Oishi

I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten somewhere quite as apologetic as Oishi, the new Japanese restaurant on the Oxford Road. I turned up on a Wednesday evening to find the place completely empty; I asked the waitress whether it was okay to have a table for two, and she mumbled something about how most people come in to get takeaway, or phone up for delivery. That didn’t feel like either a yes or no, but then she smiled, said “yes, sit anywhere” and gestured around her. It’s a Spartan room, but tasteful and nicely kitted out, and I took a table in the window, reasoning that if people walked past at least they’d know somebody was eating there and maybe they’d come in too.

There was further confusion when the menus were handed out. There’s no way of getting round this: they were takeaway menus, proudly advising that you could have free delivery within a three mile radius if you spent fifteen pounds (which, incidentally, is pretty reasonable). Not just takeaway menus, but takeaway menus for Oishi’s branch in Brentford: the telephone number had been scrubbed out and a Reading number written underneath it in scratchy blue biro. On the plus side, at least we weren’t in Brentford.

“Would you like a drink?” said the waitress.

“Do you have a drinks list?”

There was a pause, long enough for me to realise that there was no more a drinks list than there was a menu.

“We don’t serve alcohol.”

Well, I’ve had more promising starts to a meal out, I said to myself.

Anyway, that’s getting ahead of ourselves. First, the context: I’d wanted to visit Oishi ever since it opened in August. Reading has long needed a Japanese restaurant that could rival the likes of Misugo in Windsor or Kyoto Kitchen in Winchester, both of which are terrific. I’m also a fan of Oxford’s Taberu, and when they announced that they were opening a second branch down the Oxford Road I thought my prayers had been answered.

At first things went well: Taberu did the place up (previously the first home of sadly departed and much mourned Indian restaurant Bhoj – there was a lot of burnt orange to paint over) and began serving takeaway with the promise that they’d open as a proper eat-in restaurant later on. Then, somewhere along the line, it all went awry: opening as a full restaurant never happened, then Taberu closed completely and then, after much speculation, it reopened as Oishi. Oh well, at least they didn’t have to redecorate.

I especially wanted to try Oishi because I recently ordered food from Sen Sushi, Reading’s other Japanese restaurant at the opposite end of the 17 bus route, and I’d been so disappointed. Having sushi delivered on a Friday night felt like a massive treat, but what turned up was mediocre: oddly wan salmon sashimi, sinewy, badly-cut tuna sashimi, yakitori chicken skewers with a bonus knot of gristle. I wanted to support small independent businesses, but this wasn’t as good as Yo! Sushi.

My dining companion this week was my friend Jerry. Now, Jerry is a very dangerous man to go out with on a school night. He likes a drink, but he’s retired and consequently he never, ever has to get up for work the next day: many’s the time I’ve forgotten this fact and meandered home from Jerry’s flat of an evening, rather too much wine to the good, only to face a painful awakening the following morning (and a message from Jerry, fresh as a daisy, saying what a lovely evening it was). More significantly, and uniquely among people who have accompanied me on reviews, Jerry doesn’t actually read the blog, so I can say what I like about him without fear of reprisal: believe me, the temptation to claim that he sports a mohawk is considerable.

Not only that, but Jerry told me in the run up to our meal that he’d never had Japanese food before. Looking through the menu, I found myself wondering what the least intimidating dishes might be for a newcomer. The usual suspects are all present and correct – a small selection of sashimi, some sushi (maki, uramaki and hand rolls), some hot starters and a range of hot main courses – rice dishes, noodle dishes and ramen, mostly. In the end I decided to go for a sort of greatest hits: I could try and pretend this was to fully test the range of the menu, or to give Jerry the best possible introduction to Japanese food, but by now you’ve probably figured out that it was more to do with greed and hunger.

“Have you really never eaten Japanese food?”

“No, I haven’t! The closest I’ve ever got is Wagamama.”

Jerry’s education began with the classics. I have a real weakness for soft shell crab, so I ordered some soft shell crab uramaki (“I was going to put in a request for those!” he said excitedly) and they were one of the first dishes to turn up. The presentation was endearingly amateurish – I’m used to slightly more precision and focus on clean lines – but they looked good, coated in bright orange tobiko (fish roe, the wonderful stuff that pops under your teeth), plonked on a board with a small pile of ginger in one corner and a dab of wasabi in the other. They were nicely rolled with no gaps or ragged edges, and the addition of a little cucumber added a nice textural crunch. If I had a criticism it was about size (don’t let anybody ever tell you it’s not important) – I’m used to having the same dish at Misugo where it feels like a sea monster is trying to escape from the rice, whereas these were somewhat diddy by comparison. At eight pounds it was the single most expensive dish we had, and probably not quite worth that.

I also ordered tempura prawns, mainly to ease the culture shock for Jerry: most people have eaten something like this at some point in their lives, after all. They never amaze and they rarely disappoint, but actually I was quietly impressed by Oishi’s rendition. Often menus claim that it’s tempura batter but what you get is stodgy, or greasy, or you take one bite and the rest of the batter falls off. These were very nicely done indeed – light, delicate and lacking in oil. They came with a pretty anonymous dipping sauce.

“It’s all very clean-tasting, isn’t it?” said Jerry. By Jove, I thought, he’s got it.

Sashimi came next: a big test for me, especially after such an iffy experience at Sen Sushi. Oishi has a limited sashimi selection – no sea bass or mackerel here – so again I opted for the reference dishes, in this case tuna and salmon. The slices were beautifully marbled, nicely sized and well-cut, with beautiful colour to them, but again the presentation was a tad haphazard. There was no daikon and the fish was fanned out on what looked like seaweed, which slightly affected the flavour of the pieces at the bottom.

That was a pity, because otherwise the sashimi was quite beautiful. I know some people are funny about raw fish, but for me there’s something magical about salmon sashimi in particular – the almost glossy texture, the way it manages to be both oily and pure all at once. The tuna was just as good – firm, meaty and expertly cut, everything as it should be. I dipped mine lightly in soy sauce and rhapsodised, while Jerry – showing a leaning toward the ascetic that was news to me – ate his au naturel. Oh, and there were two random and completely pointless slices of lemon: if you need these, you probably shouldn’t be eating sashimi, and I imagine they’d give purists conniptions.

By this point, I was starting to feel like things might turn out rather nicely, although I was also increasingly aware that this might have been the longest I’d ever been in Jerry’s company without imbibing alcohol of some description. Not that it seemed to deter him in the slightest as he launched into a long and very entertaining story about going to a wedding in North Devon only to meet the village character, a lady of advanced years who had booted out her husband because of his failure to perform, exhausted the limited pool of locals via Tinder and ended up working in a massage parlour because she’d said, he told me, “I might as well get paid for it”. Where did he find these people? I wondered.

Jerry concluded his tale just as our – presumably slightly aghast – waitress turned up with the next dish, duck gyoza with a little dish of hoi sin for dipping. Now, these are a stable at the likes of Yo! Sushi and Wagamama, and Oishi’s were fairly similar to the gyoza you can get at those places, but even then there were little differences – some finely chopped cucumber, or possibly spring onion, in the filling just adding another dimension. Nice work.

Finally, what I suppose you’d class as our main courses arrived. I’d given Jerry first choice, after talking him through the options, and he’d gone for chicken katsu curry. “It’s sort of breadcrumbed chicken breast and rice and a curry sauce, but it’s not a really hot spicy sauce.” I said. “It’s kind of mild and creamy, you know, like a chip shop curry sauce.” I think that latter reference is what sealed it, and when it was placed in front of Jerry I realised I had inadvertently described it perfectly. It was indeed some rice, some breaded chicken and some curry sauce, all separate, practically deconstructed you could say. I used to have a friend called Fiona who had to eat every component of her meal separately – first the potatoes, then the veg, then the meat, never crossing the gastronomic streams (well, it takes all sorts). All I can say is that Fiona would have loved Oishi’s chicken katsu curry, although I wasn’t so sure about the self-assembly aspect myself.

None the less, as before, Oishi may not have got the presentation right but the content was very good indeed. The chicken was just right – a brilliant juxtaposition of crispy and tender – and although the breadcrumbs mightn’t have been panko it was far too tasty for me to care. The sauce was sweetly mild but a very long way from inoffensive, and the rice was, well, rice. I personally would have poured the sauce over the rice and chicken and had at it, but Jerry ended up dipping the chicken and forkfuls of the rice into the sauce like some kind of exotic fondue; I found it far too endearing to correct him. Oh, there was also some salad but I don’t think Jerry touched it. I kind of found that endearing too.

My main course was teriyaki chicken, and I so enjoyed it. It was a very generous portion of chicken thigh in a bowl, on top of a bed of plain rice and at first I had reservations because it looked perfectly sticky but I thought everything underneath would be dry. How wrong I was: all the teriyaki sauce had percolated through the grains of rice, leaving a glorious sweet reservoir at the bottom that simply made everything delicious. Not only that, but the dish had plenty of other stuff going on – the crunch of beansprouts, carrots and red onion, every mouthful perfect in contrasts of flavour and texture. And the chicken, although I might have liked it absolutely piping hot, was beautifully cooked. This dish was on the menu at six pounds fifty and I couldn’t believe what superb value it was – a feeling that was only marginally dented by being charged seven pounds fifty for it when the bill arrived.

Service was truly lovely thoughout – the lady who served us was so friendly and polite (after the baffled and diffident start) that it truly saddened me that there were no other customers eating in the night that we went. There was a regular stream of deliveries going out the door, and a couple turned up to pick some food up towards the end of our visit, but even so it felt forlorn to be the only people sitting there enjoying such good food. “We did have some tables in before you arrived”, the waitress told us and I fervently hoped that was the case.

Everything we ate that night, along with a Diet Coke (for Jerry: what do you take me for?) and a pomegranate green tea (for me: that’s what you should take me for) came to fifty pounds, not including tip. None of the dishes we had cost more than eight pounds and many – the katsu, the teriyaki chicken, both sets of sashimi – felt like impressive value. We left with warm – if sober – goodbyes and an steadfast conviction that we’d be back before long, which is exactly how you want to feel at the end of a trip to a restaurant.

“Wasn’t it lovely?” said Jerry, clearly a convert to Japanese food.

“It really was. Now shall we have a debrief at the Nag’s?”

“Absolutely!”

Independent restaurants, in my experience, rarely get everything right on day one, week one, or month one. Very few spring forth fully-formed and fully-realised in the way that, say, Bakery House or Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen did. They make mistakes, they learn, they correct. Early adopters are helping with the beta testing, and it’s a high wire for small restaurants: do you open before you’re totally prepared, or do you wait until everything is perfect? Taberu waited until it was ready for eat in customers which never came, and then it closed. Oishi has done it the other way round: it’s serving customers without necessarily being confident about how to do it.

And this is where we come in. Because when places like Oishi open, what they really need is customers. Not just any punters, but customers who are prepared to overlook the glitches, the lack of booze, the slightly scruffy presentation and the rather apologetic approach. But look at what you get in return: beautifully cut, delicious sashimi. Tender chicken thighs in sweet sticky sauce with the freshness of finely cut carrots. Spot on katsu curry. But more than that, you get the knowledge that you’re doing your bit, helping that restaurant to grow and evolve, to serve a community and improve a town. I think that’s a pretty good deal: but I would, because I like to think that I’m that kind of customer. I reckon some of you might be, too.


Oishi – 8.0

314 Oxford Road, RG30 1AD
0118 9599991

https://www.oishi-reading.co.uk/

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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)

Brewdog

Regular readers might remember that I first attempted to review Brewdog about three months ago, unsuccessfully as it happens. I came, I saw, I was told they couldn’t even take orders for at least thirty minutes and I sodded off. To the Real Greek instead, in fact, where I had a surprisingly enjoyable meal with my friend Steve. He still messages me occasionally just to talk about sausage (the one at the Real Greek I should say, although I think Steve has a soft spot for most sausages, so to speak).

I decided I would leave Brewdog for another day when my frustration had subsided and I’d forgotten some of the faux wackiness which had slightly got my back up – the almost illegible menu and the zany pun-ridden dish names like “Hail Seitan” and “Clucky This Time”. So I turned up with my old friend Mike on a Monday night to check it out, hoping for better luck this time.

Much was different from my last visit. In May, Brewdog had been open less than two months and there was still a huge buzz about the place. It had been fuller and louder, whereas going back now it was definitely a quieter proposition – although that might also be because I went on a Monday. Another difference was that last time I turned up on spec, whereas this time I had had already booked a table.

The site has a chequered history. It’s been the Litten Tree, a properly purgatorial chain pub known to many Reading residents of a certain vintage as the “Shitten Tree”. It’s been RYND, with beautiful interiors, rock-hard cheap seating and bandwagon-chasing knock-off American barbecue food. And most recently it’s been Public, a venue whose selling point – if you see this as a selling point – was to have board games, fussball tables and pool tables. I imagine the trendsetters went there but wouldn’t have been seen dead in the Sun, on the opposite side of the road, with its thoroughly charming bar billiards table: nowhere near ironic enough.

RYND, for all its faults, did a beautiful job of exposing the brickwork and then Public cocked it all up with cheapo tiles and wood panelling, so it was lovely to see that Brewdog had restored the room to something like its former glory. The large central room does feel like a beer hall, with long tables and – no surprises here – industrial light fittings. I’d asked for a booth, and it would have been nice to have been seated at one of the ones in the main room to feel more like part of things, but instead they put us in the smaller area off to the left, very much the overflow car park of the restaurant.

On my last visit, poor Steve and I waited at our table in bewilderment for easily five minutes before realising that nobody was going to come to ask us what we wanted. At the time, I wrote this off as my mistake, thinking that Brewdog was far more like a pub than a restaurant. But another difference with this visit was that a very friendly, smiley waitress came over and asked us what we’d like to drink. I have no idea whether that’s because it was quieter, or because we’d booked a table or for some other reason, and it slightly bugs me that I can’t tell you which of my two visits was more representative.

The menu was, well, burgers and hot dogs. And two salads. I couldn’t help thinking that Brewdog might have put more effort and imagination – albeit misplaced – into the names of the dishes than the dishes themselves. I had my eye on a burger from my extensive research – the “Jackpot”, with its winning combination of black pudding, chorizo and blue cheese – but I was also determined to let Mike pick first. I’m lucky that people want to come out on duty with me, so I always try to make sure they aren’t eating their second choice of starter or main.

“I quite fancy the ‘Chipotle Chorizo’,” said Mike, which made perfect sense: his mum is Spanish, after all.

“That’s fine” I said through gritted teeth, dying slightly inside as the prospect of sampling the Jackpot receded into the middle distance. “I’ll just have one of the chicken burgers instead. I love southern fried chicken.”

My first choice of chicken burger would have been the “Buffalo Chicken”, but we’d also decided to have some of the buffalo cauliflower, so I ended up going for the “Cluck Norris”: southern fried chicken and avocado. I had a sneaking feeling I had picked the menu’s equivalent of a chicken korma at this point, but the die was cast. Besides, why whinge about it to Mike when I could bide my time and instead complain to literally dozens of readers? Think of the delayed gratification, I told myself as I drank my pint.

I suppose I should at least attempt to talk about the beer, so here goes: there are a whole range of Brewdog beers on tap along with others in bottles and a range of other guest beers. Nearly everything crosses the five pound a pint Rubicon which, in fairness, probably stopped being any kind of meaningful threshold at some point last year; nowadays you just pay whatever they charge you and if you wince when they tell you how much your round is, you’re either in the wrong place or pubs just aren’t for you. The menu helpfully made suggestions about which beers paired well with each burger (Mike followed this advice, because he’s that kind of person and I didn’t, because I’m not).

Mike declared himself very satisfied with the Punk IPA and the Dead Pony, the latter specifically chosen to go with his burger. “They sell Brewdog on the continent”, he told me (Mike spends most of the year swanning around Europe running coach tours: I like to think he’s like a twenty-first century Robin Askwith, although the lack of stories of swordsmanship suggests this might be wishful thinking), “but it’s really expensive over there.” The punchline was left hanging in the air: I couldn’t be bothered to claim it.

My beers, from the outer reaches of the list, were more interesting I thought, although that doesn’t guarantee that my descriptions of them will be. I had a pint of Lighthouse by Windswept which I really liked, a “Kolsch style lager” (it means it’s kind of German, apparently – you know, like the Royal Family) which was crisp, clean and just the right side of the dividing line between bland and delicate. The Windswept website says it’s best enjoyed after abseiling or archery, which strikes me as a shame because it means I’ll never get to enjoy it in optimum conditions: never mind, I’ll live.

I followed it up with a pint of “#MashTag2018” which seems to be a beer that’s part crowdsourced through polls every year. The 2018 version, which presumably was chosen by Russian bots, was infused with hibiscus and yuzu and I liked it a great deal; the sharp citrus added by the yuzu made it smarter than the average beer. Mike had a sip and decided to order a pint of himself after he’d lapped me. He then decided that it was more fun to sip a little of it than to wade through a pint of it, which I figured served him right. Karmic payback for stopping me hitting the Jackpot, perhaps.

The burgers at Brewdog cost between nine and ten pounds and fries (or sweet potato fries) are extra, so in terms of price it’s probably largely on a par with Honest. It’s taken me until this point in the review to mention the H word, but they were very much in my mind as I had my dinner because, for better or worse, 2018 is the year that they’ve become the benchmark for all burgers in this town.

Here’s something you’ll rarely hear me say: the problem with my chicken burger is that it had too much chicken. It’s honestly true – the unremarkable-looking seeded brioche had two large coated chicken breasts in it. That might have been a dream come true if the coating had tasted of anything, but in fact it had almost no flavour at all. A real shame, because it looked the part and the texture was great, but in terms of taste it was like a mirage of KFC. This also meant that the whole thing was unbalanced because the things it really needed – the avocado, the coriander, the Cajun mayo – simply couldn’t put up a fight against all that bland fried chicken. With proper coating, less chicken and more of the rest it could have been world-beating, but as it was I actually left some of it. A knife stuck needlessly out of the top, Excalibur-style, and I couldn’t tell whether it was decoration or punishment.

Mike’s “Chipotle Chorizo” was better, but still unspecial. The burger itself – very much cooked medium-well – was crumbly and dry and left me, again, thinking wistfully of Honest at the other end of town. The chorizo was by far the best thing in it – coarse, juicy and piquant – but the chipotle mayo didn’t add a lot and the padron peppers felt a bit random. There was one in the burger and another impaled on top of the bun – that knife trick again. I felt like Mike had got the better deal, but only in terms of shades of meh. Speaking of meh, the fries were wan and disappointing, and I didn’t have any desire to finish them all. Mike had upgraded to the sweet potato fries – they cost fifty pence extra – and this was money well spent, although probably money better spent would have involved not having fries at all.

The bright spot was the buffalo cauliflower, which we both agreed was quite the nicest thing we ate all evening. Big firm florets in a hot, sour glaze, and easily more interesting than the feature attraction, a scene-stealing bit part. But even this wasn’t perfect – I liked the coating but I’d have liked it to be crunchier and stick to the cauliflower a bit better. And, when it came to it, we paid eight pounds for it, so it really wasn’t much cheaper than the burgers. Perhaps by this point I’d just run out of magnanimity: it’s distinctly possible. There was a vegan dip with it, which tasted like a photocopy of salad cream and might have appealed, if you were a vegan.

This is all getting a bit crotchety, isn’t it? I should perhaps focus on the service because it was properly lovely. Our waitress (or, according to the bill, “server”) was likeable and cheery without ever seeming fake or making us feel like miserable old shits, not that we needed any help in that department. Our bill for two came to just shy of sixty pounds, excluding service (and the menu, randomly, also gives you the option to buy a pint of Punk IPA for the kitchen: I’m not sure that would have improved matters, but it might have been worth giving it a whirl). At the time that didn’t feel like a lot, but looking back it feels like money extracted somewhat by stealth.

It’s probably obvious by now that Brewdog wasn’t my bag at all, but what surprises me is that I honestly expected it to be better. It has a small menu and I thought sticking to a few things might mean they did them well, especially when you think about how considered their brand is and how much attention to detail they’ve put into the building, and the fit out. So it’s disappointing that the food was so drab; if I wanted that kind of meal I’d go to Honest, and if I wanted that range of beer I’d walk slightly further out of town and make for the Nag’s Head.

Of course, it’s possible that Brewdog was aiming for the sweet spot on the Venn diagram where beer drinkers and food fans meet, but somehow I doubt it. It felt like the food was just there to tick a box rather than to properly complement the beer, and I found that a little sad. It felt a lot like a slightly less corporate Oakford Social Club, but when you strip away the beards the experience is much the same. What Brewdog really highlighted, for me, is one of the big gaps in the market left here in Reading. Since I Love Paella left the Fisherman’s Cottage, punters have been left with a pretty stark choice: you can have a fantastic range of well-kept beer or you can have brilliant food, but – for now at least – you can’t have both.

Brewdog – 6.2
11 Castle Street, RG1 7SB
0118 9568755

https://www.brewdog.com/bars/uk/reading

Feature: Table for one

What a difference three years makes: back in 2015, when I last posted a guide to solo dining, I waxed lyrical about it as an experience but, truth be told, I didn’t do it that often. Now and again when my spouse went away on business, mainly, or on the odd occasion when I had a day off to myself, but my experience of it was more limited than my paean of praise made it sound. It probably shows in the piece, because – despite my best intentions – it read more as advice and consolation for those who found themselves unfortunate enough to be eating alone, rather than a celebration of the joys of a table for one.

These days I have a far richer experience of eating on your own, at all points on the spectrum. Separation, divorce, self-discovery, solo holidays, working out that some of your friends aren’t actually friends at all: all that Eat Pray Love bullshit has many effects but one of them, for me, was to give me a far better understanding of the benefits of going to a restaurant accompanied only by a copy of Private Eye (and my phone, for when the cynicism gets too much). Fast forward three years, and I’ve eaten on my own all over the place.

I’ve been jammed in at the bar at a hot – in both senses – packed no-reservation London place on a weekday lunchtime. I’ve spoiled myself by ordering from the a la carte menu at Nirvana Spa, in my fluffy white robe, peering at my paperback between courses. I’ve dined at Pierre Victoire, pretending to pay attention to a magazine while really people watching North Oxford’s finest eating and chatting, imagining all those different lives intersecting, albeit briefly, with mine. And last year I spent the best part of a week in Paris on my own, reinventing old favourites and discovering new ones. A good table, a good view, a good glass of wine and a good book, alone but not lonely; I might not have learned to completely love eating alone, but I certainly came to appreciate it.

Closer to home, there’s a lot to be said for a table for one and lots of occasions where it can be a positive pleasure. The quick solo meal on the way to meet friends in the pub, especially people from the “eating is cheating” brigade (just me, maybe, but I’ve always found that a dreary philosophy to live by). The drawn-out lunch on a Saturday when you have the day to yourself. Or even just the moment – and this might just be me – where I get off the train at Reading station (or Gare Du Ding, as I keep calling it) and I just can’t be arsed to cook. The sun is shining, I have nowhere in particular to be and I think how nice it would be to treat myself before heading home.

Not only has my life changed a lot in the last three years: Reading has too. Two of my choices last time around are not currently trading. I Love Paella has left the Fisherman’s Cottage (in contentious circumstances: less said about that the better) and Dolce Vita has left Kings Walk, forced out by a greedy landlord who wanted to make more money. If Namaste Kitchen was still running its menu from earlier in the year it would have made this list, because I couldn’t imagine anything finer than going there and having a beer, a plate of paneer pakora and a chicken chow mein (one of the joys of eating solo, in a small plates restaurant like Namaste Kitchen, is not having to share food for once).

And of course, I still miss Georgian Feast (the artist formerly known as Caucasian Spice Box) back when they cooked from the Turks Head. It became a regular ritual for me to head over there and eat on my own for the first half of last year: meatballs, spiced chicken thighs, sharply dressed salad and cheese bread – oh, and a pint of Strongbow Cloudy Apple. At the time I was living in a truly awful one bedroom flat, and it felt like having friends cook for you which, after a while, I suppose it sort of was; sometimes you can tell a lot about a restaurant by how it treats solo diners.

The other way that this list has changed since 2015 is that it reflects the rise of what, for want of a better phrase, I would call the Good Chain. Smaller, smarter chains are coming to Reading and they can often provide a little bit of the intimacy of an independent restaurant with some of the polish you associate with a bigger establishment. I make no apology for including so many of them here, because I’m interested in good restaurants – and good restaurants to eat alone in – and it’s not my fault that Reading doesn’t yet have the kind of independents, especially in the town centre, that get this stuff right.

I eat alone less often these days than I used to, nowadays, but a good meal alone is still a wonderful act of self-care, provided you pick the right venue. No quibbles about splitting the bill, nobody judging you for ordering too much, or having the expensive wine. No rush, nobody to please but yourself, and all that people watching. So here are my current recommendations – I hope they come in handy, and if you’ve always considered eating out on your own a step too far I really would encourage you to give it a try.

1. Bakery House

The perfect combination of food and anonymity.

I’ve grown to love an early evening meal alone at Bakery House. I sit facing out into that long, slightly chilly room, sip on an orange Mirinda (it’s basically Tango) and wait for the food to arrive. Some days I’ll munch on maqaneq: little, punchy sausages – you get an awful lot of them. On others I might go for the smooth, rich houmous beiruty, glossy and packed with tahini, beautiful piled on a big bubble of pitta, fresh from the oven.

That done, I can look forward to the main event. I tend to order the lamb shawarma – a big mound of intensely flavoured shreds of lamb, with garlic sauce, chilli sauce and terrific vegetable rice. But then there are also the delights of the boneless baby chicken, all charred skin and tender meat, a holiday on a plate. What could be better than being so transported?

The service at Bakery House can verge on standoffish, grumpy even. In other contexts that might be frustrating, but there’s something oddly comforting about how anonymous you can feel eating there. They don’t care whether you’re in a big group, on a date or alone, they’re simply there to bring you food and to leave you in peace. They’re like the barber that knows better than to talk to you when he’s cutting your hair, and some of my happiest, most meditative meals have taken place at Bakery House.

Bakery House, 82 London Street, RG1 4SJ
http://bakeryhouse.co

2. Cote

Three courses, because you deserve them.

Cote, for me, is for the full solo three course experience. Sitting on the banquette looking out into the room is one of the best, most uplifting ways that you can say “I deserve this”, whether you’re ordering from the set menu or the full a la carte. The latter sometimes has some brilliant specials – confit duck, perhaps, or the rare treat of a skate wing swimming with butter and festooned with capers (there isn’t much in life that rivals flipping a skate wing over halfway through eating it and realising that you have the thick side yet to come).

The set menu really comes into its own on summer days, when you can sit at a little table outside, with a view of the canal. I like to drink a Breton cider, crisp and almost sweet, and watch the world go by while I make my choices. Some of the dishes are good, and some are great, but all are stupidly reasonably priced, and the act of eating before 7pm means that you’re likely to be finished before the light has faded and the best of the evening has gone. I used to think “if I tried hard I could imagine I was in Paris right now”, but these days I think “I’m so lucky to live here.”

Cote, 9 The Oracle Centre, RG1 2AG
https://www.cote.co.uk/brasserie/reading

3. Franco Manca

Comfort food, elevated.

When it comes to comfort, little can top cheese on toast – and if anything can, it might be Franco Manca’s sourdough pizza. I have a real soft spot for their anchovy and caper version (ask for extra anchovies, because although Franco Manca is very reasonably priced you do to some extent get what you pay for). That said, their standard margarita is also worth a go, topped with whatever extras they have on the menu that day (the picture above, coppa and Ogleshield cheddar, was a particular high point). Oh, and have a blue cheese or pesto dip, because it really does transform the whole thing.

Franco Manca is perfect for a quick stop, but it’s actually not hard to make it more of a treat. Some of the starters – especially anything with mozzarella (smoked or otherwise), burrata or fennel salami – well worth lingering over, as long as you can overlook the fact that most of them are stuff you’d put on a pizza taken off a pizza and served cold on a plate instead. I can, anyway. And finally, the chocolate ice cream is pretty decent as is my personal favourite, a crafty affogato.

When I first reviewed Franco Manca I liked the food and was sceptical about the room, mainly because it was impossible to hear your dining companion. It turns out that really isn’t an issue when you go on your own, which means that what could be a wall of noise becomes a strangely comforting hubbub. Sitting outside, on a summer day, is also a lovely thing to do.

Franco Manca, The Oracle, Bridge Street, RG1 2AT
https://www.francomanca.co.uk/restaurants/reading

4. Honest Burgers

Meat and potatoes.

I said the Good Chains had this eating alone business down pat, and you would struggle to find a better example of that than Honest Burgers. Much has been made, quite rightly, of what a beautiful job they did with the interior. And plenty has been written about the virtues of the Reading burger, making the most of our local suppliers. Not to mention the King Street Pale, a truly wonderful beer which even I, more of a lager fan, can neck by the pint.

Well, yes. But for my money, the best thing to do at Honest is forego the Reading special and whatever the flavour of the month is and let Honest do what they do best, which is serve cheeseburgers. I go for their most basic burger, topped with cheddar, and that way you can really taste the quality of the beef, the char of the crust, the hint of salt.

Your mileage may vary, but in any case it really is another fantastic venue to eat well and unfussily, especially if you have somewhere to go shortly afterwards. My stepfather has got into the habit of grabbing an Honest before taking in a movie at Vue, and he is a man who knows what he’s doing.

Honest Burgers, 1-5 King Street, RG1 2HB
https://www.honestburgers.co.uk/locations/reading/

5. Kokoro

Dinner on the run.

Kokoro is an illustration of what I call the “yaki soba effect”. Back when I used to go to Wagamama, I always ordered the yaki soba, a big heap of noodles with chicken and prawns and pickled ginger and plenty of good stuff. It never let me down, and became my takeaway of choice for a while. Then I decided I really ought to branch out, but every time I did my meal was plain disappointing – and, usually, I had to watch someone else eat yaki soba in front of me while I pretended to enjoy chicken katsu curry (a dish which always looks a tad too scatological for my liking).

Kokoro is the same – it’s all about the sweet chilli chicken. I mean, just look at that picture up there. Look at it! Doesn’t it make you peckish? A glossy, fiery deep red sauce (and these days they give you enough to coat the rice or noodles) with clearly visible garlic – the best kind of garlic, if you ask me – and piece after piece of tender, crispy-coated chicken. They serve it in either a medium or a large cardboard tub: the medium is quite big enough for anybody, but the large only costs a pound more. The whole thing comes in at the six or seven quid mark, and it’s one of the very best dinners on the run Reading has to offer. You sit at a basic wooden table, polish it off and watch other people come in and place their orders – usually for the sweet chilli chicken, unsurprisingly.

Last time I went, I decided to try the chicken curry instead. It had lots of tender, chicken thigh cooked into strands. It had an anonymous brown sauce which tasted largely of nothing. It was, in short, not the sweet chilli chicken, and that’s when I realised that I won’t make that mistake again. Kokoro also sells chicken katsu curry, but who on earth orders that? People who don’t like the yaki soba at Wagamama, I suppose.

Kokoro, 13 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY
http://kokorouk.com/

6. Sapana Home

Because the best things come in multiples of ten.

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Ten pan-fried chicken momo cost six pounds fifty at Sapana Home. They come on a plate, clustered round a little dish of hot dipping sauce, and when you have them pan fried they have a slightly caramelised exterior which seals the deal. A plate of Sapana Home’s momo, I think, can gladden even the heaviest heart. My favourite momo is the fifth one: before that, they pass too quickly and you eat them almost without savouring them, whereas after that you are maybe a little too aware that your pleasure – as most pleasures do – is inevitably coming to an end.

There are other dishes there I recommend, if you’re feeling greedy. The chicken fry is wonderful – pieces of chicken, spring onion and tomato with that same hot sauce. The chow mein, which is fundamentally the chicken fry plus noodles, is also splendid. And if you feel more adventurous I heartily recommend the samosa chaat, a glorious four-way pile-up involving samosas, yoghurt, crispy noodles and red onion.

Late 2016, when I took a break from reviewing restaurants, was a pretty bleak period in my life. Nothing was going right, and when I finished work and got back into town on the train I really didn’t want to go home any time soon, much of the time. What got me through many difficult days, back then, was a plate of momo at Sapana Home. It’s a little place, and it’s best to sit upstairs if you can, where there is daylight. The service is brusque but not unkind. There was a period when sitting there, eating momo and listening to the oddly comforting (if mindless) strains of Heart FM was truly my happy place.

If any further illustration was needed, it’s this. The photo above was taken last night: writing this made me want to go back, so I did. Things have changed a little since I last went: the music was classic Bollywood rather than commercial radio, and the momo (they now do lamb too, although I didn’t order them) were slightly less packed with filling, lighter and more delicate. It was like seeing an old friend after a while and realising they’ve lost weight. I did, for a moment, consider putting Kings Grill in this sixth spot instead. But I’ve kept Sapana Home on this list – it may be mainly for sentimental reasons, but momos six to ten were still as bittersweet.

Sapana Home, 8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG
http://sapanahome.co.uk/

Afghan

My dining companion this week is Martijn Gilbert, the outgoing (in every sense) CEO of Reading Buses. I realised Martijn wasn’t going to be your usual dining companion relatively early on in our meal at Afghan, just after we took our seats in one of the booths at the back of the room and began looking at our menus. I was looking at the menu, anyway: Martijn, on the other hand, was peering intently through the big windows out on to the Wokingham Road.

“What’s that doing there?”

“What do you mean?” I said, assuming he was talking about the presence of houmous on the menu of an Afghani restaurant.

“That bus that just went past. It’s a 14 – they go to Woodley – and this is the 17 route. If there’s a diversion in place I don’t know about it.”

“Is that a problem?”

Martijn gave me a kindly, indulgent look, as if he’d just heard something crashingly stupid but was far too nice to correct it, and said something about low bridges. It all sounded very convincing, although my mind was also whirring with other thoughts, mainly about how many main courses we could snaffle between the two of us. After all, Martijn had specifically told me he only had a salad for lunch to ensure he was in peak dining condition.

“If you don’t mind, I just need to phone the control room.”

So he did, and it turned out it was a known diversion and not some bus driver having a funny five minutes or, worse still, about to recreate Speed just outside the Early Café. But even that incident gave me an idea about what Martijn was like in work mode, and it was impressive stuff: the sort of perfectionism I also see in some restaurant owners, where they know everything about everything when it comes to their business. I aspire to that, which is why I re-read my reviews countless times before they are published on the blog – scanning for typos and needless commas, mostly – but I’m small time compared to this.

The irony about Martijn’s intervention was that I’d deliberately chosen Afghan to review with him because it was on the 17 bus route; just like the tote bag they sell in But Is It Art? says, the number 17 route is the backbone of Reading. Sometimes it seems like all human life joins and leaves that great thoroughfare at some point – whether it’s the leafy gentility of the Earley borders, the icon that is Cemetery Junction or the fleshpots of the Oxford Road. I used to commute to work on the 17, many moons ago at the dog end of the 90s, from a shared house on Talfourd Avenue where I was the only person not doing drugs, and I’ve always had a big soft spot for it; to me, as much as the River Thames, it defines the town.

It pleased me, too, that Martijn caught the number 17 to the restaurant – as did I. Martijn told me previously, during a boozy night in the Retreat, that if the number 17 route hadn’t already existed, nobody would have invented it: it simply made no sense to join up the far East and West of Reading in this way, and in any other town it would have been two separate routes. But Reading had it, and it worked, and people seemed to like it, so nobody has ever messed with it. “Our data shows us it isn’t always heavily used during the day” said Martijn, “but we’re not changing the timetable. It goes every seven minutes, without fail. That’s the 17 for you”. I loved that, another of many things to love about Reading.

Of course, I don’t just pick restaurants because of their public transport links and Afghan had come highly recommended by a number of people in the run up to my visit. One friend told me they had a real talent for cooking lamb, another friend enthused about her trip there a couple of days before my visit. My regular reader Mansoor – an expert in these things – recommended one dish in particular, telling me his wife had ordered it three times in two weeks. All that and independent and in an area somewhat lacking in decent restaurants: how could I not give it a whirl?

The room was pretty much unchanged from its previous incarnation as Lazeez – a big square, booths and banquettes around the edge and tables in the middle (I know that, because I looked up the old review for Lazeez and was struck by how much of it I could have just copied and pasted). Martijn and I were at one of the booths, which could have generously seated four but turned out to be just right for the quantity of food we ordered. The menu reminded me very much of the menu at Kobeda Palace, the Afghan restaurant at the other end of the 17 route, only a little wider and far more polished-looking: at Kobeda Palace you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a kebab house, with the preparation and cooking front and centre, whereas Afghan was more obviously a restaurant. Some dishes were more expensive, but many weren’t.

I managed to persuade Martijn to order a starter and three mains to share, and as nobody at Afghan tried to deter us I assumed that our order was deemed plucky rather than foolhardy. The first thing to arrive was a dish I’d been very excited about trying, the chapal kebab. This was the dish Mansoor’s wife had so admired, and it’s been described as the best thing to come out of the Khyber. As a die hard Carry On fan I found this difficult to believe, so I was determined to see what the fuss was all about.

A chapal kebab is quite hard to describe, but here goes: it’s sort of like a spiced lamb kofte but instead of being in your traditional cylindrical shape it comes as a flat patty more like a burger, cooked in fat and packed with onion and green chillies. When it arrived I thought it looked rather like a pair of smokers’ lungs, but from the very first mouthful I knew this was a dish to be reckoned with. How did they get the contrast between the almost crunchy outside and the juicy inside so bang on? It went beautifully with all three dips at the table – a green one full of coriander, a red number which looked like it would be diabolically hot but was more like a sweet chilli sauce, and a cooling yoghurt with mint.

“This is good” said Martijn, wasting no time setting out demolishing one of the kebabs, and I couldn’t disagree. The naan it was supposed to come with didn’t arrive until later, one of many oddities about the timing which slightly marred matters. Instead, we got the only conventional starter we’d ordered: bourani banjan, aubergine with tomato and yoghurt. Aubergine isn’t everybody’s cup of tea – often it isn’t mine – but this was a properly lovely dish and astonishingly good value at three pounds. The aubergine was sweet, sticky and beautifully cooked with none of that spongey boredom it all too often presents.

In an ideal world we’d have been left to finish that little lot before more food turned up, but that was not to be. Instead, a groaning dish of lamb biryani was brought over when we were barely halfway through. How much you’ll like Afghan’s biryani, to some extent, will depend on how you feel about meat on the bone – most of it slid off, but there was a bit of a variation in texture. I didn’t mind it, and I know that lamb on the bone is far more authentic for these things, but it wouldn’t be for everyone. The rice was well spiced (if not the best example I’ve tasted) but there was a lot of it, so the ratios felt a little off. On the other hand, this dish was nine pounds, so that feels like a quibble.

At the risk of inducing déjà vu, in an ideal world we’d have been left to finish that (not especially) little lot before more food turned up, but that too wasn’t to be. So we were partway through pretty much everything we’d ordered when a big dish of charsi lamb karahi was deposited at the table, along with our naan bread which, by that point, I’d pretty much forgotten about. The lamb karahi is ordered in multiples of half a kilo, so we’d ordered the entry level five hundred grams. When it arrived, I told myself it was okay because much of it would be bone: and, again, how you feel about this dish will partly depend on where you stand on meat on the bone. I found this a little trickier and less enjoyable – the sauce was deep, thick and peppery but lacked some of the spice and fragrance of, say, Kobeda Palace’s quite extraordinary karahi.

We had an ordinary-sized naan bread (which was meant to arrive at the same time as the chapal kebab) but we’d also ordered an “Afghan naan”, because I’d been told these were quite the talking point. And it really was – a huge thing which turned up vertically, impaled on some metal stand and brought to the table. It was so big it blotted out some of the remaining daylight outside, so big in fact that Martijn took a selfie with it for sheer novelty value. But the novelty value was the main value, I think. Getting it off its makeshift gallows was a faff, and it was a little rigid and crispy rather than soft and yielding – you could load stuff onto it, but it was much more difficult to use it for scooping. That said, the karahi was a relatively dry curry, so perhaps scooping was a bit hopeful anyway.

“It’s great that Reading has independent restaurants like this and not just lots of chains” said Martijn, grabbing another mouthful of the karahi and I sensed, not for the first time that evening, perhaps a little bit of regret at leaving his adopted town. I could see why – I mean, he might be able to actually buy a house in the North East but would he ever find an equivalent of the Maiwand Lion, or Smelly Alley, or the Nag’s Head?

“That’s the whole point” I said, pontificating on as usual before returning to more important matters. “Try some more of the chapal kebab now it’s cooled down. If anything, it’s even more delicious.”

Like quite a few of Reading’s more interesting restaurants Afghan is unlicensed, so Martijn had something fizzy and I ordered my beloved mango lassi. It was three pounds for a glass or six pounds for a jug, so I got a jug and Martijn helped me out with it, although we left a little. It never disappoints, but it did have the slightly gloopy and sweet taste of stuff that might not have been freshly made.

Dinner for two came to fifty-two pounds, not including tip, which really isn’t half bad when you consider that what we ordered probably would have easily fed three less gluttonous people. I haven’t mentioned the service, but that’s because it was pretty unobtrusive: pleasant enough, just attentive enough but nothing to write home about. The restaurant wasn’t busy on the night we went, but there were a few families and bigger groups. As so often, I was struck between the contrast of the quieter, more polished interior of Afghan and the scruffy, more boisterous Kobeda Palace. Your mileage may well vary, but I think I prefer the latter.

That comparison has weighed on my mind a lot since my visit because if you’re comparing like for like, for me at least, I think Kobeda Palace would win every time. With the exception of the chapal kebab – a delicious, intriguing dish I could gladly revisit – I thought Kobeda Palace won on points at every level. I preferred the ambience, I preferred the karahi, I preferred the naan. In fairness, Martijn was a big fan of Afghan, but I did wonder if that was because he just hadn’t been to Kobeda Palace. Perhaps just using that comparison isn’t fair, because Afghan is also in competition with Miah’s Garden Of Gulab a few doors down, or Vel, or any of Reading’s countless Indian restaurants. And on that level perhaps it fares a little better – the food I had was good, and interesting, and I saw enough on the menu to want to go back, to try the samosas, or something else from the grill.

And, of course, you also have to bear in mind that East Reading has a dearth of good restaurants: Garden Of Gulab is no great shakes, the Hope & Bear is another Mitchell & Butler pub, “Smokey’s House” looks best avoided and I Love Paella has, perhaps sensibly, left the Fisherman’s Cottage. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king and Afghan is very far from one-eyed. Maybe it has a bit of a squint, but it’s still possibly the best option in that neck of the woods.

After the meal Martijn and I wandered to the Hope & Bear for a gossip and a debrief, which gave me the opportunity to confirm my suspicions that the facelift it received when it rebranded from the Abbot Cook largely consisted of painting the whole thing green and putting new furniture in the garden. On our walk there, Martijn spotted a bus stop which wasn’t to his satisfaction, and took a photo.

“Do you think your staff will miss you randomly sending them photos of bus stops on your travels?” I said. He smiled.

“They know I keep them on their toes.”

The employees of Reading Buses might not miss it, but actually I will, and I suspect Reading might too: it’s nice to have somebody in charge who cares. We sat in the garden, pretending it was warm enough for a couple of pints, and discussed Martijn’s plans to get through all ten of the dishes on my list of Reading’s most iconic meals. I don’t think anything from Afghan will make the second edition, although the chapal kebab might scrape an honorary mention.

At the end of our evening we took the 17 together from outside the pub.

“This timetable is wrong too!” said Martijn, taking another photo. “It lists every single departure time from the stop, when our new timetables say they go every seven minutes. That’s the whole point, because we can’t be precise about exactly when a bus will go past.”

“And the newer timetables will look much cleaner, too.” I said, finally feeling like I was getting the hang of it. Martijn’s enthusiastic reaction suggested that maybe I was.

The bus pulled up and the driver let us both on, and if he was anxious about the prospect of driving the head honcho into town he kept a magnificent poker face. “I like to think they see me as one of the gang” Martijn told me, as we sat at the back and watched the Kings Road hurtle past, riding Reading’s greatest thoroughfare again. How many times have I taken this bus in my life? I wondered. It felt like the 17 had always been there, and I found myself hoping it always would be. And best of all, I got to travel back to the Village for nothing because I was taking the bus with the boss. I reflected later that it might be the only freebie I’ve ever received on duty: a freebie of which I’m strangely proud.

Afghan – 7.2
146 Wokingham Road, RG6 1JL
0118 9668802

https://www.facebook.com/afghanrestaurantreading/