than grabbing an 80p Twix from the vending machine next to reception (a lot more likely to result in you actually getting any food in return for your money, too). Memory of Sichuan’s version was a little overcooked for my liking. I was assured this was authentic – there’s no word for al dente in Mandarin, after all – but even so lukewarm noodles didn’t hugely appeal to me. It wasn’t just me, though, because Claire was equally underwhelmed. Again, there was nothing pleasing about the texture, the sauce was a bit ordinary and neither the pak choi nor what I assume was more minced pork heaped on top. This dish also went unfinished, although that’s partly about the sheer quantity of food we ordered.

“That’s sad,” said Claire. “They can be much better than this. That’s basically the fish and chips and Cornish pasty of Sichuan cuisine.”

I think I’d rather have had fish and chips and a Cornish pasty, but never mind. Later on Claire described them to me as “mamahuhu”, a magnificent expression which translates as “horse horse tiger tiger” and, for reasons which I’ve had explained to me and forgotten, means “so-so” (maybe it’s because it’s neither one thing nor the other).

If we’d stopped there it might have been a sorry state of affairs, but the remaining two dishes were among the very best things I’ve eaten in Reading this year. First up, something the menu described as “Big Potted Cauliflower”. We’d ordered this instead of the eye-wateringly expensive green beans, but at nearly twelve pounds I was still half-expecting to be disappointed. But it was so much more than just cauliflower – firm but not crunchy florets, a ton of garlic, spring onions and, underneath, soy beans in a rich sticky salty-sweet sauce. On top were dark slabs of what I initially thought was aubergine. “No,” said Claire, smiling, “this is Chinese bacon. I used to dream about this stuff when I came back to England.”

What a dish! It had everything – so many different things to combine and so many perfect mouthfuls to construct. The bacon was almost a saltier char siu, and a piece of that, a small floret, some garlic, some beans and that sauce made for an almost perfect forkful (I’d moved on from chopsticks by then, mainly to make the most of this dish). Some of the best moments of this dish came right at the end, scraping the bottom of the pot and enjoying the very last of the beans, glazed in a sauce somehow simultaneously as sweet as honey and as savoury as Marmite.

If that was hard to top, the final dish came very close. Beef with cumin is again a pretty understated way to describe what I ate. Here’s the overstated way to describe it: impressively light clouds of tender beef, absolutely groaning with cumin. Beef is another meat I’ve always approached with caution in Chinese restaurants, but the texture of this was so delicate you almost didn’t know where it ended and the seasoned coating began. Claire told me that the wok will have been so hot that the beef spent next to no time there before being served up, and I could well believe it. Again, the dish was good right to the end, and once the last of the beef was gone I found myself wolfing down the strands of onion, just about cooked and again festooned with cumin. This dish, like the chicken and the cauliflower, was completely picked clean by the end.

Service was actually lovely throughout – quiet, deferential, not remotely matey but nobody told me to fuck off even once and there was certainly no shouting. It might have helped that my dining companion could ask for the bill in Mandarin and pronounce Tsing Tao properly, but quite possibly not. The bill, for all that food and two beers each, came to seventy-eight pounds, not including service. That’s a lot, but I would say that the food we had would definitely have fed three, if not four.

Later on Claire and I discussed the rating and we both agreed that it was problematic. Memory Of Sichuan is, it has to be said, on the expensive side. The room is pretty uninspiring, and the menu is so gargantuan that it induces the same kind of paralysis I get when I fire up Spotify. I couldn’t guarantee to anyone dining there that absolutely anything they picked would be good. Normally when I review a restaurant I am basing it on a single visit but, more than usual, I’m aware that I’m also basing it on this particular set of dishes, and not everyone will have a Mandarin-speaking accomplice to go with. All that weighs against the place (although it’s worth saying that the two disappointing dishes were also on the all you can eat menu, so perhaps just stay away from that).

And yet on the other hand, the three standout dishes here rank among the best things I’ve eaten in Reading – and if not the best, certainly the most surprising and unusual. Memory Of Sichuan is worth it, even if you just go once, to take your taste buds on a holiday. I’ve thought about those dishes pretty much every day since my visit, and that doesn’t happen often. So I’ll definitely go back, and I’ll try just enough of the things I know while adding something new each time. And if there are some duffers in there, so be it, because a relationship with a restaurant is a bit like any other relationship: everyone has off days. Towards the end of the meal Claire looked around and said “we’re the only Western customers in here eating from the Sichuan menu”. Well, we were that night, but I for one hope that changes.

Memory Of Sichuan – 7.6
109 Friar Street, RG1 1EP
0118 9575533

http://www.memoryofsichuan.co.uk/web/