Restaurant review: Bánh Mì QB

I was having a chat with my friend Reggie the other day, and I told him that my upcoming review was of Bánh Mì QB, the new Vietnamese restaurant on the ground floor of what used to be called Kings Walk. I’d been there earlier in the week, I told him, and I just needed to write it up.

“You know what the problem with that place is, don’t you?” he said.

“The landlord, I know.” The whole of that space, Atlantis Village or whatever it’s called this week, is owned by Sykes Capital, the company founded by noted philanthropist John Sykes. I should apologise at this point: if you had an Edible Reading bingo card, or were playing an Edible Reading drinking game – even at half eleven on a Friday morning – you’d fully expect me to name drop Sykes, Reading’s answer to It’s A Wonderful Life’s Henry F Potter, nice and early in the proceedings. I know I’ve probably lived down to your expectations: I’ll try not to mention him again.

“No, the space. How are you going to get any atmosphere there? It’s a funny spot for a restaurant.”

Actually, it was quite nice. I ate at the tables outside, on the ground floor of the mall (or whatever you call a strange little space that’s half full of restaurants and nothing else: an arcade?) because I’m still all about eating outside whenever I can. But the inside was also rather pleasant with plain, unpretentious furniture, tasteful wicker shades and some wood panelling and screens to add character. In other circumstances, I’d have been happy to have had dinner in there.

A long time ago, a certain landlord I’ve promised I won’t mention by name again – even though, or perhaps because, it makes him sound like Voldemort – made some far-fetched claims that he was going to turn Kings Atlantic Village Walk into a “culinary destination”. There was talk of bringing over a head chef from France to run one restaurant, of opening a bakery on site, even some musings that this could be home to Reading’s first Michelin starred restaurant. How exciting!

In reality, the arcade has somewhat proved to be the kiss of death. Lebanese restaurant La Courbe closed down, as did Art Of Siam and Bengal Reef, and then in the summer of 2018 Dolce Vita, one of Reading’s best restaurants, closed at very short notice amid talk of a massive proposed rent hike. Its former site on the first floor, with all that outside space, has been vacant ever since; underneath it, we’re now on our third cocktail bar in the same spot.

Having said all that, the arcade is gradually beginning to look like an interesting place to eat – no bakery and nothing Michelin starred, because that was clearly cobblers, but a growing collection of restaurants with some character none the less. Pho, Soju and Bolan Thai have survived the pandemic, and now we’re starting to see some green shoots of recovery, with more places opening on the ground floor. Ji Chicken, a Taiwanese fried chicken place, opened last November and this year it’s been joined by Bánh Mì QB which opened in April. Only My Warsaw, a little Polish street food kiosk, contradicts the pan-Asian theme.

It feels a brave or supremely confident move to open a Vietnamese restaurant a mere sixty second walk from Reading’s only other Vietnamese restaurant. That alone would have been enough to make me want to check them out, so one evening, fresh off the train, I headed over there with Zoë to give it a try. It wasn’t my first attempt to eat there, though: I’d dropped by several times at the weekend to find the place rammed, so I was hoping it was busy with good reason.

BMQB’s menu was relatively similar to Pho’s and the prices have been benchmarked around those of its chain rival, so most starters are seven or eight pounds and most main courses max out at twelve quid. There are no less than three variants on the noodles in soup theme: pho, naturally, but also a couple of other soup and noodle dishes which differed from pho in ways that weren’t necessarily made clear. Unlike Pho there are no curries on offer here, just a variety of rice and noodle dishes, and also unlike Pho you can try the eponymous bánh mi, the Vietnamese baguette which most clearly shows the influence of the country’s time as a French colony.

We divided up the dishes we fancied, agreed to share the starters, placed our order and sipped on a Hanoi beer while we waited for some food to arrive. BMQB’s menu offers both Hanoi and Saigon lagers but the wait staff, faultlessly polite though they were, couldn’t tell us how they differed from one another (“they’re both named after cities in Vietnam” they said, charmingly). Inside the restaurant was quiet except for one solitary diner, and I thought to myself that six o’clock was probably a deeply unfashionably early time to have dinner here.

Our starters were a mix of the tried and tested and the unfamiliar, and they got off to an excellent start. I always order Pho’s pork spring rolls and they’ve become a bit of a Reading benchmark, but BMQB’s were as good if not slightly better. A decent portion of three rugged, crunchy spring rolls came diagonally cut into six and were just the ticket dipped into a small dish of what I imagine was nuoc cham. 

The texture was spot on but the taste was even better, the filling a hugely pleasing amalgam of chicken, prawns, glass noodles and carrot. The prawn was the element setting the tone here, lending a wonderfully moreish, savoury note with the tiniest hint of funk, although I suppose that could have come from the wood ear mushrooms. The menu says they come with lettuce – why? – but I’m glad to say they sensibly omitted it. By the end I was regretting not ordering one to myself: don’t make my mistake, if you go.

The other starters, although they didn’t completely match that high standard, were by no means a letdown. Salt and pepper squid (you could have salt and pepper tofu instead, if you’re vegan, or sea bass, if you’re fancy) wasn’t half bad, and it was nice to see them using recognisable pieces of tender squid instead of the standard issue rubbery calamari you find in so many places in Reading. You got six pieces, stir fried with some spring onion and red onion, and although it was an enjoyable dish I did finish it wishing there had been more. 

Another thing to say at this point, although it’s probably apparent from these photos and the pictures yet to come, is that BMQB’s food is very easy on the eye – simple and beautiful, all reds and greens, an antidote to beige. I even loved the faux basket crockery, a surprisingly easy and effective way to make even the most straightforward dish oddly photogenic.

So far so mainstream, but I also wanted to try something you wouldn’t find in Pho. Once I’d explained to Zoë that a salted egg dish didn’t involve eating a salted egg, rather that it was prawns fried in a crispy coating using salted egg yolks, she was happy for me to order it. And really, the coating was magnificent – light yet intensely salty, hugging every inch of each plump, curled prawn. Was it worth just over ten pounds? Possibly not, but I’m glad I ordered it and delighted that I can say I’ve tried it.

I think we confused them by ordering a bánh mi as a main course, given that they sit next to the starters on the menu and are possibly often ordered as a stand alone dish at lunchtime. So the staff brought it out and then realised only one of us had gotten our order: I waited until Zoë’s main came out five minutes later before tucking in, which involved more restraint than I knew I possessed.

Having waxed lyrical about how photogenic BMQB’s food is, I know this one looks a dud. It’s harder to take a good picture of a baguette than you might think: like babies, they pretty much all look the same. But take my word for it, inside it had everything I could have wanted. The crunch and astringency of pickled carrot and mooli, the pungency of coriander and the piquancy of chilli were all present and correct, along with a single mandolin-sliced stripe of almost translucent cucumber running the whole length of the baguette. 

But the chicken was fantastic – “grilled chicken” wrote a cheque suggesting that you would get some kind of dry, faintly marinated breast but in reality that cheque was whipped away, Chris Tarrant-style, and replaced with copious tender nuggets of what I’d guess was chicken thigh, positively humming with lemongrass and providing more than enough oomph to stand up to everything else jostling for position in that baguette. 

Truly, it’s one of the world’s great sandwiches and I was verging on overjoyed to be reunited with it in the faintly Hopperesque surroundings of the deserted ground floor of Sykes’ Folly. It did make me think that although hospitality, and the world, are allegedly back to normal I still find myself shying away from crowded, buzzing restaurants and packed pubs, still living outside or grabbing quiet meals on a sleepy lunchtime or the early bird special. 

For a moment, that gave me a little sharp spike of sadness, and I wondered if life will ever be normal again. But it’s hard to be down in the dumps for long when you’re eating one of the world’s great sandwiches. And BMQB’s is probably the best rendition I’ve had – better than MumMum, which didn’t last a year on Market Place, and better even than Cappuccina Café on West Street which lasted even less than that. I truly hope that BMQB, third time lucky, bucks that particular trend. 

Zoë’s main, from the adjacent section of the menu, was a fried rice dish. She opted to have it with pork (“the most dangerous of the meats”, as she likes to call it) and even then the menu gave the option of grilled pork or crispy roasted pork. But really, what kind of monster would read that blurb and go for the former? What turned up was another gorgeous dish, the roasted pork fanned out into a kind of cheery smile around a neat little dome of rice. A salad of pickled vegetables, garnished with vibrant mint and coriander, and a little bowl of a dark, glossy dipping sauce completed the picture.

I think I expected the pork to be hot, whereas it was closer to warm, but having tried a bit I can honestly say that it didn’t matter a jot. Superbly tender with a winning crackling, full of salty depth, this was easily some of the best roast pork I’ve had since Fidget & Bob’s legendary char siu Tuesdays. And the sauce was outstanding – powerfully salty-sweet, something a little like hoi sin and absolutely compelling. It was great with the pork, equally great with the rice, in fact it was hard to imagine a dish it couldn’t have thoroughly transformed. The crunch of the peanuts bobbing on its surface was the icing on a deeply indulgent cake. 

I was allowed a couple of pieces of pork, but when Zoë couldn’t finish her egg fried rice I took to mixing it with the last of that sauce and doing my best to polish it off. I didn’t want to offend the waiting staff, that was how I rationalised my greed to myself. You can also have the crispy roasted pork as a starter – which I might have to do next time, just so I can also try their hopefully equally crispy, equally roasted, equally delicious duck. What can I say? It’s nice to have goals.

I haven’t talked enough about the waiting staff, but they were uniformly friendly, polite and welcoming. I’m not convinced all of them spoke an awful lot of English, but given the state of my Vietnamese I was hardly going to hold that against them. Our bill for three starters, two mains and a couple of beers each came to seventy-two pounds fifty, which includes a 12.5% service charge: they earned every penny of it, if you ask me. We left full and happy, but not before I visited their extremely pleasant bathrooms (I never mention the bathrooms, do I, but these are very agreeable indeed). 

If you’ve made it this far, you know the rating is just in sight, down there. And if you’ve looked at it, you might be wondering if I’m going soft. ER ratings of 8 and over used to be like hen’s teeth and yet here I am, doling out three on the spin to Reading restaurants like they’re silly money. It can’t be a midlife crisis – I’ve already had that, believe me – so what on earth’s going on?

But honestly, in its way BMQB is as deserving as anywhere I’ve been in nearly nine years of writing this blog. Everything was clean, precise, beautiful to look at and interesting to eat. In the past I’ve sometimes found Vietnamese food a little on the bland side but BMQB, more than anywhere, has convinced me of the value of being subtle. It is, in general, a paragon of subtlety – from the simplicity of its menu to the understated warmth of its welcome, all the way through to the clever balance of its flavours. 

In a town where sometimes we celebrate the brash far too hard, where the people that shout loudest get the most likes, there’s still a place for restaurants like BMQB. And there’s a place for me too, namely sitting outside them having a quietly lovely dinner. So hats off to them for having the guts to open a few doors down from one of Reading’s most successful chains, offering a similar menu, in a building owned by the town’s most controversial landlord. They’ve got my vote, if that counts for anything: but then I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdog.

Bánh Mì QB – 8.0
Unit 8, 19-23 Kings Road, Reading, RG1 2HG
0118 9599778

https://www.facebook.com/BanhMi-QB-Reading-102194582456211
Delivery via: Deliveroo, Uber Eats

Restaurant review: Shree Krishna Vada Pav

When it comes to food and drink, Reading is an especially interesting place. You may find this hard to believe at times, but it’s true.

I don’t mean all the stuff that’s obvious to you, especially if you’re a regular reader of this blog. I don’t mean our coffee culture, or our street food scene that’s the envy of towns for miles around. I don’t mean our two local breweries with taprooms, or excellent pubs like the Nag’s and the Castle Tap selling fantastic craft beer and cider. I don’t mean the jewels in our restaurant crown – places like Clay’s, the Lyndhurst, Kungfu Kitchen or Vegivores. I’m not even talking about our network of local producers and the independent shops, like Geo Café and the Grumpy Goat, which sell their stuff. You know all that already, although I suspect a lot of people who live here still don’t. 

No, I mean interesting in terms of the world outside our food-loving, indie-supporting echo chamber. Because a lot of businesses have clocked that Reading – with its university, its prosperous populace and its tech employers, just the right distance from London – is the perfect place for them to open another branch of their restaurant chain and make pots of cash. They have us down, mistakenly I like to think, as something of an Everytown, the perfect testbed for their particular flavour of the hospitality experience.

In fact, two very different types of businesses have Reading in their sights. The first, tapping into that affluent, well-educated demographic, are smaller, more targeted chains. They’ve often seen Reading as their first attempts to expand west (Honest, Pho) or east (The Coconut Tree), or just picked it as one of the first stops on a journey to nationwide ubiquity (Itsu). And this still continues, albeit to a lesser extent: we’re getting a Leon and a Wasabi this year, don’t forget.

But the second type is more interested in Reading as Everytown, and often we are the lucky Petri dish they squirt their pipette into before deciding whether to open branches elsewhere. And this is, I’m afraid, often an American thing. It’s no coincidence that Reading got one of the first Five Guys, got a Chick-Fil-A, albeit briefly, got a Taco Bell and a Wingstop and a Wendy’s and has a Popeyes on the way. Such is life: newly added to the Tube map, but somehow equidistant between London and the good ol’ United States. 

These big American chains with plenty of money are aided and abetted in their mission to slightly worsen Reading by our local media – which posted dozens of stories about Wendy’s, mainly because they were too dumb to think critically for even a split second about whether Reading getting the first Wendy’s in the U.K. was actually a Good Thing. But it also points to just how much is going on in Reading, and how interesting the battle will be between all these factions fighting it out for your money. No wonder Jonathan Nunn, the editor of Vittles, called our town a “fascinating anomaly”.

“Why is this the subject of your interminable preamble this week?”, I hear you say. I thought you’d never ask. The reason I talk about all of this is that the subject of this week’s review is that rare thing, a chain choosing to plonk a branch near the centre of town that people can get genuinely excited about. Because Shree Krishna Vada Pav, a small chain selling vegetarian Maharashtrian street food which started out in Hounslow and only has three branches outside the M25, comes here with an excellent reputation.

Eater London, which tirelessly covers everywhere worth eating outside Zone 1, has enthused about SKVP on numerous occasions. They classed it as one of London’s best Indian restaurants, and one of West London’s best value restaurants. And they said it served one of London’s finest sandwiches, on a list rubbing shoulders with greats like Beigel Bake’s salt beef bagel and Quo Vadis’ legendary smoked eel sandwich. Eater London aptly summed up what SKVP do as “carb-on-carb masterpieces”, and commented elsewhere that their dishes (carbs stuffed into a soft bap) had a “curious affinity with snack culture from the north of England and Scotland”. 

So you might not have heard of Shree Krishna Vada Pav, or you might not have known they were coming to Reading, but one way or the other this is a strangely big deal, despite the grand total of zero coverage in Berkshire Live or the Reading Chronicle. But who needs them anyway when you’ve got me, so this week I headed there on a Monday evening with Zoë to try as much of the menu as I could.

It’s at the edge of town, opposite the Back Of Beyond, and once you get past its Day-Glo orange exterior it’s fundamentally a very long thin room with a view of the kitchen and a corridor heading to the back – and presumably the loos – which seems to go on forever. (“I know” said Zoë. “I used to come here when it was Julia’s Meadow and I thought it was like the fucking TARDIS”). A panel down one wall gave a potted history of the chain which opened its first branch in 2010, although the founders go further back than that, having met at college in Mumbai at the turn of the century. I found all that oddly sweet, which is no doubt the desired effect.

Apart from that the interior was best described as functional – basic furniture, a mixture of tables for two and four and cutlery on the table. It looked very much like a fast food restaurant, albeit one with table service. The music was just the right side of overpowering, although I found I liked that.

“I don’t know how unbiased I can be” said Zoë as we took our seats. “Have we ever had a meal for the blog where I’ve been this fucking starving?”

She had a point. We got there around eight o’clock, having not eaten since a light lunch, and irrespective of how tempting the menu might be there was very much a strong urge to order nearly everything. That said, looking at the menu didn’t make that any easier. It was two things: cheap and huge, not necessarily in that order. It was split into sections, each of which contained an embarrassment of riches: a variety of pav and other bap-based dishes, some Indo-Chinese dishes, some chaat, some sandwiches and wraps, a section of “bites to enjoy” and some signature dishes marked as “SKVP recommends”. And the carb on carb struggle is real: if you want an onion bhajiya sandwich, this is the place for you.

It’s possibly an indicator of how you should eat here that the handful of curries are squirreled away in the furthest corner of the menu, and ordering any of them never occurred to me. But also the pricing positively implores you to order lots of things and share them – the most expensive dishes are around six pounds but most are less than that. I took this as encouragement to take an approach much like the numbers game from Countdown: a couple from the top and the rest from anywhere else. We ordered – please don’t judge – eight dishes in total and our bill came to just under thirty-two pounds. That didn’t include any drinks, because SKVP didn’t have any mango lassi and we didn’t especially fancy anything else: there is, unsurprisingly, no alcohol license.

I do have to say that although the set-up says fast food, ours was far from that. We ordered at ten past eight, and it wasn’t until half an hour later that food started coming to our table. That’s not a problem of itself, but it’s worth mentioning because the restaurant ostensibly closes at nine. And weirder still, the customers kept coming: we were by no means the last table seated or the last people to get their food. I’m pretty sure that SKVP has been busy from the day it opened, and on this showing that’s not going to change any time soon. I should also mention at this point that the staff were quite brilliant, although clearly under the cosh. 

We ordered a lot of food – if you go, you don’t need to order anywhere near as much as we did – and it all came to the table over the space of five minutes. Again, I’m not complaining but it was an odd approach to bring nothing for half an hour and then literally every single thing. I would have preferred a steady stream of dishes, but that might just be me. But don’t be fooled into thinking that low prices mean small portions: you’ll get very full very fast if you make the same mistake we did.

Your challenge, if you go, will be narrowing it down. We had to try the vada pav – it’s in the name, after all – and although I liked it I’m not sure I loved it or preferred it to Bhel Puri House’s version. It really is a carb overload: fried potato served in a cheap white floury bap with a variety of chutneys. I think you kind of have to have it, but I don’t know if I’d have it again – the chutneys were excellent, sharpening and and elevating it, but the potato was a little too much stodge and not enough crunch. Zoë had the version with cheese (plastic hamburger cheese, I think) and she absolutely loved it. That might be the Irish in her.

“Can you believe this only costs two pounds?” I said.

“It’s a bit of old veg though, innit?” came the response, between mouthfuls. Did I mention that we were both ravenous?

More successful (and, frankly, slightly insane) was the “aloo bomb”. I’d wanted the paneer bomb – the sandwich, incidentally, lauded by Eater London as one of the capital’s peerless butties – but it was off the menu that night so they subbed it for the aloo bomb. It’s hard to do justice to this but essentially it’s a spiced potato sandwich that has been battered and fried and it’s every bit as nuts as that description makes it sound: Glaswegians, it turns out, aren’t the only people who will batter anything. 

A portion comes in two triangles so you only need one between two but it’s well worth ordering, if only to tick it off. It struck me as a vegetarian cousin of Gurt Wings’ infamous chicken burger in a glazed donut with candied bacon on top: you’d want to try it once to say you’ve had it, but you mightn’t order it again for at least twelve months.  Who am I kidding? When I go back that paneer bomb has my name on it.

Possibly the best dish was that reliable staple, the chilli paneer. Reading has always been spoilt for this by Bhel Puri House, where the tricky decision is whether to have chilli paneer, paneer Manchurian or – as I have on occasion, again, please don’t judge – both of them. SKVP’s version is beautifully pitched between the two – a little hot, sweet and savoury all at once, staying on that highwire without putting a foot wrong. The paneer was just caramelised enough without being crispy or burnt and this was one dish where, even though we were full to bursting, we made it a personal mission to ensure that not a forkful remained.

“You could come here and have a portion of that to yourself and a vada pav and that would be you sorted” said Zoë. “You could come here for lunch when you’re working from home, you lucky bastard.”

I’d be lying if I pretended the idea hadn’t crossed my mind, although they’ve have to take less than half an hour to bring it.

If the other dishes were less successful, it was still just the difference between rather good and very good. I quite liked the onion bhajiya, I really liked the red onion studded throughout them and I adored the little fried green chillies they were festooned with. But although greaseless they were a tad dried out for my liking: what they really needed was a chutney of some kind. And fried momo were more doughy than their Nepalese cousins, and probably didn’t bring enough to the table. But once you’ve had a spiced potato masala in a deep fried sandwich and a samosa, a third carby vehicle for it is probably overkill by anyone’s standards.

The samosas, by the way, were excellent. My benchmark for these is Cake & Cream up on the Wokingham Road (where they’ve recently gone up in price to a still-ludicrous seventy pence). But I reckon SKVP’s match them nicely, with a filling flecked with chilli that starts out gently hot before going on to clear out every tube you have from the neck up. You can have them on your own – you get four for a ridiculous three pounds fifty – but we had them bundled with a really delicious, deeply savoury and soothing chickpea curry which was one of the milder, less aggressively hot dishes of the evening. Five pounds fifty for this lot, if you can believe it.

I don’t know to be impressed or faintly disgusted with myself that we ate so much of what we’d ordered but eventually we admitted defeat, although not before picking away at the last peppers and spring onions from the chilli paneer. We waddled out into the night, and headed to the back room of the Retreat for a bottle of chocolate stout and a post-meal debrief: I wouldn’t say it was the stuff of Shakespeare, as it mostly consisted of us saying “I’m so full” to one another after a suitably pregnant pause, but it was a debrief nonetheless. The pause probably seemed less pregnant than I did.

It probably won’t surprise you, now that we’ve got to the end, to scroll a little bit further down and see the rating. I loved SKVP. I didn’t care that it took half an hour to turn up, I didn’t care that I missed out on that paneer bomb and, perhaps most significantly, I didn’t care in the slightest that I’d had a meat free evening. It gets an unqualified thumbs up from me, and I imagine a lot of you would enjoy it, even if it’s just for a quickish bite to eat at lunchtime, or before the pub (good luck catching it at a quiet time, though). And I suspect that my selections from this menu were probably pretty mainstream and tame: I look forward to trying more of it.

SKVP’s closest equivalent is Bhel Puri House – which I still love, don’t get me wrong – but it strikes me as offering something very different to Reading’s other vegetarian Indian restaurants, Madras Flavours and Crispy Dosa, both of which focus their menus elsewhere. And SKVP also achieves that underrated thing which not enough restaurants succeed in pulling off: it’s fun. Fun from start to finish, fun looking through the menu, fun picking too much stuff, fun eating somewhere unlike the rest of Reading, fun eating a deep fried potato sandwich. One hundred per cent fun. It was even almost fun lying in bed that night, feeling like a python slowly digesting a mongoose it had swallowed whole. Almost.

So maybe Reading’s story isn’t written yet. And that’s an encouraging thing to realise, that with big U.K. chains to the left and bigger U.S. chains to the right we still have the chance to be stuck in the middle with our independent heroes, our restaurants and pubs, breweries and cafés, producers and shops. And in that happy place, I like to think there’s also still room for someone like SKVP – an occasional epic, incongruous, glorious curveball.

Shree Krishna Vada Pav – 8.1
97 Kings Road, Reading, RG1 3DD
07900 345120

https://skvp.co.uk
Delivery via: Deliveroo

Pub review: Park House

I try my best, doing this restaurant reviewing lark, to visit places I think are likely to be either good or interesting, or ideally both; with a few notable exceptions, I don’t go anywhere where I think I’m definitely going to have a bad meal. And even if I have my reservations, I try to turn up with an open mind, ready to find the positives in my experience, however difficult that is. Sometimes the gods smile on me and I have a run of beautiful meals, one after the other. And that’s brilliant – exceptional meals are easier to write about, and people enjoy reading about them. Conversely, the worst thing is a run of bad meals. A succession of stinkers. That does rather break the soul.

The worst run I can remember started at the end of 2019. It began with a truly awful dinner at TGI Friday, and continued with the grisly spectacle of doner meat nachos at German Doner Kebab. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was going to the Dairy, the university bar and kitchen just down the road from the MERL. I’d always loved drinking there, especially on a hot day, but the food was bloody awful. That made three cruddy meals on the spin and nearly two months without enjoying a meal on duty: it was the kind of vale of tears that makes you seriously think about chucking the whole thing in.

Then at the start of this year, there was a surprising development: the Dairy published a completely new menu on Instagram. And it made all the right noises – beef came from the University’s farm four miles down the road, eggs were from Beechwood Farm (did you know that Beechwood Farm was run by Reading University alumni? I didn’t) and all the bread was supplied by Waring’s. Not only that, but the menu was full of the kind of things you might actually want to eat. Crispy fried chicken and pickled watermelon burger? Brisket and blue cheese ciabatta? Jerk spiced plantain and halloumi skewers? Count me in!

Something was clearly afoot at the University because a week ago Park House, its bar on campus, published a brand new spring menu. Again, it all looked distinctly tempting, and again the provenance was called out, with the beef coming from the University’s farm and name checks for the excellent Nettlebed Creamery and the Cotswolds’ Hobbs House Bakery. (Not everyone was overjoyed, mind you: I really can’t believe you won’t sell cheesy chips any more, said one comment). Park House has always been one of my very favourite places for a pint in the sunshine, but was it possible that it also offered great, affordable food under the radar? Zoë and I ventured out on a sunny spring evening to put it to the test.

It’s truly a gorgeous spot, inside and out, one of those beautiful Victorian redbrick buildings Reading so specialises in (I think I read somewhere that it’s by Alfred Waterhouse, of Reading Town Hall and Foxhill House fame: I can’t find any evidence of that, but it’s definitely in keeping). It used to be the university’s Senior Common Room, and it still has a distinctly clubbable feel inside, all dark panelled walls and solid wood floors. You could imagine trying to have an intellectual conversation in those rooms, put it that way.

And if you failed it would probably be because of the selection of beers. Park House punches well above its weight with a range many Reading pubs would envy: a dozen beers and ciders with a range of cask and keg. And again, there’s a distinctly local feel with Siren Craft, Elusive, Double-Barrelled and Phantom well represented (in fact, the most exotic drinks on the menu are from Cotswold Cider Company, a colossal 39 miles away). It doesn’t surprise me that Park House has made it onto Reading CAMRA’s Ale Trail this year and the things we tried – a couple of pales from Siren and a mild from Elusive – were yet another reminder of how well served we are in these parts for beer.

Having praised the interior, we did end up eating and drinking outside for a couple of reasons. One was that Park House was distinctly crowded: 6 o’clock on a Monday, surprisingly, seems to be peak eating and drinking time. The other, more happily, is that Park House’s outside space is a natural sun trap, and further proof – if any were needed after visiting the Nag’s Head – that there are few car parks you couldn’t improve by turning them into beer gardens. It’s a proper happy place for me, and it’s where I had my first al fresco pint last year after the longest lockdown winter of all time (14th April 2021, since you didn’t ask). So, the scene was set: was Park House going to be a surprise find, or a disappointment of The Dairy 2019 proportions? It was time to find out.

There are separate menus for breakfast and Sunday lunch, but the rest of the time Park House offers a relatively compact lunch and dinner menu – more compact than I thought, because for some reason the “Crafty Grill” section, offering burgers and hot dogs, wasn’t available. I think it’s also a Sundays only thing. So actually you have a nicely streamlined choice in front of you – less than half a dozen starters and eight mains, one of which is just a bigger portion of one of the starters. The use of “starters” and “mains” might give you the misleading idea that you can order them all at the same time to arrive at different times: don’t try this if you go there, because I just got a blank look and a polite request that you order as you go. Still, it beats the Wagamama approach of bringing anything out whenever they feel like it.

I should also add that everything is ultra-reasonably priced: most of the starters hover around the five pound mark and the vast majority of mains are less than a tenner. Laudably, they’re also trying to include calorie counts on their menu, although this seems to be a work in progress and I for one would rather they didn’t bother.

I really wanted to try the rarebit on the starters menu: Highmoor is one of Nettlebed’s finest cheeses and the thought of it bubbling away on Hobbs House sourdough – for a smidge over four pounds, into the bargain – was a delectable one. But sadly it wasn’t available, and although I was disappointed that they’d run out of either bread or cheese I was also pleased to see that they didn’t try and pass off something inferior instead.

The pick of the starters, anyway, were the smoked pork ribs. They were huge, irregular beasts that came away from the bone cleanly, and I loved the decision to give them a dry spice rub rather than slather them in sauce – so you got mustard seed, what I suspect was cumin and even some honey notes in there. They were served with a wonderfully light and clean coleslaw, and even here you could see the attention to detail, with crisp thin batons of apple and scarlet slices of chilli which added more colour than heat. Like the ribs, the coleslaw was better than it needed to be, and that’s always a winning quality.

I loved this dish, and at just under six pounds it was the kind of thing you could order just because you had a cold beer it would go perfectly with, or because the sun was out, or because it was a Monday. If only all bar food was like this. I loved it so much, in fact, that we ordered a second portion to come with our main courses: maybe there were advantages to ordering each course separately, after all.

The smoked cod croquettes were less successful, which was a pity because they leapt off the page as something I had to try. It was just weird that they came without breadcrumbs: the picture of this dish on Park House’s instagram shows the croquettes breaded, but these were lacking a coating and looked weirdly naked, as if they’d been skinned. And that had an impact in a couple of ways – it meant they didn’t have that lovely crunchy shell, but also it meant that when you cut them with a knife they sagged and deflated, like a sad party balloon.

It’s a pity, because the bones of the dish were good, with a nice whack of salt cod and a fresh and tangy tomato salsa (although again, it could have done with more heat from the chilli). Only afterwards did I realise that maybe the croquettes had no breadcrumbs for the same reason that the kitchen couldn’t serve rarebit. I daresay that if you order it, you’ll probably have better luck than I did.

Mains were uneven too but, as with the starters, the best of them showed real imagination. Confit duck salad, Zoë’s choice, was a beauty – partly because of the confit duck, which is never not good, but mostly because of what it was paired with. It could have given salad a good name, because it had so much going on – ribbons of carrot and radish for texture, segments of orange adding bright sweetness and a welcome scattering of edamame. It was all brought together by a fantastic dressing with plenty of aromatic sesame oil in the mix.

What this had in common with many great dishes from far more lauded restaurants was that every forkful could be slightly different from the last, but every bit as delicious. In an ideal world I’d have liked the duck leg to be ever so slightly bigger – so I could have tried more of it – but for less than nine pounds it was hard to fault.

I wish my fish and chips had been equally hard to fault, but it wasn’t to be. The best of it was the fish itself – beautifully cooked, the batter light, lacey and full of delicious crenellations. But the chips, which I’m pretty sure were bought in, were a little variable with a few grey patches that put me off them. There were peas, if you like that sort of thing: I don’t especially, but they were just fine. Tartare sauce was good, but there wasn’t anywhere near enough of it. And for that matter, lovely though the fish was, it was on the slender side for just over ten pounds. I couldn’t help but compare it with the colossal slab of fried leviathan you get at the Lyndhurst for eleven fifty (the Lyndhurst’s chips are miles better, too).

All in all, our meal – three starters, two mains and a pint and a half each – came to just under fifty pounds. It’s worth calling out the price of drinks in particular, too – our beers and ciders came in at around four pounds a pint, a mile away from the rarified prices you’d get in town at the Allied Arms or Blue Collar Corner.

So Park House isn’t the home run it could have been, but it was none too shabby all the same, with bags of potential. If you went there and just ate the ribs followed by the confit duck salad – Zoe’s order, but then she always picks well, present company excepted – you might well come away raving about the quality and the value. And if you went on a day when all their figurative ducks were in a row, the rarebit was on the menu and the croquettes hadn’t been flayed alive, you’d be counting the days until a return visit.

But I easily saw enough to persuade me to recommend it. The thought that had been put into the menu, the little touches in some of the dishes, the fact that they didn’t just knock up a rarebit with second-string ingredients – all of these things couldn’t help but endear me to the place. And it’s still one of the best spots, on a sunny weekend afternoon, to go with a paperback, get a drink, top up your tan and maybe accidentally-on-purpose order some ribs, because it beats yet another humdrum packet of Pipers Crisps. Are they the best bar snack in Reading? Quite possibly.

Park House – 7.3
Whiteknights Campus, University of Reading, RG6 6UA
0118 9875123

https://www.hospitalityuor.co.uk/bars-and-pubs/park-house/

Restaurant review: Tasty Greek Souvlaki

Last year, when I emerged from my cocoon and began reviewing takeaways, my first choice was Tasty Greek Souvlaki on Market Place, the thriving restaurant occupying the site where MumMum used to be. It was the natural choice: it was the first (and arguably the most interesting) new restaurant to open in 2020, and one which had quickly embraced delivery as its best chance to ride out an extremely challenging year in hospitality. So I ordered my first on duty takeaway from them, and very nice it was too (you can read about it here). 

Tasty Greek Souvlaki is essentially a carnivore’s paradise, and the menu largely revolves around different quantities of different dead animals cooked in different ways: do you want them cut into cubes, threaded on a skewer and cooked on charcoal, or would you rather go for something a little more primal like chops? Or is your preference to have them pressed into a magical revolving pillar of constantly grilled elephant leg which is then shaved off in thin slivers and fried until crispy? Would you like it in a pitta or a toasted sandwich, with or without chips?

Some people would treat that series of decisions as one disgusted shudder after another. Those people, to be honest, are unlikely to eat at Tasty Greek Souvlaki, although I’m told the falafel wrap is decent (if not massively Greek). Personally, I found it too difficult to choose for a very different reason: I kind of wanted it all, so when I ordered takeaway I went for their mixed grill platter, which gives you exactly that. It was an embarrassment of carnivorous riches, it was a wonderful way of being transported to the Mediterranean without leaving your sofa. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, a cardboard box absolutely crammed with every which kind of meat.

I loved it, and ever since then the Big Box Of Meat has been a regular fixture at my house – not too often, because I didn’t want to kill the magic, but every few months on a night when we couldn’t face the cooking. It was always hot, it always arrived quickly and it never let you down. And it cost something like twenty-six pounds, which was ridiculously affordable.

But it was bound to be far nicer in the restaurant itself, plucked from the grill, loaded on to a plate and brought to the table without delay, and so I’ve been looking forward to a proper on duty visit to Tasty Greek for a long old time. Last Saturday, Zoë and I turned up just after midday for an overdue reunion with possibly Reading’s finest meat feast.

The restaurant looks fetching inside, and they’ve done a good job with it. I don’t know how big the kitchen was when it used to be MumMum, but it must have been huge because with that taken out and the open kitchen along one wall the place is surprisingly spacious. It doesn’t feel like a place to linger, necessarily – a little like Bakery House – but then it isn’t that kind of restaurant anyway: no starters, mains and desserts here, really, and just a couple of Greek beers in the way of alcohol. But it’s a nice room, with a splash of Hellenic blue on the walls.

I sat outside, though, and I really liked their outside space. It’s all tables for two, and they’ve done that Parisian thing of putting the chairs side by side, looking out on Market Place. I suspect it’s just as popular with people drinking freddos and smoking cigarettes as it is with people having lunch, but having experienced both souvlaki culture and coffee culture in Athens I’d say it’s pretty authentic in that respect. It’s a great spot for people-watching, too: all things being equal, on a sunny day you could almost convince yourself that you’re somewhere else. We slurped on our cappuccino freddos – creamy, bitter, thoroughly Greek – and waited for our food to arrive. 

We ordered the mixed grill, as I’ve already said, but if you don’t want a symphony of grilled meats for two at a bargain price (it’s leapt up to twenty-eight pounds since last year) there are plenty of other ways to consume smaller, more discrete portions of dead animal. Pitas cost about six pounds, skepasti (toasted sandwiches) and merida (platters) are around eleven pounds; when I put it like that, perhaps you can see why the mixed grill looks like a good shout at fourteen quid a head. There are salads too, but if you’re going to a place called Tasty Greek Souvlaki and ordering a salad I’d probably class you as beyond help.

There’s only so much even I can say about a whole plate of grilled flesh, so let’s get straight to that. It was huge – so huge that it barely fitted on the table – and a fair amount of it was sitting on a glorious edible carpet of gyros meat, so however much food you thought you had turned out to be nowhere near the full amount. As we ate and ate, it didn’t feel like we made any inroads. And it can’t be denied that it really looked the part – just look at the picture and, unless you’re vegan or vegetarian, tell me that nothing about it makes you want to dive in.

And one thing I really like about Tasty Greek Souvlaki, when I ordered their takeaway and now, is that nothing is an afterthought. The pitta was beautiful fluffy stuff, perfect for wrapping up meat, chips or both and dipping in the tzatziki or the special sauce (which mainly reminded me of burger sauce). And the chips are really good: when I reviewed their takeaway I said they were good at making you feel like they make their own chips, even though I’m sure they don’t. And they were even better straight out of the kitchen – crispy, golden and flecked with oregano.

And yet, with the meats I wasn’t quite as bowled over as I expected to be. Over the last year or so I’ve become accustomed to ordering takeaway from restaurants where previously I’d have eaten in and mentally dialling down my expectations, knowing it wouldn’t be quite so good, quite so hot, quite so crispy, quite so fresh. With Tasty Greek Souvlaki I was expecting the same phenomenon in reverse, but in reality the gap between delivery and eating in was far, far narrower than I thought it would be. And in some cases that slightly exposed the limitations of the food.

So the souvlaki, for instance, taken straight from the grill without any excuses or mitigation, were a tad bland. The lack of marination showed that little bit more, the pork souvlaki in particular was slightly tough and the tzatziki had to do quite a lot of heavy lifting to make it interesting. The slab of pork belly looked decent, but in reality it lacked crispiness or caramelisation and I found, partly because of the sheer quantity of food, that I didn’t want to finish it. None of those things felt like they’d been especially seasoned, either.

It wasn’t all bad. The kofte, with a little more texture and depth of flavour, I rather liked.  And the village sausage – scored, butterflied, almost-charred on the outside – was very enjoyable: I worried it would be pink inside or homogeneous but it was one of the hits of the meal. The biggest irony is that I’m often suspicious of sausages on restaurant menus because of the mystery meat potential but Tasty Greek’s MVP, the thing it deserves to be famous for, is its gyros, the very epitome of mystery meat.

I said this last time, too, but it bears repeating – Tasty Greek’s gyros, and especially its pork gyros, is for my money far and away the best thing they do. Ribbons and shreds of chicken and pork, by turns tender, golden and brittle, dense with savoury flavour and absolutely unmissable. This was the thing I could eat morning noon and night, this is the reason to come back again and again. Tasty Greek Souvlaki? They should have called it Legendary Greek Gyros.

There was a salad, too, so I should probably mention that. It was undressed and perfectly decent if you like an undressed salad; I suppose it serves as some kind of calorie offsetting for certain diners, and I almost wish I was that kind of person. Our lunch for two came to something like thirty-two pounds, not including service, and the amount of food we got for that money was just about the right side of obscene. Service, by the way, was brilliant: bright and friendly throughout, and you got the clear impression that the restaurant was a very happy ship.

Tasty Greek Souvlaki has undeniably been an enormous success, and nothing I could possibly say in this review will detract from that. In the space of two years it’s gone from plucky newcomer to a genuine Reading institution, the kind of establishment that feels on some level like it’s always been there, like the space it’s in was always waiting to become what it is now, its best self. 

And I do honestly come not to bury it but to praise it. If my meal didn’t quite bowl me over the way I’d have liked it to, that’s also a tribute to just how well their food adapts for takeaway. None the less, it remains the perfect spot for a quick casual dinner over a bottle of Fix with friends, the sort of place you could go pre-gig or pre-theatre if you’re one of those people doing gigs and theatre now. In that niche, it easily holds its own against the likes of Honest and Pho, and it’s more affordable too. And for lunch on a summer’s day, picking up a pork gyros wrap and eating it in the Forbury is hard to beat: trust me, I’ve tried.

I would sound a slight note of caution, though. There’s never room for complacency in Reading’s restaurant scene, because someone is always waiting in the wings to open their doors, take your customers’ money and steal their hearts. The only people hungrier than restaurant-goers, it seems, are restaurateurs. And if you needed the perfect illustration of that, here it is: not long ago La’De Kitchen opened its first express branch on Market Place, literally opposite Tasty Greek Souvlaki. Another master of charcoal, another king of grilling in the centre of Reading. A falafel’s throw away, across the road.

Is this town big enough for the two of them? Let’s hope so. 

Tasty Greek Souvlaki – 7.5
20 Market Place, RG1 2EG
0118 3485768

https://tastygreeksouvlaki.com
Delivery via: Just Eat, Deliveroo, Uber Eats

Competition: Kamal’s Kitchen

I’m delighted to announce an ER readers’ competition in partnership with Kamal’s Kitchen.

I can probably count on the fingers of two hands the truly game-changing restaurants that have opened in Reading since I started writing Edible Reading. That’s probably a feature in itself – maybe I’ll write it to mark ten years of the blog – but without question Namaste Kitchen would belong on that list. When I visited it, back in 2017, I knew I had eaten somewhere so good that it changed the terms of reference for what it meant to be a good restaurant in this town.

Namaste Kitchen was one of those fantastic places where everything came together. Operating from the Hook and Tackle in Katesgrove, it was a pub that served great food rather than a gastropub, with a menu of Nepalese small plates that meant you could turn up and eat yourself into a coma or pick at the most incredible bar snacks while watching the football. And it was unapologetically Nepalese too, offering some dishes – like bara, spiced lentil pancakes, or pangra, fried gizzards – that you just couldn’t get elsewhere. It wasn’t watered down, and it was all the better for that.

The chef was amazing, but the icing on the cake was Kamal, the affable front of house who kept everything ticking. He always recommended new things, he always sounded surprised when you loved the food (and you always loved the food) and he always stopped you from ordering too much. That was Kamal in a nutshell, and it’s something so many restaurateurs get wrong: he was more interested in making sure you’d come back next time than he was in making shedloads of money out of you this time.

I’ve written about this before, but that dream team lasted less than a year. Kamal left Namaste Kitchen, the chef went back to Nepal and the restaurant raised its prices and installed a tandoor. A couple of years later, Kamal opened Namaste Momo on the border between Woodley and Earley, this time teaming up with an ex-Royal Tandoori chef. The early signs were good (and the momo were never less than excellent) but the menu, split between Nepalese and conventional Indian food, never quite felt like a cohesive whole. A couple of years later, Kamal left the business.

Anyway, fast forward to 2022 and Kamal has opened his own restaurant on the Caversham Road, next to Flavour Of Mauritius in part of the building where Standard Tandoori used to live. This time, he’s been brave enough to put his name on the door, and this time it’s a family affair: Kamal and his wife are in the kitchen, and Kamal and his equally charming daughter run the front of house. It’s a nice room – stripped back, serene, humble. It feels like this could be the place where Kamal realises the potential that has been there since the Namaste Kitchen days.

The menu goes back to the territory that made Namaste Kitchen great – a range of small plates, momo and chow mein, with a handful of curries and a good vegetarian section. Fans of the bara and chatamari from Namaste Kitchen will find them here too. But there are also some new, really interesting dishes – deep fried lamb breast on the bone, for example, or a truly delectable pork dish with choy sum in a wonderful sauce that totally carries you along with it.

There are also some really interesting touches. On my visit, Kamal served sekuwa made with venison from the farmer’s market, and another beautiful venison dish almost like a tartare, clean, delicate and with a hint of game. If either of those ends up on the menu as a special, you should try them. But I was also very happy to be reunited with the tried and tested – the paneer pakora were as good as I remembered, the chutney fresh, zingy and spiky with heat. Equally delicious was the lamb sukuti, a crunchy plate of umami and spice which I could happily demolish multiple times in any given week.

The biggest surprise, for me, is an unassuming dish you could easily miss. Thhicheko Aalu is described on the menu as “potatoes fried, pressed and tossed with special sauce”. But that just doesn’t do them justice. Forget double cooked or triple cooked chips, this is close to the pinnacle of potato dishes – burnished and caramelised on the outside, all crinkly edges, yet soft and fluffy inside, the whole thing coated in a spice mix that contains a little bit of something like mouth-numbing Szechuan pepper. I’ve not tasted anything quite like this, and it has the makings of an instant classic. I was torn between wanting to know exactly how they did it, and preferring to keep the magic and mystique firmly intact.

That’s quite enough from me, so let’s talk about the competition. First prize is a meal for four people including drinks, up to a maximum value of £120. A runner-up will win a meal for two people, including drinks, up to a maximum of £60. That potato dish is £6, so alternatively you could turn up and keep ordering that until you’re full (that’s what I’d be tempted to do).

All you have to do is this: write me up to 250 words on the Reading institution you miss the most and why. It doesn’t have to be food-related (although it might well be) but this is your chance to wax lyrical about anything from the past, whether it’s the 3Bs, Mya Lacarte, 80s night at the After Dark, the “lovely hot doughnuts, nice and fresh” announcement, the crispy squid man at Blue Collar or even this blog, back in the days before it vanished up its arse. Knock yourself out! Email your entry to me – ediblereading@gmail.com – by 11.30am on Friday 15th April.

As always, to ensure impartiality I don’t judge the competitions myself. And this time I’ve managed to get a big name on board: fresh from her announcement about Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen’s forthcoming move to Caversham, Nandana Syamala has agreed to judge this one. Nandana, along with her husband Sharat, runs one of Reading’s most treasured culinary institutions, and I can’t think of anyone better to read all your entries about Reading institutions you have loved and lost.

Entries will be sent to Nandana anonymously and the results will be announced on Friday 29th April. And as always the judge’s decision is final: no correspondence will be entered into. Don’t forget, Nandana has only lived in Reading for four years, so this is your chance to make her envious of some of the Reading gems she may never have experienced! Thanks again to Kamal’s Kitchen for its generosity with the prizes and best of luck to you if you decide to enter this one. I’ll be back next Friday with another feature for you, before normal service resumes and I review some more restaurants. See you then.