Cafe Madras

Cafe Madras was closed as of January 2018. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

One thing I’ve not yet acquired, despite writing this blog for nearly two years, is that unshakeable self-belief that many proper restaurant reviewers have. I really do envy them; it must be lovely to be so certain that you’re right about good food and bad food. I’m not even able to fake that, so every time someone visits a restaurant based on a good ER review and likes it, I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet. And when I don’t enjoy somewhere, I always wonder whether it’s just me, whether the off-day was mine rather than the kitchen’s. Eating at Café Madras this week reinforced all of those suspicions: I didn’t enjoy it, but it felt like I could find at least a few reasons why that might have been my fault.

For a start, I over-ordered – three starters and three mains between two seemed like a good idea on a ravenous school night, but by the end of the starters I could already feel a creeping, heavy fullness that left me uncertain about how much headway I would make into the main courses. Also, at least a few of the dishes were similar enough that you could argue that I’d just chosen badly – kush ka fried rice, a dry dish full of onions and spice and little shreds of what looked like lamb felt very similar to the lamb kotthu, another stainless steel bowl of broken up paratha, minced lamb, onions. Both dry (even with the accompanying bowl of yoghurt), both slightly heavy going.

CMMains

When I left disappointed and walked down the hill into town, I felt uneasy that maybe I had let the restaurant down rather than vice versa. After all, the service had been lovely throughout – the man serving me was friendly and interested, suggested dishes from the specials menu and looked after us brilliantly. The room, although basic, was nice enough and had a steady stream of customers, some solo diners, some smaller groups of friends or couples, one large family. At least a few appeared to be repeat visitors.

The site itself, up at the top of Whitley Street, has a complex history. When it opened as Chennai Dosa in 2009 Reading had seen nothing like it. People queued round the block to get in for authentic, inexpensive South Indian food. Then Chennai Dosa moved into the centre and, for reasons I can’t entirely remember, the site rebranded as Café Madras in 2011. Last year it had the dubious honour of being one of Reading’s only restaurants with a zero star hygiene rating from the council – since then it has come under new ownership, turned that rating around and is clearly trying really hard to live up to its original promise.

So, there you go: I’ve outlined lots of reasons why I could pull my punches. And it would be really easy to do that, because nobody enjoys criticising an independent restaurant, especially one where the service is excellent. Especially one, for that matter, in an area like Katesgrove which is crying out for some – any – good neighbourhood restaurants. But it all comes down to the food, and the more I thought about it more I realised that there was something disappointing about nearly everything I ate that night.

So Gobi Manchurian, for example, wasn’t the delicate delight it can be (and is, at other restaurants in Reading) – the batter was thick and heavy, the florets of cauliflower underneath just a little too hard. The oily slick of sauce at the bottom of the bowl made me wonder just how much fat was sloshing around in my stomach. Similarly the special chicken tikka – recommended by the waiter – sizzled attractively and some of it was nice enough, but the inside of a couple of pieces, though certainly not raw, was firm and bouncy in a way that chicken tikka really should not be. Only the masala vada – circular lentil patties, like flattened bhajis – bucked the trend, being crispy, nicely spiced and beautiful with the thickened yoghurt on the side, speckled with nigella seeds. That was the only dish we finished all evening.

CMVada

Even if I hadn’t been approaching full at high speed, I still think the main courses would have disappointed me. I could see that lamb kotthu might have been wonderful warming food if you’d grown up on it, an exotic cousin of the shepherd’s pie, sticky and rich. But it was just a tad too claggy and almost sweet, and the big chewy lumps of paratha felt like harder work than I associate with comfort food. Paneer masala, deliberately chosen as a meat-free main, had a lovely smoky sauce but, again, was a little too oily for me to feel like making significant inroads. We counted around half a dozen not very large cubes of paneer floating in it. By the end it had degenerated into a vegetarian fishing expedition bobbing for cheese, one about as successful as most fishing trips.

The best of the mains was the one I had lowest expectations of – the fried rice was packed with seeds and spices, onion and egg, small subtle strands of lamb (and a little shard of bone, as it happens). It was gorgeous and complex, with a heat that kept on growing and developing. But I didn’t really appreciate it at the time – only a couple of days later when I took my leftover rice to work (the waiter having kindly packed it up for me) and microwaved it in the kitchen did I realise just how good it was, mainly because of the envious remarks from my colleagues who were ploughing through their frigid, miserable supermarket sandwiches. But reheating my memories of the meal didn’t have the same happy consequences: it was still far more misses than hits, even if my aim could have been slightly better.

The meal – three starters, three mains and the grand total of four slightly too smooth, slightly synthetic-tasting mango lassis – came to thirty-four pounds, not including service. A cheap meal, and one that could have been even cheaper, but even at that price a curiously underwhelming one.

One of the big questions I ask myself when reviewing a restaurant – usually at this point in a review, as you may have noticed – is “would I go back?” If Cafe Madras wasn’t so far out of town, or if it was in my neighbourhood, I think I probably would. And I’d find the things on the menu that suited me better, I’d get to know the staff, I’d take their advice, and it could be a restaurant I’d learn to love. If you live in Katesgrove, you may have learned to love it already. But it isn’t any of those things, and the South Indian restaurant that is in the centre – Chennai Dosa – moved there from this spot, for very good reasons. So would I go back? The answer is the most frustrating one of all: nearly, but not quite. I don’t have the unshakeable self-belief to tell you not to go there. But I can’t recommend that you do.

Cafe Madras – 6.4
73-75 Whitley Street, RG2 0EG
0118 9758181

http://cafemadras.co.uk/

Pappadams

N.B. As of August 2020 Pappadams has reopened. 

Planning which restaurants to review involves considerable deliberation here at ER HQ. Imagine me with a little rake pushing figurines round a map of Reading (and wearing a tricorn hat! I must buy a tricorn hat) and you wouldn’t be far from the truth. Should I review a pub this week? An Indian restaurant? A lunch place? Somewhere cheap, somewhere fancy? Time to go out of town?

This week’s review was meant to be of a pub. First I was going to review the Queen’s Head, but I checked the menu and it was exactly the same as the Moderation’s, which I’ve already reviewed, and I didn’t think a review which said “I went out of my way to have different things to last time but, you know, it’s pretty much the same” would excite anyone. Then I was going to review the Lyndhurst, but the menu didn’t inspire me (there’s something about the word goujon, and the way it’s used by English pubs, that undermines all the gastronomic beauty of the French language) and nor did the rather surly welcome behind the bar. So anyway, it was meant to be a pub this week but no dice: instead you get Pappadams.

Pappadams is a little place down the King’s Road, after the library but before you get to the architectural wonder that is King’s Point. It’s a small room which can’t seat more than thirty people, although there’s another bigger room upstairs (“we’ve got the World Cup on up there if you want to watch”, the waiter told us conspiratorially; it didn’t lure me up there). It’s handsome enough, if basic – square tables, nice comfy chairs, cloth napkins – with the huge glass front covered with a beaded curtain so you don’t feel like you’re eating in a goldfish bowl. When I got there on a Tuesday evening it was about half-full – mostly with Indian couples and friends.

I wouldn’t know a South Indian dish from a North Indian dish from an anglicised Indian dish, but the waiter was excellent at navigating us through the options and offering lots of advice, particularly on some of the Keralan specialities on offer. I found the menu quite endearing, with sections marked “from our fisherman’s net”, “from our vegetable garden” and “from our butcher’s farm” (a butcher and a farmer, I guess that’s one way of cutting out the middle man). The dishes are rated on the time-honoured chilli scale, although eccentrically things are either rated with zero, two, three or four chillies (only one dish, “Lamb Dragon” had four chillies – it sounds more like a masterpiece of genetic engineering than an actual main course, or maybe it’s both).

Starters were delicious although I couldn’t shake the feeling, maybe as a result of reviewing other Indian restaurants, that I’d had the same kind of things ever so slightly better elsewhere. Paneer shashlik was lovely, big squares of cheese, charred and chewy around the edges, sizzling on a plate with peppers and onions. The lamb tikka was less successful: the flavour was perfect, deep and intense, soaking into the sizzling onions underneath, but the texture was more tough than tender, requiring a lot more cutting and a little more chewing than I’d hoped.

Starters

After we finished our starters, something happened which happens very rarely in Reading restaurants. The waiter came back, asked if we’d enjoyed our dishes and asked how long we wanted to wait before the kitchen started cooking our mains. Why don’t more restaurants do this? I’ve lost count of the number of times my main arrives hot on the heels of my starter, leaving me with half a bottle of wine to polish off while telling waiters, with an increasingly rictus grin, that yes, I would like dessert but no, I don’t plan to order it until I’ve the rest of the wine in front of me, wine that was only there because they’d been in such a hurry to feed me. Even if Pappadams didn’t get brownie points from me for anything else, they’d get some for that alone. Service was excellent throughout. Early on I was asked if we’d like to move across to a bigger, better, freshly vacated table – another thing not enough waiters consider. They may not have won me over by inviting me to watch the nil-nil draw in the Mexico-Brazil match, but otherwise they didn’t put a foot wrong.

Mains were, well, divisive. We took advice from the waiter and went for two Keralan specialities. Fish mappas was an anonymous white fish (I’d put my money on tilapia, but not with any great confidence) in a sauce of coconut milk dotted with nigella seeds. I liked the sauce – so different from a Thai sauce, lacking that slightly cloying sweetness they can sometimes have – but the fish wasn’t for me. I like my fish to be firm, to flake, to have a little give but not too much. This was softer and mushier than I personally like it, but that might be a matter of personal taste. It all got finished, but that was more to do with the person opposite me.

The other dish, cochin kozhi curry, was even more divisive because I couldn’t quite decide whether I loved it or just liked it. A chicken dish, this too was made with coconut, although the sauce couldn’t have been much more different to the sauce that came with the fish. It was dark where the other was light, thicker and stickier where the other was more liquid. It had proper smokiness (almost with those notes of leather Jilly Goolden has spent a career trying to kid us into thinking she can spot in a glass of Rioja) and lots of clever aromatic flavours that came through a little further on. But here’s the problem: it was really, really salty. I could just about manage it (although it did cause me to gulp my mango lassi towards the end) but I can imagine other people would be put off by it. The chicken, unlike the fish, had the texture just right: putting up just enough fight and then falling apart under a fork. Both mains felt a little mean on the meat to sauce ratio, with a big bowl of sauce left over at the end after time spent fishing for the meat.

Mains

The side dishes were unremarkable. Rice with cumin was a little bland (although, compared to those sauces, most things would have been) and the paratha was thick and heavy compared to others I’ve devoured in recent months. Like so much of what I had that evening it was good, but I was left remembering that I’ve had better.

Where I’ve not had worse for a while was the wine. The house red was perfectly decent (no notes of leather – even Jilly Goolden would have struggled to locate them, I imagine). The white, on the other hand tasted slightly peculiar and not especially like wine (an achievement, I know). If I’d opened the bottle at home I would have poured it down the sink and I’ve rarely had wine that bad in a restaurant. After that we switched to other drinks – Cobra and mango lassi, more reliable staples. The lassi came with pistachio crumbled on top – a lovely touch, I thought. We didn’t stop for dessert (too full for gulab jamun, this time at least) and the whole thing came to just under £50, not including tip.

I feel for Pappadams. If you picked it up and plonked it in any of a dozen other towns it might well be the best Indian restaurant there. It just has the misfortune to be down the road from House Of Flavours and in the same town as Bhoj, and it strikes me as caught a little between the two. The prices and the décor are more like Bhoj, the location puts it firmly in competition with House Of Flavours. If you made Top Trumps cards of all three restaurants, I’m not sure Pappadams would win in any category (although it would come close on service). But that doesn’t quite do the place justice, because although the best is the enemy of the good the fact remains that Pappadams is a good restaurant. I can see myself going there when I fancy Indian food and don’t want the faff of House Of Flavours or the schlep to Bhoj.

As I left the waiter asked me if I wouldn’t mind putting a review on TripAdvisor if I’d enjoyed my meal, in a way that struck me as well rehearsed. I can understand why: it’s a packed market, and restaurateurs need all the help they can get. I didn’t, but I’m sure other people will. I hope they do, too.

Pappadams – 7.2

74 Kings Road, RG1 3BJ
0118 9585111

http://www.pappadamsreading.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/

House Of Flavours

N.B. As of August 2020 House Of Flavours has reopened. 

I’d always told myself that I wouldn’t review curry houses, for lots of reasons. Reading has a lot of them, all over the place, for one. For another thing, the local papers cover them extensively and frequently. I’m not sure how they do it, after all it must be difficult to review an Indian restaurant every month. I mean, it’s all just different meats in different orange sauces most of the time, isn’t it? And who really cares which place does the best korma/bhuna/biryani anyway, especially when people tend to have a curry house that they go to out of habit and comfort.

So why is this week’s review of House Of Flavours? Well, people kept recommending it. It got mentioned on Twitter a lot. A few people asked me to go review it, and more than one said “you really should go”. So the contrarian in me thought “why not?” and that same contrarian quite liked the idea of going in December, when most people’s thoughts are turning to slightly more traditional warming food.

House Of Flavours is a little bit out of the centre, not far from the library, in a spot that has seen mixed fortunes over the years. It used to be Ha! Ha! (which I still miss, believe it or not), and then it was some tapas restaurant whose name escapes me, then an ill-fated pub that closed on Sunday afternoons, and then Mangal, the Turkish place which has gone up in the world and relocated to St Mary’s Butts.

Despite that, when I visited on a Saturday lunchtime (the December diary being what it is) I was impressed to see that the front room of this admittedly sizeable restaurant was pretty much full, almost exclusively with Indian families. I nearly left again when I thought this might be due to the all you can eat buffet they were offering (and nobody needs a review of one of those, in my opinion), but to my relief they were also offering their full menu so the very polished waiters talked me into staying. I’m glad they did.

The House Of Flavours’ menu is an intimidating tome. If you look at it on their website you get some idea of this; twenty-four pages long, and you don’t get to the a la carte menu until page fourteen. Before that it’s all drinks – a lot of drinks – and the set menus (at the moment a “Christmas menu”, though god knows how different that is to their usual set menu – I didn’t see any stuffing bhajis or turkey jalfrezi, thank goodness). The set menu featured a lot of the familiar dishes you could get anywhere else, but wading through to the a la carte things started to get a lot more interesting – a wide range of regional specialities, very well described, along with a range of vegetarian dishes so impressive I even considered ordering some of them.

We got the clichéd poppadoms while waiting for our starters and even these made me begin to feel like I was in a restaurant that happened to serve Indian food rather than an Indian restaurant. Two of the poppadoms were plain and delicate but the third was studded with nigella seeds and the taste and texture were something else. The raita was thick and fresh, not the insipid liquid you usually get. The mango chutney was also speckled with cumin and nigella, probably the best I can remember eating, and the onions (offered instead of the usual lime pickle) were finely diced and spiced, as tasty as they were antisocial. So often this is just a way to eat something, anything, while you’re waiting for your starters to arrive but these felt like they had a purpose all their own. It was a promising beginning.

The starters, by and large, lived up to that. The lahsooni chicken tikka was just gorgeous – three sensibly sized pieces of chicken, marinated in yoghurt and spices and cooked beautifully. Everything about the flavour and texture of these worked perfectly – the spicing came through with the right intensity at the right speed and the meat was so tender. I was simultaneously sorry they were over so quickly and delighted that they were perfect – always the way with a truly great starter.

Lahsooni Chicken Tikka

The other starter was maave ki seekh, which is described on the menu as “root vegetables and cottage cheese flavoured with ginger and cooked in a clay oven”, and it was delicious if not entirely what I was expecting. The texture was rather like partially cooked gingerbread, cooked on a skewer; the outside was slightly firm and the inside was a delicious warming paste. If it had any vegetables in it I couldn’t truly tell but it was still very tasty, especially with a squirt of lemon juice and a few sprigs of – properly dressed – salad on the side. I keep thinking about what I can compare it to and falling short. Was it like falafel? Not really. Like a bhaji? No, that’s not right either. Maybe this is another reason why I shy away from reviewing Indian restaurants, because I don’t have the vocabulary to do them justice.

Maave Ki Seekh By this stage I thought I was probably onto a winner, although I’ve been disappointed at that stage many times (how many restaurants have you been to where you’ve thought I wish I’d stopped at the starters? For me it’s hundreds). But the mains didn’t let the standard drop. Shahi chicken tak-a-tak (named, according to the very informative menu, after the noise it makes popping away on the skillet) is one of those sizzling griddled dishes you always get jealous of when someone else at your table orders it. This one was no exception: so much more than just a pile of meat and onions, it came with a rich hot sauce with plenty of tomato. How hot? Well, I didn’t lose all feeling in my mouth but tissues had to come out at the table – I hope that’s not too much information, but until someone comes up with a Richter Scale of food heat it’s the best I can do. I loved it.

Shahi Chicken Tak-a-TakAgain the heat was really clever; it built up slowly, in layers, rather than pulverising you from the start. I’m not going to say “oh, it was genuine Indian food” because I’m not Indian and I wouldn’t know, but I’ve been to India once and it reminded me of the food I had when I went – that intelligent, calculated use of spice. Again, the chicken was soft and tender, not firm and unyielding, although after the starters I wouldn’t have expected anything less.

Having said all of that, the other dish was indeed chunks of meat in an orange sauce. Well, almost anyway – the mahi dum anari was sizeable chunks of fish, soft to the point of falling apart, in a silky sauce. This sauce was much more delicate, almost sweet but again the spice worked brilliantly. I wish I could do it justice by describing it better, but I might try and improve my skills in this area by going back to House Of Flavours. The other delight in this dish was the pomegranate on top – I was sceptical about this but its sweet pop under the teeth went superbly with the dish. According to the menu, this dish was served to Barack Obama on his last state visit to India; I wasn’t moved to take a selfie, but I did take a picture of the dish (it doesn’t do it justice any better than this paragraph does).

Mahi Dum AnariNormally in a curry house this would be accompanied with some pilau rice and a big fluffy naan but again, I was moved to try different things. The mutter pulao was rice rich with peas and with just the right amount of cumin, another revelation in a meal packed with revelations. The paratha was even better, buttery, chewy and soft at the same time and layered in a way which somehow reminded me – I don’t know why – of the pastry on the bottom of a tarte tatin.

ParathaNobody goes to an Indian restaurant for the drink, but I feel I should mention it because the wine list has three Indian wines on it. I tried two: the sauvignon blanc was decent if slightly thin on flavour but the cabernet sauvignon was spot on – properly hearty and feisty enough to stand up to the spices in my meal (I might have had a bottle, but it was all Kingfisher on the opposite side of the table to me, which is fair enough I guess). They also have two pretty creditable dessert wines – a Sauternes and a Californian red muscat – at very reasonable prices, albeit not for a full glass.

The reason I know about the dessert wines is that I couldn’t stay away from the desserts. I have a real penchant for gulab jamun so I was thrilled to see them on the menu. If you have a sweet tooth and you’ve never tried them, you’re missing out; they’re doughy balls – made from curdled milk, but don’t let that put you off – deep fried and then served soaked in a sugar syrup tinged with cardamom and rose water. The portion here is only small (two balls – no jokes, please) but that turned out to be plenty, especially if you don’t share them with anyone, as I didn’t.

The total bill for two people, for three-ish courses with a couple of drinks each came to £65. You could eat more cheaply than that if you stuck to one of their set menus but even so I felt this was very good value. I mentioned the service in passing at the beginning of the review but it is worth another mention too – very polished, very smooth and only there when you needed it. The whole experience felt very different to most Indian restaurants I’ve visited in Reading.

How to sum this place up? Well, how about doing it like this: I remember when I first found out that this place was opening, and I remember walking past the sign and reading the name. House Of Flavours? I thought. That’s a ridiculous name. It’s just going to be an Indian restaurant, and Reading needs another one of those like it needs another Italian. Now I’ve been, I know how wrong I was; it’s the perfect name for the restaurant and it sums up exactly what they offer – more than anything, the flavours are what I remember. I can’t think of many higher compliments for a restaurant than this, but even before I’d left I was already planning my return. Thinking about what flavours I’d like to sample next.

House of Flavours – 8.3
32 – 36 Kings Road, RG1 3AA
0118 950 3500

http://house-of-flavours.co.uk/