Q&A: Nandana Syamala, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

Nandana Syamala moved to the U.K. from India on Christmas Day 2004, and after living in London for over ten years she and her husband Sharat relocated to Reading to pursue their dream of opening a restaurant together. Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen opened on London Street in June 2018, and since then has firmly established itself as one of the jewels of Reading’s independent restaurant scene, winning awards and converting the town to now iconic dishes like kodi chips, squid pakora, crab fry, bhuna venison and its trademark clay pot biryanis.

Clay’s has spent some of the time since lockdown began cooking 100 meals a day for the Whitley Community Development Organisation. In the next couple of weeks they will launch a new service selling a brand new, regularly-changing menu of vacuum-packed, chilled meals for delivery, initially in Reading only but with plans to expand nationwide. A hot food delivery service in Reading is due to follow further down the line.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
Eating out at our favourite restaurants in our free time, and I also dearly miss all the happy hugs I get from our diners. 

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Chicken legs. My mom used to cook pan-fried chicken legs. We were three siblings and we got one each. My dad still tells stories to anyone who will listen (or even just pretend to listen) about how we used to hold our chicken leg, move into a corner of the room and eat it with so much concentration it was almost funny, like a cartoon. We were all under five years old.

How have you changed as a result of running a restaurant for nearly two years?
I don’t know if this makes any sense but Clay’s is a brand new adventure for me and I’m not sure if running it has changed me, or whether I’m discovering parts of myself that were always there but had just never come to the surface. So I had to ask my friends for help with this question, as I couldn’t judge for myself. Some of them said they don’t get to see me enough to detect any changes, one said I have become modest (but he is known for his sarcasm!) The majority have said that I’ve become slightly more pragmatic and a little less idealistic, but there’s still a long way to go before they’re in balance! I’m not sure that’s where I want to end up, though.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The way it feels like a big city but also a community town at the same time. The way the people are so warm and helpful most of the time and the way all the independent businesses are so supportive of each other. I also love the fact that there are so many areas of outstanding natural beauty only ten to fifteen minutes’ drive away.

What is the worst job you’ve done?
My first job, back when I was doing my bachelor’s degree. I worked at a pre-school and I was teaching the kids the English alphabet. I was having trouble with one girl and was trying really hard to make her trace a letter and suddenly she grabbed the ruler I had in my hand and hit me with it! I laugh out loud whenever I think of it now, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I hated it so much that I left within a month. I’ll forever have so much respect for people who do it so well. I did get to buy a birthday gift for my best friend and a watch for my younger brother though: it took me more than twenty years to buy something with my own money again for my brother, so I guess that job was also special in spite of it being the worst.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
There are quite a few that have moved me, but I’ve watched The Godfather more times than I can count, and I can always watch it again. Everyone knows that’s brilliant, but every time I watch it I find some new underlying meaning in a scene, something that I’ve previously missed. I love the book, too.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
There’s this place in France called Cap Ferret near Bordeaux . We were there a few years ago and had one of our best and happiest meals ever at one of the oyster shacks there. This was family run by the oyster farmer, his wife and his daughter. We sat there on the beach with basic seating and lots of wine while they kept on bringing the freshest of seafood – from oysters and shrimp to clams and mussels – along with some of the most beautiful bread and butter I’ve ever had. The food wasn’t showy, no modernist techniques, no gimmicks. I wish I could retire and eat that way every day.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I have the most vivid imagination ever and believe me when I say, there hasn’t been a single thing in this world that I haven’t wanted to be at some point while growing up. A cleaner, a butler, an astronaut, an engineer, a superhero, a doctor or a film personality. I even wanted to be a holy woman doing meditation in the Himalayas. I don’t just mean a flash of imagination: I actually spent a few months daydreaming about each of them before moving on to the next. The biggest irony is that even though cooking always came naturally to me I don’t remember ever wanting to be a chef.

When you moved to England, what took the most adjusting to?
I grew up reading Jane Austen, Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse, and it was a bit disappointing at first that England didn’t feel like that. But the biggest thing to adjust to was the lack of street food like in India. I was used to eating street food almost every day as an evening snack, and it’s still the one thing I really find it hard to live without. There are street food markets happening more now in the UK but it’s not even 5% of the variety and abundance you see in India or Thailand.

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
We’ve been thinking about this a lot, and even have a list of restaurants that we are missing from London, Bristol and Oxford. But I think it will most probably either be Pepe Sale or Côte.

What is your most unappealing habit?
It could be the high-pitched nervous giggle I do when I get overexcited about something.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
It’s extremely unlikely to happen, but someone said Shilpa Shetty (who won Celebrity Big Brother a long time ago) or Frieda Pinto. But knowing the control freak that I am, I might not let anyone else do it.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
I can only eat sea salt and black pepper Kettle Chips. Please don’t judge.

What have been the highest and lowest points of your time running Clay’s?
The lowest was four days before we were due to open, when our builders left us in the lurch with lots of major things still needing fixing. We’d made the mistake of paying him 95% of his fee by then. He told us that the owner of another house he was working on had given him an ultimatum to finish their house faster, and he jumped ship because the owner was an architect and he expected more work and more money from them. We were a nobody to him.

It was a nightmare: we’d already postponed the opening date once and couldn’t do it again. I’d start crying the moment anyone so much as said hello to me. We went around all the hardware stores and electric stores, managed to find different handymen for different jobs, spent loads of extra money and finally managed to open with just £100 remaining in all our combined accounts. We had nothing left to even buy groceries for the next week. I can’t believe it’s not even two years since we went through all of that!

The highest was when a group of our regulars planned in secret to visit us on the date of our first anniversary to celebrate with us. They booked a big table without us having a clue; the happiness and thrill I got seeing each one walking into the restaurant and then realising they all belonged on the same table is indescribable. I don’t think anything will ever beat that and I am forever grateful to all of them (you know who you are) for giving us that moment.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Hyderabadi biryani and cut mirchi, ever since childhood. My family used to tease me that they would find a husband who cooks those two dishes. They did end up finding me someone who does the best biryani and I managed to master the other one, so it’s a win-win.

If your house was on fire, what’s the one thing you would save from it?
Honestly, nothing, as long as Sharat and I are out and safe. Is it sad that I don’t possess anything I think is worth saving?

Clay’s has one of the best wine lists, beer lists and gin lists in Reading. What’s your drink of choice?
Thank you so much for saying so: we really put so much effort into that. But coming to your question, it mostly depends on the mood, weather and the food but otherwise it would be a good full-bodied red.

Where is your happy place?
Wherever all my family is, with all my nieces and nephews playing around.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I’m an introvert.

Describe yourself in three words.
Honest. Content. Defective. That last one is Sharat’s word, and I’ve trained my mind to believe that he means it in a cute way!

Q&A: Ian Caren, Launchpad

Ian Caren was born in Everton and despite being told at school that he wasn’t clever enough to go to university he trained as a teacher, is a qualified social worker and has three degrees. He’s been working in social services, charity and probation since he was 21 and has been CEO of Launchpad, Reading’s leading homelessness prevention charity for over 14 years. He is a fanatical Everton supporter and season ticket holder and eats to live, so is held in great disregard by the gastronomic part of his family. He is married with three children (one of them, to his shame, a Manchester United fan) and lives in Fleet.

In this crisis, Launchpad’s work is more vital than ever. Click here to donate to its COVID-19 appeal.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
I miss talking to people, visiting the Oxfam book shop, hugging my grandkids and going to watch Everton.

You’ve run the organisation you lead for nearly fifteen years. What, for you, defines leadership?
I think having a passion to do the right thing for the vulnerable of Reading is important in my role, and good leadership is never asking your staff to do something that you won’t do. Having a good team around you is also key to good leadership; not thinking you can do everything yourself.  I’m sometimes like Don Quixote – tilting at giants when they are in fact windmills – and, like everyone else, I get things wrong. But I have talented people around me to put me on the right track.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Growing up in a tenement in Liverpool in the late 50s and early 60s was bleak. My earliest and happiest memories of food were having chips in the rain at the park and a meat pie for tea. The worst was being offered bread and dripping if I was hungry.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The people. Reading is a fantastic community and full of life. It has a vibrancy unlike elsewhere in Berkshire. If it was to be a shop it would be the Oxfam book shop!

What is the worst job you’ve done?
Working in an abattoir – the smell of the vats of blood was appalling.

You are an avid reader and recommend a book every month on your CEO blog. What writers, living or dead, do you most admire?
I read for knowledge and enjoyment. Fiction would be John le Carré and his early novels; I loved Cold War spy stories. A sci-fi writer would be Iain M. Banks and his Culture series of novels.  I read masses of history books and the most impressive writer is Jonathan Fennell who rewrote the history of the British Army in World War 2.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
My wife is Italian and it was at a family’s in Galatone, Apulia in Italy. There were thirteen courses which finished with banana liqueur cake – it tasted unbelievable. There’s also one meal that almost beats it: fresh grilled swordfish and chips on the harbour side of Calabernardo in Sicily.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“It’s what we do”!

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
My eldest son Daniel is a food guru and he has plans for a party at one of the restaurants he loves, Yauatcha in Soho.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen during your time at Launchpad?
The biggest change in my period at Launchpad has been the increasing levels of poverty, which is heartbreaking. I also find the betrayal of people under 40 a disgrace, perpetually stuck in rented accommodation and regularly forced to move. I have staff members in their 40s who have never lived in their own flat, they’ve always had to live in shared accommodation. I find that unacceptable: the way a significant proportion of people are effectively forced to live the rest of their life like students is appalling.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
Casablanca – the La Marseillaise scene is so emotional. The Godfather: “Tattaglia’s a pimp. He never could have outfought Santino. But I didn’t know until this day that it was Barzini all along.” Brilliant! And The Cruel Sea, to remember my Uncle Tommy who died out in the Atlantic in June 1942.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Peter Kay, John Cleese, Tina Fey, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I would spend the evening in hysterics.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
My children have a long list of my embarrassing moments. The most recent episode was recently falling off my bike in the pouring rain, rolling down the canal embankment and straight into the canal. I was standing in the canal thinking, how do I get out? I eventually pulled myself out and cycled six miles home covered in mud!

Where is your happy place?
Northumberland and Cisternino in Italy – they’re both beautiful, haunting places full of history and silence.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
Walkers Prawn Cocktail.

How do you relax?
This week I watched the satellites pass in the night sky and downloaded an app which told me the bright star was the planet Venus. I love to learn and find it relaxing: I’m contemplating a PhD in history.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
That we cannot stand alone.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Dessert wines.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I wrote a couple of history sections on Wikipedia.

Describe yourself in three words.
Compassionate, committed, (occasionally) unforgiving.

Q&A: Naomi Lowe, Nibsy’s

Naomi Lowe set up Nibsy’s, Reading’s first dedicated gluten-free café, in Cross Street in 2014, following a career in investment management. In the last five years the café has gone from strength to strength and remains Reading’s only venue specifically catering to this sector of the market. Nibsy’s won the Reading Retail Award for Best Café in 2017. Naomi is currently writing her first book of recipes. She lives with her husband and two children off the Oxford Road.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
Losing my “rhythm” and not being able to see my mum.

What’s the biggest difference you notice between corporate life and running a café?
Corporate life was easy. Running a coffee shop takes a lot more out of me (but gives back, too). I could go on about the differences and sacrifices I’ve had to make, but the reward and the team, the people and the sense of achievement are worth the effort.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The Oxford Road – it feels like home. And I like that Reading is big enough to feel anonymous but small enough to have a sense of community.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I feel like I should say L’Ortolan as it was the most expensive and memorable meal (it was a birthday present). But the happy memories are of when I used to grab a bag of chips from Smarts fish and chip shop in Henley and sit by the river with my boyfriend, now husband. They were consistently the best chips I’ve ever eaten. I don’t think they are run by the same people anymore.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
I’ve been calling a regular customer Martin for five years. He recently started following our Instagram page and it turns out his name is Tom. I’ll put that right when we re-open.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Eating digestive biscuits in bed, which my mum would bring me as a late night snack when I was a toddler.

How do you relax?
With a smoke and glass of wine, in the garden.

You opened Nibsy’s six years ago. How much do you think the food scene has changed for the gluten intolerant since then?
Massively changed for the better – it’s rare to go out and not have a few decent options. 

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
Probably Pho. There’s one dish that I always have –  the vermicelli noodles with mushroom and tofu. I don’t eat out very often, and am a sucker for sticking to what I like. Plus, I am comfortable eating there on my own: as I get older, “me time” is like gold.

What is your favourite word?
Tricky, but the first two words that come to mind are “bobble” and “yes”. Sorry, these are pretty random! But I’ll explain: “bobble” because it sounds like a happy word. And “yes” because it was the first word I ever said, and is generally a positive word.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
I suppose I’d have to say E.T. because it’s the film I’ve watched more than any other. Although my seven year old is watching Ratatouille on repeat at the moment and I love it: the story, the music, and the message “anyone can cook”. That’s nice to hear while I’m writing the recipe book. Series wise, the one I have watched twice is Breaking Bad: nothing else has come close.

Who are your biggest influences in the world of food and drink?
John Richardson, because of the knowledge he shares in his help books for coffee shop and café owners, and Gordon Ramsay because I love Kitchen Nightmares.

Where is your happy place?
At my mum’s little place in north-west London or my dad’s, in the south of France in a sleepy village called Auzas. Nothing happens there, the church bell rings every hour – even through the night – but the calm and fresh air is like nothing else. And he makes a great curry and plays his old vinyl.

Normally I ask people what their favourite crisps are. What’s your favourite gluten-free snack?
No, crisps ARE my go-to snack. My favourite brand is the special large bag of salt and vinegar ones that the Co-op do – I love these because they are so salty and vinegary. Otherwise, a specifically gluten-free snack would be the granola bars that we make and sell at the coffee shop.

What is the worst job you’ve done?
A temp job in my early twenties, in a virtually windowless building just off Oxford Street. I answered calls and filled in job sheets for engineers to fix faulty toilets and equipment. I was mostly on my own, which was the worst part. I only stuck at it a week or two.

What is your most unappealing habit?
I wanted to ask my husband for help on this one. He said “screaming at your husband.”

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Late night scoops of crunchy peanut butter before bed.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
Having racked my brain, there’s only one actress that springs to mind – Julia Stiles.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I’m distantly related to Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula.

Describe yourself in three words.
Warm, pragmatic, thinker.

Feature: The 2019 Edible Reading Awards

Can you believe it’s that time of year again? Hopefully by now you’ve bought all your Christmas presents (even if, like me, you’ve not necessarily wrapped them yet). Hopefully you’ve sent and received all your cards – if you still do that sort of thing – and reflected on the new names on the list and the people you’ve finally pruned. You’ve probably had your work do, and been out with your friends. You may even be on roast dinner number four or five by now. We all have our festive traditions and one of mine, for the last five years, has been sitting down and writing this, my end of term report on Reading’s restaurant scene. Was it an “exceeds expectations” or a “must try harder”? Hmm. Let’s find out.

I initially thought it had been a quiet year for restaurants in this town but actually, on reflection, there has been a fair bit of movement. No big-name openings like 2018 – no Lido, no Clay’s, no Corn Stores – but instead a steady succession of new places vying to capture your spend and your affection. So 2019 was the year when we said hello to Argentine steakhouse Buenasado and Greek white elephant Lemoni in the Oracle, the Pantry in the Town Hall, Vegivores and the Last Crumb out in Caversham and countless other new kids on the block.

Some existing restaurateurs moved to new premises: Tutu shifted her Ethiopian Table from the Global Café to Palmer Park, and Kamal (of Namaste Kitchen) finally opened new restaurant Namaste Momo on the edge of Earley. And there’s always a new restaurant just around the corner – the first of 2020 may well be Osaka, the new Japanese restaurant due to set up shop in the old Café Rouge site, but I doubt it will be the last. We’re also allegedly getting a Taco Bell, presumably to compensate us in some Newtonian sense, for the forthcoming closure of bigoted poultry purveyor Chick-Fil-A.

Not that we haven’t had enough restaurants close this year. The saddest, for me, was Tuscany, the fantastic independent pizzeria down the Oxford Road. I was also disappointed that Vibes, the Caribbean restaurant on Queens Walk, closed before I paid it a visit. We also lost two Reading institutions in the form of China Palace and Beijing Noodle House – although, to be euphemistic, both had seen better days.

Town centre Vietnamese restaurant Mum Mum and Alona, serving Lebanese food down the Wokingham Road, also closed their doors for the final time. Neither got to celebrate their first birthday. Nor did Bench Rest, which stopped serving in the Tasting House after less than a year: Reading’s original nomad moved on again, and is apparently leaving the country next year.

In terms of reviewing, it’s been a year of highs and lows. I experienced the worst nachos in the world, activated charcoal-flavoured ick, food that came all at once, John Lewis tablemats, albino carbonara and comically laissez faire service. But I’ve also had astonishing sausage rolls, eye-opening pasta, the warmest of welcomes and seen familiar faces in new places. Every now and then I’d have a run of meals so bad, or so bla, that I started to feel discouraged, but the next superb meal was never too far away. Trips abroad made sure I never fell out of love with eating out, especially one holiday where the food just blew me away.

It’s been a fantastic year in terms of the blog – a record-breaking one, with more visitors than ever before. As always, I’m incredibly grateful to all of you who read, like, comment, Retweet, share or just lurk, whether you do so smiling, laughing, tutting or grimacing. I’m grateful to everybody who’s come out on duty with me this year – friends, readers, my terrific family and of course Zoë, my partner in crime and regular dining companion. And I’m also grateful to everybody who has come to one of the five readers’ events I’ve run this year – all at some of Reading’s finest independent restaurants, each of them offering a special one-off menu. I’m not sure 2019 will be topped, but of course I’ll try my best to next year.

With all that said, it just remains for me to hand out the gongs in this, the 2019 Edible Reading Awards. It’s been harder than ever to reduce the long list to a short list, let alone pick the winners, and any of the honourable mentions this year could easily have taken top spot instead of the eventual winners. We’re lucky to live in a town that makes these decisions so difficult, so if you disagree with any or all of the winners I can hardly blame you: on another day, I might have disagreed too. Anyway, that’s quite enough preamble: let’s announce some winners, and you can tell me what I got wrong in the comments.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Chilli nachos, The Lyndhurst

It was pretty much love at first sight when I ordered the Lyndhurst’s chilli nachos for the first time, and none of my subsequent encounters have dimmed my ardour. A wonderful chilli made with slow-cooked, shredded beef (a chilli which doesn’t appear elsewhere on the menu in the mains section), robust hand-made tortilla chips, a healthy helping of well-made guacamole and some cream cheese, a lettuce leaf if you want to pretend to be a better person than you actually are. A perfect starter to share, or to snaffle on your own, or a dish to eat with a few pints just for the sake of it, because it’s so perfect. I’m a huge fan, and I live in constant fear that they’ll either take it off the menu or price it slightly less generously (seven pounds twenty-five pence, would you believe it). Superb stuff.

I know that not picking a starter from Clay’s will be controversial here – one Twitter follower suggested I should have a separate award for the best Clay’s starter (and that too would be an incredibly tough one to call). Clay’s does deserve an honourable mention though for their cut mirchi chaat – a sort of stuffed and battered chilli dish that is difficult to describe and even more difficult to resist (yes, I know: but what about the chicken 65, the kodi chips, the squid pakora, the duck spring rolls, and basically all the other starters. Enough already). Another honourable mention goes to Zest for their triple-cooked pork belly with XO sauce, a dish I’ve thought about on pretty much a daily basis since I had it at the start of the month.

CHAIN OF THE YEAR: Honest Burger

Chains are all about consistency, and in my experience Honest has gone from strength to strength this year, becoming the place to go if you want a quick, enjoyable, reliably superb meal. It helps that they’ve swapped out their local special – the indifferent jerk chicken burger has given way to a gorgeous new option with Waterloo cheese and bearnaise butter – but it’s just that they never put a foot wrong. My stepfather is so impressed with their vegan burger that he picks it over a conventional beefburger, some of the specials this year have been absolutely knockout (especially when they involve fried chicken) but really, it’s just that it’s regularly, unspectacularly excellent. Reading still has far too many burger joints, and I wouldn’t shed a tear if the rest closed down. But Honest is another matter altogether.

The two runners-up in this category also deliver the kind of consistency and comfort you want from a visit to a chain restaurant. Pho continues to offer an excellent range of dishes (I don’t think I’ll ever really see the appeal of the eponymous dish itself, but I’m evangelical about their com chien) and Kokoro has done me a turn on many an early evening when I can’t be bothered to cook and on a few hungover Sunday lunchtimes. Their sweet chilli chicken is a particular favourite of mine, although I know the katsu curry also has its fans.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob

Yes, on this occasion lunch probably means brunch and yes, Fidget & Bob is out of town which means that for most people it’s a weekend lunch option. But nevertheless, most of my happiest lunches this year have been at Fidget & Bob and they invariably involve a variant of their phenomenal brunch menu which they serve all day. You can have a breakfast wrap, or the “hangover” (a sausage, bacon and egg sandwich) but I always seem to go for their golden, gorgeous scrambled eggs, served with crispy back bacon and a slice of their sausage loaf. Other dishes – sandwiches, panini and their home-made noodle pots – are available, but the trick is to save room for cake. I am hooked on the kouign amann – hopelessly indulgent Breton pastries made with plenty of salted butter (they missed a trick not calling them “Breton butter pudding”) but the salted caramel brownies are also phenomenal.

Picking a winner in this category wasn’t easy, limiting the runners-up to just two was equally difficult. An honourable mention goes to Caversham’s Geo Café which has spent 2019 completing its transformation from Nomad Bakery and, along with a beautiful array of cakes, still serves one of Reading’s finest sandwiches in the form of the ajika-spiced corn-fed chicken wrap. Also highly commended is Shed – which is every bit as good as ever and continues to serve Reading’s best golden, cheese-laden, comforting toasties.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Lamb with cumin, Kungfu Kitchen

In a year of wonderful main courses – far too many to list here – KFK’s lamb with cumin was the one I kept coming back to. I had it on my second ever visit, and it’s been a struggle not to order it every time since. The lamb – sliced wafer-thin, as it is for the hot pot – is so deep and rich. It tastes properly of lamb – which might sound like a silly thing to say, but somehow lamb is so often a pale copy of how it ought to taste. “This is how kebabs should be” said my other half the first time she tasted this dish, and I can understand what she meant. The whole thing, flecked with sesame seeds and tumbled with onion and coriander, stalks and all, is the kind of intensely savoury dish you daydream about long after you have eked out one final mouthful. KFK does so many excellent dishes but, in the lamb with cumin, it has one unforgettable one.

It is a tribute to how strong a field it is that many of the dishes on my long list could easily have won this award: Fidget & Bob’s char siu pork, for instance, or Namaste Momo’s spellbinding lamb kothey momo. But there’s only room for two runners-up. First, the chinta chiguru from Clay’s – terrific, tender chicken thigh in a striking, sharply elegant tamarind sauce (very much the unsung hero of the Clay’s menu, in my book). And secondly, Bakery House’s boneless baby chicken with vegetable rice and beautifully dressed salad, possibly Reading’s most complete main course.

OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Mio Fiore, Newbury

I so loved my visit to Mio Fiore this year, and I’m long overdue a return trip. There was just something magical about it – so unprepossessing and yet getting everything right, serving dishes that are so often unspecial in chain Italians and reminding you just how superb they can be in the right hands. It came around the same time as I had a brilliant holiday in Bologna and a bloody horrendous meal in Cozze, and the fact that the standard was so much closer to the former than the latter put a huge smile on my face. If you go, the spaghetti puttanesca (pictured above) is pretty damn close to perfection.

Honourable mentions have to go to Goring’s Miller Of Mansfield, a special occasion restaurant which will leave you wanting to invent more special occasions, and Oxford’s Pompette, a truly spectacular French neighbourhood restaurant which I’d dearly love to pick up and drop somewhere in Reading. In fact, since I can’t do that, I’m literally lunching there again today.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob

I stopped giving an award out for Tweeter of the year this year, because Fidget & Bob won it every year. They may as well keep the trophy. But this year, eating there more often, I discovered that how they were on Twitter probably came so naturally to them because it was just an extension of how they were in real life. Their welcome is always warm but perfectly-judged, not faux-matey, never too much. They seem to know literally everybody who eats in their little café – who they are, what they like, how they’ve been, the comings and goings of their lives. I suppose it must be easier to do when you run a small venue and there are only a couple of you, but that doesn’t stop it being extremely impressive – or bloody hard work, however easy Shu and Breege make it look.

An honourable mention has to go to Mio Fiore, who also have that perfect balance spot on in a far bigger venue, and I also have to single out the inimitable Jo at Kungfu Kitchen. Her service is a constant joy to me – the conversation, the recommendations, the gossip, the way she always seems delighted that you’ve come back. There’s no welcome quite like it in Reading, and once you’ve tried it you’ll know exactly what I mean.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Chocolate custard with sesame tuille, The Miller Of Mansfield

So beautiful, so elegant and so delicious: the Miller’s chocolate custard is a smooth, glossy thing somewhere between the texture of a ganache and a mousse. It looks almost as beautiful as it tastes, with a salted sesame tuille on top perfect to break into little shards, the whole thing artfully dotted with microherbs and little dabs of vivid orange. It was by far the best dessert I’ve had this year: when I went on duty I shared it with my dining companion, but when I managed to engineer a return visit a few weeks later I made sure I got one all to myself.

Honourable mentions go to Zest’s excellent white chocolate and Bailey’s cheesecake – a big old slab of heaven – and the timeless simplicity of Mio Fiore’s tiramisu.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: The Lyndhurst

I was very sad when the Lyndhurst closed in June, the landlord went off to pastures new and at least one of the chefs moved on to the Fisherman’s Cottage. And I had my doubts when it reopened the following month – there was a hesitancy about the whole thing, and on the opening night the team seemed more than a little fazed about what they had taken on.

Well, over the months that followed they have, if anything, surpassed their predecessors with an interesting and exciting menu which constantly changes. I tried a beautiful dish of oxtail there, rich shreds of meat wrapped up in the embrace of a cabbage leaf. Weeks later, it had vanished from the menu like a mirage, never to return. The picture above is of a stunning rabbit dish – stuffed with chicken liver, wrapped in prosciutto, a dish which kept popping back into my mind at random moments, normally when I was eating something nowhere near as good. I think they served that dish for less than a week, and I haven’t seen it on the menu since.

One staple, though, is the curry night on Thursdays – a choice of three curries, all miles from the generic stuff, with rice, a bhaji, a pint and a naan, all for a tenner. The ever-present katsu chicken burger is always worth ordering, too, with some of Reading’s best chips – and then there’s the small matter of their chilli nachos, as I’ve already said.

The tables have got busier, the “reserved” signs more frequent, and I for one am delighted to see them doing so well. And the hesitancy hasn’t exactly vanished: it’s more that it’s morphed into a really charming humility. They don’t ever sing their own praises, which is even more reason why it’s my pleasure to do it for them by awarding them my Newcomer Of The Year award.

Some people would have expected Kungfu Kitchen to win this award, but they opened in October last year so aren’t eligible (and, personally, I was delighted to dodge another incredibly hard decision). I do, however, have to mention the two runners-up in this category. Buenasado really surprised me when I visited it on duty – I had low expectations of a small restaurant popping up in the Oracle in the site vacated by CAU, but they did a really creditable job (and their lunchtime steak frites offer is not to be sniffed at, either). An honourable mention also goes to Namaste Momo, the new outpost from Kamal, the man behind Namaste Kitchen. It’s a little out of the way, and the execution of the menu is still slightly uneven, but the hand-made momo are literally worth the price of admission alone: not only that, but Kamal will absolutely charm the socks off you.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Kungfu Kitchen

This was absolutely the hardest decision of all. Just think, for a second, about how lucky we are to live here. Here are some of the restaurants that didn’t even make my shortlist: Fidget & Bob; Pepe Sale; Geo Café; The Lyndhurst; Namaste Momo.

And then look at my runners-up. Bakery House is a superb, consistent, brilliantly run Reading institution where you can take pretty much anyone you know and guarantee that you’ll have a superb meal. You can go with vegetarians and go crazy with the mezze, or take your carnivorous friends and rejoice in the chicken livers, the little spiced sausages, the shawarma and the chicken fresh from the grill. I can’t remember them ever disappointing me.

And then there’s Clay’s. How could I not give the award to Clay’s, you might quite reasonably ask? If anything, their second year has been stronger than their first: look at all that game on their menu at the start of 2019, the quail, the rabbit and the pheasant. And then, just when you think their food couldn’t get any better, they pivoted again: amazing baby squid, like some hybrid of Hyderabad and Andalusia, a crab fry dish which has left so many diners speechless. They’ve even got me to eat baby corn, something I’d previously thought was impossible. I know full well that not picking them as 2019’s winners will leave many of you questioning my judgment this year (and possibly next).

But this is a decision made with the heart, not the head, and Kungfu Kitchen has been my restaurant of this year. From the very first visit I was wondering when I could go back, and on every visit I’ve faced that agonising tug of war between ordering a dish I know and love or venturing deeper into the menu. It never feels too much like a leap into the unknown, largely because of the magnificent Jo who always acts as a sherpa, taking you just far enough out of your comfort zone without ever leaving you high and dry (with possibly one exception: she once made me order a boiled beef and chilli oil dish which was a challenge, more a dish you survive than finish). She is a force of nature, and a huge part of what makes Kungfu Kitchen so enjoyable and so welcoming.

The food really is marvellous – whether it’s the fried fish in spicy hot pot, the sweet and aromatic wonder of the fish fragrant pork, the piquant kung pao chicken, the glorious pork belly, boiled, sliced super thin and then stir fried with Chinese mushrooms and plenty of heat, the salt and pepper tofu – yes, tofu – or one of my very favourites, the Xinjiang-style shredded chicken which almost literally takes your breath away with the heat before gradually releasing its grip on your larynx. That makes it sound awful but honestly, it’s exhilarating.

The conventional wisdom is to go to a place like Kungfu Kitchen in a big group so you can try more dishes, and that’s partly true. I’ve been at a birthday party there where they effortlessly served about twenty people, they did a bang-up job (complete with karaoke!) at one of my readers’ lunches earlier in the year. But I’ve also been here with smaller groups of friends, on quiet nights with my other half and, on occasion when I’m at a loose end, I’ll walk up the hill on my own and order just the one dish – such a hardship – and a beer and have dinner for one watching the toing and froing, the bustle and the banter. The welcome is never less than perfect, and the food is never less than gorgeous. It truly is a happy place.

It’s been a real joy to watch Kungfu Kitchen spreading its wings on social media, and to see so many ER readers go there and fall in love with the place, as I did. And so it seems appropriate to end 2019 by giving them this award and by wishing them – and all my winners and runners-up, and just as importantly all of you – a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

The Last Crumb

Reading’s pub scene has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the second half of 2019, despite pubs closing day in day out all over the country. The Lyndhurst reopened under new management and is now dishing up some really impressive food: last week I went there and had saddle of rabbit, stuffed with chicken liver and wrapped in Parma ham, up there with any rabbit dish I’ve had in Bologna. Then the Retreat was saved from an uncertain fate by a buy-out and is going from strength to strength with a new wine list, a far bigger presence online and, thankfully, the magnificent Brian still behind the bar.

That’s all well and good, but when the pub in question undergoes a more dramatic makeover people can be a little sniffier. The Eldon Arms closed and reopened in September as the Weather Station, with a few locals lamenting the loss of the name. I’ve been a few times since the reincarnation and it does some interesting beers, although sitting on a hard stool and using a barrel for a table is maybe designed for customers far younger and cooler than me: I soon found myself longing for a proper seat, which is around the point where I sloped off to the Retreat.

Finally, Caversham’s Prince Of Wales, at the top of Prospect Street, was acquired by Dodo Pubs who have spent a fair bit of time and money rebranding it as the Last Crumb. This provoked more complaints about losing the name, which I found harder to understand: surely there are quite enough pubs around the country called the Prince Of Wales? (I bet nobody would have objected it had been called the Duke Of York). Anyway, it’s not as if the people up in arms had frequented the pub back when it was the Prince Of Wales – everything I’d ever heard about the place suggested you wouldn’t go in unless you were up to date on your tetanus jabs.

I was delighted by the news that Dodo Pubs had taken on the Prince Of Wales, because I’ve always been a fan of the Rickety Press, their outpost in north Oxford’s Jericho – a lovely pub that does a good range of beers and ciders and very credible pizzas and burgers. When my Canadian family came to visit the U.K. earlier in the year and we went for a day trip to Oxford, I booked us in to the Rickety Press knowing it would suit everyone – craft enough for my twentysomething cousin and unpretentious enough for my 80 year old uncle. We had a lovely meal there, and I found myself wishing there was somewhere similar in Reading. Well, my wish was granted so my other half Zoë and I headed over on a weekday night to see whether the Last Crumb lived up to the promise of its sibling.

The inside is rather “2019 pub by numbers”, but not so terrible for all that. Yes, the walls are all a modish blue-grey and there are pointless bookshelves and objets everyway, but the flooring is lovely, the bare brick behind the bar equally so and at least it isn’t architectural carnage like, say, the interior of the Market House.

It’s divided up into rooms and those closest to the front of the pub are more conventional – banquette seating along one side, decent-sized tables and booths (I didn’t sit in that bit, mainly on account of it being colder than Priti Patel). The room nearest to the kitchen, incongruously, had round chrome-trimmed tables which were more reminiscent of a Fifties diner. And then there was the bigger room nearer to the bar, where you had a choice of perching on high chair at a high table or sitting on a minuscule chair at a long, low table probably intended to be communal. A bit like the Weather Station in that I took my seat thinking, deep down, that I was just a little too old for that kind of thing.

I’m not going to go into detail about the booze – you’ll have to wait for the excellent Quaffable Reading to review that side of things – but the selection looked decent to me. Dodo has its own lager and stout, and also serves Cotswold lager, Stowford Press and a small but reasonable range of craft. Of the fourteen beers and ciders on offer, only three crossed the five pound a pint Rubicon. I had a pint of Stowford Press, although I regretted not spotting the Cotswold Cider Company’s Yellow Hammer up on the board: next time, perhaps. Zoë, uncharacteristically, had a virgin mojito which was very nice, if more expensive than the cider.

Anyway, back to the food. The menu – sensibly I think – is quite limited, so you had a choice largely of pizzas or burgers, with a few salads tacked on the end and a handful of sides (there’s also a brunch menu, if you’re there that time of day). They’ve taken care to have a vegetarian and a vegan option on both sides of the menu, too, although I wasn’t sure how the “Leaf Not Beef” was truly vegan with smoked cheese on it. Some of the names should never have got out of the committee stage, either: I’m thinking especially of Coldplay tribute “Viva La Vegan” and the truly painful “Salami Get This Straight”. Not the worst I’ve ever heard – I used to frequent a sandwich shop in Oxford’s Covered Market which served something called “Yes Sir, Cheese My Baby” – but close enough.

Our order came out quicker than I would have liked, and with no starters or desserts on the menu we tried our best to cover a full range of the menu. The most successful thing was Zoë’s burger – the Moo & Blue special (Pie Minister should sue them for breach of copyright). It was good enough that I was only allowed a bite, but that bite was quite enough to make me wish I’d ordered one.

The patty was lovely, dense but not too dense with no mealiness or crumbliness (the menu says you can choose between well-done and pink: this was probably somewhere between the two). It was sensibly sized, i.e. you could pick it up and eat it without unhooking your jaw. But what really made it was the punch of Gorgonzola, a brilliant cheese to pair with this bringing plenty of salt and tang. The bun – a brioche, of course – was toasted and had enough structure to hold the whole thing together. One of the best burgers I’ve had in Reading outside Honest Burgers but also, at ten pounds fifty for the burger alone, more expensive.

You pay extra for the fries, so we shared a portion of cheese and truffle fries for four pounds seventy-five (sorry, I must stop listing the price of every dish, it’s a very Get Reading thing to do). They were served, as is the fashion, in a receptacle not quite big enough and I think Zoë liked them more than I did. Truffle oil is always a cheap way to add to the price of the dish and although I liked the cheese (allegedly fontina) it needed more of it.

We also tried the Dodo fried chicken, partly because of the absence of starters and desserts on the menu but mainly because I struggle to resist it when I see it on a menu. I’d had it before at the Rickety Press, where I enjoyed it very much, but this wasn’t pulled off with quite the same skill. The coating was tough and hard on the teeth, nice though the spicing was, and the meat – thigh rather than breast – had a little more give than I’d have liked. I wouldn’t say they were hipster Turkey Twizzlers, but I would say they were closer to that than I’d have liked. Again, Zoë liked them more than I did, so perhaps I was being especially fussy that evening.

My pizza managed simultaneously to be delightful and disappointing. I’d chosen the “chorizo piccante”, looking to compare it to Franco Manca’s very successful chorizo pizza. And it won out on so many levels – the shape was pleasingly irregular, there was a little leopard-spotting on the crust. The meat was good quality too – thin slices of chorizo and little blobs of something the menu just calls “soft spicy Brindisa” (there’s a word missing, but at a guess it was sobrasada). But what really picked it up was the bite added by a generous helping of pickled red chillies, lending the sharpness and fire it needed. So why disappointing? The decision to serve it on a thin steel plate meant that the whole thing was pretty much stone cold by the time I reached the halfway mark. Papa Gee, you can safely say, wouldn’t make a mistake like that.

Service, as so often the case when you order at the bar, was perfectly friendly but limited. I did notice staff loitering near the front door and greeting customers as they came in, which worked nicely, but there’s only so much you can say about service in a place like the Last Crumb. Our meal – a pizza, a burger, fries, fried chicken and a couple of drinks – came to forty-two pounds, not including tip. Not bad, all told, and not too expensive.

Despite the slight tone of grumpiness I detect reading back over those paragraphs, I did rather like the Last Crumb. It’s sensibly chosen to only do a few things and do them well, and on that basis it largely succeeds. But, and it’s a reasonably big but, it doesn’t do them so superbly that it becomes a destination of itself. If it was round the corner from me, I would be there pretty often, but on that side of the river (and right at the edge of the centre of Caversham at that) it feels just a little too far to go for such a quick and limited meal. That might change in the summer, when they make the most of their fabulous outside space and you could happily have a long weekend session there, but in the meantime it feels like a place largely for locals. That said, they’re lucky to have it and it fills a gap nicely – and with its five pound cheeseburgers on Monday and happy hours during the week Caversham residents will find plenty to enjoy.

That said, I kept my eyes peeled at the end of the evening as our taxi headed home down Prospect Street and Gosbrook Road. With the notable exception of Quattro, every pub and restaurant looked to be having an eerily quiet Wednesday night; every window was a little vignette, Caversham as reimagined by Edward Hopper. By contrast, the Last Crumb had been pretty much jumping throughout my visit. It might be a Dodo pub, but I suspect it’s not in any danger of extinction any time soon.

The Last Crumb – 7.4
76 Prospect Street, RG4 8JN
0118 9470749

https://dodopubs.com/locations/the-last-crumb/