Pho

“You never go on a review with two other people, do you?” said Reggie as he, Claire and I took our seats at Pho. I’d been due to go on duty just with Reggie, but Claire and I were having a quick drink after work when Reggie came to join me and we had one of those “let’s put on the show right here” moments. Looking across at my two friends, side by side like an interview panel, I realised that they might well spend much of the evening taking the piss out of me. Oh well, at least I’d get to try more starters.

“Well, not recently. I mean, I have in the past. It’s not like I have a legion of friends to choose from.”

Reggie smiled. “Three people, I like it. It might be a bit quirky.” Reggie is a big fan of Tony Blair and, like Tony Blair, I sometimes think he’s a little too worried about his legacy. Claire did a face I recognise, where she looked like she was rolling her eyes without actually doing so: it’s a neat trick, if you can manage it. I resolved to write a review as lacking in quirks as possible: that’ll teach him, I thought.

The inside of Pho is very nicely done indeed. You wouldn’t ever know it was once one of Reading’s many Burger Kings – inside it’s all dark wood and muted lighting, with big wicker shades hanging from the ceiling. The furniture, despite playing to the usual school chair trope, looks comfy enough to linger in and the bigger oval tables at the back of the restaurant seemed perfect for larger groups (nice, too, to see some tables outside – I can see that on hotter days that could be lovely). We were in one of the booths in the middle section of the restaurant and very pleasant it was too, easily large enough for four rather than the squeeze it can be at, say, CAU.

A waitress came over and asked if we’d been to Pho before, and given our mixed response she kindly explained the menu to us. It didn’t really take much explaining – certainly not enough to need to make a thing of it, anyway. There were starters, salads, rice dishes, noodle dishes and of course the pho (pronounced “fuh” rather than the name of the restaurant, which is pronounced “foe” – got that?), the traditional Vietnamese dish of soup and noodles which takes up much of the menu.

The horse trading began fairly straightforwardly – we agreed to share three starters, and picked two Claire had already tried and one Claire hadn’t (Claire, as she pointed out to us, had been to Pho many times). It became more difficult when we got to the mains.

“I think you of all people ought to try the pho”, said Claire. “It is their signature dish, after all.”

“But should I have the pho too, or should I have a rice dish? I really fancy the rice dish, but is it like having the Prego steak roll in Nando’s?” said Reggie. That legacy thing again.

“I quite liked the look of the rice dish” I said, “so if you want, have a pho and I’ll have the broken rice.”

“No, you should definitely have the pho,” said Reggie. “But maybe I should have the pho as well. No, I should have the rice. Or maybe I should have the pho.”

Normally, I would be saying how great it was that a menu provided you with such tough choices – with any other dining companion, anyway, but I suspect this is just Reggie. He changed his mind another couple of times before our waiter turned up, and even when he did I half expected poor Reggie to toss a coin. Our waiter was friendly and likeable and talked us through the options, congratulated some of us on our choices, recommended beers, the whole shebang. He was really very good.

“I’ve been here a few times” said Claire, not for the first time “and he’s definitely the most engaged of the lot.”

“He sat down next to me to take my order.” I said. “Surely that’s not normal.”

“I could tell you had a problem with that” said Reggie, who does enjoy the fact that I’m nearly twenty years older than him. “You visibly tensed up.” Well, it’s possible. I also had a problem with the fact that our beers – Saigon for me, Ha Noi for Reggie – turned up without glasses, but I felt too old and fuddy-duddy to ask for one. Besides, I was wishing I’d had a coffee martini like Claire’s – sweet with condensed milk, it was more like a White Russian than a martini. More than a sip of hers, and the regret would have been too much.

Our starters arrived quicker than I’d personally have liked, but they all looked nice enough. The goi cuon, summer rolls with chicken, were light, delicate things; rice paper parcels mainly filled with shredded vegetables and vermicelli noodles, a thin strip of chicken along one edge. You dipped them in the nuoc cham, a slightly anonymous sweet dipping sauce with, allegedly, fish sauce and lime in it. Reggie and I used our hands while Claire, just to show us up I suspect, deftly wielded chopsticks. They liked the summer rolls more than I did – I thought they showed how fine the line can be between subtle and bland. “They’re especially good in the summer. Well, obviously” said Claire.

Nem nuong, it turns out, are Vietnamese meatballs rather than that odd looking mouse with jowls from Return Of The Jedi. These were more my sort of thing – six sizeable spheres of coarse meat on skewers. They were pork and lemongrass, although I didn’t get as much of the latter as I’d have wanted. You were encouraged to wrap them in lettuce and dip them in the peanut sauce, but there wasn’t quite enough lettuce to easily do that and although I loved the peanut sauce it did rather obliterate your hopes of tasting much else. I liked this dish more than Reggie and Claire did, which makes me wonder if they, with their more refined palates, should have written this review instead of me.

The last of our starters was muc chien gion, fried baby squid. This came with a bit of self-assembly – a little dish with pepper and chilli which you squeezed half a lime into, mixing it with chopsticks to make a dip. This was a lot of fun, although it didn’t make much dip; perhaps more than half a lime was called for. As for the squid, I thought it didn’t seem like an awful lot for seven pounds. What there was I quite enjoyed, although it was wayward – some of it was very intensely seasoned, some not at all. Baby squid was about right, too – much of it seemed to be shrapnel, which tested our chopstick skills. Well, everybody’s except Claire’s.

Opinion was divided on which starter was the best. Reggie and Claire favoured the squid, I preferred the meatballs. Perhaps most tellingly, the summer roll had come in four bits and there wasn’t a pitched battle for the spare quarter. While we waited for the mains to turn up Reggie and Claire settled on their favourite conversational topic, which seemed to be critiquing previous reviews I’d written and saying that the rating didn’t match the write-up. It was part-meal, part-audit.

Our main courses, again, came relatively quickly. I’d gone for the pho dac biet, a sort of greatest hits with chicken, prawns and garlicky beef. It came with a side plate of optional garnishes – beansprouts, mint and coriander, chilli and lime. I expected pho to be hard work to eat, and it was: you desperately try to fish out the floppy noodles, with chopsticks, using the big flat wooden spoon as a platform to make it easier. Then you use the spoon to sip the broth. Couldn’t be simpler, you might think, but I managed to make it incredibly complicated.

Throughout the whole thing I found myself thinking that if everything was tastier the experience would have been more than worth the faff, but again I found the dish understated almost to the point of being silent. The steak, what there was of it, had genuine flavour and the prawns were big firm things. The chicken seemed to be exactly the same as that in the summer rolls, just pale white featureless protein. But the broth, which I’d anticipated so keenly, didn’t have the kind of warmth, depth or complexity I was so looking forward to. As for the noodles, let’s not go there. I left a fair amount, mainly because I was a bit bored of wearing my dinner by then. It’s rare for me not to finish food, and that perhaps tells its own story.

Claire told me I should pep up my pho with some of the gubbins on the table: well, in the immortal words of GetReading, “there are plenty of condiments on offer”. I slugged in a bit of fish sauce, stopping shy of the sriracha or chilli paste. I might have had some of the garlic vinegar, but Reggie – in an inexplicable fit of clumsiness – had managed to dish it up all over his trousers, practically a whole jar of the stuff. (“Don’t write about that. You’re going to write about that aren’t you?” he said: umm, yes Reggie, I am.) Maybe I didn’t enter into the spirit of things, but I expected it to taste more interesting before I added stuff to it. I’m sure this is a cultural thing: after all, in most Western restaurants they don’t actively encourage you to season your own food.

Claire had ordered better than me, going for the bun bo hue, a spicier soup with slow-cooked brisket and extra chilli paste on the side. It looked the part – brick-red and oily, with lots of strands of beef, and the heat in it was much more interesting. I’m still not sure I would have ordered it, or that I’d have enjoyed a whole bowl of the stuff, but it made an interesting contrast to mine. Actually, it tasted like mine with the contrast dialled up.

“I should have had the pho, shouldn’t I?” said Reggie. His dish – com tam dac biet, or broken rice with chicken – looked good, and the chicken thigh was nicely cooked and tasty, the tiny mouthful I grabbed with chopsticks oversold the dish. I got all the best of it in that mouthful but the chicken ran out fast and there was a lot of bland rice underneath to wade through. No wonder Reggie reached for, and ended up bathing in, the garlic vinegar.

“This room is so lovely that I always like it here, but I always want to like the food more than I do,” said Claire as we finished our drinks. Our bowls had been taken away and I wondered what was on the dessert menu and whether anything would tempt us to stay. I had half a mind to try the Vietnamese coffee having been told by friends that it was the kind of sweet milky delight I enjoy (the main reason I’ll never make a coffee connoisseur).

“It’s very solid, I mean it’s nicely done. The room and everything,” said Reggie, who knows a bit about this sort of thing.

“But where have all the staff gone?” I said.

“This is a bit of a trend I’ve experienced recently around town,” said Claire. “They’re brilliant when they seat you and take your order, but then you never see them again.”

Claire was right, and in the time we sat there left unattended we went from “let’s have another drink and look at the dessert menu” to “let’s have a look at the dessert menu” to “sod this for a game of soldiers, let’s pay up and go to the Alehouse”. It was a week night, and the restaurant wasn’t busy; there were staff, but they just didn’t show any interest in coming to our table. All very odd. The meal for three came to sixty-two pounds, not including tip. The Alehouse had a very pleasing booth waiting for us, my cider was cold and fresh and, if anything, Reggie’s trousers smelled even funkier in a more confined space.

When we compared notes, our provisional ratings were all in the same ball park. Reggie liked it the least, although you might be able to put that down to his whiffy trousers (or, to use the technical term, “jeans Kiev”), and Claire the most, which might come down to her having been to Vietnam and actually being able to use chopsticks. I was in the middle: wanting to like the restaurant, loving the space, being frustrated by the service. But, worst of all, I was underwhelmed by the food. I’ve had Vietnamese food before, at a place in Glasgow called Hanoi Bike Shop, and it blew me away; everything sang and zinged with flavours I’d never experienced and yes, it was all clean but never anodyne. Pho didn’t come close to that. Not for the first time in nearly five years of doing this gig, I wondered what I was missing.

It’s a pity, because there is a lot to like about Pho: the room is great, the menu is excellent for vegetarians, vegans and people who choose to eat gluten free, but none of that matters if the food doesn’t hit the spot. Perhaps if they did banh mi – the other great dish of Vietnam and one sadly not represented on the menu – I would go back one lunchtime to try it. But as it was I just couldn’t see myself picking Pho over one its local rivals, whether that was Royal Tandoori for heat, Namaste Kitchen for noodles or Honest for quick, simple casual dining. So, not a quirky review this week but instead one of quiet disappointment: the gap between inoffensive and offensive is admittedly much bigger than the fine line between subtle and bland, but it doesn’t bode well when inoffensive is the best you can do.

Pho – 6.6
1-1a Kings Walk, RG1 2HG
0118 3914648

https://www.phocafe.co.uk/locations/reading/

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Happy Diner

Happy Diner closed, by all accounts, over the summer of 2017. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I’ve always felt that when I go to a Chinese restaurant I am missing something important about how to order. I don’t speak Mandarin so the special menu (or the beautiful back pages of a menu) for real Chinese people to order from are lost on me. Instead it seems like every Chinese restaurant is selling the same dishes and with a few notable exceptions – cue my inevitable mention of sadly-departed Reading institution Chi – the experience is always the same; great starters, more crispy duck than is strictly wise and then adequate mains, all served by incredibly polite staff who somehow make the experience feel a little like I’m eating in a library.

Since I started this blog I don’t think I’ve made any progress with Chinese food at all. And it’s not like I don’t know that Chinese food can be wonderful – I still have vivid food daydreams about a sizzling chicken dish I had in Chinatown, rich with a slick savoury sauce, bubbling in a stone pot also containing seemingly a hundred pungent garlic cloves – but here in the provinces we don’t seem to get anything like that. I know it might be my fault, watching food arrive at other tables and wondering “what have they ordered? Have they picked better than me?” before returning to my prawn toasts, satay, disappointment.

Stepping into Happy Diner on a school night didn’t give me the sense that this review was going to be the one to change all that. If anything, the large, chevron-shaped room felt more like a conference centre than a restaurant. There were the obligatory sofas at the front for folk collecting takeaways, there was a fish tank filled with beautiful shimmering koi and then there was a large, long room with Chinese murals (of varying quality) on the walls. The tables were heavily draped and the chairs were the padded metal-framed ones which always – along with excitable uncles and Come On bloody Eileen – remind me of wedding receptions. And yes, it was like eating in a library: only two or three other tables were occupied, all spread out in that big space. Presumably this was done to give people privacy, but it felt a little isolating to me.

After polishing off the mandatory polystyrene prawn crackers with sweet chilli sauce I was even less convinced this was going to be The One. We started with a couple of dishes that, in retrospect, weren’t the most well-balanced. The “smoke dry spicy chicken happy diner style” resembled Chinese chicken nuggets; slivers of chicken, about the size of whitebait, that had been lightly dusted then fried. It was hard to detect any smokiness and they certainly weren’t dry – the paper doily (yes, a doily! How long is it since you’ve seen one of those?) they were served on was sheer with the amount of oil it had soaked up. So if they weren’t smoky and they weren’t dry, what were they? Mainly sugary: even the finely chopped green chilli on top tasted candied and sweet rather than adding the jolt it so badly needed. Oh, and huge – a pile so gigantic that we left close to half. Even then that meant we ate quite a lot. They were curiously addictive, but in the same way that Percy Pigs are.

HappyStarters

The other starter, salt and chilli squid, was similarly problematic. Done well this is one of the best things in the world, but Happy Diner’s version didn’t quite get there. The squid was nicely soft, the batter was light and again, the pile of squid was massive but, again, blandness was the order of the day. What didn’t help was that the pieces of squid themselves were equally gigantic – so big that I either had to pick up a bit and try to bite it (not the most delicate of operations) or pop a whole piece in and try not to choke or burn my tongue. Smaller, crispier bits of squid would have been lovely, but this was just a big fluffy cloud of frustration. The best bit was the mixture of the little crunchy salty bits of batter and the (hotter this time) chillies. It made me glad my companion had opted for cutlery, because I was never going to scoop up that delicious goodness with my amateurish chopstick skills.

The next course – no surprises here – was the crispy duck. I knew this would be too much food, but I’m biologically programmed not to turn crispy duck down. I had a sinking feeling from the moment it turned up. You know that wonderful moment when the waiter crushes the duck under a spoon and starts to shred it? That beautiful cracking noise as the skin gives way and breaks? This was more of a dull squelch, and at that point I knew that this would be duck but it wouldn’t be crispy. Normally when the crispy duck arrives, I’m like a kid in a sweet shop (I want that bit! No, that bit! Oh, and that bit!) but here it was more of an effort to find pieces that would perfect my pancake. First world problems I know, but the whole thing about crispy duck is that it’s never, ever like this. There was definite eking required, in fact, to stretch this out to six pancakes, and the last one I had was just spring onions, cucumber and hoi sin (in the immortal words of Roy Walker, good but not right). The rest of the trimmings were much the same as in any Chinese restaurant but at the end of the course, instead of scooping up the delicious fragments with our fingers we were left with a sad and flabby pile of skin.

HappyDuck

The main courses arrived similarly swiftly and didn’t lift things; again, it felt like perhaps we’d ordered the wrong things rather than the dishes we picked being actively bad. King prawns in black bean sauce was probably the best (least worst?) of the evening, with plenty of fat prawns in a watery sauce which tasted better than it looked with discernible black bean, a decent hit of garlic and lots of crisp squares of red and green pepper and big pieces of onion. If I’d had it on a Saturday night in front of Take Me Out I’d probably have been satisfied, but somehow here it still felt like it wasn’t quite good enough.

HappyMains

I was hoping the other main would either take me back to my teenage years or show me exactly how a good Chinese restaurant really does sweet and sour chicken. It wasn’t quite the battered balls of my youth (and yes, I know how wrong that sounds) but it wasn’t much of an improvement on that either. The batter the chicken came in was soggy rather than crispy, the sauce was again thin and watery rather than coating the chicken (it wasn’t that indistinct, to be honest, from the stuff we were dipping our prawn crackers in not that long before). The vegetables in the sauce gave me a strong sense of déjà vu, too; crisp squares of red and green pepper and big pieces of onion (did a black cat just walk by?). Oh, and some pineapple, obviously. It made me miss Orient Express, which used to be next to Keegan’s bookshop, which used to be opposite what Shed used to be, and even writing that sentence makes me feel very old indeed and makes me realise how long it is since I’ve had lovely Chinese food in Reading.

On the side we had plain noodles which, not beating about the bush here, tasted a bit odd. Sort of salty but not NaCl salty. I can’t even explain how they were wrong, but they just weren’t good. My fault, perhaps, for not going with the more traditional rice, but I’m just not a fan of plain white rice and it felt like overkill to order egg fried rice as well. We left a lot of the main courses – this is of course traditional in Chinese restaurants, but it would have been nice to feel even a little regret at doing so.

Drinks were a glass of house red wine (described simply as “Italian”) which was decent enough and a couple of bottles of Tsingtao. Service throughout was very polite, friendly, efficient and ever so slightly distant, much as I expected it to be. We were far too full for the dentist-bothering delights of dessert (toffee apple, anybody?) so we munched on the mint imperials that came with the bill – crumbly rather than hard, which made me irrationally happy – instead. The total was fifty-four pounds excluding service. We wished them a Happy New Year as we left and, not for the first time, I felt like a fraud being polite to someone when I hadn’t much enjoyed eating in their restaurant.

So am I any the wiser? Probably not. I still feel like I don’t know what to order, I still don’t have the courage to venture into the more esoteric reaches of the menu (perhaps I’d take more risks if I hadn’t read David Sedaris’ entertaining essay on the perils of eating in China: I’d quote some, but a single sentence of his would show all of this up). Is it my fault that I didn’t like Happy Diner? Quite possibly; you can probably make your own mind up about that. But be that as it may, there’s one question it all comes down to, the main question really when you review a restaurant: would I go back? I stepped out of the door with Mya Lacarte on my right, I strolled down Prospect Street past Kyrenia with its lights glowing, a laughing table of eight in the window and Ihor leaning on the bar and I thought no, I can’t see when I ever would.

Happy Diner – 6.2
3 Prospect Street, RG4 8JB
0118 9483488

http://happydiner-reading.webs.com/

Art of Siam

N.B. Art Of Siam closed in December 2015. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I love eating out, really I do, but sometimes even I get a little jaded. The constant search for new places occasionally takes its toll, and from time to time Reading can feel like Indian after Italian after chain after chain. So for this week’s review I looked at the lovingly prepared, generously suggested list of dining options and I’m sorry to say that I really struggled to pick. The rain was bucketing down on and off and the thought of toddling over to Caversham or venturing out into the Berkshire countryside just didn’t appeal. What to do?

So I chose Art of Siam probably for all the wrong reasons; because it was conveniently central and because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d paid it a visit. I did make myself a promise this time, though: no starter platter, no pad Thai, no dishes that I’ve reviewed before in other places. I’m not always the most imaginative diner in a Thai restaurant, something even I know. This time, I told myself, it’s all going to be different. Besides, I imagine that any Thai restaurant worth its fish sauce will be able to rustle up a those dishes with the chef’s hands Thai’d (I know, I’m sorry) so it probably isn’t the best way to judge the kitchen.

On entering the almost empty restaurant on a rainy mid-week night I had conflicting feelings of comfort and trepidation. The dining room is the same as I remember from my first visit what must be ten years ago – beautiful wood panelling lining the walls, a scattering of Buddhas and a gorgeous wooden lattice covering the ceiling. Even the shuttered windows looking down on King’s Walk are attractive. Only a few things – like the rickety rattan chairs, several of them taped or repaired – make the room look a little tired. Apart from that, the effect is like stepping into a movie set; at once splendid and a tiny bit contrived. The tables are all set with branded Art of Siam plates (and wineglasses), elaborately folded cloth napkins and forks and spoons. It really is a gorgeous place to eat dinner – marred only if you get one of the seats overlooking the somewhat municipal corridor leading to the kitchen.

Service was quick, enthusiastic and a little, well, amateurish. In my quest to order something different for once I wanted plenty of advice only to find that the waitress didn’t really know her way around the menu. When I asked what was in some of the dishes, to help me choose, she suggested that one chicken dish contained onions and peppers, whereas another contained peppers and onions. Further questioning gave the impression that all the dishes were pretty much the same, in levels of vagueness if nothing else. When pressed she confessed that she had been working there for less than a week and so went off to ask the kitchen more about the dishes but even then, the answers didn’t make anything clearer.

Later on, what purported to be our mains turned up – except they bore no relation to what we had actually ordered. We looked at them slightly baffled for a minute or so and the waitress then swooped and carried them off to another table (which was especially galling as they looked delicious). The whole experience was friendly and pleasant but utterly chaotic, which left me thinking that the whole meal was going to be something of a lottery.

My sinking feeling didn’t last long, anyway, because – probably through luck more than judgment – the starters were very good indeed. The more conventional of them, toong tong, were essentially big fat wontons filled with minced chicken and prawn. So far, so conventional, but the filling was absolutely top notch. None of that disturbingly bouncy, gelatinous pinkness I’ve had at many other restaurants – instead, the filling was beautiful, dense and firm. The plum sauce they came with felt like an anonymous sweet dipping sauce, but it still added something to the dish (I was expecting plum sauce as you’d get in Chinese restaurants, probably wrongly, so was a tad disappointed). No starter in a Thai restaurant would be complete without a bit of vegetable sculpture so of course this was also accompanied with a flower made out of carrot. (I’ve never been hungry enough to eat one of these. Not yet, anyway.)

Thai

The standout dish though – not just among the starters but in the whole meal – was yum gai yang, or chicken salad. I’ve never had Thai salad before because, well, it’s salad, but this was in a different league. It was salad in the sense that it wasn’t served with a thick hot sauce, not in the sense of lettuce and tomato and celery. Instead I got slices of warm, freshly grilled chicken dressed with lemongrass, galangal, chilli and lime juice. The bits and bobs of vegetables it came with were merely for texture because it was all about the amazing dressing which was the perfect balance of hot and sour – just the right side of bearable heat and just the right side of enjoyable sharpness.

Maybe it’s just my lack of imagination in Thai restaurants, in fact I’m sure it is, but I’ve not had anything like this before. It was absolutely stunning – a dish I keep thinking about, remembering and wanting to have again, even though it made my lips ever so slightly numb, made my tongue blaze and made me order a cooling glass of milk. It was a funfair ride of a dish – I was shaken at the end but a little bit of me, in the back of my mind, was shouting “Again! Again!”

Thai2

Mains could never live up to that, but to their credit they weren’t far off. Pla chu chi, lightly battered white fish in a red curry sauce, was one of the biggest dishes I’ve been served in a long time. The sauce was a good one, although a little less generous than I’d have liked – especially after such a fiery starter – so not much to tip onto the rice (I’ve long thought the best bit of most Thai meals is that mixture of sauce and rice you end up with towards the end of the meal). In amongst the fish were slices of chilli big enough to kill a small child plus a dollop of coconut milk on top – just in case you hadn’t realised this was a rich and unhealthy dish.

Thai3

Gai phad bai kraprao, despite the long name, was probably the simplest dish I had: chicken stir fried with fresh chilli and Thai basil (and onions and peppers, not that that marked it out from the other chicken dishes on the menu by the sounds of it). Even so it was lovely with everything done just right: thin, tender slivers of chicken, soft sweet onions and a sauce which was more interesting than I was expecting, savoury and salty with a note almost of something like aniseed. Again, it was light on the sauce – I admire them for not drowning their main courses with gloopy sauce but it did leave me feeling my coconut rice (pleasant but unremarkable) was a tad underdressed.

The only real misfire was the other side dish; fried noodles turned out to be wide, flat, almost completely undressed, clumpy noodles which transformed into rubber bands within minutes of being brought to the table. I’m still not convinced that they really were fried, because they felt more like they’d been steamed into a state of abject surrender, but the waitress assured me they were. I pretty much left them, although I had quite enough food so it wasn’t a tragedy (the waitress offered to take them back to the kitchen and get them to re-fry them so I could take them home, which is very sweet but does rather miss the point).

The wine served here is allegedly exactly the same as in Thai Corner which makes me wonder if Monsoon Valley has managed to secure the only shipping containers that make it safely across to the UK. I say allegedly as it wasn’t the smooth easy drinking red I am used to from Monsoon Valley but after a couple of chilli-soaked slices of chicken it hardly mattered. It was just enough to take the edge off without getting silly on a school night. The total bill for two starters, two mains, two side dishes, two glasses of wine (and one absolutely indispensable glass of milk) was forty-three pounds excluding service – a steal for the quality of food and the boundless flavours on offer.

If I didn’t review restaurants, and I’d been going out that rainy midweek night, I’d have gone somewhere tried and tested. I’d have had something I often order and I’m sure I’d have liked it well enough. And some nights that’s what you want, something comfortable and reliable. But I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad that – for all its Italians and Indians and chains – Reading’s restaurants still have the capacity to surprise and that by going somewhere you’d taken for granted and forgotten all about, by taking a chance on something you wouldn’t normally order in a million years, you can still be ambushed by a wonderful meal. I hope you try it some time, if not in Art Of Siam then somewhere else. Either way, make the most of this because heaven knows, you won’t find me recommending the salad very often.

Art of Siam – 7.7
2A/3A The Walk, King Street, RG1 2HG
01189 512600

http://www.artofsiamuk.com/reading/aboutus.php

Tampopo

N.B. Tampopo closed in June 2015. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

If I’m honest, I wasn’t predisposed to like Tampopo. It always felt like another link in the vast chain of chains on the Oracle Riverside, a bookend at the opposite end of the shelf to Wagamama. I found the concept a bit strange: food from throughout East Asia, a range of dishes from – among others – Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia. Can you imagine a pan-European restaurant, serving boeuf bourguignon alongside pizza, paella, fish and chips, moussaka, schnitzel and herring? If you can imagine it, and I can’t, would you really recommend that anybody go to it?

So I turned up ready to be underwhelmed, and was pleasantly surprised from the moment I walked in. Like Wagamama, Tampopo offers the threat of communal eating – long tables which imply that, if the restaurant is busy, you won’t be eating on your own. Unlike Wagamama, they’ve made some effort to make that seem less stark and unpleasant – tables feel more compact, the seating is made up of (surprisingly comfy) stools rather than large benches and the lighting is warmer and more attractive, giving the room a glow. On a Monday night there was no danger of sharing a table with anyone, but even if I’d had to it wouldn’t have felt like the end of the world.

The culinary first impressions were also good. Edamame were considerably more interesting than their counterparts at the other end of the Riverside, dressed in chilli and sesame oil and coarse flakes of salt. The wine that accompanied them was also very good – a viognier was light and peachy and the Gewürztraminer was delicious, fresh with (at the risk of sounding like something out of the Carry On films) a strong hint of banana. They do glasses in 125ml, too – something I wish more restaurants would sign up to.

Regular readers will be unsurprised to hear that I ordered the “Tampopo sharing platter” to start. I’m beginning to feel less ashamed about this habit, rationalising it as an opportunity to try as many different things from the kitchen as possible (that’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it). And I’m unrepentant, because it was an excellent choice – a big black slate arrived at the table with six different items from the starter menu, neatly laid out in a grid, each with an accompanying dip or garnish.

StarterThe least remarkable were the coconut prawns – butterflied, breadcrumbed and served with sweet chilli sauce, they were the stuff of sharing platters everywhere. Everything else, though, was either a pleasant surprise or a very pleasant surprise. The chicken satay, for instance: so often a pedestrian space filler served up with some warm Sun-Pat, but Tampopo’s was a world away from that. The chicken was soft and tender (I wondered whether it might be minced rather than the fibrous fillet you usually get) and the sauce was deep, rich, chunky and much more savoury than satays in so many other places in Reading. The corn fritters made a pleasant change from the usual fishcake – lighter, taster and without the slightly disturbing sponginess fishcakes can have. The gyoza were plump and soft, full of minced pork, subtle and lighter to eat than they looked on the plate.

The last two were things I’ve not tried before. Goi cuon were cold, soft rice paper rolls packed with vegetables, noodles and coriander – fresh and clean, if almost impossible to eat tidily (whatever you think of a traditional spring roll, it’s at least easy to dunk in a dipping sauce). Bulgogi, Korean grilled beef, was also good, with a smoky char to it. It came served on a lettuce leaf which is meant to serve as an impromptu wrap – a great idea, although it did mean that the beef didn’t stay hot for long. That was fine though, because it didn’t stay uneaten for long. The only letdown was the kimchi that came with the beef – an oddly bland pile of cabbage without the eye-watering, intense taste I’m used to. It was the only place where the menu felt like it lacked the courage of its convictions.

I’m not one for listing the price of dishes in brackets in a restaurant review – there are other places you can go for that – but this one is worth emphasising: that selection of starters, for two, was £13.95. Pretty impressive stuff, and it built up a feeling of goodwill that the rest of the meal would have to go some to ruin. Good starters are like that.

Another nice touch came when the waitress – who was excellent all evening, friendly and helpful without being matey or patronising – took our empty slate (and extra napkins, because it’s messy stuff) away.

“Was that okay for you?”

“Yes, it was gorgeous.”

“I’m glad you liked it, it’s one of my favourites. I had it for lunch, actually.”

She was also full of good advice on which mains to order and came across as genuinely passionate about Tampopo’s food. Another waitress, later in the evening, asked what we made of the menu and showed real interest in feedback. She also told me that Tampopo was only a small chain (five branches, three of them in Manchester), and that Reading was the baby of the family, having only been open for three years. So much for my preconceptions about eating in a faceless chain – and in fact, a subsequent look at the website suggests that the owners either have a genuine passion for this kind of food or are phenomenally good at faking it. Either way I was struck that all of the serving staff felt like ambassadors for the restaurant, also a million miles from the experience in most chains.

Could the mains live up to the start? Well, not quite. Com Hué, a Vietnamese rice dish, was the biggest disappointment of the evening. It was almost like a Vietnamese paella – rice with chicken, squid and king prawns, along with coriander, red onion, spring onion and carrot. Bits of it were beautifully cooked – the squid in particular was more tender than I’d expected – but the overall effect was a bit restrained for my liking. I often worry with subtle food that it’s my fault for not having a refined enough palate, but the good Vietnamese food I’ve had has positively sung with flavour, whether it be mint or lemongrass or coriander. This had none of that, and I don’t think it was my fault. All the other dishes tasted of something, but this was food with the mute button on. I didn’t finish it.

Main2Happily, the other main course was streets ahead. Khao Soi, a Thai dish of chicken and yellow noodles in red curry sauce, was delicious. The sauce was creamy and coconutty with decent sized but perfectly soft pieces of chicken, the noodles were small enough to twirl and there were tasty crispy onion pieces on top. I was apprehensive because of the two chillies next to it on the menu but actually the flavour was well balanced with loads going on – a good whack of garlic and ginger with the creamy sauce taking the edge off the heat. This is the sort of curry I want to eat on a cold, wet night (and I probably will soon, Reading summers being what they are). What it reminded me of, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, was curry sauce from my local chip shop when I was a kid, when the chippie was a treat, all this eating out was a lifetime away and Thai food was still a few years from hitting our shores. I’m not even sure I’m saying it tasted like that, but it took me back to that magical time when foreign foods were new and exciting without being intimidating.

Main1The side dish was nothing to write home about. I went for wok fried greens – you have a choice of broccoli or pak choi in oyster or tamarind sauce. My broccoli was some kind of mutant strain that looked so much like pak choi that it’s almost impossible to tell apart from it, except for the presence of a few tiny florets. Even wilted it was almost impossible to eat with chopsticks and not quite worth the bother of doing so. A pity, really, because the tamarind sauce – like so much of the food at Tampopo – was really tasty, sweet and sharp at once.

I’ve always found desserts a bit of an Achilles’ heel in this kind of restaurant so I was amazed not only to find a few things I fancied ordering but to really enjoy them into the bargain. There isn’t much on the menu from the Philippines (just the one main) but they contribute one dessert – churros and chocolate (popular since Spanish colonial times, if you believe the blurb on the menu). These were some of the better churros I’ve had in this country; thin piped doughnuts with a good balance of crispy and chewy. Better still, the chocolate sauce was thick, intense and tasted of real chocolate, as opposed to the watery, synthetic chocolate flavoured sauce so often dished up with churros on the continent. They were perhaps a little over-zealously dusted with icing sugar but that was soon tapped off (nothing stands between me and fried dough, I can tell you).

ChurrosThe other dessert was another weakness of mine which I always order on the very rare occasions when I see it on a menu. Black sesame ice cream was gorgeous – there’s something about the hit of those sesame seeds in such a surprising context that really works. This wasn’t the best example I’ve had (a chunk of ice in the middle of it was disconcerting) but it was close enough for me. The other flavour I tried, cinnamon, was creamier and blander and mainly left me wishing I’d had two scoops of sesame instead.

Dinner for two – edamame, three courses, a side and a couple of glasses of wine – came to fifty-nine pounds, not including tip. Again, it’s worth mentioning what good value Tampopo is. Aside from those starters, which I’ve already enthused about, the most expensive main was £12. Neither of the desserts cost more than £3. The Oracle can be a punishing place for restaurants to make a living, and I was impressed by the balance between cost and quality here – and the service, which was miles better than at most Oracle restaurants I’ve been to (Browns and Pizza Express, I’m looking at you).

If I was summing up Tampopo in three words I think they’d have to be these: better than Wagamama. They occupy very similar spaces but Tampopo avoids everything that gets on my nerves about the latter: unforgiving lighting, unwelcoming furniture, the rote instruction that your dishes will arrive in a random order whether you like it or not (I can’t tell you how much this irks me) and the feeling that you are meant to eat your food quickly, leave and go to the cinema. Tampopo isn’t necessarily a place to settle in for an evening, and still feels like somewhere you’d eat before going on somewhere else, but it manages to make that feel like an experience in itself rather than a transaction. I will definitely be back, and in future when I go to a restaurant I might try leaving my preconceptions at home.

Tampopo – 7.6
The Riverside, Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9575199

http://www.tampopo.co.uk/