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/

Bhoj

Bhoj relocated in July 2016 to Queens Walk at the back of the Broad Street Mall, and in February 2018 they closed. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

If you had to name the best restaurant in Reading, which would you nominate? Mya Lacarte? Forbury’s, perhaps? Or would you go further afield and opt for l’Ortolan, still our only Michelin-starred restaurant? Well, TripAdvisor would say that you’re wrong. According to them Bhoj, a relatively little-known restaurant down the Oxford Road, is currently Reading’s best restaurant (Forbury’s and l’Ortolan don’t even scrape into the Top 20). Is that proof that TripAdvisor can’t be trusted when it comes to restaurants, or a heartwarming tribute to democracy in action? I felt I owed it to myself to find out.

The parade of shops on the Oxford Road where Bhoj sits, after Reading West station but before the mosque, isn’t the most inviting location for a restaurant. With a sex shop and the euphemistically named “Skunkworks” (apparently a “one stop shop for lifestyle choices” – which I’m sure it is, provided you’re Afroman) within 100 yards it’s a very different experience to the little enclave next to Forbury Gardens or the more polished surroundings of the Oracle Riverside. Bhoj is only about ten minutes away from town on the number 17 bus and the mix of shops en route makes for an interesting journey (how do all those barbers survive?) even if I was cursing my bad luck that somebody was already at the front of the top deck, stopping me from driving the bus.

The restaurant itself is fairly small – less than 30 covers – and whilst basic in terms of decor it’s spotlessly clean and neatly laid out (the fairy lights were a particularly nice touch). On the night I went, there were only a couple of other tables occupied although it’s clear that a lot of customers use Bhoj for takeaway as I saw one of the waiters leaving with bags full of goodies several times throughout the evening. Service, though, was excellent from the moment I arrived to the moment I left: our waiter – friendly and cheery in an orange polo shirt – wasn’t just knowledgeable about the dishes but (and you forget how rare this is in Reading until you experience it) enthusiastic too, happy to explain everything in a way that meant I didn’t feel stupid asking.

If anything, the menu is a tad spartan – smaller than many Indian restaurants I’ve been to and particularly strong for vegetarians (I showed it to a vegetarian friend after and she said “you should have taken me along to do this menu justice”, with a tone of genuine envy). As so often in restaurants I go to nowadays, I found this reassuring; it made me feel like each of the dishes might be distinctive rather than another permutation of the same orange liquid with different chunks of protein bobbing around in it.

Both starters arrived on those sizzling platters which inevitably induce envy in neighbouring tables: who doesn’t like a dish that audibly announces its arrival? This was great in theory, although by the end the paper tablecloth was so spattered that it looked like we’d been out for dinner with Roy Hattersley. Saffron paneer tikka was served in large flattish squares, gently spiced with chunks of peppers mixed in. I liked it, although it didn’t blow me away and the spices didn’t come through strongly enough. Ironically, I think I was hoping for a little more sizzle and a bit more caramelisation.

Bhoj startersMurgh hariyali tikka – recommended by my waiter as a good contrast – was, well, green. Not pastel green. Not pale pistachio green. I am talking Kermit The Frog green; worryingly green, if I’m honest. It was a huge relief when my knife sliced through to reveal the familiar white flesh beneath. The flavour and colour come from the fresh herb paste that the chicken is marinaded in; I was expecting the mint and coriander (and I think I got a bit of ginger), but there was definitely more than a little garlic in there too. The taste was lovely, but stopping by the newsagent the next day and buying a packet of Extra Strong Mints before heading to work is probably advisable. I did find the chicken a little on the firm side, not as soft and tender as I was expecting from something marinaded before cooking, but even so there was a pitched battle for the fifth piece (do restaurants dish up an odd number just to watch people bicker? I’ve always wondered that.)

There was more of a pitched battle, mind you, for the onions underneath the chicken. Isn’t that silly? Onions are as cheap as can be, so how could they possibly be one of the tastiest things I ate all evening? But it’s true, I promise: sizzling, continuing to cook at the table, soft and sweet, spicy and caramelised, coated in all those juices. They were incredible, and we pounced on them like yummy mummies hitting the Boden website come sale time. It wasn’t dignified, but it was delicious.

You may be wondering why I didn’t mention the poppadoms. There’s a reason for that: I totally forgot to order any. Perhaps that’s the trick to leaving an Indian restaurant without being stuffed to bursting: traditionally I always have poppadoms and by the time the mains arrive dinner is as much a food marathon as it is a treat (I guess your fellow diners are the equivalent of running mates on the other side of the finishing line, cheering you on). I’m glad I forgot on this occasion because the mains were dishes to be enjoyed, not endured.

Dhaba chicken – again, recommended by the waiter – was so gorgeous that I could overlook it being fundamentally meat in an orange sauce. I was expecting it to be hotter than it was, and maybe a little less sweet, but the heat was that clever kind which builds up gradually. Bhoj’s menu, rather unhelpfully, just describes it as a “tangy sauce” so I can’t even bluff and pretend I picked out all the things in there. As always, Indian food shows up how much I struggle with describing such a complex combination of flavours – I got cumin, I got coriander, but beyond that we reach the limits of my powers of description. I can tell you, though, that the chicken wasn’t the star of the show: it was that glorious sauce, mixed in with the jeera rice (speckled with cumin seeds) or heaped onto a scoop of torn, buttery paratha.

Even better was the karahi lamb. This was a drier, hotter curry than the dhaba chicken and easily one of the best things I’ve eaten so far this year. The lamb, in what looked like firm chunks, gave in to the slightest pressure from a fork. The sauce was sticky, rich, intensely savoury: heavenly. I would say that my idea of restaurant hell might well be eating a chicken korma while sitting opposite somebody having Bhoj’s karahi lamb and not being able to try any. Even the bit where I accidentally crunched on a cardamom pod couldn’t dampen my ardour for this dish: I want to have it again, and soon (did I mention that they do takeaway?)

Bhoj mains

When Bhoj first opened it didn’t have a license so was a BYOB establishment. This has now changed, but the drinks list still feels very much like an afterthought. Generally we stuck to mango lassis and these too were streets ahead of other ones I’ve tried in Reading – fresh and recognisably packed with mango rather than the more generic sweet versions I’ve had elsewhere in Reading. Wine drinkers, though, are faced with a real Hobson’s choice: Blossom Hill by the glass or Jacob’s Creek by the bottle.

I was torn – the snob in me would rather not have gone there, but I really fancied wine with my main. What to do? I might get excommunicated from the Guild Of Food Snobs for saying this, but who cares: reader, I had the Blossom Hill and it wasn’t bad. Easy to drink, uncomplicated, went okay with the curries, nothing to dislike (and who’d have a Burgundy with a biryani anyway?) Perhaps, like restaurants people rate on TripAdvisor, it’s popular for a reason; judge away by all means, but I might well have it again next time.

The bill, for two starters, two mains with rice and paratha, three lassis and that rogue glass of Blossom Hill came to £45. I’m not sure how much £45 buys you at l’Ortolan but it’s not a lot. And I would say that it’s worth coming here even though they do takeaway, because the service is brilliant and without it I probably would have ordered what I always have and not discovered some of the great dishes on Bhoj’s reassuringly compact menu.

So, is Bhoj Reading’s best restaurant? Objectively probably not: the room is basic, the drinks offering is limited, my starters weren’t perfect. But personally, I think the best answer to “what is Reading’s best restaurant?” is probably “who cares?” Bhoj’s chef is never going to appear on Great British Menu or be gushed over by critics. They’re never going to do a tasting menu. But that’s the elitist tip of the iceberg, and the rest of the iceberg is what food should really be about – eating something tasty. Sounds oversimplistic, but it’s true. There are times you want three fiddly, fancy courses, and times when you just want to sit down and eat something you know you’ll adore. There are nights when you want to see a wine list the size of a novella and watch a flunky decant your vintage claret into a carafe shaped like a lab flask. But there are also times when you want to sit in a restaurant two doors down from “Skunkworks”, lit by fairy lights, over a fat spattered paper tablecloth and eat delicious, dark, sticky, flavourful lamb, hoping nobody will come in and spot the miniature bottle of Blossom Hill in front of you. God bless Bhoj.

Bhoj – 8.2
314 Oxford Road, RG30 1AD
0118 9581717

http://www.bhoj.co.uk/