Da Village

I remember being irked when Comptoir Libanais opened in its fancy new space on the Oracle Riverside. It felt like such a lazy attempt to steal custom from my beloved Bakery House: didn’t the people going there know that just across the IDR you could get much better, far cheaper Lebanese food from a proudly independent restaurant which had been there for years? Was being able to drink really enough consolation for such underwhelming food?

In reality, perhaps I was just peeved by another chain opening in a town which really doesn’t need any more. I certainly wasn’t so annoyed when Bakery House itself opened, when there was already another Lebanese restaurant in town (La Courbe, which did good food but never quite transcended being a big glass box that did good food). This crossed my mind this week when I decided to visit Da Village, an Afghan restaurant which opened in January on the Oxford Road, literally a handful of doors down from Kobeeda Palace, an Afghan restaurant on the Oxford Road. Couldn’t they have opened somewhere else? I remembered when I first got reports of it opening, at the end of last year. “Oh God” people on Twitter said, “Kobeeda Palace must be closing.”

“I suppose there can only be a few possibilities” I said to my friend Yasir as he drove us to the nearby Tesco car park. “Either there’s such a big Afghan community that it can support two restaurants, or they’re really going after Kobeeda Palace, or they’ve made a huge misjudgement.”

“I guess so” said Yasir, pulling into an empty space. I’ve known Yasir for years – we first worked together over fifteen years ago, and in the intervening time both of us have done a very patchy job of growing up. Yasir’s family are from Islamabad, not that far from the border with Afghanistan, and he knows that cuisine better than most people I know. Not only that, but he makes some of the best kofte kebabs I’ve ever tasted. If anybody was the right person to test out Da Village with, it was Yasir.

“By the way, when you say the words ‘Da Village’, do you think of…”

“…Ali G? Definitely.”

The windows of Da Village are tinted so you can’t see in, so I was surprised when we went in to find it was a pretty nice space, pleasingly spacious with pretty big tables. The chairs looked comfy too, although when I tried to pick it up by the handle at the top of the backrest it came away in my hand: impressive going for a restaurant barely three months old.

But anyway, it was a nice room. There were some hanging plants breaking the room into smaller sections, tasteful lighting and some art along one wall – a selection of pictures of landscapes, a quote by Alexander the Great saying “God must have loved Afghans because he made them so beautiful”. That was superimposed over the classic National Geographic portrait Afghan Girl, which I’d seen many times but not realised was connected to Afghanistan.

“I’ve seen that photo before somewhere.” I said.

“Oh yes, it’s basically the Afghan Mona Lisa” said Yasir. “It’s a very famous image.”

The eyes followed you round the room, which was no mean feat when you were in the same seat throughout the meal.

The other thing that wasn’t a hundred per cent clear was whether Da Village was a takeaway or an eat in restaurant. The menu blazed away on big screens above the counter but when we asked the waitress ushered us to sit down, so it transpired that it was both. The menu was wider than that at Kobeeda Palace, with kebabs and wraps, burgers, food from the grill, curries and biryanis. Yasir and I quickly came to an agreement to eat three meals between two and pretend one of them was a starter, the by now traditional approach of passing off greed as research. We slurped at a mango lassi each as we waited for our food to arrive – pretty good, but I wished you could buy a jug of the stuff, like you could at Kobeeda Palace for not much more money.

I’d really wanted to try Da Village’s interpretation of chapli kebabs, having enjoyed other versions in the past. It’s a dish technically from the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan – flattened, fried lamb kebabs absolutely studded with chilli – and I had a good feeling about them as soon as they reached the table.

I wasn’t wrong: if I’d liked them before, I truly loved them this time. They managed to marry the outer crunch perfectly with the firm, coarse centre, tender without being dry. They came with salad, a naan and three dips and assembling mouthful after mouthful was so enjoyable that I only realised partway through how effectively the heat had crept up on me and started dabbing my nose with a second napkin.

One dip was a deep red hot sauce, with a little smoke and pungency, but better was the verdant green dip which combined sweet mint and a little chilli. The naan was suspiciously circular and lacking in bubbles or airiness, and that made it difficult to use to scoop and dip, but it tasted nice enough. We happily ploughed through a kebab each but in the back of my mind I was thinking that I would gladly come back and have a couple to myself, especially for the princely sum of eight pounds.

“These are as good as any I’ve had in Reading” said Yasir, whose capacity for heat was unsurprisingly greater than mine. We also had a starter, “Da Village hot potatoes” which was simply some cubed fried potatoes served in the same red sauce that came with the chapli kebabs. They were okay, but the potatoes were waxy, too firm and a little undercooked, without enough of the texture of a really good fried potato.

“There are a lot of desis in this restaurant” said Yasir. “That’s a good sign.”

“What are desis?”

“You know – Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis… it’s a general term.”

“That’s useful to know – I always worry about saying there are lots of Indians in a restaurant in case it sounds a bit, I don’t know, colonial.”

Yasir looked at me as if I’d said the stupidest thing on earth.

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with saying a restaurant is full of Indians.”

“Isn’t there?”

“No, not at all.”

“It feels like such a minefield. I’ve been criticised in the past for that kind of thing. And anyway, you’re always joking about taking bombs on holiday and you refer to anybody who isn’t a Muslim as an ‘infidel’. Are you the best judge of these things?”

He grinned wolfishly. “Possibly not.”

Yasir’s main course was a double kobeeda kebab – a kofte, as it’s otherwise known. As a Muslim, Yasir can only eat halal meat but, for reasons best known to him, he refuses to eat most meat because he doesn’t like the texture. Or, as he used to put it when we worked together, “I can’t have solid meat in my mouth but I do love mince” (and if at this point you’re imagining Larry Grayson I’d say you’re not a million miles from the truth).

He generously let me try some of his kofte and I liked it very much – very firm and coarse and perhaps not as wet and pappy as it might be at other establishments. Ironically, that’s why Yasir preferred the kobeeda from a couple of doors down: it takes all sorts, I suppose. It needed more sauce (and perhaps we should have asked for some, given that we’d used most of ours on the chapli kebabs) but it was still tasty and excellent value at nine pounds. The rice it came with was pleasant enough, but not in the same league as at, say, Bakery House.

I had chosen the karahi chicken, as my reference dish in Afghan restaurants. It came to the table with all the sizzle and steam you could hope for, and it looked the part. But it was, on some levels at least, all mouth and no trousers: the sauce lacked depth and complexity and was more peppery than spicy. I would have liked some ginger in it, or heaps of coriander, but instead it was a very glossy and extremely oily sauce that did all its shouting up front without enough to back it up.

The meat was on the bone and some of it was very easy to get off – some pieces, on the other hand, had so little meat that it hardly felt worth the bother. They brought another naan with the karahi and this dish was where it really disappointed – not enough lightness or flexibility to allow for the proper scooping that would have transformed the experience.

Our mostly-empty plates sat in front of us for some time after we admitted defeat, during which time the restaurant started to fill up with friends and families. Our waitress, who had been lovely all evening, rather forgot about us at this point, although she did eventually bring the bill when we waved her down and boxed up some leftover kobeeda and chapal kebab for Yasir’s lunch the next day. We didn’t mind: it was nice to catch up, to gossip and to reminisce. Around us plenty of buddies were doing the same, and if they thought we were misfits they certainly didn’t let on. Our dinner for two – more food than we could eat and a couple of mango lassis – came to thirty-three pounds, not including service.

“I wish I could have the chapli from this place and the kofte from Kobeeda Palace in a single restaurant” said Yasir. “And the sauces from Bakery House! I really love their orange chilli sauce, I could eat that all day.”

“I love the chapli here too, but I preferred the kobeeda here. But the karahi chicken at Kobeeda Palace is miles better.”

We argued the toss a little longer – designing our own little Top Trumps deck of Reading restaurants – and not for the first time I found myself thinking that restaurants are often about compromises. You rarely get everything you want in a single package, but that’s even more complicated when your closest competitor is literally the closest – a few doors down and offering the same dishes, in a slightly different way and at a slightly different price.

I can imagine there are people out there who have never been to Kobeeda Palace and might chance upon Da Village first, drawn in by the slightly fancier exterior. Maybe they would like it better, because you never forget your first love. Maybe they’ll be the Coke and Pepsi of Reading’s Afghan restaurants, and everybody will have a different favourite. I liked Da Village a lot, and some of its dishes are definitely better than their Kobeeda Palace equivalents. But I’m a sentimental soul, and will I ever really stop at Da Village when I could walk another minute down the Oxford Road and go to the original and best? I don’t know: maybe two or three times out of ten, and maybe not. Perhaps we should just be glad that Reading has two decent Afghan restaurants, even if they could be a little more helpfully spaced out.

On the walk back to the car park we went past Kobeeda Palace. The lights were on, you could see through the windows and the place was buzzing and packed. Rather unworthily, my instinctive reaction was to smile. That’s right, you show them, I thought to myself.

Da Village – 7.0

387 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA
0118 4378657

https://www.facebook.com/pg/Da-Village-Restaurant-Reading-274014666628458/about/

Oishi

N.B. As of October 2019 Oishi has a hygiene rating of 1 from Reading Council.

I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten somewhere quite as apologetic as Oishi, the new Japanese restaurant on the Oxford Road. I turned up on a Wednesday evening to find the place completely empty; I asked the waitress whether it was okay to have a table for two, and she mumbled something about how most people come in to get takeaway, or phone up for delivery. That didn’t feel like either a yes or no, but then she smiled, said “yes, sit anywhere” and gestured around her. It’s a Spartan room, but tasteful and nicely kitted out, and I took a table in the window, reasoning that if people walked past at least they’d know somebody was eating there and maybe they’d come in too.

There was further confusion when the menus were handed out. There’s no way of getting round this: they were takeaway menus, proudly advising that you could have free delivery within a three mile radius if you spent fifteen pounds (which, incidentally, is pretty reasonable). Not just takeaway menus, but takeaway menus for Oishi’s branch in Brentford: the telephone number had been scrubbed out and a Reading number written underneath it in scratchy blue biro. On the plus side, at least we weren’t in Brentford.

“Would you like a drink?” said the waitress.

“Do you have a drinks list?”

There was a pause, long enough for me to realise that there was no more a drinks list than there was a menu.

“We don’t serve alcohol.”

Well, I’ve had more promising starts to a meal out, I said to myself.

Anyway, that’s getting ahead of ourselves. First, the context: I’d wanted to visit Oishi ever since it opened in August. Reading has long needed a Japanese restaurant that could rival the likes of Misugo in Windsor or Kyoto Kitchen in Winchester, both of which are terrific. I’m also a fan of Oxford’s Taberu, and when they announced that they were opening a second branch down the Oxford Road I thought my prayers had been answered.

At first things went well: Taberu did the place up (previously the first home of sadly departed and much mourned Indian restaurant Bhoj – there was a lot of burnt orange to paint over) and began serving takeaway with the promise that they’d open as a proper eat-in restaurant later on. Then, somewhere along the line, it all went awry: opening as a full restaurant never happened, then Taberu closed completely and then, after much speculation, it reopened as Oishi. Oh well, at least they didn’t have to redecorate.

I especially wanted to try Oishi because I recently ordered food from Sen Sushi, Reading’s other Japanese restaurant at the opposite end of the 17 bus route, and I’d been so disappointed. Having sushi delivered on a Friday night felt like a massive treat, but what turned up was mediocre: oddly wan salmon sashimi, sinewy, badly-cut tuna sashimi, yakitori chicken skewers with a bonus knot of gristle. I wanted to support small independent businesses, but this wasn’t as good as Yo! Sushi.

My dining companion this week was my friend Jerry. Now, Jerry is a very dangerous man to go out with on a school night. He likes a drink, but he’s retired and consequently he never, ever has to get up for work the next day: many’s the time I’ve forgotten this fact and meandered home from Jerry’s flat of an evening, rather too much wine to the good, only to face a painful awakening the following morning (and a message from Jerry, fresh as a daisy, saying what a lovely evening it was). More significantly, and uniquely among people who have accompanied me on reviews, Jerry doesn’t actually read the blog, so I can say what I like about him without fear of reprisal: believe me, the temptation to claim that he sports a mohawk is considerable.

Not only that, but Jerry told me in the run up to our meal that he’d never had Japanese food before. Looking through the menu, I found myself wondering what the least intimidating dishes might be for a newcomer. The usual suspects are all present and correct – a small selection of sashimi, some sushi (maki, uramaki and hand rolls), some hot starters and a range of hot main courses – rice dishes, noodle dishes and ramen, mostly. In the end I decided to go for a sort of greatest hits: I could try and pretend this was to fully test the range of the menu, or to give Jerry the best possible introduction to Japanese food, but by now you’ve probably figured out that it was more to do with greed and hunger.

“Have you really never eaten Japanese food?”

“No, I haven’t! The closest I’ve ever got is Wagamama.”

Jerry’s education began with the classics. I have a real weakness for soft shell crab, so I ordered some soft shell crab uramaki (“I was going to put in a request for those!” he said excitedly) and they were one of the first dishes to turn up. The presentation was endearingly amateurish – I’m used to slightly more precision and focus on clean lines – but they looked good, coated in bright orange tobiko (fish roe, the wonderful stuff that pops under your teeth), plonked on a board with a small pile of ginger in one corner and a dab of wasabi in the other. They were nicely rolled with no gaps or ragged edges, and the addition of a little cucumber added a nice textural crunch. If I had a criticism it was about size (don’t let anybody ever tell you it’s not important) – I’m used to having the same dish at Misugo where it feels like a sea monster is trying to escape from the rice, whereas these were somewhat diddy by comparison. At eight pounds it was the single most expensive dish we had, and probably not quite worth that.

I also ordered tempura prawns, mainly to ease the culture shock for Jerry: most people have eaten something like this at some point in their lives, after all. They never amaze and they rarely disappoint, but actually I was quietly impressed by Oishi’s rendition. Often menus claim that it’s tempura batter but what you get is stodgy, or greasy, or you take one bite and the rest of the batter falls off. These were very nicely done indeed – light, delicate and lacking in oil. They came with a pretty anonymous dipping sauce.

“It’s all very clean-tasting, isn’t it?” said Jerry. By Jove, I thought, he’s got it.

Sashimi came next: a big test for me, especially after such an iffy experience at Sen Sushi. Oishi has a limited sashimi selection – no sea bass or mackerel here – so again I opted for the reference dishes, in this case tuna and salmon. The slices were beautifully marbled, nicely sized and well-cut, with beautiful colour to them, but again the presentation was a tad haphazard. There was no daikon and the fish was fanned out on what looked like seaweed, which slightly affected the flavour of the pieces at the bottom.

That was a pity, because otherwise the sashimi was quite beautiful. I know some people are funny about raw fish, but for me there’s something magical about salmon sashimi in particular – the almost glossy texture, the way it manages to be both oily and pure all at once. The tuna was just as good – firm, meaty and expertly cut, everything as it should be. I dipped mine lightly in soy sauce and rhapsodised, while Jerry – showing a leaning toward the ascetic that was news to me – ate his au naturel. Oh, and there were two random and completely pointless slices of lemon: if you need these, you probably shouldn’t be eating sashimi, and I imagine they’d give purists conniptions.

By this point, I was starting to feel like things might turn out rather nicely, although I was also increasingly aware that this might have been the longest I’d ever been in Jerry’s company without imbibing alcohol of some description. Not that it seemed to deter him in the slightest as he launched into a long and very entertaining story about going to a wedding in North Devon only to meet the village character, a lady of advanced years who had booted out her husband because of his failure to perform, exhausted the limited pool of locals via Tinder and ended up working in a massage parlour because she’d said, he told me, “I might as well get paid for it”. Where did he find these people? I wondered.

Jerry concluded his tale just as our – presumably slightly aghast – waitress turned up with the next dish, duck gyoza with a little dish of hoi sin for dipping. Now, these are a stable at the likes of Yo! Sushi and Wagamama, and Oishi’s were fairly similar to the gyoza you can get at those places, but even then there were little differences – some finely chopped cucumber, or possibly spring onion, in the filling just adding another dimension. Nice work.

Finally, what I suppose you’d class as our main courses arrived. I’d given Jerry first choice, after talking him through the options, and he’d gone for chicken katsu curry. “It’s sort of breadcrumbed chicken breast and rice and a curry sauce, but it’s not a really hot spicy sauce.” I said. “It’s kind of mild and creamy, you know, like a chip shop curry sauce.” I think that latter reference is what sealed it, and when it was placed in front of Jerry I realised I had inadvertently described it perfectly. It was indeed some rice, some breaded chicken and some curry sauce, all separate, practically deconstructed you could say. I used to have a friend called Fiona who had to eat every component of her meal separately – first the potatoes, then the veg, then the meat, never crossing the gastronomic streams (well, it takes all sorts). All I can say is that Fiona would have loved Oishi’s chicken katsu curry, although I wasn’t so sure about the self-assembly aspect myself.

None the less, as before, Oishi may not have got the presentation right but the content was very good indeed. The chicken was just right – a brilliant juxtaposition of crispy and tender – and although the breadcrumbs mightn’t have been panko it was far too tasty for me to care. The sauce was sweetly mild but a very long way from inoffensive, and the rice was, well, rice. I personally would have poured the sauce over the rice and chicken and had at it, but Jerry ended up dipping the chicken and forkfuls of the rice into the sauce like some kind of exotic fondue; I found it far too endearing to correct him. Oh, there was also some salad but I don’t think Jerry touched it. I kind of found that endearing too.

My main course was teriyaki chicken, and I so enjoyed it. It was a very generous portion of chicken thigh in a bowl, on top of a bed of plain rice and at first I had reservations because it looked perfectly sticky but I thought everything underneath would be dry. How wrong I was: all the teriyaki sauce had percolated through the grains of rice, leaving a glorious sweet reservoir at the bottom that simply made everything delicious. Not only that, but the dish had plenty of other stuff going on – the crunch of beansprouts, carrots and red onion, every mouthful perfect in contrasts of flavour and texture. And the chicken, although I might have liked it absolutely piping hot, was beautifully cooked. This dish was on the menu at six pounds fifty and I couldn’t believe what superb value it was – a feeling that was only marginally dented by being charged seven pounds fifty for it when the bill arrived.

Service was truly lovely thoughout – the lady who served us was so friendly and polite (after the baffled and diffident start) that it truly saddened me that there were no other customers eating in the night that we went. There was a regular stream of deliveries going out the door, and a couple turned up to pick some food up towards the end of our visit, but even so it felt forlorn to be the only people sitting there enjoying such good food. “We did have some tables in before you arrived”, the waitress told us and I fervently hoped that was the case.

Everything we ate that night, along with a Diet Coke (for Jerry: what do you take me for?) and a pomegranate green tea (for me: that’s what you should take me for) came to fifty pounds, not including tip. None of the dishes we had cost more than eight pounds and many – the katsu, the teriyaki chicken, both sets of sashimi – felt like impressive value. We left with warm – if sober – goodbyes and an steadfast conviction that we’d be back before long, which is exactly how you want to feel at the end of a trip to a restaurant.

“Wasn’t it lovely?” said Jerry, clearly a convert to Japanese food.

“It really was. Now shall we have a debrief at the Nag’s?”

“Absolutely!”

Independent restaurants, in my experience, rarely get everything right on day one, week one, or month one. Very few spring forth fully-formed and fully-realised in the way that, say, Bakery House or Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen did. They make mistakes, they learn, they correct. Early adopters are helping with the beta testing, and it’s a high wire for small restaurants: do you open before you’re totally prepared, or do you wait until everything is perfect? Taberu waited until it was ready for eat in customers which never came, and then it closed. Oishi has done it the other way round: it’s serving customers without necessarily being confident about how to do it.

And this is where we come in. Because when places like Oishi open, what they really need is customers. Not just any punters, but customers who are prepared to overlook the glitches, the lack of booze, the slightly scruffy presentation and the rather apologetic approach. But look at what you get in return: beautifully cut, delicious sashimi. Tender chicken thighs in sweet sticky sauce with the freshness of finely cut carrots. Spot on katsu curry. But more than that, you get the knowledge that you’re doing your bit, helping that restaurant to grow and evolve, to serve a community and improve a town. I think that’s a pretty good deal: but I would, because I like to think that I’m that kind of customer. I reckon some of you might be, too.


Oishi – 8.0

314 Oxford Road, RG30 1AD
0118 9599991

https://www.oishi-reading.co.uk/

Tuscany Pizzeria

Very sadly, Tuscany closed in May 2019. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I don’t know how involved a review this will be; it’s hard to complicate a restaurant as simple as Tuscany Pizzeria.

I first had it drawn to my attention by regular reader Eleanor back in April: a pizzeria on the Oxford Road, she said, adding that it was “a choose your own toppings place I think”. I made a mental note to put it on my list and then a couple of months later Eleanor went there and Tweeted the kind of pictures that can’t help but make you hungry – huge pizzas with irregular bubbled crusts, plenty of cheese and all the toppings a person could hope for, the whole thing strewn with rocket. One of the pictures showed the front of the restaurant, with a blackboard on an easel outside saying that a twelve inch pizza was seven pounds, a fourteen inch pizza a tenner.

Surely it couldn’t be quite that straightforward, I thought, as I ambled down the Oxford Road in the sunshine with my very good friend Zoë, fresh from having enjoyed a sharp sour beer in the sunshine of the Nag’s Head, still Reading’s finest beer pub by some distance. But actually, when we arrived it did look just as no-frills as the pictures I’d seen had suggested: one table out the front, the word “TUSCAN” in block capitals above the big window, in a style which had probably aimed for rustic but had to settle for makeshift. The decal taking up much of that window promised “Gourmet Delicious Pizza Top Quality Italian Style”. Hmm, I thought.

Inside, the room had deep red walls with stuff on them best described as Italy by numbers: a picture of some Parma ham here, a drawing of the Leaning Tower Of Pisa there. The whole place couldn’t have seated more than ten people – well, more if you took one of the window seats, but when I was there somebody had helpfully leaned their bicycle against the window counter, making that impossible (in any case a laptop was open there, with the Tuscany Facebook page prominently visible on the screen). The pizza boxes on display made it clear that not all Tuscany’s customers chose to eat in. The tables were a strange sort of multi-coloured hue that looked like something Linda Barker might have dreamt up on Changing Rooms circa 1999.

Anyway, I liked it: it was small and intimate although, with no soft furnishings and most of the tables occupied, it also happened to be astonishingly loud. Most of what I heard, I think, was Polish: the owner of Tuscany is Polish, I believe, and so were most of the customers there on the evening I went (many of the reviews on Facebook are in Polish, too). Some might have been staff, all seemed to be friends of the owners. At the table next to me the group of four seemed to be tucking into something that looked like antipasti, even though I couldn’t see anything of the kind on the menu.

Come to think of it, I couldn’t see a menu anyway, just the counter where you went up and placed your order, which basically consisted of telling the chap how big a pizza you wanted and what toppings you wanted on it. Behind him, you could make out the place where he rolled out the dough and topped the pizza before sticking it in the oven (I didn’t spot whether there was a wood fired oven, but I suspected not). Zoë and I took it in turns to go up and place our orders and sat back down with a can of aranciata apiece: no alcohol licence here, although again, I think I might have spotted one of the chaps at a neighbouring table with a can of beer bought from one of the nearby shops. Again, I felt like I was in a restaurant where I just didn’t know the rules, or the rules differed depending on who you were, and I didn’t entirely enjoy that.

The toppings, incidentally, were a pretty wide range. The owner talked us through them – or the ones on display, anyway – at the counter . Most were reliably standard stuff: peppers, mushrooms, onion, olives, pepperoni, parma ham and so on. The only slight hints of the exotic were some artichoke hearts and friarielli, which is sometimes described as broccoli but is closer to turnip tops, a pizza topping I’d never heard of until I visited Papa Gee but which now seems to be everywhere. I noted, with disappointment, that I couldn’t see any anchovies or capers.

Tuscany’s Facebook page says that all of their ingredients come from Italy. I couldn’t judge that, and I certainly didn’t check any travel documents, but the olive oil was by Filippo Berio (whose Wikipedia page suggests they aren’t quite as Italian as you might think). Anyway, I didn’t care if the pizza wasn’t entirely Italian, here on the Oxford Road being served by a chap from Poland. I wouldn’t have cared if the artichokes were Spanish or the ham Albanian for that matter, provided the pizza was delicious. I didn’t vote to stay in the EU only to quibble about nonsense like that.

While we waited, I saw a pizza carried to one of the other tables and I found myself wishing it had been mine. It looked every bit as good as the pictures I’d looked at months before, with the added advantage of being both three dimensional and edible. But I also saw another dish arrive at another table, what looked like chicken with little strips of baked pizza dough. The chef had been cooking the chicken in a pan when I went up to choose the toppings for my pizza, and I wondered at the time what the dish was given that it wasn’t on the menu (and, of course, given that there was no menu for it not to be on) but I was too timid to ask. Soon after that our pizzas were ready and in turn we were asked whether we wanted rocket and parmesan on them. This was a nice touch, as was the fact that the parmesan was freshly grated onto the pizza before it was cut into slices and brought to the table (the only real element of table service at Tuscany).

Zoë had a twelve inch pizza and I, rather greedily as it turned out, had a fourteen inch pizza. If I was trying to describe the main differences I’d say there were two. First of all, the twelve inch pizza is put on a massive wooden board, cut into slices and then dished up onto a plate barely big enough to contain it. The fourteen inch pizza is just brought to your table on the massive wooden board. The second main difference is that the fourteen inch pizza is actually too big for most right-minded folk to finish, and that includes me. “I knew to just order a twelve inch,” said Zoë sensibly, “because I knew that was the size of an LP and that felt quite big enough.” Trust her to slip in a reference to music and be in the right, I thought.

The base was very good – properly thin, although the edges were more brittle and crispy than charred and bubbled. Not quite on a level with, say, Franco Manca but still pretty decent. What couldn’t be denied, though, was that Franco Manca looked properly stingy compared to this lot. Mine had sundried tomatoes, pitted black olives, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, parma ham and pancetta and although none of the ingredients could be described as exceptional (I’d have liked the olives, for instance, to be the wrinkly, salty kind that I truly love) the sum of the parts was still very good indeed. I drizzled basil oil on one half, garlic oil on the other and ate until I was full. Then I ate some more, then I reluctantly stopped.

Before that, I traded a piece with Zoë and apart from having – an unusual experience, this – envy that her portion was a little smaller than mine, it meant I got to enjoy hers, with lovely sweet shreds of red onion, pepperoni and mozzarella. Her pizza was basically mine without the airs and graces, a more robust meat feast you could say, and none the worse for it. “This is really good” she said between mouthfuls and, as so often, I found her rather difficult to disagree with.

As we were finishing the last of our slices, the people at the table next to me got up to leave and I took the opportunity to ask about the off-piste dish one of them had ordered.

“It’s chicken stuffed with cheese and wrapped with Parma ham” said the man. “He cooks it specially, if you ask him. He gets the chicken in fresh from just down the road – and I know it’s fresh because if he served me frozen chicken he knows I’d kick his ass!”

He chuckled, and I laughed along, wondering if ass-kicking was ever an appropriate thing to reference in a restaurant review. On TripAdvisor, perhaps.

That’s pretty much all there is to say about our meal at Tuscany Pizzeria. Once we’d finished, I settled up at the counter where our meal came to just under twenty pounds. The other diners had cleared out by then, so the owner came over and chatted to us a bit more. Tuscany had been open three months, he said, and they stayed late so they had quite a lot of takeaway trade when people headed home from the pubs.

“My landlord laughed when I told him I wanted to open a pizza place! He said that there were lots of pizza places on the Oxford Road, and I told him this wouldn’t be that kind of pizza place.”

He went on to tell us that business was good and that all their ingredients (“except the mushrooms, spinach and onions”) did indeed come from Italy. He showed us pictures of some of the dishes we hadn’t ordered – a pizza wrap (“lots of customers like this”) and pizza ripiena, essentially a pizza sandwich, like a calzone but without the fold. He sounded so proud of what he did that I started to think that he was right: this wasn’t that kind of pizza place. It was a different beast, and all the better for it. And then something occurred to me.

“Do you have anchovies and capers?”

He smiled.

“Of course I do. Next time you come in, ask.”

Smart guy: it’s precisely at that point that I decided there would be a next time. I could easily have been intimidated or deterred by Tuscany, and by the idea that other people could order different dishes and combinations, like unlocking secret levels in an arcade game. On another night, perhaps I might have been; I can definitely see that other diners might be, and this place won’t be for everybody. If you don’t live in West Reading, you might feel there are better choices closer to home, if you’re in the centre there’s Franco Manca and if you’re privileged enough to live north of the river you have Papa Gee (or, if you like that sort of thing, Quattro – or, I suppose, the Fox And Hounds).

But all that said, something about Tuscany actively made me want to fit in, to go again and to take advantage of all the other options. To try the anchovies and capers, have the ripiena, discover the secret password that lets you order the stuffed chicken or drink a cold beer at the table, brought in from elsewhere. I could see myself playing out my evening in reverse: going back with Zoë, having a pizza and then stopping by the Nag’s on the way home to enjoy more of their superb selection. That’s me, though: I can be that kind of stubborn so-and-so, and I like a kindred spirit. Even one who bloody-mindedly sets up a rather lovely, slightly incongruous Polish pizzeria slap bang in the middle of the Oxford Road.

Tuscany Pizzeria – 7.8

399 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA
07586 095400

https://www.facebook.com/Tuscany-Pizzeria-1971426149852568/

Kobeda Palace

Should you decide to go to Kobeda Palace my first piece of advice would be this: don’t use Google Maps to get there. Rather than suggesting the right route, down the Oxford Road and just past Workhouse Coffee, it inexplicably directs you to Wilmslow in Manchester, a drive of over three hours (and very few restaurants justify that kind of round trip). I later discovered why: looking at the front of the laminated menu while waiting to pay the bill, I discovered that Reading’s is the second branch in a tiny chain of two – although, just to make it more difficult, the Wilmslow one is actually called Kobeda Place. Confused? Me too.

Anyway I’ve been going to this Afghan grill house for ages and I’ve always wanted to review it, but one thing stopped me – for a long time, it had a one star health and safety rating. And then, just before Christmas, I went to Kobeda Palace to grab a quick pre-Nag’s Head bite to eat with some friends and there it was on the door, glowing with an unearthly light: a new Scores On The Doors sticker with a four-star rating awarded a few weeks previously. Could I hear angels singing, or did I just imagine that part? Either way it felt like my first present of the festive season, and I made a mental note to go back early in 2016.

I also made a mental note to make sure I took one of my friends who is quite possibly the biggest carnivore I know – put it this way, it’s no coincidence that Kobeda Palace has opened where Gilberts Meat Market, with its mildly terrifying statue, used to be. You smell the charcoal even as you approach the building, and it doesn’t take long to realise that this is not somewhere to go with the vegetarian in your life; the menu does say “VEGETABLE DISHES AVAILABLE – Please ask for details”, but it’s hard to imagine what they would be. So a date went in the diary, and three of us turned up there on a Friday night (before going on to the Nag’s Head funnily enough. Predictable I know).

It’s quite an odd room to eat in. It’s very plain and functional, with the grill and the counter facing you as you go in. The rest of the room is made up of tables and high-backed brown banquettes which seem to have been placed almost at random. The overall effect is a little incongruous – it should divide the room into little booths but instead it just looks strange (I remember when it was just tables and stark, rigid chairs, and this manages to be an upgrade without necessarily being an improvement). That said, it was packed: all around me were families with nicely-behaved kids and little clusters of gesticulating friends. The waitress kept wandering past bearing plates and making me crane and scan the menu, wondering what they had ordered. The table next to us had a couple of gentlemen at it, each eating a whole chargrilled chicken, tearing the skin and flesh off the bone with their hands and dipping it in a bowl of houmous; just watching them made me hungry and envious.

Kobeda Palace really isn’t a starters, mains and desserts place: it’s all about grilled meat in a range of combinations and permutations, served with naan or rice (which makes me wonder, again, what those vegetable dishes could possibly be). We tried as many of them between us as we could, which turned out to be quite a lot of the menu. Lamb chops, which turned up that hyper-real shade of brick red which almost looks Photoshopped, were judged the pick of the bunch, tender if not pink, with a level of heat closer to lip-tingling than tongue-scorching. The lamb tikka, a similarly freakish colour, were almost as good, each cube scored almost in half so they could check it was done.

KobedaMeat1

Chicken tikka I struggled to like quite so much – you got more of the smoke and char than of any flavour beneath, and the texture of a couple of pieces was not quite right. And then there was the eponymous kobeda itself, a long cylinder of lamb kofte. It was splendid; I’ve had it before and found it a bit offputtingly soft, perhaps too reliant on rusk, but this was truly magnificent, if impossible to describe well without flirting with innuendo. Also wonderful were the huge, chargrilled halves of onion – soft, sweet and blackened. All of this came on the naan, the other big draw here. Stretched and made on the premises, these were almost edible plates, long and rectangular, just asking to be torn up, wrapped around hunks of meat and crammed into greedy mouths.

KobedaMeat2

I know, rationally, that there were also a couple of plates of some sort of salad: lettuce, some cucumber, a couple of pitted olives, various other vegetation. I also know that there were some sauces – something like a raita, a punchy hot red sauce and a herby green sauce. But truth be told they didn’t really feel like the kind of thing to hold my attention for very long, under the circumstances.

The best dish of the evening, though, was something we picked out of curiosity. Kobeda Palace also does a karahi chicken and a karahi lamb, so we ordered the former and it was a revelation. The sauce was thick and complex with no slick of oil, full of chilli and nigella, curry leaves and coriander, fine batons of ginger strewn on top (“it tastes like a really good Vesta curry” said one of my companions – if that had really been true the Eighties could have been so much more enjoyable), and scooping it up with that perfect naan was an unmitigated delight. But the chicken was gorgeous – on the bone but well-jointed and easily separated from it, tender from slow-cooking in a way that grilled meat could never be.

KobedaKarahi

There was no alcohol licence, so we drank mango lassi by the jug, which is especially easy to do when a jug is only five pounds (in fact, even if they had been licenced I might have stuck to the lassi). The second jug never quite arrived, so instead once we’d finished our meals the waitress came over apologetically with three glasses, and I’m not sure she charged us for all of them. That was the service in general – friendly but a bit harried. In other restaurants I might have taken against this but somewhere like Kobeda Palace which is deliberately quite no frills I found it impossible to resent. Oh, and the mango lassi was good – especially the second batch which was ice cold, refreshing and cleansing without being cloying. Dinner for three (and we ate far more food than is strictly sensible) came to pretty much forty pounds on the nail.

How to sum up a place like Kobeda Palace? Well, let’s do the downside first. It’s a little bit scruffy, just the right side of chaotic and in an area where many people would have to go out of their way to visit. Some people will be put off by the lack of an alcohol licence, others will find it far too meat-centric. It’s also a bit nippy if you get a table by the window, as I did, the back room on the way to the loos is strangely threadbare and the toilets are best described as a work in progress. So yes, I can honestly say that if you’re the kind of person who’s bothered by that kind of thing, Kobeda Palace is not for you. But all the people I ate amongst that Friday night had other priorities – food and company, the things restaurants should really be about. I’m with them, and I found it all rather marvellous; I fully expect to pay it another visit soon (for a big bowl of karahi chicken – to myself, this time). But I used to eat there when it had a one star hygiene rating, so what do I know?

Kobeda Palace – 7.4
409-411 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA
0118 3271400

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Kobeda-Palace/588327924595489?fref=ts

Mr Chips

Here’s an interesting fact for you: according to their website, Mr Chips is the first traditional fish and chip shop in the centre of Reading for 20 years. I think they’re right, too – before that there was Harry Ramsden’s, now a sad derelict space under the Travelodge at the top of the Oxford Road – but I can’t think of anywhere else.

Come to think of it, you don’t see many fish and chip restaurants in general. Every pub will do fish and chips, many restaurants will too but a place devoted to fish and chips? No, when people want fish and chips they generally head to their favourite chippy (and we could have a heated debate about the merits of the Jolly Fryer, Seaspray and the 555 Fish Bar but, on second thoughts, let’s not) and then carry it home and have it on their laps in front of the telly. Just me? Even in London, eat in fish and chip restaurants are one of those trends that didn’t quite catch on: so is Mr Chips a trailblazer, or is it trying to service a market that doesn’t really exist?

It’s definitely a chippy that has a few seats rather than a fish and chip restaurant. There is a bar in the window with a few uncomfortable seats that are part stool, part pogo stick, and a couple of tables along the side of the long thin room (at the back were some big sacks of potatoes – an encouraging sign, I thought). Apart from that? Well, you’re in a chippy. The usual glass fronted cabinet is there, full of battered sausages and Pukka Pies and the menu behind the counter offers the usual suspects – cod, haddock, mushy pea fritters, curry sauce – along with the occasional curveball. So you can also order “crab claws”, which from the picture on the wall appear to be nothing of the kind, and – if you’ve always wanted to try one without venturing north of the border – a deep fried Mars Bar.

I tried haddock (because that’s what I generally have from the chippy) and skate wing (for what can only be described as the “George Mallory reason”). Sitting at one of the little tables, drinking my can of cream soda and waiting for my fish to be cooked I did feel a little silly, as clearly most of Mr Chips’ customers treat it as a conventional chippy – drop in, pick up their food and then go. I felt equally silly trying to hack through freshly fried batter with an inadequate plastic knife and fork – although it’s a compliment to the batter to say that when I tried to get a plastic knife through it I rather suspected that the knife would break first.

Anyway, enough of these quibbles: what was it like? The skate was odd – I’ve never ordered it in a chip shop before and I can safely say I probably won’t again. A lot of that is about the fish, not the fryer: the challenge of getting the batter and the flesh away from the cartilage was a little too much like hard work, and not quite worth the effort. But it didn’t feel like brilliant quality skate, either – perhaps I’ve been spoiled by all those pristine white fillets in restaurants but this was a little brown and forlorn, with some of the skin left on. Having said all that, the batter was just gorgeous – light, crispy and salty it broke away in fragments like shards of edible glass. The skate was freshly cooked, possibly because it’s not something most people order, but I do wonder if the batter would have been as good if I’d chosen something that had been sitting in the cabinet.

Fish

The haddock didn’t seem quite as crisp – I’m not sure whether it was cooked with the skate or taken out of the cabinet – but it was still respectable. The fish was flaky and perfectly cooked and the best bits of the batter had that bubbly crispness that reminds me of really good school dinners. On balance I liked it better than the skate, because when you’re eating comfort food there’s no point in leaving your comfort zone.

The chips were pretty decent chip shop chips. A little wan for my liking, although that might be a matter of personal taste, and with no crispy little fragments at the bottom to resist the softening effect of vinegar and make for the perfect final sour-salty-crunchy mouthful, but clearly from good quality potatoes and rather tasty. I didn’t try the curry sauce or the sweet and sour sauce (I rather regret that now, but teaming them with the skate wing in particular felt plain wrong) but the tomato sauce on the table was too sharp and vinegary to be Heinz. I didn’t mind, but ketchup purists might.

I also didn’t try the bubble tea – and I barely even know what it is, despite having Googled – but it would be remiss not to mention it as it’s a big part of what Mr Chips does (it even forms part of their website address, for goodness’ sake). So at the front are a wide range of, well, fruit flavoured balls you can lob into one of about twenty types of fruity or milky tea. Just writing all that makes me feel about three hundred: what’s wrong with just offering a red and a blue Slush Puppie, eh?

Service was neither rude nor effusive, but that’s fine. It’s a chippy, not the latest entry in the Michelin Guide. It was better than the service in the Reading branch of Harry Ramsden over twenty years ago, if that counts for anything, but from memory I’m not sure it does.

Dinner for two – two fish, two small chips and a couple of soft drinks – came to just over fifteen pounds. Exactly what you’d pay in a chippy, in fact, and if that looks on the expensive side it’s because the skate was about six quid. (I wanted to do a “sick squid” pun there but thought better of it: besides, squid is on the menu and you can get eight squid for three quid, at which point it stops being a joke and starts being a tongue twister.)

I don’t think that Mr Chips does enough to break that pattern that fish and chips is something you pick up and take home. In fairness to them, I’m not sure they’re trying to: it felt like a chippy that lets you eat in rather than an upmarket London joint like Kerbisher and Malt. It does decent, reasonably priced fish and chips, and if you were in town of an evening, in a hurry to eat something quick and you fancied fish and chips it would be the place to go. If I was, I would. But here’s the problem: how often is that really going to happen, do you think?

Mr Chips – 6.5
33 Oxford Road, RG1 7QG
0118 9582 666

http://www.mrchipsandbubbleteareading.co.uk/