Round-up: One year of Edible Reading

A slightly different round-up this week; I’m not going to do the usual summary of past reviews. I’m not doing restaurant news this week either, because there isn’t much news: the places which are due to open (CAU, Rynd) are still due to open and nowhere has closed that I know of, unless you’re devastated that Reading has lost one of its two Bella Italias (and if you are, I’m not quite sure why you’re reading this). We do have a gluten free café opening on Cross Street, so there’s that I suppose, but that’s all. Instead, it’s a chance to round up a year in the life of Reading’s restaurant scene, because Edible Reading is one year old.

There have definitely been changes in the last year. As always, we’ve seen a steady churn of restaurants opening and closing: we’ve said goodbye to some, like Kyklos and the Lobster Room, and hello to others, like La Courbe and Coconut. I was sad about Kyklos – it never lived up to its potential, but some of the dishes were good and the service was excellent, and it would have been lovely to be able to eat Greek food (a really underrated cuisine) in the centre of town. The new boys are also a mixed bag – La Courbe does brilliant food but never quite feels like a restaurant, and Coconut isn’t quite distinctive enough to offer something different in a town with plenty of options already.

The more interesting arrivals have been in Reading’s cafés: with My Kitchen and Lincoln Coffee opening in the centre there have never been more alternatives to the hegemony of Coffee Corner. If you add in the other lunch possibilities, like Bhel Puri (another welcome opening in the last year), and the other contributors to Reading’s coffee scene (those lovely chaps at Tamp Culture), this is an area where things definitely feel like they’re changing for the better. I’m just sorry that Cappuccina Café, with its delicious banh mi and pasteis de nata, didn’t stay the course too.

There’s more to food culture than restaurants, and this too is one of the more promising signs over the last twelve months. Reading now has a top-notch wine merchant in the shape of the Tasting House, and The Grumpy Goat offers a mind-boggling range of beers and many of the area’s delicious cheeses. The recent spate of supper clubs in the area also shows that food has never been as important to Reading as it is today, and although we still don’t have enough street food at least we have the artisan market on Fridays, even if the opening hours are plain silly. It’s a start, anyway.

Anyway, I was wondering how else to best round up the year, and then I realised: I am totally out of step with the zeitgeist. Journalism these days is all about lists – you only have to read a Buzzfeed link to figure that out – and I haven’t done a single list all year! What was I thinking? So, without further ado, here’s how I’d like to sum up a year of Edible Reading, with a list. Reviewing restaurants is all about reviewing meals, evenings, experiences – and sometimes that misses the point that there can be great dishes tucked away even in middling meals. So to redress the balance, here for your delectation, in sort-of-alphabetical order, is a list of the ten best things I’ve eaten in the last year while reviewing restaurants for the blog. Zeitgeist here I come!

1. Yum gai yang, Art Of Siam. This salad is all about contrast (and not at all about leaves and lettuce). The chicken is perfectly soft and cooked and the vegetables seem to be purely there for texture as nothing, but nothing, stands up to the flavour of the dressing. It has tons of heat – enough chilli to require a glass of milk or at least a handkerchief – but also has the tartness of fresh limes to create a liquor in the bottom of the dish that’s worth spooning up because it is so fab. The flavour is super intense and salty and is enough to render even me speechless (or that might just be the chilli).

2. Lamb karahi, Bhoj. The little silver bowls of meat at Bhoj remind me of spice bowls in an eastern market which seems very apt for this dish. The lamb (and “juicy baby lamb” at that) has been cooked for so long that it falls apart into shreds at the lightest touch of a fork and the sauce is much drier than the usual British-Indian chunks-of-meat-in-an-orange-sauce affair. Here, it’s more a sticky, rich, spiced gravy with the odd cardamom pod for accidental-eating fun. Order one for yourself because you won’t want to share. I did, and I still regret it now.

3. Chilli paneer, Bhel Puri House. I could never turn vegetarian – it’s just not in my nature – but this dish at Reading’s only (to my knowledge) vegetarian restaurant is so good that adding bacon wouldn’t improve it. High praise indeed! The small cubes of paneer are marinated in chilli and fried. That’s it. But, my goodness, they’re so good! The layer of lettuce underneath is pointless and if you accidentally eat a green chilli thinking it’s a green bean (I mean, who would make such a mistake? erm…) you realise where all the heat comes from. Not so hot that it burns and tingles but enough to make every sticky cube worth fighting over.

4. Bread and butter, Côte.
Bread. Such a simple thing, right? But at how many places in Reading can you get truly decent bread? A two quid basket of bread at Côte is six diagonal slices of what is arguably the best bread in Reading – crispy and slightly chewy on the outside, fluffy and malty on the inside. It’s served with a little pot of room temperature salted butter which melts as it goes onto the warm bread. If you’re canny it’s worth splitting each finger of bread into two to make the most of the surface area. It’s a perfect amuse bouche before getting down to the serious business of ordering (and when you do, Côte’s tuna niçoise also came close to making this list – just saying).

5. Chips and mayonnaise, The Eldon Arms.
A bowl of chips is another simple pleasure that’s often done terribly. Whilst the French fry has its place, proper chips should always be thick cut. In the Eldon the chips were served without pomp, without daft toppings or being put into a pointless gimmicky tiny frying basket: not affected, just bloody delicious. Thick cut, crispy on the outside and fluffy on the outside. Simple. Then served with a bowl of proper (there’s that word again) home made mayonnaise which had enough garlic in it to make enemies the next day but with no fanfare to announce its arrival because, in the chef’s eyes, it was just mayonnaise. It saddens me greatly that the Eldon is closed, and the burgers got all the plaudits but strangely it’s the chips I miss most.

6. Chicken lahsooni tikka, House Of Flavours.
Chicken tikka is one of those dishes that has entered the British lexicon, a shorthand for Indian food that so often gets abused and made into something cheap. This, though, is nothing like the chicken tikka flavour you’d get in a Pot Noodle (and, regrettably, I know this for a fact because I had one recently – never again). The chicken, marinated in spice and yoghurt, is as soft as butter, as if it’s only just been cooked through, no more. The spices are rich and smooth and best of all, in my opinion, there’s lots of garlic too. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice over the top to give it a bit of zing and you have, I reckon, about as perfect as starter as can be.

7. Mixed grill, La Courbe. What’s not to like about a restaurant that can serve up meat in this many different ways and for them all to be really good? The lamb kofte is soft and herby, rather than hot. The chicken is marinated in ginger and cooked so the inside is soft but the outside is caramelised. The grilled lamb comes flavoured with cinnamon to give a slightly sweet taste and cooked so it’s just pink but still soft. The dollop of houmous on the side was surprisingly average, but the superb tabbouleh also deserves special mention: fresh, clean and green.

8. Tuna tartare, Malmaison. Like I said, even bad meals can contain brilliant dishes and despite the gloomy surroundings this dish shone brightly in the Malmaison firmament (only partly because of the glass plate they served it on). The tuna was super fresh and went perfectly with the avocado, truly ripe with that delicious buttery taste. The wasabi and slivers of pickled ginger on the side were perfect dotted onto a forkful of tuna and avocado, and the sesame dressing drizzled round the edge had a slight sticky sweetness which made it worth mopping up. If only the rest of the restaurant had lived up to the food.

9. Crab ravioli, Pepe Sale. As the first restaurant to get the ER treatment it pleases me greatly that Pepe Sale makes it onto this list. The crab ravioli is on the specials menu so often that it should become a standard, especially as it’s so good. The ravioli is perfectly cooked, just al dente, and made fresh that day on the marble counter just inside the door. The fluffy crab inside is more generous than it needs to be (but then that’s probably how Pepe Sale has maintained a loyal following for the past fifteen years). The tomato and cream sauce is rich but not overwhelming so a bowlful feels like a treat not an overindulgence. A year on, one of the first dishes I reviewed is still one of the very best.

10. Fried chicken, rice and peas, Perry’s. Perry’s, despite its size, is one of the more intimidating places I’ve eaten since I started ER. I’m glad I went in, though, because it does food that I would struggle to get anywhere else. The chicken is seasoned, coated in flour and fried and then served with a generous helping of rice and peas. Calling it rice and peas is one hell of an understatement, mind. This a side dish on the scale of your mum’s best stew – rice and peas cooked in stock, herbs and spices that are too numerous for me to identify. There’s plenty of chilli in there but the whole flavour is more sophisticated than plain old chilli suggests. Even if it wasn’t an amazing dish in its own right, I’d want it on this list because, more than anything, it symbolises food I would never have eaten if I hadn’t started this blog.

Getting that list down to just ten dishes was no mean feat – no room, sadly, for the ribs at Blue’s Smokehouse, the churros at Tampopo, the truffle ravioli at Ruchetta and countless others. It just goes to show how much good food is out there in and around Reading if you know where to look – and sometimes even if you don’t – despite our reputation as a clone town.

When I started Edible Reading I did wonder if there was enough here to keep me going. A whole year of weekly reviews, the majority of them in central Reading, suggests that I may have been worrying unduly. Without a doubt, the best thing about the last year has been the involvement from everyone who reads the blog – commenting, passing on reviews, Retweeting and getting involved with the conversations. And even now, every time someone tells me they’ve tried and loved a restaurant after reading an Edible Reading review it absolutely makes my day. So please don’t forget to request places you’d like to see reviewed – and if you think I’m missing that one great dish that you order time and time again, add your two pence in the comments box.

Perry’s

Today’s restaurant has no website, almost no reviews anywhere, and even if you walked right past it you could be forgiven for not knowing it exists. And yet Perry’s, the Caribbean restaurant next to the Oxfam Bookshop on Market Place, has been there for a very long time. Shamefully, the reason I’ve never eaten there isn’t that I hadn’t noticed it, even though that would be understandable. I notice restaurants wherever I go, like a sixth sense, and when I do I always have to wander over and read the menu. No, I knew all about Perry’s, and I avoided it because every time I’ve been outside, I’ve looked through the window and felt intimidated.

It’s a funny balance, isn’t it? If you see a Chinese restaurant full of Chinese people (like China Palace) or an Indian restaurant full of Indian people (like Chennai Dosa), it’s unmistakeably promising, but only up to a point. Beyond that, and maybe it’s just me, it starts to feel like you aren’t meant to be there, like you wouldn’t fit in. It conjures up images of that famous scene in An American Werewolf In London, or some of the pubs I was warned not to enter during my first year at university. So I’m a little embarrassed to admit that, like countless people in Reading, I too have walked past Perry’s without going in, hundreds of times – not because it didn’t appeal, but because I was too chicken.

Edible Reading has changed all that for me – I suppose I partly see it as my duty to go to lots of new, different places, and sometimes that involves leaving my comfort zone. The review requests that people send are all taken seriously, so my friend and I found ourselves in Perry’s this week for an early evening meal – although, as I discovered, I suspect that eating in Perry’s in the evening is slightly missing the point.

The menu on the front door is slightly misleading. It lists a number of Caribbean dishes (salt fish and ackee, curried mutton, barbecued chicken, brown chicken stew, rice and peas, macaroni pie, I could go on – and I’m half tempted to given that they don’t have a website) but in fact what gets served varies from day to day. We didn’t know this when we arrived but soon figured it out looking at the blackboard next to the counter. It lists all the dishes, but the ones that are still available have a green sticker next to them. Perry’s closes at 8, and when we got there – with just over an hour remaining – there weren’t many green stickers left.

Some of them, sadly, weren’t even true: there was no macaroni pie, despite a green sticker to the contrary. I was a bit gutted by this, even though I wasn’t 100% sure what macaroni pie was, because I liked the sound of it. I was assuming – correctly as it turns out – that it’s a bit like macaroni cheese, which would have made it a Good Thing in my book. So, by the time we got to Perry’s it was a fairly straightforward choice: barbecue chicken, fried chicken, fried fish or oxtail, accompanied by either rice and peas or plain rice. The only other choice is whether you have a small or large portion.

Even writing this, I do wonder whether this is really such a tragedy. I’d rather go to a restaurant which has a limited range of dishes and owns up when it sells out, rather than a restaurant with dozens and dozens of main courses, leaving you wondering how any chef can possibly cook all of them without getting something out of a jar. Maybe I’ve watched too many episodes of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares,

Perry himself was behind the counter on this occasion and, apart from two other diners, we were the only people in the place. I asked him about the difference between the large and small portions and he waved a medium plate (which is apparently small) and a full sized dinner plate (which is large – and believe me, it was) at us. So, that’s the difference: that and the grand total of an extra quid.

The seating at Perry’s is pretty basic – the right side of uncomfortable, but not somewhere you’d settle in for a long meal. The whole thing has the feel of a cafeteria about it, which meant I wasn’t really sure what happened next. Should we wait at the counter? Would we be called up, like at a crappy coffee shop? Would they bring it over? Again, I realised that Perry’s wasn’t quite like most of the restaurants I eat in, and that gave me that little flash of feeling outside my comfort zone again. I wasn’t even sure how long we’d be waiting before our meals arrived.

In the end, Perry brought the food over in about ten minutes. The small portion of fried fish was seriously tasty stuff, and really not small at all – a light fried coating on a couple of decent sized chunks of what I think was salted cod. It was a little chewy, and not really crispy, although I don’t know enough to be able to say whether that was down to the time of day or how it had been cooked. The large portion of chicken was also delicious – three pieces of chicken served on the bone, coated in a fine layer of seasoning. Again, it wasn’t crispy and it was slightly on the tough side, and again I can’t tell you if that’s how it should be. I can tell you, though, that we both really liked it, and by the end all the bones were very effectively stripped, a little mass grave on a sideplate.

The rice and peas was the revelation, for me: rice cooked in spices, herbs and stock with kidney beans mixed in, with just enough heat to make you blow your nose but not enough to blow your mind. We spent a bit of time trying and failing to work out exactly what was in there – there was definitely some chilli, definitely some thyme (I know that because I had a naked stem tucked in my rice), plenty of onion, but beyond that we weren’t sure. Something had to give it that tangy, almost fruity flavour, but what was it? I still don’t know now, but whatever it was it made the rice so tasty that I even used it to accompany the little fresh salad on the side – iceberg lettuce, tomato and some thinly sliced cucumber. It might not sound significant, but it is: I never eat the token salad garnish.Perrys2

There’s no alcohol licence, so it’s all soft drinks. In our case, it was pineapple soda (because I’ve never tried it before) and grape soda (which I’m told is surprisingly tasty, once you get used to it). We decided to pass on a soft drink called “Bigga” on this occasion, despite all the puerile potential for mirth it would have offered.

When we’d finished we weren’t sure what the normal procedure was. Perry was busy in the kitchen – cleaning up, presumably, as no other customers came in while we were in there. Since there were no other customers finishing up there was nobody to copy. In the end we took our plates up to the counter – again, not quite sure if we were in a restaurant or a canteen – and we ended up having our bill totted up by the woman at the other table, who we’d mistakenly thought was another customer (I think that means we may have been their only customers that night). The total for two dishes and two cans of drink was £16, which made me wonder if we’d been undercharged.

If you’ve gathered from the previous paragraphs that I still don’t quite know what to make of Perry’s, you would be spot on. Both dishes were delicious but I couldn’t help feeling that I’d missed the boat by visiting early evening on a weeknight – the range of options was limited and the place was empty, so there was no buzz or chatter. The building used to be a kebab shop, in a previous incarnation, and it still feels like it’s very much a functional place – walk in, get fed, walk out.

That said, if you’re in the mood for a quick meal Perry’s could be perfect for you. The food was really tasty, and it’s something you can’t get anywhere else in the centre of Reading. I’m told, too, that grape soda could prove to be quite habit forming. And the service, if basic, was really warm and friendly – when I was pondering what “ground food” (also on the blackboard but bereft of a green sticker) was, the lady at the other table told me in great detail. It turns out that it’s like a savoury doughnut made from yams, and it sounds pretty magnificent to me.

All told, I’m glad that I got over my preconceptions (and over the threshold). This would be a sad town indeed if you could walk past an interesting looking restaurant and not go in just because you’re too busy sticking to the tried and tested, and in a way that’s what Edible Reading is all about. So yes, Perry’s isn’t the place for an epic drawn out dinner. It’s not a place for going mad with the wine list, or for that matter drinking at all. It’s not a place, either, where you’re going to have a starter or a dessert. But having said all that, next time I walk past Perry’s on a Saturday lunchtime, when it’s packed with diners and I don’t feel quite so nervous, I think I might just go in. Maybe you should too.

Perry’s – 6.7
7 High St (off Market Place), RG1 2EA
0118 9594001