Alona

I used to think the cardinal sin when eating in a restaurant was to take out a calculator when the bill arrived. You might know someone like this, someone who tots up exactly what they had and wants to pay for exactly that and not a penny more (strangely they’re often the same kind of people who neglect to add ten per cent to exactly what they spent – and not a penny more – when it comes to tipping). I don’t know anyone like that, or at least I don’t go to dinner with them. Paying for meals is like paying for rounds in pubs: sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind, but the only real way to be a loser is to keep count.

For years, I thought that was the worst thing you could do when eating out – well, that and being rude to the people serving you – and then an incident took place which changed my mind. I was on a double date at Comptoir Libanais, and we were meeting the other couple there at seven o’clock. There was some kind of mix-up and our dining companions got to the restaurant fifteen minutes early, and my date and I arrived at the appointed hour to find them halfway through eating their starters.

I was aghast. If you arrive early, ordering a drink is practically compulsory. Ordering bread and olives, if you’re peckish, is optional if you really can’t wait fifteen minutes. But starters? And this wasn’t just pitta and dips: the chap was ploughing his way through a portion of chicken wings as we took our seats. It was the first time I’d ever met these people so I could hardly say anything, but I spent the rest of the meal thinking Why is everybody acting like this is normal, acceptable behaviour? My date told me later on that I was being unnecessarily fussy, but I’ve never told another person who wasn’t shocked: if I’m ever elected to high office I might ensure that such conduct attracts a custodial sentence.

Anyway, company aside, the meal at Comptoir Libanais was forgettable. The service was comically bad, the food average at best and indifferent value to boot. My tagine (nothing like a nice authentic Lebanese tagine – as if there’s any such thing) was miserly and lukewarm, the couscous in huge clumps like only faintly edible asteroids. I hadn’t even wanted to go – it wasn’t my choice – and I felt like a traitor eating there when Bakery House was a couple of minutes away. It might not have a snazzy location on the Riverside, there might be no option to have alcohol with your meal (and the experience at Comptoir did rather make me want a drink) but Bakery House is the kind of independent restaurant Reading needs and deserves. I made a mental note to never go back to Comptoir Libanais on duty.

For a long time Reading only had those two Lebanese restaurants, and then I spotted Alona one Sunday afternoon as my taxi trundled up the Wokingham Road on the way to Nirvana. No website, no Facebook, but then I got reports on Twitter that Reading’s newest Lebanese restaurant was decent and might be up there with Bakery House; I needed no further incentive to hop on the 17 bus one evening and go there before word got out.

My companion this week was John Luther, who is responsible for programming at South Street and has done more most to shape Reading’s cultural scene. I’d wanted to take John with me on a visit ever since he judged my Honest Burgers competition last year – not only because I knew I’d be guaranteed stimulating conversation about all things artistic but also because I got a clear picture from John’s Twitter feed that he loves good food and craft beer. He was instrumental in bringing Craft Theory to Reading; he might be Bakery House’s most loyal patron (it’s effectively South Street’s staff canteen by now); he was Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen’s first customer: these things might not feature in John’s CV but they made him an ideal candidate to join me on duty.

It may be because Alona had been open little more than a month when we visited, but it looks pretty stripped-down. You walk in across the incongruous astroturf (they also offer shishas outside, apparently) and the counter on the right looks like standard kebab shop stuff with a brightly illuminated menu overhead. The dining room is on the left and is really very bare – plain tables, attractive tiles and not a lot else except a line of beaded lights at head height while changed colour throughout the meal like a hyperactive day-glo disco dado rail.

I asked whether we ordered at the table or at the counter and the answer was either or both: in the end we sat at the table nearest to the counter and asked nicely from there. The menu was like a pared down version of the Bakery House menu and prices were very similar, so you pay around a fiver for starters and mains hover near the twelve pound mark. Alona also does a range of wraps, presumably to eat off the premises. In fact, I saw more people turn up for takeaway than to eat in during our visit and only two other tables were occupied while we were there; eating under the functional lighting in such a stark place took on an increasingly Edward Hopperesque feel as the evening went on.

John and I valiantly did our best to try as many dishes on the menu as we could, and that meant rolling our sleeves up and tackling four starters. The first few arrived on a blue plastic tray, and we had to ask nicely for plates. The houmous kawrmah – one of two houmous options on the menu involving lamb – was very much a curate’s egg. The houmous itself was rather tasty and was clearly elevated by tons of tahini, if somewhat lacking in garlic.

“The olive oil with this is fantastic” said John. “Really fruity. But the lamb could do with more char.”

He was right: the lamb seemed appealing when it turned up but the look of it wrote a cheque that neither the taste nor the texture could cash. As happens too often on duty, I’d rather have had less and better. The pittas that came with it felt thin and almost stale, and weren’t a lot of help when scooping up houmous.

Grape leaf rolls (stuffed vine leaves, effectively) have long been a favourite of mine – I blame Corfu in the summer of 1987 – but these were unremarkable. The menu said they had meat in them (I was expecting minced lamb) but they were completely meat free. Excitement free too, really: you can get better ones in the chiller cabinet of M&S or the Co-Op, let alone in restaurants. I ate them because they were there, which is no real reason to eat anything.

The falafel on the other hand were decent, if not exciting (by this stage “decent, if not exciting” was starting to feel like a recurring theme). We’d ordered them partly to compare them against the Bakery House version (“a reference dish”, said John sagely) and they didn’t win out in that comparison: a bit too heavy, not enough texture on the outside and certainly no scattering of sesame seeds. But in fairness that’s a high bar, and these were passable falafel (“passable falafel”: a tongue twister up there with “day-glo disco dado rail”). I was more excited about the intense, shrivelled black olives and the sharp, salty pickles, which is probably not how it should be.

Chicken wings began the meal at an impressive £2 a portion, although as we were ordering them the man behind the counter stuck a 3 over the 2 up on the menu overhead. That was a little surreal. I managed to get over the whopping fifty per cent markup, but the chicken wings were also underwhelming – or, to put it another way, decent if not exciting. “There’s no sign that they’ve been marinated” said John, and that would probably have been forgivable if they had the beautiful, blackened char of a close encounter with a charcoal grill. But that hadn’t really happened either. We blamed the quantity of food we’d ordered for leaving some of these, but the truth is that we couldn’t really be arsed.

It was some time before we got round to ordering mains, partly because we were getting full and partly because the service at Alona was so relaxed you sensed it was all the same to them whether you were there or not. But mainly it was because the conversation was just so interesting and wide ranging: from family and friends to Reading’s cultural scene (“yes, we had Mumford And Sons at South Street before they made it big. They were pretty awful”) to the town’s rather interesting approach to awards, as exemplified by the decision to crown the Oracle as Reading’s premium cultural space (although I maintain that the beach bar, on a weekend night, is best viewed as some kind of performance art piece).

John moved to Reading fifteen years ago to work at South Street, and it was obvious talking to him that he loves our town every bit as much as I do. And I wondered for a second, probably fancifully, if we weren’t that different after all: trying to introduce the people of Reading to new stuff, promoting the plucky, the emerging and the up and coming, doing our bit to make the community we love a better place. But the parallels probably aren’t exact: I did have a swipe at the Hexagon at one point and he ever so nicely reminded me that without the Hexagon there could be no South Street, and that a good town needed both. Would I be so magnanimous about the likes of Bill’s or TGI Friday? I wondered. It seemed unlikely.

But then there might be something in it after all: “When people go to a Hexagon show, they know what they’re getting”, John said, “but when they come to South Street I hope they go away having been made to feel, or think, in a different way”. I still like to believe that food culture can be like that, even if you’re comparing Pepe Sale to Zizzi or Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen to Bina Tandoori. But what do I know? I’m just a restaurant reviewer.

Anyway, back to the food: we decided to share a couple of dishes from the grill, so we went for a mixed grill for one and a lamb shawarma. The former was so huge that although we were charged for a single portion I can’t believe they didn’t bring us a mixed grill for two by mistake. The highlight of this was the chicken shish, which got the balance just right, perfectly soft without sacrificing the texture outside, although there was still little evidence of marination. I was more dubious about the lamb kofte, which was a little bouncy for my liking (it was one of those kebabs where you’re wary of looking at the cross-section, put it that way). John raved about – and finished off – the lamb shish but I would have liked it more tender. We were agreed, though, on the lamb chops, which were unnecessarily tough and far from a highlight. Mixed grill? Mixed bag, more like.

All that paled into insignificance, though, compared to the experience of Alona’s lamb shawarma. You know that feeling when a dish is plonked in front of you and you actively don’t want to eat it? The last time I had it was in Paris last year when I was dished up a slice of terrine, jelly and all, which looked exactly like it had been extracted from a tin of Pedigree Chum. This lamb shawarma was a very similar experience – a plate full of wobbly, gelatinous meat which required a scalpel more than a knife and fork.

“I’m not sure that fat has rendered properly” said John, displaying a masterful talent for understatement. I felt like just saying “that looks repulsive” (which might also have been an understatement) but I thought better of it. We both gingerly picked through it, trying to find bits which required minimal dissection. It didn’t taste as bad as it looked – not much would, in honesty – but it was all cloves and no subtlety, a bit like drinking HP sauce from a shot glass and eating chewing gum at the same time.

After a couple of forkfuls I became extremely grateful both that John and I had already eaten a lot of food and that we’d ordered main courses to share. Imagine having ordered a helping of this to yourself and having to eat it in front of friends or loved ones: it didn’t bear thinking about. We left almost all of it, and I had my “oh, but I’m so full!” speech (complete with patting belly) prepared, but fortunately we weren’t asked about it. That’s not to criticise the service, which was actually really friendly and enthusiastic – and they generally did seem to want to know what we thought of everything – but service alone just isn’t enough.

Both mains came with a choice of rice or chips, so for completeness’ sake we had both. For completeness’ sake I’m also telling you that but really, they weren’t anything to write home about. There’s no alcohol licence at Alona either so we went crazy and had a bottle of water each, too. We settled up, paying the princely sum of forty-two pounds without service, and headed to the Hope & Bear for a pint and a debrief. That basically consisted of discussing Michelin starred restaurants we’d both enjoyed: it’s almost as if we were trying to take our minds off the shawarma. We were like Terry Waite and John McCarthy, chained to that culinary radiator.

Finishing by describing one of the worst dishes I’ve eaten this year probably puts an unnecessary downer on this review. To pull things back slightly: you could have a reasonable meal at Alona. If I’d had the houmous beiruty and the chicken shish, I probably would have thought it a pleasant, if unspecial, dinner. But even then I would have been struck by the mediocre pitta, and the standard issue chips, and I would have known deep down that I could have had a better, cheaper meal at Kings Grill. But based on what I had, the consistency just wasn’t there, and the range ran the gamut from “just above average” to “God, no”.

I really hoped not to end the review this way, but I can’t not say this: I can’t see a single reason why you’d go to Alona when Bakery House exists. When I think of the lamb shawarma at Bakery House, crispy, intense, generous and delicious (and I’ve done so many times, trying to wipe memories of Alona’s version from my mind), I realise there’s no comparison at all. They’re both lamb shawarma, but only in the way that Barack Obama and Jim Davidson are both humans. Alona isn’t Jim Davidson, not by any means, but my terrific evening there was down to the company, not the food. I hope Alona picks up and improves: with such an obvious, direct and superior competitor in the centre of town it needs to. Fast.

And, since someone will almost certainly ask: if I had to choose between Alona and Comptoir Libanais? I’d go to Comptoir Libanais – with somebody who waited until I got there before ordering.

Alona – 6.1
133 Wokingham Road, RG6 1LW
0118 9667000

(No website)

Advertisements

Tuscany Pizzeria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have anchovies and capers?”

He smiled.

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

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

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

Tuscany Pizzeria – 7.8

399 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA
07586 095400

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

Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen Competition: the results!

I’m delighted to announce the results of the Edible Reading competition in conjunction with Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen. One of these days I’ll do something like a simple prize draw, but I do like making people work for it and flex their creative muscles, and this competition was no exception. I asked entrants to describe their ideal three course Reading meal in 200 words or less, with each course coming from a different restaurant.

My competition postbag was as eclectic a group of dishes as Reading has restaurants or I have readers, and the whole thing made me inordinately proud of both Reading and my readers. From Thames Lido to Cafe Rouge, from l’Ortolan to Alto Lounge, all gastronomic life seemed to be covered. I was hugely grateful to be spared an agonising decision and the inimitable Adam Koszary has stepped up to do the honours. He’s done a truly marvellous job. I do like to tax my judges’ patience, so before I announce the winners I also asked Adam to (drop to the floor and) give me 200 words on his ideal Reading three course meal. Here’s what Adam came up with:

I would never win the competition I’m judging.

I have been disappointed by too many undercooked, overpriced brownies, and so I eat two course meals like it’s a religion. I’m also terrible at describing food, and my tastes often veer to the meat and potato.

But here goes.

If I had money in my pocket and three courses to spend it on, my first course would be I Love Paella’s Patatas Bravas. Yes, they’re simple, but they’re absolutely lush. I made my parents try them. I’ve tried to make the same sauce at home and failed miserably. My partner and I genuinely reminisce about eating them.

For the main I had a hard time deciding between Bakery House’s humble shawarma and Papa Gee’s Sofia Loren pizza, but if you turned the thumbscrews I would opt for the latter. It’s better than any pizza I’ve had in Italy. Their meat tastes like it’s fresh from some hoary Italian mountain man’s pig, the sauce from an Italian matriarch’s pot. It’s all chili and sausage and fun in the mouth.

I don’t eat desserts so I’d have a Magnum from Cemetery Junction Co-Op on the way home.

Job done.

Personally, I think Adam’s meal sounds pretty good to me: I must get him to come out on duty with me some time. Anyway, without further ado, here are the winner and our two runners-up, along with Adam’s comments. Roll the tape!

WINNER: Graeme Fancourt

A perfect food crawl around Reading on a hot summer’s evening would have to begin at House of Flavours. While we exhale the woes of the day and the hopes of the evening ahead, I’d be enjoying the Adraki lamb chops; a perfect start of crisp fat and tender meat that’s infused with ginger spice and all things nice. And I’d have to do my best not to order it twice.

We’d then have an excitable wander round the corner to the Lyndie where I’d order their just-creamy and just-salty-enough pan-fried brill in lobster sauce. More than any other dish in Reading’s restaurants this is the one, for me, that most closes the gap between the A4 and the ocean.

Mainly to stop me boring everyone about the samphire, we’d leave the Lyndie and wander across to Pepe Sale. We make up for the cheap Lyndie Chardonnay by ordering a bottle of the Moscato, and I’d get my ice cream fix from the cassata fragola. The liquor-soaked sponge cake is just filling enough after the light fish dish to be the perfect end to the evening while we polish off the Moscato and plan our Autumn food crawl.

Adam says: I admire people who can write about food. When I try and do it, my brain can only reach for the words ‘lush’, or ‘alright’. In this competition, then, I was on the lookout for writing which would not only make me imagine the meal on the plate, but also make me want to stuff my face with it.

This entry certainly managed that.

I want that lamb chop. I want that tender meat in my mouth, and I want that crisp fat on my lips. My god.

I also had a slight heartburst at the description of the excitable wander around the corner to the Lyndie – a wander I’ve done many times. The patient wait at the pedestrian crossing, with the beckoning shining windows of the Lyndie across the IDR, feels almost like the final trial before the prize of good food and Yakima Red.

It’s also obvious that the cassata fragola has been chosen logically as ‘just filling enough’, and I get the impression that this writer has thought sensibly about the logistics of a Reading-wide three-course journey. It honestly makes me want to polish off a Moscato and bumble merrily off home.

FIRST RUNNER-UP: Ben Thomas

Fareham Drive Shopping Precinct may look like the set of This is England but it harbours one of Reading’s great restaurants – Himalaya Momo House. Amongst their many knockout dishes is the unmatched aloo papri chaat. This chilled delight incorporates chickpeas, potato, and starchy wafers, but manages to avoid stodginess, as cooling yoghurt and astringent tamarind add the lift needed to make this a perfect balance of spicy, sour, and fresh.

Picking the main was tough, but I couldn’t drag myself away from Thai Corner’s exquisite rendition of my favourite meal – beef massaman. This dish is a product of the influence of Islamic traders on Thai cuisine, and the darker, earthier tones that introduces wrestle with the tropically aromatic base of the traditional Thai curry, and both benefit as a result. Add some coconut rice, and that’s my death row meal right there.

I often skip desert, but if I’m visiting Côte, I’ll leave room for a praline crêpe. Caramelised banana is a textural experience of the first order, and the rest is self-explanatory. If it were possible to eat this after an aloo papri chaat and beef massaman, then I’d be a happy man indeed.

Adam says: This one very nearly won it for me.

What I enjoyed about it is what’s sprinkled on top. The three words ‘This is England’ immediately placed Fareham Drive Shopping Precinct for me, and I love that a culinary jewel can still shine even in the most Grimsby-like of places. I also bloody love the use of ‘astringent’ as well. I admire the audacity of it.

The other thing which put this entry ahead is the historic context. Food is often more than food – it is culture and history. Just as my home’s regional dish of faggots will tell you a lot about the Black Country, I love finding out what other dishes say about where they’re from, and I can just imagine the melding of cultures and cuisines on the silk road. The praline crêpe is self-explanatory.

SECOND RUNNER-UP: Tara Pritchard

I’d begin with the Gobi 65 from Chennai Dosa (sadly closed). Perfectly cooked, crisp florets of cauliflower, bright with spice and bursting with flavour. Perfect way to wake your tastebuds at the beginning of a meal.

Moving onto the baghare baigan from Clay’s: two plumb baby aubergine resting beneath a rich and yet surprising light peanut sauce. This restaurant can pull off the alchemy of blending spices into a perfectly balanced melody and yet still allowing each flavour to sing alone. Paired with fluffy, delicately scented basmati rice it was a dish that hushed conversation as the first taste was savoured. I’m not vegetarian; but finding a vegetable dish that could easily hold its own against the more carnivorous elements of the menu was a delightful surprise.

To finish, I’ll be dragging you to the Griffin for their salted caramel sundae. Sticky and gooey with just enough salt to cut through the sweetness. It’s a guilty pleasure and once, when a friend stepped away from the table to take a work call, I managed to eat two. In my defence, it was a hot day and the ice cream was melting. Any one of you would have done the same!

Adam says: Choosing the second runner-up was also tricky. I’d hoped someone would have taken a pilgrimage of all the Greggs in the town centre, sampling a sausage roll at each one. One entry came close, but I don’t consider their choice of third course – 2009-grade ketamine – as food.

Maybe as seasoning.

As it is, we have this journey from a defunct Chennai Dosa through to baghare baigan and finishing in the Griffin. I appreciated the bittersweet memory of a meal which can never be had again, and the image of two plump baby aubergines fighting the corner for veganism. The cherry on top, however, was the great sundae robbery. I’ve often considered the theft of an absentee fellow diner’s food, and I applaud the audacity of someone who says fuck it and does it.

Huge congratulations to the winner and runners-up. Graeme wins a three course meal for two with a a bottle of house red, or a bottle of house white, or four pints of mango beer (and the mango beer would be a pretty decent prize all on its own). As for Ben and Tara, Clay’s has generously offered a runner-up prize of a portion of free kodi chips if you go for a meal there – trust me, that too is a pretty decent prize. Thanks to everybody who took part, and I’ll do my best to rustle up another competition for you in due course.

Oh, and since literally nobody asked, I also jotted together 200 words on my ideal three course Reading meal, inspired by what Adam said about bittersweet memories. What better way to finish the piece but on a bit of a downer? Exactly…

This is my gastronomic Ghost Of Christmas Past, the three course meal I most miss about Reading, the one I can no longer enjoy.

It begins with the sukuti at Namaste Kitchen. Small punchy cubes of mutton, oh-so-slightly chewy with perfectly crispy fat. The plate comes with a few cocktail sticks and you know you must share, but you wish you didn’t have to. Halfway through, you wonder why pubs don’t serve snacks like this, so perfect with a beer. Except one used to, and then it stopped.

Then you move on to Dolce Vita’s saltimbocca – slender, tender veal with sage, wrapped in Parma ham and cooked just as much as it needs to be, with a sauce you daydream about for days. No longer available, of course. Cause of death: greedy landlord, as so often.

Finally, Tutti Frutti’s smoothly complex peach and amaretto ice cream. You should eat it late in the evening, in the old part of the station (the bit with a soul) watching the workers in their high-vis jackets and people home from their London train, merry or tired. I wish I’d known, the last time I had it, that it was the last time.

Right, that’s enough of that gloom. For every place that closes, another new place opens, so tune in next week for a brand new review of one of Reading’s newest contenders. You might like this one.

Vel

I was on holiday in Bologna, buying a gigantic wedge of Parmesan in a food market of all things, when I got a message telling me that Matt Farrall had died. For those of you who didn’t know him, Matt was a raconteur, rambler, writer for the Whitley Pump and possibly the proudest Reading resident you could hope to meet.

He was one of the very first people ever to persuade me to give up my anonymity. He interviewed me for the Pump last year – we went to the Turk’s Head (back when it was good), ate food by Georgian Feast and just chatted and chatted. I kept waiting for the interview to start, and it never did – Matt seemed far more interested in speculating on the relationship status of the couple at the table next to us. Were they just splitting up? Just getting together? Not even a couple at all? It occupied us for much of the evening, as did the meatballs, the khachapuri and Matt’s inexhaustible supply of anecdotes, none of them less than uproarious.

But of course, Matt’s sly genius was that he still managed to get me to talk, the way curious people and natural writers do, and I told him many things I wasn’t expecting to: about my past, my family, all manner of information. He was smart like that. I still have the recording of that interview, and it’s more a document of a lovely evening than an interview at all; we were nearly a podcast waiting to happen.

Our paths crossed several times after that. We were both at the Hop Leaf celebrating the landlord and landlady’s tenth anniversary; to his credit, he didn’t reveal my secret identity to his pub buddies that night, at least not in front of me. We were at the same table for the first ever Saperavi Party at the Island, where he charmed the socks off my mother while eating more of the Georgian food he had come to adore. Matt was nothing if not charming: to know him was to love him, and even if you never met him you got that feeling from his writing. Good writers do that. You feel like you know them; you wish you could beetle off to the pub with them.

I went to his funeral, on a gorgeous sunny May afternoon, and the crematorium was so packed that tons of us were just standing outside, taking in the speeches, listening to the impeccable selection of music and, in my case, fanning myself with the programme. It was almost like being at a rock concert, and – not for the first time since I got the news – I found myself wishing Matt had known just how much he was missed. Matt had packed many different lives into just shy of fifty years, and I wonder if anybody knew the whole person or whether we all just got one fascinating facet. It was definitely hard to imagine a more eclectic crowd – colleagues, family, friends from way back. Glen, who runs Blue Collar. Adam from the Whitley Pump. Claire from Explore Reading. Afterwards we all went to the Back Of Beyond and drank until chucking out time, old friends and new. I like to think Matt would have approved.

I planned to put together a tribute to Matt but, for reasons I won’t go into here, it never quite happened. Nevertheless I wanted to do something to mark his passing, and I couldn’t think of a better way than to visit the venue of one of his last ever reviews for the Whitley Pump, Vel, a South Indian restaurant in his beloved Katesgrove. I took my mum, who remembered him fondly, although I did have to point out to her in advance that no, a dosa wasn’t basically a posh Findus Crispy Pancake.

Vel is described on its website as a “South Indian Kitchen & Bar” and I think what that means is that it’s made up of two rooms, with a view of the kitchen from one and the bar from the other. It’s actually quite a handsome, neutral, uncluttered restaurant – bare wood floors, tasteful bare walls, attractive muted wood panelling, nice tables and sturdy chairs. The bar is a fetching tiled affair and the kitchen – open and visible through the glass – might make for an interesting spectacle if you had a view of it (I saw a couple of the chefs putting long skewers on the grill at one stage, but that was about all I managed to catch). We took a table in the first room with the bar, close to the window so I could make the most of the natural light.

“It makes such a difference” I told my mum, herself no photographic slouch. “My food photos in winter are no good to man nor beast.”

“It’s not a bad table” my mum responded. “Good view of the wheelie bins.” I sometimes forget that my mum is more leafy Bath Road than downtown Katesgrove.

The place was almost completely empty when we arrived, but we had plenty of time to review the menu before we were approached by the waitress. They’ve made some effort to walk diners through it by breaking it up into sections – interestingly named ones, actually, from “Get Tempted” (starters) to “Get Fired” (starters from the grill or tandoor) and onwards to “Keep Calm Curry On” (which rather screams “get help”) and “Rice Rice Baby” (which is verging on “delete your account” territory).

That’s all well and good, but the next level of detail about what the dishes actually are was missing in action. For instance, the section covering dosa (or “thosai” on this menu) – entitled “Get Girdled” for reasons which escape me – had a plethora of bases and toppings or special dosa without really explaining what they all meant. Never mind, I thought. We’ll ask the waitress, that’s the whole point. What could go wrong?

“What’s the difference between a plain dosa and a ‘paper roast’?”

“One paper roast. What else would you like?”

“Err, no, we’d like to know a bit more about the paper roast.”

This went on: every time I asked about a dish I had to then explain, sometimes in excruciating detail, that I wasn’t ordering the dish but simply asking for more information. I don’t know whether it was a cultural thing, or a language barrier, or Vel having a bad day but whichever way it was I didn’t like it. It made me feel difficult, patronising or ignorant and none of those are how you want your customer to feel. I was tempted to get my mother involved, but the benefits of her cut glass diction would have been easily offset by the gathering storm of waspishness, so I thought better of it.

We got there in the end, drank our Kingfishers and, once the starters arrived things were positive. Gobi 65 is one of my go-to starters and Vel’s version was close to spot on. The bright red, almost scarlet colour was arresting and the coating was nicely spiced. The cauliflower underneath was lovely and firm and the florets were all a sensible size. But six pounds fifty felt ever so slightly on the steep side for a plate of veg and if you’re going to charge that they have to be crisp and absolutely piping hot and these weren’t quite that.

The mutton pepper fry was delicious – tender pieces of mutton in a lovely peppery sauce with just the right level of heat. But again, this was eight pounds and there wasn’t a lot of it and that did give me cause for thought. The crockery – and I don’t often talk about this in restaurant reviews – was attractive stuff with just a hint of sparkle in the glaze, but ultimately when they only put the mutton on half of a small plate and pad out the rest with iceberg lettuce I did find myself assessing the balance between style and substance.

I’ve always found dosa a bit confusing, and I’m never sure when they’re meant to make an appearance in a meal. Are they a starter? A main course? A light lunch? You might know better than me: we wanted to try one but neither of us fancied having it as the feature attraction, so we ordered one in between our starters and mains to give it a try. It looked gorgeous – a giant burnished cylinder of wafer thin pancake wrapped round some potato masala. It came with a little bowl of sambar (a sort of curried lentil stew, for the uninitiated) and three chutneys, one with coriander, one with tomato and nigella seeds and what I think was a coconut chutney.

Never having excelled at dosa I asked our waitress for some advice on how to eat it. She came out with some words and gestures and lots of smiles, but I was left none the wiser. So my mother and I just had at it, tearing off pieces and dipping as best we could. It was lovely, in truth – the masala was warming with green chilli and spring onion studded through it, the potato just the right side of firm. I loved all the chutneys, especially the tomato one, and the dosa itself was paper thin and beautifully buttery. Again, though, the pricing seemed steep – eight pounds was an awful lot more than I ever remembered paying at Chennai Dosa.

This was the point when things started to go wrong for Vel – not in terms of the food, but because of everything else. By now, two other tables were occupied and it seemed the kitchen couldn’t cope with having three sets of customers at the same time. So we waited and waited, saw food arriving at other tables, and waited some more. Our waitress brought poppadoms to our table by way of apology – a lovely thought but, really, yet more food was the last thing we needed.

It also gave us time to order more drinks, which also didn’t go smoothly.

“I’d like a half of Kingfisher please, and a prosecco.”

“A Kingfisher and a second?”

“No, a prosecco.”

A blank look. I was forced to resort to pointing at the menu and trying to speak as clearly as I could, which again was an uncomfortable experience. She wandered off and eventually returned with my half and an individual bottle of prosecco.

“I didn’t realise you wanted presco” she said. I decided to leave it there.

All told it was easily half an hour until our main course arrived, and few main courses are worth that wait. My mother had ordered the Chettinadu fish curry, having been talked out of the milder Kerala fish curry by the waitress. That almost redeemed the “presco incident”, because the sauce it came in was splendid – all the heat coming from black pepper rather than spice, but if anything even more interesting for that. The sauce, again, had lots of nigella seeds speckled in it and I also caught a note of roasted onion. The fish, which was apparently kingfish, was a cutlet with the bone in the middle and I liked that too: it broke into firm meaty flakes like a swordfish rather than being the soft mushy white fish you sometimes get in Indian curries. My mother started out a little underwhelmed by the dish but by the end I think she too was won over, if a tad full.

My chicken biryani was competent but not exciting. The pieces of chicken were well cooked and not dried out, and the rice had something about it but there were still a few bland clumps in there. There were plenty of cloves and cardamom and cinnamon, but they made the last bits of the biryani surprisingly difficult to eat as you were constantly sifting it for inedible bark and pods.

“It’s okay, but nowhere near as good as Royal Tandoori’s” said my mother. My mother is prone to compare all dishes with the best version she’s ever had, but I had to admit that she was right. The Royal Tandoori version has cashew nuts and just the right amount of mint and it did rather show this up. Even if it hadn’t, the following night I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the lamb biryani at Clay’s Hyderabadi and that – the rice fragrant with saffron and rosewater – blew this biryani squarely out of the water.

We didn’t investigate the dessert options (just as well, because looking at their menu I’m not sure there are any) so instead we settled up and moved on. Vel has been open for nearly four months, and I find it a bit dubious that it still only takes cash: for some that alone would be a deal breaker. Our meal came to sixty-two pounds, not including service. We could have spent less by ditching the dosa but, any way you cut it, this wasn’t a cheap meal for this kind of food in this kind of location. I’ve probably said enough about service already, but it would be unfair not to add that our waitress was lovely and friendly throughout, just a little wayward.

Is Vel worth a visit? You’ve probably formed your own view from reading this, and that will depend on how close you live to it, how important value for money is to you and whether you fancy paying cash and navigating some rather challenging service. Katesgrove and Whitley deserve good restaurants as much as anywhere else in Reading but, with the exception of Gooi Nara and the excellent Dhaulagiri Kitchen, I’m not sure there’s much to stop local residents making the trip into the town centre instead, despite all Vel’s interesting dishes (and, let’s not forget, attractive crockery).

Matt Farrall would tell you to give it another go if he was still with us, I’m sure, but that was Matt all over: a true local champion, a permanent optimist and a huge fan of the underdog. We saw eye to eye about a lot of things, but I never quite got his love of the likes of Sweeney Todd and Pau Brasil. The review over, my mother and I traipsed down Whitley Street behind a triptych of underdressed young ladies, their skin tone the kind of burnt orange that probably features on the Dulux colour chart as “Double Plus TOWIE”. I took her to the Hop Leaf for a pint and a debrief.

“It’s a nice pub, isn’t it?” said my mother, who – unsurprisingly – hadn’t been to the Hop Leaf before.

“Yes, I think so. It was one of Matt’s favourites.” I said.

My choice of venue had been deliberate. It’s what he would have wanted.

Vel – 7.0
73-75 Whitley Street, RG2 0EG
0118 9758551

https://eat-vel.co.uk/

The Real Greek

Well, you were meant to get a review of Brewdog this week, but nothing quite went according to plan. I turned up there with Steve, a long time reader of the blog who attended my first readers’ lunch at the start of the year, and right from the off things weren’t promising. We entered the cacophonous main room and found a spare table round to the left which was just about comfortable enough. Just about.

“I wish I’d brought my glasses” said Steve. Steve is wry, wise and silver-haired, knows an awful lot about food, catering and restaurants and he’s had more jobs – and stories about them – than I’ve had hot dinners. “This is the first time I’ve ever been in a restaurant and not been able to read the menu.”

I looked at the menu, all in the sort of distressed font that hints of a typewriter ribbon on its last legs. It was all burgers and dogs and puns (“Cluck Norris”, “Soy Division”) and, I’m afraid, it induced mild to moderate weariness.

“I thought it was table service here. It was when I came here for a drink the weekend it opened, but now I’m not sure.” I said.

Minutes passed.

“I’ll go up to the bar” I said.

As luck would have it, the night I planned to review Brewdog the team from Explore Reading was there to review the drinks and the food. They had a nice booth (not jealous, not at all) and were already a few beers under way. I wondered: did that make Steve and I the Jets or the Sharks? Was Steve nifty on his feet? Should I have brought backup?

At the bar, the Explore delegation told me that there had been a mix-up in the kitchen and they wouldn’t be taking food orders for half an hour. It was already eight o’clock and that, I’m afraid, is where I decided that life was too short. I looked over at the Explore table again. These were Reading’s hip young gunslingers: one of them was in her twenties, for crying out loud. I went back to our table.

“Come on,” I said to Steve, “we’re going.”

That’s how we found ourselves walking back across town as I frantically consulted my list for a Plan B and that’s how we ended up in the Real Greek, on the Oracle Riverside. I turned up, in truth, with no great enthusiasm; I hadn’t heard brilliant reports, unless you include the countless enthusiastic – and comped – blog reviews shortly after it opened last year, back when you couldn’t get in without a reservation.

But going through the doors on a midweek evening I actually found myself thinking how nice it looked – almost like a slightly more upmarket Pizza Express, with biggish tables and handsome chairs along the outside of the room and a section of sort of open booths in the middle. I wouldn’t have fancied one of those, as they seemed to be hard benches with no visible padding. I guess the sort of people who enjoyed an evening in Brewdog might have gone for them, I found myself thinking.

Steve and I persuaded the waiter to give us a round table for three, so as to improve both our views and give us the room to order everything we wanted, and had a look through the menu. It was proper small plates territory, with a range of hot and cold meze and, if you needed some inspiration, a range of suggested set menus down the right.

So far so good, but the menu also meticulously listed the calorie count for every dish on the menu. I really wasn’t a fan of this: it’s bad enough seeing the traffic lights on ready meals in Marks, without it starting to invade restaurants. Surely restaurants were meant to be a haven where you didn’t have to put up with all that? Ironically, it put me off ordering dishes at both ends of the spectrum: I like a bit of taramasalata, but when a portion was just shy of a thousand calories? And I love octopus, but if it’s only 161 calories how much of it do you really get for £7.50?

The menu recommended three to four mezes per person, so naturally – despite my niggles about calories – we ordered nine between us: Steve may run marathons, but I just knew that he was a trencherman beneath that wiry exterior. Our waiter turned up with two cold bottles of Mythos, cracked them open simultaneously and poured them at the same time into our glasses. Like all magic tricks you can’t remember how it’s done, don’t want to and, afterwards, struggle to describe it.

“That’s nicely done, isn’t it?” said Steve, which I rather felt gave me permission to be impressed.

We chatted away about our recent holidays – Porto for Steve, Bologna for me – and the first set of dishes arrived. The other gimmick at The Real Greek is that your sharing plates arrive in a tall stack, like afternoon tea. That might be your bag, it might not: I found it irksome but it was easy to take them off the rack and spread them out on the table as nature intended. If I’d been at a smaller table for two, it might have properly got on my nerves.

We started with some of the cold mezze. Revithia, which looked like a plate of lightly bruised chick peas, were delicious, singing with lemon and mint, a beautifully fresh and bright dish. The dolmades was also very good – light, crumbly and again rich with mint, not remotely claggy or glutinous. Only the Greek flatbread disappointed. It wasn’t piping hot, and it felt like maybe it had been sitting around a little too long before coming to our table. I think if I’d realised just how unlike a dip the revithia was, we wouldn’t necessarily have ordered it, and it seemed a little cheeky to charge an extra three quid for olive oil and dukkah.

Despite that, Steve and I made our way through the whole lot, waiting to be disappointed. By the end, we realised that disappointment had not come and, for the first time, I wondered if this meal was going to outperform my expectations. The waiter brought a bottle of Greek white (Makedonikos, apparently) which was fresh, not sweet and not sharp, and tasted really quite a lot like being on holiday, as some of the best wine does.

“It’s a good atmosphere in here” said Steve, taking in our surroundings. “Everyone seems to be having a nice time.”

It’s a little point, perhaps, but Steve was right. None of the tables seemed to have the grim note of contractual obligation, nobody seemed to be there because they had vouchers or had run out of ideas. Perhaps we’d just stumbled on the place on a really auspicious evening – or perhaps it was euphoria at having escaped from Brewdog – but as I took another sip of my wine I found I was really quite enjoying myself. Steve was telling me about his small granddaughter’s quest to notch up a Michelin star a year (she made one establishment make her a dish completely off menu, which makes her sound far more fearsome than any mere reviewer), and about wife number one and job number sixteen and I thought: how lucky I am that people read the blog and want to come to dinner with me.

The rest of the dishes rather came all at once, which actually was my failing rather than the restaurant’s. It’s weird how when you’re in a chain to some extent you act like you’re in a chain, and you order like you’re in a chain. If The Real Greek had been an independent place, another Namaste Kitchen, I would have ordered some dishes, eaten them, kept the menu and then ordered some more, but because it was a chain and the menu told you how many dishes to order, I ordered them all in one go. With hindsight, that was a mistake, but it didn’t stop everything we ate being good at the very least and often far more than that.

Particular highlights from the hot mezze included the pork belly, cooked so perfectly that you could almost have mistaken it for chicken thigh, all crispy skin and layers of meat, every bit of fat rendered to nothing. Steve and I did a very English equivalent of fighting over it, which involved each of us saying “no, you have the last piece” ad infinitum. We were similarly polite over the halloumi fries, salty and light and pretty close to perfect, especially dipped in the minted yoghurt. The least successful dish was the calamari, which turned up looking so much like octopus that I worried we’d ordered the wrong thing. That wouldn’t have mattered so much, but it wasn’t quite as fresh as promised and that made it harder going than either of us would have liked. When we said “no, you have the last piece”, we actually meant it.

What else? Lamb kefta was more like a single lamb burger than a kebab or meatballs, but it was still delicious and far nicer than it looked. I felt like there was a hint of feta smuggled away in it somewhere, but that could have been a trick of the light, or the white wine slightly skewing matters. Salt cod fritters were also light and delightful, with plenty of fish, not bulked out with spuds. Again, the lemon mayonnaise that came with it was spot on.

Finally, Steve’s favourite, the loukanika: three whacking great slabs of pork and beef sausage with a deep red smoked chilli relish. I had huge reservations about this, mainly because it screamed stealth spam, but it was beautiful – coarse, firm, juicy and with just enough spice. The relish set it off perfectly. Steve liked it so much he sent me a message the next day saying that he was daydreaming about eating it again (and Steve’s one of the only people I know who can send such a message without even the faintest hint of smut).

“This is really good, isn’t it? I can’t find much wrong with it.” I said, giving away I’m afraid that I had fully expected to turn up to an Oracle Riverside chain restaurant and find shitloads of issues, and that I was a tad perplexed that I couldn’t.

“Yes, it is” said Steve. Were we having a shared hallucination? Had they put ayahuasca in our Mythos?

We pressed on with dessert, because we were having too nice an evening to want to bring it to an end. That’s as noble a reason to order dessert as any, but the decision provided probably the meal’s biggest misfire in the shape of my baklava – a big stodgy slab with no real crunch or subtlety, no layers, no sticky sweetness. What you got instead was some faintly damp pastry, and a big claggy layer of crushed nuts, and the whole thing was cold and unimpressive. You got better baklava, back in the day, eating Georgian food at the Turk’s Head and (trade secret alert) I have it on good authority that they bought theirs from Costco. Steve’s chocolate mousse cake was considerably nicer, if not remotely Greek. “Not bad” he said, between mouthfuls, “but they’ve definitely bought this in.”

Service was bright and personable from start to finish. Our waiter was Italian, which led to a long conversation about my recent holiday in Bologna (I took the lead on this), football (obviously Steve took the lead on this) and where a self-respecting Italian eats in Reading (Pepe Sale, unsurprisingly). He was very proud of the food, told us what to order next time and talked with real warmth about The Real Greek, having worked for years in the Windsor branch before transferring to Reading. No smarm, no encouraging us to post reviews on TripAdvisor, just genuine enthusiasm.

Dinner for two, not including service, came to eighty-eight pounds. Not the cheapest meal in the world, and although we probably could have ordered a couple of dishes fewer it was never going to be as cheap as living it up at Brewdog. But I had such an enjoyable meal that I really didn’t mind.

Afterwards, Steve and I compared notes. I rated the meal slightly more highly than he did, and we beetled off to the Allied Arms for a debrief, shivering under the heaters and pretending it was nearly summer. But the next day, he messaged me.

“I think I might have marked it a bit low on reflection. I think you were more on it.”

“It was really decent, wasn’t it? I’m struggling to find fault.”

“The waiter definitely contributed to the whole thing. Lovely to have someone so enthusiastic – I almost thought he was called Sandra.” Steve went on, referring to Zizzi’s legendary waitress, As Seen On TripAdvisor (“the Skripals would never have been poisoned in our branch of Zizzi”, my friend Tim once said to me, “Sandra would never have allowed it.”).

I think that exchange probably sums up the verdict on The Real Greek as well as anything. It wasn’t my first choice, I went there by accident and my expectations were firmly under control. And yet, quietly and unshowily, it did an absolutely cracking job. Irritating gimmicks, iffy bread and so-so desserts aside, we enjoyed a really tasty meal in a lovely, buzzy room. Nearly everything we had was good, much was very good and some was excellent. To my surprise, I would go back again, and I can see the appeal of gathering a group of friends and trying as much of the menu as possible. So I’d encourage you to put your reservations to one side when you read the rating at the bottom, because for a certain kind of evening – with fellow diners who play nicely – The Real Greek is as good an option as anywhere you can find in town. My only tip is to dig your heels in and order little and often: it may be a chain, but that should never stop you being independent-minded.

The Real Greek – 7.7
The Oracle, RG1 2AT
0118 9952270

http://www.therealgreek.com/reading/