Restaurant review: Momo 2 Go

We’re on the home stretch now: Halloween and Bonfire Night are in the past, Christmas is on the horizon. This review is published on Black Friday, a day many of us would prefer not to acknowledge. It all adds up to one thing – we are close to having survived another year of interesting times, of pay cuts and price rises, of soaring expenses and the spectre of Covid, still lurking in the background. The future is uncertain – for our electricity bills, for our weekly shop, for keeping global warming below 1.5C, for our Twitter profiles – but for now, we’re all still here. Group hug, anybody? Actually, scratch that: who else needs a drink?

The New Year is always a time to look ahead and make great plans, but as a perpetual glass half empty type I find this time of year is when I look back and can see all the things I didn’t achieve over the last twelve months – the pounds I didn’t lose, the money I didn’t save, the books I never finished and the exercises from my physio I always found very good reasons not to do. But I never mope for too long – the sweet release of the socialising season, the festive beers waiting to be drunk and all the people to catch up with soon sweep all of that away. Besides, by Christmas Eve ITV4 (yes, it’s a thing) is pretty much wall to wall Carry On films, and you can’t mope watching one of those. I can’t, anyway.

As we approach the end of the year I also find myself looking at my to do list here at the blog. Forget shopping days: there are only a handful of reviewing Fridays left til Christmas and so many places I’ve not made it to yet. So how do I decide what to prioritise for the tail end of the year? Should I go back and try one of the interesting places that have sprung up in Wokingham, or another of Reading’s new sushi joints? Is the Secret Santa present my readers really want a piece where I go to Jollibee and dutifully endure that weird spaghetti dish with chopped frankfurters in it? And how about that new kebab place on the edge of the Broad Street Mall, immortally described by the Reading Chronicle as “Slow-roast Dubai restaurant Donor and Gyros”?

But there’s a particular subsection of my list that I feel deserves particular attention as 2022 shambles to an end. At the start of this year, when the weather was shite and our booster jabs hadn’t kicked in, I was still reviewing takeaways. But I know that what people really want, especially now life is a little more as it was, are restaurant reviews. And there are a handful of places where I had decent takeaways over the past couple of years but have never returned to try out the full eating in experience, blind spots that I ought to rectify.

In some cases there are reasons for that – Banarasi Kitchen has recently left the Spread Eagle pub to be replaced by a new Indian kitchen called Bagheera, for instance. I probably would have gone to Osaka by now, but for the fact that they had a one star hygiene rating for four months over the summer. Palmyra, which did me a very nice takeaway in the spring of 2021, only takes cash which rules it out of contention. Cash only in 2022, after two years that have all but killed cash as a going concern. “Fuck that” grizzled Zoë, as we walked away from it recently.

But I also had a fantastic takeaway from the subject of this week’s review, little Momo 2 Go down the Oxford Road, back in February – so good, in fact, that I’ve ordered from them several times since. Surely it was time to try it in the flesh? So Zoë and I wandered over on a midweek night to pay it a long overdue visit.

It’s a small, simple place on that row of shops just before the Reading West bridge, and the inside was humble and unceremonious – the walls cheery yellow above and dove grey below a haphazardly painted dado rail. The name gave a pretty clear clue that a lot of their trade is takeaway – in total they have a dozen or so covers, and a little bar and counter made up to look like a little hut. A fish tank glowed in one corner, with a few anaemic denizens drifting around in it. But I liked the room – it had a certain warmth, and the condensation on the door made you feel cosy. We were the only customers eating in that night.

The menu fitted on a single laminated sheet of A4, and half of that was the drinks selection. So very compact all told, especially compared to the likes of Kamal’s Kitchen or Sapana Home, although with many of the options you get your choice of pork, chicken, lamb or buffalo. There was nothing even approximating to a curry, and I liked that a lot, that they didn’t compromise. A small selection of specials on a blackboard over the bar added a few more choices, but without making matters difficult. And nothing cost more than a tenner, with the momo in particular looking impressive value at around seven pounds for ten.

Much of the menu is about your starch of choice – momo, chow mein or fried rice – with a final section marked “sides” which includes many things which don’t sound like sides. So the best way to approach this menu, as with Nepalese food in general in my experience, is to treat it as a small plates menu and share as many things as you think you can manage. And that’s exactly what we did.

Trying to make our choices and discuss things with our waiter highlighted that things wouldn’t necessarily be straightforward. Our waiter was absolutely lovely and friendly, but it was quite a struggle to explain and to understand. I wasn’t sure if this was because his English wasn’t the best, or because he was very shy, or because he was helping out for the night. Maybe Momo 2 Go really does do most of its business through delivery apps. Whatever it was, although I really liked him we did have to ask a few things more than once and explain that, for example, asking what was in a dish was not the same as saying we’d like to order it. In the end, I put him out of his misery and just Googled a few of the dishes, because it was easier.

The first dish to come out was one of the vegetarian dishes, aloo nimki. I hadn’t got an awful lot of detail about it from the waiter, except that it was quite spicy, but it was very interesting and unlike anything I’ve tried before. The aloo is potato, of course, small cubes of waxy potato at that, but the nimki – crunchy strips of pastry – were what gave the dish interest and contrast. I worried they’d be soggy under the weight of all that gravy, but they kept their integrity perfectly and made every mouthful interesting. This dish wasn’t a looker, and I wouldn’t say it held my interest to the very end – Zoë gave up long before I did, so she didn’t experience just how spicy it was – but I’m very glad I tried it.

By this point, gladly, a couple of very generous mango lassis had come out of the kitchen, which went a long way towards cooling matters. And I have to say, Momo 2 Go do some of the best mango lassis I’ve had – fruity, substantial and ice cold. Counterintuitive to have them on a cold November night, perhaps, but still an absolute treat. We both had another, and each times you could hear a blender whizzing away in the kitchen out back. No corners were cut.

One of my favourite dishes to takeaway from Momo 2 Go is their sukuti chow mein and I’ve eaten it a fair few times this year to mark the end of the working week. So I entirely expected to love it, and was surprised when it fell a little short. Normally it’s packed with veg, light and impeccably cooked and studded with nuggets of chewy dried meat (I’m guessing it’s lamb, but I might be wrong). So what went wrong this time? A few things, I think. It was a little light on the veg, a little clumpy and stodgy, and a tiny bit burnt. And what was the slight cheesy note in the sukuti? I couldn’t place it, but I checked with Zoë and it wasn’t just me. “Maybe they’ve used a rub” was her guess.

Chicken fried rice, which I’ve always fancied but never had before from Momo 2 Go, was definitely the weakest dish. The veg in this might have been fresh, but the peas and the perfectly diced cubes of carrot didn’t feel it. It also didn’t feel like the rice had really been fried, as there wasn’t much in the way of crispy caramelisation, and what chicken there was was underwhelming. If you added a bit of the hot sauce it came with, it was almost interesting, but almost interesting isn’t saying enough. “It’s all a bit Bachelor’s Savoury Rice” said Zoë, and I had to agree. Mind you, she used to feel the same way about paella.

Fortunately, things improved from there. Momo 2 Go’s fried lamb momo are up there with the best I’ve had in Reading, and are enough of a reason to visit the restaurant in their own right. They were ten large, featherlight balloons of light, crunchy fried dough stuffed with a substantial amount of fragrant, exquisite minced lamb. Cut, dip, eat, sigh, repeat. Just bliss.

It’s an irony that the restaurant is called Momo 2 Go, because having had these many times as a takeaway and having finally eaten them in the restaurant, hot and fresh, straight from the kitchen, the absolute worst thing you could do to these beauties is to have them to go. They deserve to be eaten there and then, not kept waiting for a single minute more than necessary. And even though we were full at the end of our meal, we nearly ordered more. Reading back over these paragraphs, I haven’t even come close to explaining how much I loved them, but maybe a glimpse of the picture below will fill in the gaps left by my inadequate prose.

Last of all, we tried something from the specials board, chicken fry. Now normally when I’ve had chicken fry in, say, Sapana Home, it’s not really fried chicken. It’s chicken which may or may not have been fried served in a sticky sauce with peppers and onions, not a million miles in fact from the chilli chicken I often order in Nepalese restaurants.

So I was surprised to get exactly what I’d ordered but not what I’d expected: there, amid the neatly corrugated slices of carrot and cucumber were beautifully light, superbly crisp nuggets of chicken thigh. What was this doing in a Nepalese restaurant? I have no idea, but I wasn’t complaining – although I was rather nonplussed. But to judge it as fried chicken, it was a good dip and a little more seasoning in the coating away from perfect. Reasonably close, though.

There isn’t a lot more to say about Momo 2 Go. Our waiter had relaxed a bit by the end of our meal and seemed delighted that we’d enjoyed some of the dishes so much, especially the momo and the chicken. I felt a little sad that I hadn’t tried some of my other favourite takeaway dishes from the restaurant – chilli chicken, or their superlative chicken choila – but there’s only so much chicken any one person can order. And although we were the only customers that night there was a regular flow of delivery orders hitting the till and riders turning up with their insulated bags. Our meal – all that food and four mango lassis – came to fifty pounds, not including service.

I wish I’d liked Momo 2 Go even more than I did, but I hope you can tell from this review that even with the missteps and the dishes that didn’t entirely work on the night I found myself very much in their corner. The service may have been shy and diffident, but plenty of good restaurants have the occasional shrinking violet and it doesn’t stop them turning out superb food.

I can’t recommend all of Momo 2 Go’s dishes with qualification, but I can say this – go there for the momo. Go there before a night at the Nag’s, or go there on the way home if you live out that way. I would gladly do so any day of the week, and I’d try some of the other dishes because it’s hardly an expensive gamble. I don’t think Momo 2 Go have put their prices up this year, so I’m not entirely sure how they turn a profit, but they deserve to.

I sometimes get told off for comparing restaurants I review to their competitors, but I can’t think of a better way to put things in context. Kamal’s Kitchen remains, for me, the benchmark for Nepalese food with a range of dishes and interesting choices which can’t be equalled elsewhere in town: just be careful if he gets out his Nepalese moonshine. And for convenience in the centre and for consistency, Sapana Home still commands a great deal of affection.

But judged on the momo alone, I think Momo 2 Go might beat the lot. It would be easy to end this review saying “I loved the momo, I wasn’t sure about everything else”. But with hindsight, that was essentially my conclusion when I visited Sapana Home on duty back in 2014. And what happened after that? I pretty much ate there every month for the next three years.

Momo 2 Go – 7.0
172 Oxford Road, RG1 7PL
0118 9586666

https://momo2go.co.uk

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Restaurant review: Adda Hut

This week you get a simple, straightforward review of a simple, straightforward restaurant. But before that, I’d like to apologise to any of my readers in Woodley.

Because I’ve never reviewed anywhere in Woodley, in the best part of ten years. It’s one of those satellites of Reading that has escaped my attention. I made it out to Lower Earley – just the once, back in 2014 – although I can’t see myself going back any time soon. And this year, finally, I reviewed somewhere in Tilehurst, long an omission. But Woodley has never been on my radar. I’ve reviewed more places in Bristol than in Earley, Woodley and Tilehurst put together, a fact I know delights so many of you.

I assure you it’s not because I’ve taken against Woodley. In fact, I’ve always had warm memories of the place. The thing is, I grew up there – or pretended to – and it was the first place I lived when my family moved to Reading in the early Eighties. So I have happy memories of mucking around on the airfield, and walking the dog round Dinton Pastures, of going up the precinct and spending my pocket money in Beatties, the games shop. Of buying my teenage diaries from the Newscentre (and filling them with awful shite) and of buying new pairs of shoes every year from Milwards in time for the start of the school year. (You’d be better off wearing the boxes, my mum said most years: size twelves, you see).

I came back to Woodley after university and lived there until the late nineties and, with my schoolfriends who were also marooned there, we would go to the Bull & Chequers and drink to forget that we were stranded in suburbia. It was forever 1996, and someone in that pub liked to put enough money in the jukebox to play What’s The Story, Morning Glory? in full, from beginning to end. And that was nightlife: if you didn’t like it, you caught a coach to Utopia. Or on summer nights you could walk across Ashenbury Park to drink at the Land’s End and pretend you were in the countryside. And back then, I can’t even say I was that dissatisfied. That was enough, for a while.

Anyway, I thought Woodley’s role in my life was over and done, preserved in aspic, but then something happened which I didn’t expect: I got together with Zoë. She grew up on the same streets as I did, a few years later, and her parents still live there. So my past became, to some extent, my present and I saw Woodley afresh, through different eyes. And actually that was properly lovely. After all, it was an excellent place to grow up, and for all I know it still is. If I could tell eighteen year old me that he’d still be walking home past Bulmershe School in the summer of 2022 he’d probably have been horrified, but life is full of surprises.

One thing that has changed is that, at long last, Woodley has a few potentially interesting restaurants. Not that I ate out in Woodley as a kid – the treat was a takeaway from Hong Kong Garden, and a VHS from the video store next door if you were lucky – and for many years it was that or Red Rose, the solitary Indian restaurant (it’s still going). When the George, a bog standard Chef & Brewer pub, opened on the edge of town it was genuinely a source of excitement.

But nowadays Woodley has the highly rated La’De Kitchen, right opposite the Waitrose. It has a surviving branch of Cozze which has outlived the one in the centre of Reading. There’s a fancy-looking takeaway pizza place that looks a cut above Papa John’s and a dessert shop doing waffles, sundaes and milkshakes. And last but not least there’s Adda Hut, the subject of this week’s review. 

I picked it because it just looked different enough to be worth a try – its website talked about serving the food of Kolkata, and its menu was relatively small and focused, a bhuna and dhansak-free zone. My very old friend Mike, a drinking buddy from those Bull & Chequers days, was home staying with his parents for the tail end of the year, so he joined me there on a dismal, sodden evening, the shopping precinct lashed with wind and rain.

It truly was an inhospitable evening, the kind where nobody in their right mind sets foot out of doors, but even so it was jarring to arrive in an empty restaurant. I mean completely empty: one table was occupied by a couple of members of staff, one tapping away on a laptop and the other staring into space, but otherwise it was as dead as they come. It’s hard to judge a restaurant when it’s completely devoid of atmosphere – especially when it’s not their fault – but for what it’s worth I quite liked the room, all muted colours, wood panels and twinkling lights. We were the only customers all night, although I was relieved to see a steady stream of Deliveroo pickups.

As I said, it’s quite a narrow menu and that’s the first thing that alerted me that it might not be generic stuff. Ten or so starters, labelled “Calcutta Street Food”, a dozen meat and fish curries and a good range of vegetarian dishes. Two biryanis, which by central Reading standards is a starvation diet. But also, everything just looked a little out of the ordinary – lots of meat on the bone, plenty of fish dishes and many things I’ve just not seen anywhere else. 

It’s a dry restaurant, although they don’t charge corkage if you want to bring a bottle, so I had a very enjoyable mango lassi and we shared a jug of tap water – the decadence! – while we made up our minds. One of the two staff members, who had the air of being the owner, came over and answered our questions about the menu, making suggestions and recommendations and pointing out specialities. I would say we played it fairly safe but fortune might favour the brave, especially if you like fish on the bone as the menu has rather a lot of that.

I really enjoyed both our starters. Their speciality is Calcutta Fish Fry, but instead we went for the fish pakora and I don’t feel like I missed out at all. It was an impressively generous helping of fish in a light and only slightly spicy coating, with just the right amount of crunch. A crazy amount of food for six pounds, and a real plate of joy. It came with a sort of acrid mustard dip which I started out actively disliking but ended up constantly dabbing more pakora into, unable to make up my mind. Mustard sauce and mustard gravy appear multiple times on the menu, so perhaps that too is a Kolkatan speciality.

Even better, and my star of the night, were the mutton chops. Now, the description here is misleading. The wait staff told me that rather than being chops they were in fact croquettes of minced mutton and potato, breaded and fried. That made me expect something a little more like the mutton rolls I’ve had before but what turned up was bigger, better and nothing like that at all. 

Instead they were huge bronzed spheres, looking like arancini on steroids, with a permacrust which gave way under pressure. But if they looked like arancini, what they resembled more than anything was a Scotch egg where the kitchen has dispensed with the annoying faff of including an actual egg. Instead you just got a warming filling of lightly spiced mutton, almost haggis-like, and the whole thing was quietly beautiful. It came with two dips – a thin, red, spicy one which I loved and another which I would put good money on being ketchup.

“That was really good, and just big enough” said Mike. “I’ve got room for the mains.” This is why Mike is thin, and I am not: those starters were generous, but if they’d been twice as big I’d have had no complaints. By this point in the evening we’d spent the princely sum of twelve pounds.

Could mains live up to that? They came pretty close. Mike wanted to try the tawa mutton curry, and it looked the part with a thick, brick red gravy. And the gravy was the absolute best bit. I loved it – deep and sticky, with thin ribbons of slow-cooked onion that suggested someone had taken their time over elements of our meal. If I’d just had that gravy with rice and bread I’d have been a happy camper, and in that respect it reminded me of some of the very best Indian food I’ve had.

And the mutton wasn’t bad, but I was expecting slow-cooked meat that broke into strands whereas this was leaner, more tender but perhaps slightly less interesting. We practically finished it all, though. I left one piece of mutton which was bouncier than I liked, but between us we polished off every molecule of sauce.

What I liked about the fish curry we also ordered was that although it looked decidedly similar to the mutton curry – you might have struggled to pick them apart in a lineup – the taste was distinctly different. This was a thinner, sharper sauce studded with nigella seeds, and big wodges of skin-on filleted fish that easily broke up into smaller pieces. Equally intriguing, although the mutton had the edge, but best of all I honestly felt like these two dishes had different start and end points. Obviously you never really know what goes on in a kitchen, but I didn’t feel like Adda Hut was using gallons of chopped tomatoes and packets of curry powder.

When the sauce is that good, you need to have vehicles for it. Steamed rice was – well, it was steamed rice, you don’t need me to tell you about that – but they also serve an interesting range of breads. No naan here, but paratha and puri stuffed with peas or lentils. We ordered the latter and I absolutely loved it with both curries – just a smear of lentil inside the bubble of bread, but still beautiful torn into pieces and loaded with the last of that gravy. Spice levels were slow and subtle, which is not the same as bland: I was still dabbing my nose by the end.

Our bill for all of that, including a service charge, came to just over forty-five pounds. And when the bill arrived I wished I’d tried more – given their desserts a chance, or ordered a cauliflower curry on the side. I felt bad that their one table of the evening hadn’t spent more money. But I suppose what I’m really saying is that I knew there were things I could order next time.

“How long have you been here?” I asked as the man I thought was the owner came to take our payment.

“Just over a year.”

“And how’s Woodley treating you?”

“Pretty well, actually. The weekends are manic.”

That relieved me, and we headed out into the miserable squall for a post dinner drink at Bosco Lounge – somehow going to the Bull & Chequers would have been a nostalgic step too far. Bosco Lounge was buzzing, still sending food to tables at half eight, and a large group at some nearby tables appeared to be doing some kind of art class. We had a debrief where we both concluded that Adda Hut was rather nice in its quiet, unshowy way and that we’d positively warmed to the place.

Later on I ventured back out into the relentlessly hammering rain to catch my bus, and the lights were still on in Adda Hut, although the chairs were stacked and they were giving up for the night. Bosco Lounge had felt fuller than it deserved to be, and when I passed Cozze it was still doing decent trade. By contrast Adda Hut felt quieter than it should have been, and that didn’t feel right.

I started this review with an apology to my Woodley readers, but I hope I have enough of them to give Adda Hut a try, even if I don’t necessarily manage to persuade the rest of you to head out in the direction of RG5. Because as I rushed past it brolly up, on that miserable evening, I found myself oddly grateful to this little outpost that had served me and my old friend some decent, interesting food on a night when many restaurants would have been eyeing the front door and waiting to close. A hard winter is coming, and not every restaurant will survive it. I very much hope Adda Hut does.

Adda Hut – 7.5
101 Crockhamwell Road, Woodley, RG5 3JP
07447 552987

https://www.addahut.co.uk

Restaurant review: Seasonality, Maidenhead

I get a fair few requests to recommend somewhere to eat in Reading. And when I do, I can usually come up with something: if you tell me how central it needs to be, your budget, what kind of food you like and how many of your party are vegans, or vegetarians, or coeliacs, I can find you somewhere suitable. It’s very rare that I’m completely stumped. 

But there is an exception to that, which I suppose you could best describe as the Special Occasion Restaurant. It used to be called fine dining, before that phrase became a term of abuse. But special occasion restaurant probably sums it up better – somewhere you want to go to spoil yourself, or treat someone, or celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, engagements or exam results. Yet even describing it that way makes me realise what a niche and endangered species it might be.

The thing is, a lot of restaurants can make an occasion feel special. It’s what they’re meant to do – the good ones, anyway. And isn’t special occasion dining a concept that has outlived its usefulness, as eating out becomes a special occasion, full stop? After all, we’ve staggered through two and a bit years of Bad Times, and summer has come to an end just in time for Even Worse Times to hove into view. I mark a special occasion these days by bunging the central heating on.

That said, it’s too early to say whether the latest coming storm will hit all of hospitality, or whether parts of the sector will fare better than others. Casual dining might be protected, in terms of demand, although it will have less of a buffer against rising costs. Chains may have enough of a war chest to see them through, as they did in the pandemic. But what about the top end? Is this a luxury people will forego, or will people ring-fence those kinds of meals? I imagine many restaurants, both new and well-established, are asking themselves those questions with some anxiety, especially with their peak trading period a month away.

I have to say, though, that even before the pandemic Reading never really boasted that sort of restaurant. In the town centre, the closest we had were places like Forbury’s (which, back when it was good, was very good), Cerise and London Street Brasserie. Only the latter is still going, although it’s not always felt quite special enough, I think. Further out of town we had Mya Lacarte which, in its early years, was terrific but faded away and closed. And I suppose we have Thames Lido. The location is special, if nothing else.

So for that kind of meal, people have always gone further afield – to London, which isn’t far in the scheme of things, or to one of the pretty pubs between here and London that trouble the Michelin and the Good Food Guides. Or out Henley way, for dinner at somewhere like Orwell’s: not Henley itself, mind you, as its upmarket restaurant Crockers closed its doors for the last time last month. “People won’t pay for fine dining but restaurants like Côte Brasserie do really well here” said the owner. “I have never been so badly disrespected as I was in Henley”: someone’s not going to get tapped up by the tourist board any time soon.

So where do I recommend, these days? Well, my go to used to be the Miller Of Mansfield in Goring – very pretty, terrific food and accessible by train if you all want to drink – but then it closed at the start of January (cause of death: greedy landlord, as usual). Since then I’ve struggled a bit, telling people there are better options further afield; the last time someone asked me, I suggested Goat On The Roof.

So that’s the thinking behind this week’s review – could Maidenhead’s Seasonality be a suitable option? The compact family-owned restaurant, run by husband and wife team Wesley and Francesca Smalley, got a rave review in the Guardian back in July and that, combined with the short sample menu on their website, made it look like an intriguing prospect. I never need much persuasion to hop on the Elizabeth Line, stopping only for a pre-prandial pale at A Hoppy Place, so I booked a table for Friday night with some anticipation. Could I finally find somewhere of a standard similar to places like Marmo and Caper & Cure without having to trek over to Bristol?

Seasonality was a short walk from the train station and, at first glance at least, was pretty unassuming. The dining room’s best feature were the big windows that I imagine let plenty of light in, but by nightfall, without that glow, the place was neutral and a little spartan. The only exception to the muted furniture was a weird-looking marble bar area, a little like a kitchen island, where you could perch side by side on bar stools and stare at the wall together: they tried to seat us there but I politely asked if perhaps we could have a conventional table instead.

The evening improved from there, and Seasonality do one thing of which I approve heartily, seating couples at adjacent corners rather than opposite one another so you both get a good view of the space. The place was quiet when we arrived, but by the end of our meal every table was occupied (except that weird kitchen island – another couple was seated there but made a break for a real table the moment one became vacant).

“It’s a bit dark” said Zoë, who is always better at critiquing the decor than I am. “I don’t understand why none of the lights are on over the window seats.”

The menu was a mixed bag – attractive but small. Based on the name (not a huge fan of the name, incidentally) I imagine the menu changes at least four times a year but I hope they tinker with it more frequently than that because otherwise it has decidedly limited replay value. Three starters, three mains, three desserts. A few snacks to start you off and a couple of sides. Starters just under a tenner, most mains twenty-five quid, desserts the same price as the starters. That’s your lot. 

On the plus side, that means that in this review you’ll read about the majority of what was on offer, but the minus is that if you enjoy the delicious agony of narrowing it down, or if you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, or find that the menu happens to contain one of your flat-out no-nos this might not be for you. I gave Zoë the first pick of each course, because manners, and I was delighted that in at least one case she went for the option I fancied least, giving me at least the illusion of choice.

The wine list was small and perfectly formed too – something like four reds and four whites, maxing out at forty quid. Ironically this is an area where I often think less is more, so I was happy with that and our bottle of Morgon, which was about thirty two pounds, had plenty of fruit and just enough about it to bridge the gap between the mains we went for. But before all that we started with a couple of things from the “snacks” section of the menu. The bread was lovely: two quadrants of a little loaf, still warm from a little gentle toasting and spot on with a pat of cultured butter (from Ampersand, who used to supply butter to Geo Café).

Better still was the other snack – sheets of lardo dotted with figs, grapes, sunflower seeds and micro herbs. This was the moment when I realised the evening would be nothing if not interesting. The salty whack of that lardo tempered and toyed with by a whole palette of other flavours and influences – the bright sweetness of fruit, the freshness of little leaves of mint – was a true delight, and unlike anything else I’ve tried this year. Besides, look at it: it’s like an edible Kandinsky. 

More fascination was to follow, not least because Zoë’s starter, which I’d dismissed as very much not my bag, knocked it out of the park. “Tunworth Cheese Soup” hadn’t appealed to me – a soup, made of cheese? – but more fool me: what turned up was a soothing bowl of lactic lusciousness, comforting but not too heavy, scattered with the crunchiest croutons and finished with verdant spots of olive oil. I used to have a friend who said she never ordered soup in a restaurant because every mouthful was exactly the same. Ordinarily I would have agreed with her, but with this masterpiece that was rather the point.

By comparison my starter felt like a good idea not executed right. On paper a potato and Jerusalem artichoke fondant with mushroom ketchup sounded right up my alley, but the flavours and textures of this dish were out of whack. Maybe it was the balance of the potato and the artichoke, but the whole thing had an oddly spongey feel to it without any crunch or crispness. The outside had no upside.

That made it feel a bit like a vegetarian fishcake, and there was nowhere near enough umami punch from the underpowered mushroom ketchup to lift it. Only the fennel, which I thought might be pickled, broke up the beige and reminded me of Bristol’s lovely Caper & Cure where I last had it. The starter we didn’t try was bergamot cured trout with oyster custard: only three options on the menu and I’d picked the wrong one.

Mains reassured me that my starter was a blip. Mine was a beautifully cooked piece of hake topped with tightly curled, muscular brown shrimp and served on top of a ribbolita of coco beans, croutons and cavolo nero – more broth than sauce but still absolutely bewitching stuff. I thought I detected more of that fennel chucked into the mix, which I found a little strange – the dish didn’t need it and with a menu so small it seemed odd to have duplication.

Similarly the “Cookham greens” we ordered as a side – a tranche of cabbage a bit like a hot wedge salad – was drizzled with a dressing or sauce that looked very similar to the one that had adorned my starter. But even with those minor quibbles, the hake was a great dish. Could I think of anywhere in Reading that served food like this? Not really.

Zoë’s main showed more of that imagination and skill and again, had one truly impressive component. Venison was really nicely done, although pairing it with radicchio made it feel, and look, surprisingly insubstantial. But what saved the day was the other element of the dish, a bowl of salty, savoury, spiced venison keema topped with – another genius touch – something called “crispy potato” which, to me, had the feel of puffed rice (unless of course it was meant to be puffed rice, in which case the potato had gone AWOL).

The forkfuls of this I was allowed might have been my absolute high point of the meal, yet even so those two separate parts, the fillet and the keema, didn’t cohere into a single dish so in that sense, enthralling though it was in places, it didn’t entirely work. Seasonality does a set lunch Wednesday to Friday for a ridiculously reasonable £18 and when I last checked it included a roe deer keema pie and hispi cabbage: now that I could eat every week for the rest of my life.

The wine list included a few dessert wines so once we’d finished our mains and our bottle of red we grabbed a Sauternes and a Pedro Ximenez (both impeccable) and ordered dessert. Again, Zoë had first choice and again she chose better – a slab of cake studded with hazelnuts, surrounded by a moat of deep chocolate sauce and crowned with a sphere of smooth, indulgent nut butter ice cream was just a superb plate of food. I wouldn’t necessarily thank you for a sticky toffee pudding but I might well beg you for one of these.

Despite seeing them mangled on Bake Off the other week (they’re a favourite of Brexiteer ghoul Prue Leith) I didn’t really fancy îles flottantes so I opted for the other option – the vicissitudes of a tiny menu again – the crème brûlée. Now, I must say that this is something I almost never order because I can nearly always find something I’d rather eat. 

It’s a blessing that I did, though, because it was the nicest I’ve had in ages. It had perfect texture, a wonderful note of tonka and a little freshness from the fig leaf – so much more to it than plain old vanilla – and a caramelised lid with a perfect snap and a wonderful burnt sweetness. I’d forgotten how enjoyable that first tap of the spoon can be, and everything that comes after. I also liked the palmier unceremoniously dumped on top of it but, again, it didn’t really go and felt like two desserts uneasily merged into one.

I haven’t talked much about service, but it was good and friendly if perhaps slightly lacking in polish. Little things like not taking cutlery away, or not bringing it out, along with just a general feeling that they were very agreeable but slightly on the green side. At one point the chef came out and talked to a few tables, which was wonderful to see, and I got the impression that a fair few of Seasonality’s customers are regulars. I can see why, too. 

Our bill – for four courses, a bottle of wine and a couple of dessert wines – came to a hundred and seventy pounds, which included a twelve and a half per cent service change. Grace Dent’s review in the Guardian said that a meal including drinks and service at Seasonality costs around forty pounds a head: either prices have rocketed in just over three months, or Grace Dent is on mushrooms. I know which my money’s on.

So does Seasonality do enough to become a serious prospect for Reading residents wanting to treat themselves? Yes and no. There are a fair few things in the latter column. The service needs more polish, the room is a little unspecial. The narrowness of the menu is going to be a big problem for some people, and I saw lots of little quirks that need ironing out – dishes that didn’t completely work, or didn’t come together, a certain amount of duplication which felt jarring across such a small menu.

Yet despite that Seasonality has a real charm and real skill that thoroughly won me over and made me want to come back sooner rather than later. There is imagination and talent on display in spades across that menu – in that phenomenal lardo dish, in the depths of that Tunworth soup, in my majestic hake or Zoë’s wonderful hazelnut cake. Those real highs, those fireworks, make me think that it would definitely do you a turn if you wanted to go somewhere different to celebrate – especially if you were getting there by train.

So although it’s not yet the finished article, I think Seasonality has more than enough showstoppers and jawdroppers to merit a visit. I keep thinking about the very best of what we had and trying to imagine anywhere in Reading that can quite match it, and the answer is that I can’t. The high points reminded me far more of places in Bristol than in Reading, and anybody that reads the blog will know how much of a compliment that is. So I will be recommending this a lot in future, because it proves something I’ve long suspected. You don’t need a special occasion to eat at some restaurants. Some restaurants are the special occasion in their own right, all by themselves.

Seasonality – 8.7
26 Queen Street, Maidenhead, SL6 1HZ
07507 714087

https://www.seasonality.co.uk

Bar review: Monkey Lounge

It wasn’t the most clement of evenings when I left my house and wandered through the streets of East Reading in search of Monkey Lounge, the subject of this week’s review. It was already dark at six o’clock, and there was a distinct, thin nip in the air – not see-your-breath cold, but close enough to remind you what see-your-breath cold feels like. It’s really not a reminder I wanted. And the leaves on the pavement of Erleigh Road, usually a golden autumnal carpet to rustle and crackle as you kick them up with your shoes, were a sad and sodden mulch, the last vestiges of a dreary day of stop and start rain. Make no mistake: summer is over, and autumn will be over soon, too. Where did 2022 go?

Monkey Lounge had been on my list for most of 2022 without ever quite reaching the top of it. It’s just along from Café Yolk, where Reading institution the Fruit Bat Bar used to be (I think I drank there once, over twenty years ago, waiting for my washing to finish in the launderette next door), but it opened back in 2020, the year when nobody in their right mind would have opened a bar or a restaurant. 

And yet it’s still going despite everything stacked against it. And that, for me at least, includes the name: it was originally called MNKY Lounge – yes, all capitals – but they’ve sensibly changed their name to the longer version. And no, they have nothing to do with the Lounge group which counts Caversham’s Alto and Woodley’s Bosco among its members (it’s a wonder the group hasn’t sent Monkey Lounge a strongly worded legal letter, to be honest).

Monkey Lounge first came to my attention properly at the start of the year when they sent me a message on Instagram. They said that they were well known in East Reading for their gourmet burgers and warm hospitality and wanted to know if one of my team wanted to try a complimentary meal there (bless them for thinking this blog is a team effort, but I’ve never been one of those saddoes who pretends to have multiple writers cobbling this together).

I declined, as I always do, but I did ask them to tell me more about their burgers. And that was that, because they never replied. But I’ve kept an eye on Monkey Lounge’s Instagram ever since. And I have to say, and I mean this with all kindness, that nothing about it would necessarily induce you to pop in for a meal. A lot of their Instagram feed is sports related, telling you which European football fixture you can watch next on their big screens, interspersed with the occasional picture of their food. 

And the food didn’t look bad, but it didn’t make you want to drop everything and make dinner plans. Although having said that the consistent message on Monkey Lounge’s social media, to be fair to them, is that they think they do Reading’s best burger. It’s a proud boast: the competition is fierce. It’s probably not true. But – and this was running through my mind as I dodged the giant puddles on London Road, and the cars planning to drench me with them – what if it was?

I must have walked past Monkey Lounge a hundred times over the past couple of years without going in. They’ve done a nice job of the outside – it’s covered, and extends across the front of The Wash Box, that launderette, and although there were no heaters it looked like a nice place for an al fresco pint. The big TV fixed to the wall was blaring out sports and the branding still said “MNKY LOUNGE”, which felt jarring (come to think of it, maybe they risk being sued by Donna Karan, too).

But the big surprise was the interior. It’s nothing fancy, a long thin space split into two rooms separated by a ramp, all high tables and stools. But despite that, the longer I spent in it the more I appreciated it. Sitting in the middle section, near the bar, I liked the buzz of it – it was actually pretty full when I got there just after six, and the whole thing almost had a speakeasy feel to it. I wondered how many people, like me, had traipsed along Erleigh Road without ever considering going in.

The bar had a good selection of gins and an interesting-looking cocktail menu, although the beer selection was slightly underwhelming: a couple of options by Camden, Beavertown’s Neck Oil and Corona on draft. They also do their own lager, but I asked the woman behind the bar who made it and she didn’t know. “We’re out of it anyway, I’m afraid” she said.

The menu, on a pegboard behind the bar, offered a small selection of mains, half a dozen burgers and a few more pasta dishes. It was almost compact enough to raise my hopes, but not quite: could they really do all that well? Did their slow-cooked lamb shank really have nothing to do with Brakes Brothers? As I went up to the bar to place my order, I did so more in hope than expectation but I decided to order what I’d been told Monkey Lounge was good at and let the chips – Cajun fries, in this case – fall where they may.

But before I did that, something happened which slightly changed my mind. Because I saw one of the wait staff walk past my table on the way to someone else’s carrying a board piled with chicken wings. And I have to say, they looked good. Big, rugged things, with real substance. And so, out of nowhere, I decided to order them along with my meal. The menu gives you a choice of half a dozen or a dozen, and for an extra pound fifty you can have them tossed in Monkey Lounge’s signature hot sauce.

“Just how hot is it?” I asked the guy behind the bar.

“Oh, it’s pretty hot. Not too hot, if you know what I mean, but it’s definitely hot.”

None the wiser, I decided to go for it. In for a penny, in for a pounding as my other half is wont to say.

Everything arrived together, around twenty minutes later – a good wait, an encouraging one. And if I have one recommendation for you above all others if you come to Monkey Lounge – and you might – it’s to pay their menu respect by ordering your dishes one after another so you give each of them your full attention. Because, as I was to discover, everything merited it. Far more so, in fact, than I expected.

Take my burger, for instance. I’d ordered the Monkey Burger (even with all letters intact, the name of the place is a problem), and it was difficult to tell at first glance, or from the picture below, whether it was going to be any good. But from the first bite I knew I was on to a winner. I’m afraid I’m going to praise Monkey Lounge’s burger by telling you all the things it wasn’t. It wasn’t too big or too sloppy. It wasn’t too smooth or too homogeneous. It wasn’t too bouncy, or crumbly.

That might sound like faint praise, but I promise it isn’t. With burgers I often notice what the restaurant has done wrong, but being unable to find fault with their burger I could move on to all the things I liked. The texture was perfect – reassuringly coarse but keeping its shape, with a nicely caramelised crust. The seasoning was spot on without being overwhelming, and overall the impression was a burger made of good beef and not much else. It wasn’t pink, as is the fashion elsewhere, but it was none the worse for it. 

And everything that came with it was just right – a good slab of salty back bacon, well cooked, not wan and rubbery. Decent cheese – cheddar at a guess, rather than the plastic American stuff. Good burger sauce, crisp iceberg. And long transverse slices of pickle, adding just enough crunch and acidity. The best burger in Reading? This might be news to you as much as me, but it was up there.

The chips exceeded expectation, too. No restaurant makes its own chips, unless it’s Honest (or possibly the Lyndhurst) but that really doesn’t matter as long as you buy in the good stuff and cook it well. Again, Monkey Lounge did exactly that. And again, that’s a rare enough occurrence that it deserves to be mentioned. They were crisp and fluffy, none of them were manky or offputting and a little dusting of Cajun spice lent another dimension (although it would have been lovely if they’d crumbled some feta on them – I’ve tried that combination elsewhere, and it’s next level).

Just to nit pick, and because it’s the only nit I could pick, one of Reading’s burgers deserves a better bun than this. It looked the part, all bronzed and speckled with sesame, but it wasn’t up to the task of containing the burger so every bite just pushed the filling out past the edge. A little thin, too, but replacing it with something more up to the task wouldn’t be difficult. In the end I ended up eating the last of my burger with a knife and fork, like an awful human, but it was worth it.

The wings were pretty decent too. They were, as I’d already seen, hefty specimens with a thick coating – maybe a little too thick – but the meat underneath was yielding. But the winner here was the Monkey Lounge’s hot sauce, which I loved – a proper hot, sour buffalo sauce with a good kick that built over time. If I was working there and someone asked me what it was like, I’d say that it will make your nose run and, by the end of your meal, your eyes water. Possibly marginally more helpful than pretty hot, not too hot but definitely hot, but then I suppose everybody’s mileage may vary.

My burger cost a tenner. The wings – half a dozen of them – cost seven pounds. When I’d finished I had another sip of my Camden Hells and paused for a moment. Had I just had a rather good meal, at Monkey Lounge? It did feel like it. Originally I was going to leave it there and slope off into the night, but the staff were so lovely – asking if I wanted anything else, showing genuine interest in what I made of the food – that I went up to order dessert.

“That was great” I said. “I really enjoyed that burger.”

“Thanks!” said the barman. “It’s not what you expect to find here, is it?”

“Do you make them yourself?”

“Yeah, we do. I don’t think they make the chicken burgers, but the beef burgers are made fresh in the kitchen every day.”

There it was. Ten months after I’d first asked on Instagram, I finally had my answer from Monkey Lounge. There’s too much hyperbole on social media, so you get lots of hucksters calling their dishes famous or legendary, when they’re nothing of the kind, or saying that they do the best such-and-such in town when that’s just wishful thinking. But finding out that a boast like that isn’t a million miles from the truth: what are the chances?

Oh, for completeness’ sake, I did have dessert. It was a red velvet cheesecake, so essentially a cheesecake with added red velvet sponge, topped with a layer of solid chocolate. And however indecent that sounds, funnily enough, is pretty much how indecent it was. They may well have bought it in, as they bought in the chips, but it was so enjoyable that I didn’t care, this strange megamix of two desserts rolled into one, with a gorgeous, thick, sugary biscuit base. They even brought me a little ramekin of double cream, and I loved them for that. This dessert cost four pounds fifty.

Own up, you didn’t have high hopes for this review. And that’s fine: I didn’t either. And yet here we are, close to the end, probably all a little dazed and incredulous. But it’s good that life still has the power to confound – imagine how depressing the world would be if you already knew how everything would turn out, and the ennui that would ensue. But at the end of it all I walked home, back down the Erleigh Road, about twenty eight pounds lighter and positively delighted.

And I realised what Monkey Lounge reminded me of, more than anything. Back when I used to go to Prague on holiday with my old friend Dave, there would always be an evening where he dragged me to a sports bar so he could watch Liverpool lose to some team or other – this was in the Noughties, when they did that a fair amount.

And if you could find somewhere with a big screen, cold beer and something like ribs or a burger to fuel the rest of the evening you could be very happy indeed (appropriately enough, Liverpool were playing the night I ate at Monkey Lounge). And believe me, it’s a compliment when I say that Monkey Lounge rather reminded me of nights like that. I wish their beer selection was better, and the closer I get to fifty the more I prefer chairs to stools, but in the scheme of things that’s all minor.

I’ve always found it odd the way the English differ from our American cousins. They like to say things are amazing, or awesome. We, conditioned no doubt by far lower expectations, prefer to use a sliding scale of badness. So things can be very bad, or rather bad, or bad. And then, at the more favourable end of the spectrum, they gallop along from not all bad to not half bad to not bad, really not bad or, if we’re really raving with enthusiasm, not at all bad.

And I fear I’ve rather pulled that trick with Monkey Lounge by describing all the mistakes they didn’t make and the traps they didn’t fall into. That says more about me than it does about them, and they deserve a better peroration than this. I’m sorry about that. But honestly, I enjoyed it a great deal. It wasn’t bad at all: not in any respect.

Monkey Lounge – 7.7
30 Erleigh Road, RG1 5NA
0118 9664222

https://monkeylounge.uk

Restaurant review: The Imperial Kitchen

I’ve had meals in some weird and wonderful places in the course of writing this blog, but I’m not sure many can top spending a night in Genting Casino, the gambling den near Rivermead. Getting off the bus just outside the Moderation, I trudged down the Richfield Road with a vague feeling that I wasn’t sure where I was going and no idea what to expect. On the other side of the road, I spotted the glowing lights of a purgatorial Toby Carvery. Some consolation, I thought: at least it was unlikely that I was about to visit the worst restaurant in the neighbourhood.

Inside the casino, at the front desk, I handed over my passport and filled out some forms – you have to do that to become a member, to be able to eat here. The rather taciturn man behind the counter seemed to take delight in drawing this process out for as long as possible. Had I ever been to their Southampton casino, he asked. When I said no, he seemed nonplussed. Was I sure? I did try to explain that I’d never been to Southampton full stop, but it took a full five minutes before he was convinced that I had some weird south coast doppelgänger, rather than being part of some sort of Oceans Eleven style conspiracy to defraud multiple branches of the Genting casino chain.

By this point my friend Sophie had turned up, and went through the same palaver. The main thing I was struck by was that her passport – full of stamps and visas from her many work trips to Eastern Europe, spoke of a life more fully lived than mine. Once we were given our cards – which you don’t have to swipe or seemingly ever use again – we were free to wander to the restaurant.

The inside of the Genting Casino is a very strange place. With no natural light and the phosphorescent hum of slot machines, you could almost be anywhere at any time. It could be a Wednesday afternoon or the small hours of a Sunday morning and you’d be none the wiser: it’s open until 4am, and even on a Monday night there was a steady stream of punters shuffling to the card tables. You could imagine stepping outside and finding yourself on the Strip in baking heat, as opposed to on the edge of an industrial estate in that part of the world neither Caversham nor west Reading wants to claim as its own.

Not that the place was Casino Royale, by any stretch of the imagination. I had turned up shabby, my default sartorial choice, but I didn’t feel especially underdressed. The place has a dress code – no shirts, no football shirts, although a lot of the big screens were showing the football – but nobody looked like they’d made much effort, with the exception of my dining companion. Many of the customers were Chinese, which explains a lot about why I found myself there in the first place.

So why was I at the Genting Casino, and why had I dragged Sophie there to eat with me on a Monday evening? Well, it all comes down to a throwaway Tweet a couple of weeks ago from Clay’s. “Another amazing meal at the Imperial Kitchen located inside the Genting Casino” it said. “It’s definitely the best Chinese food we have in Reading.” It went on to rave about the crackling on their belly pork, and the photos looked good – a huge spread of dishes, clearly for a big group.

I remember Nandana told me once that back when Clay’s was opening on London Street and the builders were doing their work she ate at Bakery House and Namaste Kitchen all the time. Well, from the sound of that Tweet she’d clearly found an equivalent close to their new site to have dinner at after a hard day of supervising. So when I read that I had to go and try it for myself: when the owner of one of Reading’s best restaurants says that a restaurant is even better than another of Reading’s best restaurants, how can you not?

The restaurant itself is a fairly beige and anonymous space, up some steps and set away from the card tables. Certainly tasteful and muted, but not desperately exciting, with little splashes of colour from the paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling. When we got there it was doing a reasonable trade, though not absolutely rammed, but we were solemnly told we could choose from two tables (although none of the ones we weren’t allowed to sit at were subsequently occupied). But all that said it was a pleasant, and curious place to have dinner. It does feel separate from the casino, which makes sense, but the rubbernecker in me wished it hadn’t been.

One tip from Nandana was to ask for the Chinese version of the menu, and that was the first challenge because our waitress brought us the conventional menu. Now, at this point I must confess that if my interactions with her were a bit awkward that wasn’t entirely her fault. She had a strong accent, and was wearing a mask, but to complicate matters I was pretty deaf in one ear, the consequence of a heavy not-Covid cold I was only just recovering from. That lent proceedings a certain pantomime air as I lost count of the number of times she didn’t understand me and I didn’t understand that she didn’t understand me. How we got through the evening I’ll never know: if Sophie found it hilarious (and why wouldn’t she?) she was too civilised to let on.

So for instance when I asked for the Chinese version of the menu she effectively said “are you sure? Lots of our Chinese customers order from this menu” and when I insisted it felt like she was peeved to have been overruled. But when it arrived I knew we’d done the right thing. The conventional menu moves around too much, with a section of Thai curries, some “curry samosa”, crispy seaweed and the conventional Anglicised dishes you can get anywhere. By contrast, the proper menu doesn’t waste time with that but dives into the jellyfish salad and the chicken feet.

“It’s closer to the Kungfu Kitchen menu, isn’t it?” I said, seeing some dishes I recognised.

“It is” said Sophie, “but Jo’s menu has a lot more offal on it.” I knew this was true: I’d gone to Kungfu Kitchen with Sophie and her fiancé once and they’d made a beeline for the gizzards, so to speak.

“Well there is this: Deep Fried Red Fermented Bean Curb Intestines. How does bean curd have intestines?”

“Maybe it’s something to do with the wokerati we’ve heard so much about.”

Anyway, it was an extensive menu and I could see why Nandana had told me it was best to go in a big group. It didn’t bother with starters so got straight to the point, and the dishes ranged from about ten to twenty pounds. On any day I could easily have chosen three or even four dishes and this review would have been completely different, but I’d taken some recommendations from Nandana ahead of the visit, so we largely stuck to those.

This in itself caused some difficulties, I think. Nandana’s order was the order of someone who knew their food well, whereas the waitress took one look at me and reached the conclusion, not entirely unreasonably, that I might have chosen by closing my eyes and sticking a pin in the menu. One dish in particular, the clay pot chicken with salt cod, prompted an intervention. I was too deaf to understand it, but I think it boiled down to are you absolutely sure? This is a very authentic dish. Unable to even hear my own voice clearly I just boomed that it would be okay and she wandered off, probably thinking that I was nuts.

Another strange thing about The Imperial Kitchen is that you order your food at the table but they don’t serve you drinks. Instead you have to wander off to the adjacent bar, order there and pay as you go. They have an extensive gin menu (their drinks list refers to it as a “Gindex”) so both of us tried something from there – a Jinzu for me, with notes of yuzu and sake which I rather enjoyed and a gin from Kent’s Chapel Down for Sophie. “It’s very reasonable, actually” she said, bringing back a couple of nicely dressed and finished G&Ts. “A double and a single came to twelve pounds.”

The first dish to come out was the one Nandana enthused about in that Tweet. The Imperial Kitchen’s barbecue dishes are on a special section of the menu, and only available Sunday to Tuesday. Initially we’d ordered barbecued duck and belly pork but while Sophie was at the bar the waitress came over and brusquely told me that they’d run out of duck, so pork it was. First things first: Nandana was absolutely right about the belly pork. It was braised to glossy softness, all of the fat smooth and moreish; I often find an overdose of fat in pork belly offputting, but this was marvellous. And the crackling on the belly pork was truly magnificent – feather-light and hyper-crisp, an impressive technical feat.

“This is so good” said Sophie, “and there’s no danger of doing your teeth any damage”. As someone who’s lost fillings to a slice of bread more often than I care to remember, I was with her on that. The barbecued pork was perhaps more workaday, but it had that good sweet-savoury coating and a decent fibrous chew. I liked it, but what it really did was make me miss Fidget & Bob’s splendid char siu, back in the day. With both dishes, I found myself wishing they’d been hotter: they were on the warm side when they arrived but they seemed to cool down very quickly indeed. Eighteen pounds for this lot – not cheap, I guess, but if I knew somewhere that did this as a bar snack I might well stump up the cash.

The beef ho fun was more variable. I find the texture of beef can often be problematic in Chinese restaurants, but these were big, tender pieces of gorgeous beef and they went well with the coated, flat noodles. But aside from a slight hint of smoke and sesame, I found it curiously underpowered. Had I accidentally picked a really subtle dish, or was the kitchen dialling down the contrast? Some of this was left on the plate when we finished – possibly from politeness on Sophie’s part, but indifference on mine.

Last but not least, another dish Nandana had raved about, the clay pot chicken and aubergine with salt fish. It looked beautiful – that deep, shiny sauce hugging pieces of chicken thigh and big claggy cubes of aubergine – and spooning it onto the rice I had that feeling that I was about to eat something special.

“You can see why they warned us off it though”, said Sophie. “That taste of fish is probably jarring for English customers – it has that taste of sardines, or anchovies, that they probably struggle to get their head around with chicken.”

“We do seem to have a problem with fish in this country, don’t we?”

“Apart from salmon, the fish for people who don’t like fish.”

Sophie may have been right, but for me this dish fell between two stools. The note of fish, which was a little like sardines come to think of it, did stick out like a sore thumb. But really, I wanted more from it: I love anchovy and the savoury depth it lends to a dish, and I love salt cod, but this dish didn’t have the courage of its convictions. What was especially odd was that occasionally I had a mouthful that was pure, concentrated flavour: one with shedloads of vibrant ginger, another with that deep, dark saltiness that was missing elsewhere. But overall I was surprised that a dish with so much going for it on paper tasted of so little. I liked the chicken – chicken thigh is always a winner – but masses of mulchy aubergine with nothing to bring it all to life made it a slog. Had they toned it down because they thought we’d ordered it by mistake? Why was everything so well-behaved?

In some respects, I wish I’d been in a bigger group so I could have staged a many-pronged assault on every section of the menu. But on the other hand, I hadn’t had a proper catch up with Sophie in as long as I can remember, so she ordered some tea (it turns out that they do hot drinks, just not alcoholic ones) and we chatted about everything and nothing in that weird, timeless space as the gamblers wandered past, just out of sight.

“The tea’s nothing special” said Sophie, who knows about these things, but the staff kept coming and topping up the hot water and were generally really lovely. An older lady came over and was especially interested in how we’d found our meal, and I wondered if she was the owner. We settled up and our bill – for the food and the tea – came to about fifty-two pounds, not including tip. Trying to get them to take a tip by card was challenging, so it’s just as well Sophie was carrying cash.

“I think a lot of people would be put off coming here by having to become a member. Ed” – that’s Sophie’s fiancé – “certainly wouldn’t want to be giving his data to a casino.”

“I know what you mean. I’ve only ever been to one before, and I think that was a stag night.” I don’t have good luck with stag nights: I once had to feign illness to get out of paintballing and zorbing in a single weekend in Bournemouth, a place I’m not falling over myself to revisit.

“The weird thing is that casinos often have really good restaurants” said Sophie. “When I went to Las Vegas I stayed in the Bellagio. They make so much money on the casino that the hotel and the restaurant are often good value, as a way of keeping you there.”

I’d never been to Vegas, so I lowered the tone by telling Sophie that I’d watched Showgirls recently. It was the only contribution I could think of (and if you’ve never seen Showgirls, don’t: I have a soft spot for films that are so bad they’re good, but Showgirls is so bad it’s worse).

“So what’s your verdict on this place?” I said, trying to rescue matters.

“It’s okay, but I wouldn’t choose it over Kungfu Kitchen. And if I was having friends down I’d still take them to Jo’s.”

Sophie has summed it up so perfectly that I could have ended the review there. But as Sophie slipped into a black cab (“I’m not walking home down Cow Lane late at night” she said, quite sensibly) and I ambled back into town I found myself thinking about it some more. Because The Imperial Kitchen, despite its rather Day-Glo setting, is polite and restrained. Even eating off the Chinese menu, it felt like everything had been toned down. The clientele is largely Chinese, but if some of them order off the more mainstream menu maybe that tells its own story about how adventurous the diners are.

And that’s what made me think about the chaos and charisma of Jo, and of her crazy little restaurant by the university. Because she has created an establishment very much in her image: unapologetic, authentic and unrepentantly Jo. And that reflects everywhere: in the menu, in the offal, in the “no, you don’t want that, you should order this” approach and, more than anything, in the foot to the floor, balls to the wall flavours that feel like a paradigm shift from any Chinese restaurant you’ve eaten in anywhere else.

The Imperial Kitchen might suit some people, but I found it too nice, too shy, too – and I’m afraid I can’t think of a better way of putting this – not-Jo. The best Chinese food in Reading? For me, that position is taken, and it will take more than this to knock Kungfu Kitchen off its throne. Still, it could have been worse. I could have ended up in the Toby Carvery.

The Imperial Kitchen – 7.0
18 Richfield Avenue, RG1 8PA
0118 9391811

https://www.gentingcasinos.co.uk/casinos/genting-casino-reading/#restaurant