The sort-of roadmap back to normality was announced last month and you could almost hear, online and among friends, a cautious but relieved exhalation. Pubs and restaurants announced their plans, the days got longer, my parents were both vaccinated, my barber booked me in for a haircut on a date some months away. There were some sunny days, at long last, and when I walked through Forbury Gardens I could see people sitting on the grass, as if you could wish summer into existence by force of will alone.
And yet now we’re in March I see a lot of people looking back; the earth has completed its orbit around the sun, and everybody seems in a reflective mood. So we remember the last time we went to a pub with friends, the last time we hugged our loved ones, the last time we took a train to London or a bus to Kennet Island; someone I follow on Twitter posted recently that it was the anniversary of the date on which he is pretty confident that he contracted Covid-19.
We’ve had a year largely in stasis and it gives all the little historic moments, all those Facebook memories, enormous power. This weekend a year ago I held my last pre-Covid readers’ lunch at the Lyndhurst. Even at the time, it was an event that felt slightly more of a gamble than I might have liked – but we knew so little, back then. In any event the tables were spread out, there was hand sanitiser at every table and everybody had a pretty good idea that this was probably the last big social event they would attend for the foreseeable future.
I am hugely fortunate: if I had to pick a day to recall over and over across twelve relatively barren months, I couldn’t have chosen a better one. My birthday is in the not too distant future, and it will probably be even more of a non-event than the last one. At least I had some kind of party last year, even if I didn’t understand that at the time.
That delicious lunch at the Lyndhurst, nearly a year ago, was my first encounter with what I’ve since termed the clock of terror: that anxious seven day wait after you do something that involves an element of risk. Seven days of scanning and anxiety: is it a sore throat, or just allergies, or the arrival of the Big Bad? My own personal clock of terror has been reset dozens of times this year, and it never gets much easier. The prospect of a humdrum, quotidian life absent of risk or fear (or, at least, with a lot less risk and fear) can’t arrive soon enough.
The last meal I had on duty before the restaurants closed, a year ago today, was at Osaka, the Japanese restaurant in the Oracle that took over the spot that used to be Café Rouge. I liked a lot of my food, and I loved the way they’d made over a tired and unloved site. When I went, I thought I can fit in one more review on the blog without fully grasping, at the time, just how pointless that would be. I should have known, really: lockdowns aside, when you’re looking at a restaurant hoping it won’t get busy, when you find yourself in a hurry to pay up and leave instead of enjoying a leisurely midweek lunch, you aren’t in the right frame of mind to review it.
The week of lockdown I wrote a piece about it, but you couldn’t really call it a review. It was more of a diary piece, and it started an enjoyable few months of writing posts on the blog that weren’t just about restaurants, to keep myself occupied and give people something to read. People were very kind about them, and I kept going until just after the first big lockdown came to an end. Then I took a break, then in our third national lockdown I said I’d have a go at reviewing takeaway restaurants, and here we are.
I also said that when I went back to eating in restaurants, Osaka would be the first restaurant I reviewed. But a year has passed and we aren’t quite there yet, so to mark the occasion I thought I would review their takeaway this week instead. And flicking through the menu on a Monday night, I found myself wishing I hadn’t left it so long; I adore sushi and sashimi, and I couldn’t quite believe I haven’t eaten it for a year. I guess the problem is that the list of things we all haven’t done for a year is so long you forget half of what’s on it.
You can only order via Deliveroo, and the range is slimmed down compared to the restaurant menu – a handful of starters, just over half a dozen maki, the same for nigiri and only two types of sashimi. There’s no tempura, no temaki, no platters or bigger selections, either, so the selection is considerably more limited than at Sushimania, Osaka’s closest competitor. The pricing is comparable, but all over the place: some items are more expensive at Osaka, others at Sushimania with little rhyme or reason behind it.
Osaka also has main courses on its menu, ramen, rice and noodle dishes, all priced around the twelve pound mark. I decided to steer clear of them, partly because I figured sushi and sashimi would travel better – with no danger of going cold – and partly because once I started looking at all that sushi and sashimi I pretty much wanted to eat that and nothing else. Moreover, Deliveroo was running an offer that gave you twenty per cent off provided you spent over twenty pounds: not difficult at the best of times, but easy as pie when you’re scratching a year-old sushi itch.
Delivery was free of drama and in very good time – I placed my order just after seven o’clock, and about half an hour later the man was at my door with a couple of bags. Plonking them all on a couple of little tables in the living room, I was struck that although sushi was convenient to have delivered, it probably loses out more than most food when you compare it to eating in the restaurant. Japanese food is all about precise arrangement and beautiful presentation, and that’s something you can’t really replicate when you package food for delivery. So instead everything was crammed into black plastic trays with a clear lid – and I did find myself thinking that the black plastic might not be recyclable.
There felt like an awful lot of packaging, too: I wasn’t sure, for instance, whether a separate plastic sachet of ginger, wasabi and soy sauce with every single item was strictly necessary. It felt odd, too, that they supplied all these condiments but no chopsticks – there was probably a tick box for these when ordering but I wasn’t used to asking for asking for cutlery for a delivery order (for obvious reasons) so I didn’t spot it. Fortunately, it turned out that we had a couple of pairs of in the house: the ones pictured below, which I thought were adorable, were commandeered by my public transport-loving partner in crime.
We kicked off with the one hot dish we’d ordered – crispy chicken karaage – a portion each because we were too peckish to share. I loved this: it’s a reference dish I often order in Japanese restaurants and I think Osaka’s rendition is up there with any I’ve tried (with the possible exception of Gurt Wings’ “JFC” at Blue Collar on Fridays, which is Death Row stuff).
Good tori karaage is trickier to do than you might think, and many versions either feature breast meat which is a little too dry or thigh which is just a tad too bouncy. Perhaps it’s all in the marinade, but the texture of Osaka’s was bang on, the coating light and crispy with no grease or oiliness at all. I squeezed my lemon over the generous helping of fried chicken, dipped it in the thick mayonnaise, sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds, and ate in rapt contentment.
One way of offsetting having a whole portion of fried chicken to yourself is to eat something as clean as sashimi, so we each had a portion of salmon sashimi to ourselves, too. You got three expertly cut slabs of fish for your money – just under five pounds – and they really were terrific, marbled, almost buttery things. If only everything that was good for you tasted as marvellous (or contained as few calories as) sashimi, the planet would be a very different place. And even if it wasn’t, I might be a lot slimmer. The sashimi came, as it always does, with a big pile of spiralised mooli, and I wondered, as I always do, who actually eats that bit: slim people, probably.
I’m not generally a fan of nigiri, but I always make an exception for unagi, or grilled eel. There’s something about this especially meaty, muscular fish, strapped with seaweed to a lozenge of sushi rice, that makes for a perfect mouthful. Osaka’s were decent – and pretty good value at four pounds forty – and the eel had plenty of oily flavour, but I would have liked a little more of the savoury sauce on top.
The rest of our dishes were all variations on sushi rolls and, like the rest of the food, they were impeccably done, tasteful and a model of restraint. Avocado maki are another of those reference dishes – done well, there’s nothing quite like that gorgeous creamy avocado hugged by rice, all dabbed in a tiny pool of soy. These were very well assembled – no looseness, no nori not quite meeting in the middle – and the avocado was wonderfully ripe with no browning.
It seemed a little strange that each maki was made up of several smaller slivers of avocado rather than one big strip, but it made no difference to how enjoyable they were. Spicy tuna maki were also extremely good, with the fiery tuna perched on top of the sushi rice rather than encased by it – these were definitely the punchiest thing I ate, and a dish I’ll make a beeline for when I order again.
Finally, we had ordered an uramaki roll – these are bigger, longer affairs, all of which hover around the twelve pound mark. The selection through Deliveroo was very limited – just the five on offer, as opposed to the twelve on the restaurant menu – and the purist in me ruled out the two featuring crushed tortilla as a fusion bridge too far. Fortunately the one we ended up going for, the green dragon, turned out to be an excellent choice. This had katsu prawn, a baton of avocado and thin strips of cucumber in the middle of the rice with avocado daubed on top, the whole thing then crowned with Japanese mayonnaise (Kewpie, at a guess), a drizzle of dark unagi sauce and, last but not least, a little cluster of tobiko, or fish roe.
Typing that all out makes it sound incredibly busy, and I was worried approaching it that it would taste too muddled, but it really was a masterful dish. The many flavours and textures could have jostled for supremacy, or tried to shout each other down, but in reality the whole thing was harmonious and superb. I especially liked the fact that the cucumber was so finely cut – so often you get a big watery ingot in the middle of your sushi – and the crunch largely came from the katsu prawn instead, with everything else almost symphonically arranged.
Again, I imagine this dish is quite a looker in the restaurant but distinctly jolie laide when delivered. Not that that bothered me in the slightest: I’ve taken more than enough pictures of the university’s Lego Building to prove that I have a soft spot for the unconventionally attractive.
Our meal for two, including a 20% discount, came to just under forty-five pounds, not including tip. And although I feared at the start of my meal that I’d still be hungry at the end of it I found myself nicely sated: all those small bits of rice here and there add up, and you find yourself full almost by stealth. Some people will think that’s pricey, and I understand that you could get a lot more food for far less money, but to some extent I feel that runs the risk of missing the point.
I’ve found Osaka’s food far more difficult to sum up than usual: it’s technically very competent, and much of it is delicious, but because it’s so polite and precise, so well done and well behaved, the danger is to damn it with faint praise. It does feel like the menu is less suited to sharing than the likes of Sushimania, and more limited too, so I can see that if you wanted a sushi feast you might spend your money elsewhere. But if you compare individual dishes I’d say that Osaka is better, in terms of its attention to detail and quality of execution (a more interesting comparison might be with Oishi down the Oxford Road which, confusingly, offers delivery both under that name and the nom de plume Taberu Express).
Also, more than with most restaurants, I sense that Osaka offering its menu for delivery involves a number of compromises. Those kind of compromises wouldn’t trouble, say, a burger joint, but for sushi and sashimi it must be frustrating to present your food in a format so far from the ideal. Personally, I’m delighted that they made those compromises so I could spend some of my Monday evening enjoying their immaculate food. Resetting the clock of terror is one thing, but resetting the clock of sushi is a far happier experience.
For all of the time I’ve spent looking back, I do wonder what the world will be like in March 2022. Perhaps we’ll look back on all our Timehops and Facebook memories and we’ll struggle to remember what it was like to feel and behave the way we once did. Maybe it will be like seeing Bobby coming out of the shower in Dallas, feeling like we’ve had the strangest dream, the kind that fades quicker than we can tell it to somebody or write it down. In any event I’m looking forward to that future, when the restaurants we love are thriving again and the people we love are sitting at our table. When it comes – and it will come – Osaka will be one of the places I go to celebrate.
The Oracle, Unit R16, Reading, RG1 2AG
0118 957 3200
Order via: Deliveroo