Takeaway review: La’De Kitchen

This week’s review owes a big debt of thanks to Mansoor, a long-time reader of the blog who came to the first ever ER readers’ lunch over four years ago. He came on his own and very kindly, in reference to some of the conversations we’d had on Twitter, brought me a blue Toblerone as a present. 

For those of you who’ve never had one, the blue Toblerone has salted, caramelised almonds in it and is, for my money, the finest of all the fruits of the Tobler tree. You can only get them in airports (and it’s better to get them in the UK, where they’re usually three for a tenner), and for a long time I had a decent stockpile in my basement, because I was lucky enough to go on a fair few holidays in 2019. My failure to replenish it before the lockdown this time last year is one of my many Covid regrets; we finished the last one at some point last summer, and it was as tangible a reminder as any I could think of that we were, quite literally, going nowhere fast.

I wasn’t sure whether that first readers’ lunch might be a bit much for Mansoor – he was at a boisterous corner of that long table in Namaste Kitchen – but I’m happy to say that he kept coming along and these days brings his delightful wife Zahra with him. Mansoor told me at one of the lunches that he had used the blog to find places to take Zahra for dinner back when they were courting – which was lovely to hear, but also highlights just how long I’ve been doing this for. But it’s obviously worked for them, and they’re always a welcome presence at the events I used to organise, pre-Covid. 

“Food is how I keep my wife happy”, Mansoor once said to me and, speaking as someone whose moods are largely managed through the judicious application of calories, I can understand that completely. Over the years, Mansoor has returned the favour by giving me lots of excellent recommendations in return – he was the one who introduced me to Reading’s best samosas at Cake&Cream down the Wokingham Road and recommended that I try the chapli kebab when I went to the now-defunct Afghan

He has also been telling me to try Rizouq, on the same strip, for as long as I can remember – I never did, because you couldn’t really eat in there, but now I’m doing takeaway reviews it’s firmly on my list to try before this lockdown comes to an end. And at the end of January, when I announced that I was going to start reviewing takeaways, he was very insistent that I should try La’De Kitchen, the subject of this week’s review. “Best Turkish grill I’ve had in the U.K.”, he said. “It might be an 8 on the ER scale.” That was all the encouragement I needed.

That said, I’d heard murmurs about La’De Kitchen for much of last year. They’re in an interesting position, because they have restaurants in Woodley and Pangbourne so can, in theory, cover both east and west Reading (there’s a third La’De Kitchen – the original, I believe – in Muswell Hill: a good omen, because I imagine that part of London is home to quite a demanding clientele). A lot of the good feedback I’d heard related to the Pangbourne branch, but Mansoor was talking about the Woodley one. As it was the closest to my house, that’s the one I ordered from one weekday evening.

La’De Kitchen is on JustEat but you can order direct through their website, which I did because I wanted them to get as much of the money as possible. Their menu is wide, varied and enormously tempting: a mixture of hot and cold mezze; classics from the charcoal grill and güveç (Turkish casseroles). There are also pide, or Turkish pizza, along with a few more European dishes – some Italian pizzas and a couple of steak options, both also cooked on the charcoal grill. 

I’ve heard some feedback that La’De kitchen is on the pricey side, but I couldn’t decide whether it was – most mezze dishes hover around the seven pound mark, and that feels reasonable enough, but some of the mains creep close to twenty pounds which I can see might feel steep for a takeaway. I guess part of the problem here is that for most people, the obvious yardsticks are Bakery House and Tasty Greek Souvlaki, both of which are reasonably priced almost to a fault. So, the question is: does La’De Kitchen represent a premium experience, or is it just spenny? 

In a run which will probably jinx my delivery experience over the weeks ahead, for the third week running my food arrived efficiently, quicker and – crucially – hot. I ordered at about twenty to seven and forty minutes later a man was at my door holding out my bag. By my reckoning it’s just over a ten minute drive from Woodley, so I thought that was pretty good going. And the bag was absolutely chock full of food: initially I thought I might have over-ordered, and by the end of the meal I was certain of it. 

Everything was in recyclable cardboard boxes, and the attention to detail was spot on – everything that was meant to be hot was, and everything that was meant to arrive chilled had survived  the journey without warming up. We decanted some of it onto dinner plates and took the rest through to the living room to be divvied up when we’d cleared enough space.

Not only did I follow Mansoor’s advice when I chose the subject of this week’s review, but I also let him guide me on most of the things we ordered. The first of these was the pistachio adana, a lamb kofte studded with crushed pistachio. As a first forkful of the meal it was almost impossible to beat. I’m a sucker for a lamb kofte, whether it’s from Kobeeda Palace, or Tasty Greek Souvlaki or Bakery House, but La’De Kitchen’s rendition was so good that it was almost hyper-real. It was packed with dense, coarse, beautiful lamb, to the extent that it made its competition feel pappy and padded out by comparison. 

One of my mother’s constant complaints about lamb in restaurants is that it never seems to taste “lamby” enough. I wasn’t sure I knew what she meant, but having sampled the depth of flavour in La’De Kitchen’s adana I am beginning to understand. If there’s one dish I would order again, it would be this one: and the strip of pita underneath which had soaked up all those juices (and some stray fragments of pistachio) was a wonderful bonus. This went particularly well with the yoghurt and mint dip they provided – unsurprisingly, you could say – and slightly less well so with the chilli sauce, which felt more like a salsa. A blackened chilli rested on top of the kebab: a very fiery one, as I was to discover.

Mansoor’s other recommendation was music to my ears. Turkish, Greek and Lebanese restaurants often specialise in shish kebabs and it can be a challenge to get flavour and moisture into chicken breast, to the extent that I often give them a miss in favour of kofte, shawarma or gyros. But La’De Kitchen’s chicken kulbasti kebabs – chicken thighs that had luxuriated on the charcoal grill – were truly gorgeous. Herbed, spiced, marinated and expertly cooked to have the char and tenderness I was hoping for. Chicken thighs can be difficult to get right, but thigh meat is always better than breast meat in the hands of the right kitchen, and this was astounding. 

Both these kebabs cost sixteen pounds, which made them among the cheapest mains on the menu, and I thought they were very good value. You had a choice of chips, rice or bulgur rice as an accompaniment, so we tried out a couple of those between us. The chips looked limp coming out of the box but were actually very decent – dusted with herbs and with plenty of flavour, even if the texture was slightly lacking. And I liked the bulgur rice, nutty pearls rendered a rich red with tomato. There was also a salad, full of ribbons of red onion: I would have liked it to be better dressed, but perhaps it wouldn’t have travelled so well if it had been.

Octopus is one of my favourite things to eat, and a dish I always associate with holidays, so when I saw it on the hot mezze menu I had to try it. That smell of the charcoal practically leaped out of the box when I opened it, and there it was, that glorious fractal coil. There’s a skill to cooking octopus, too – too much and it can be dry and too brittle right at the end, not enough and the whole thing is too rubbery. 

La’De Kitchen didn’t put a foot wrong with theirs, and within a few mouthfuls I was sitting by a harbour (in my mind at least) with a cold Efe in front of me and the sun beating down. Zoë had never tried octopus before, and although an unworthy part of me was hoping she wouldn’t like it so I could eat it all to myself, when she loved it as much as I did that made me even happier. It’s always better after all, if you can, to escape with an accomplice. This starter was on the expensive side at a tenner, but it was worth every penny just to feel like I’d travelled somewhere, even if in a small way.

Finally, I had really wanted to try the hummus kavurma, a dish I often order at other restaurants. It should come as no surprise by now to find that La’De Kitchen’s version was exemplary. The houmous was a lovely texture – coarse, but not too gloopy, with just the right amount of tahini. And the soft umami nuggets of lamb were resting on top just waiting to be scooped up with pita. I have to mention La’De Kitchen’s pitas, too, because they were stunning: full of air, edible balloons, with a scattering of black and white sesame seeds and a pleasing glaze to them. They were hugely generous, and they gave us three of them; eating them made me wonder what La’De Kitchen’s pizza would be like.

Mansoor had also told me that I needed La’De Kitchen’s pistachio cheesecake in my life, so after an appropriate period of rest and digestion had taken place I fished it out of the fridge. Desserts haven’t exactly been a feature of my takeaway reviews so far, so I was very happy indeed to get to try one. It was good but not great – the centre was very cold and much harder than the rest, in a way that suggested this dessert had previously been frozen. I might have been spoiled by the lovely cheesecake they sell at Geo Cafe, by the very talented Anabel of Reading Loves Cheesecake, but this was a little too sweet and a bit too insubstantial for me. 

The base, which didn’t go all the way to the edge, was sponge rather than biscuit and tasted boozy to me, like the bottom of a tiramisu (and in fact La’De Kitchen also sell a tiramisu, so maybe they share a component). Some more chocolate chips would have been nice, too, but then I’m not sure I’ve never seen a dessert that couldn’t be improved with more chocolate chips. Your mileage may vary.

Dinner for two, which included more food than we could sensibly eat in one sitting – not that that stopped us – came to pretty much bang on sixty pounds. That may seem on the high side, but La’De Kitchen don’t charge for delivery and we could easily have ordered less food and have been every bit as happy – provided that octopus still made the cut, anyway.

As you can probably tell from this review, I was very impressed with La’De Kitchen. For one of the first times since I started reviewing takeaway food, I realised some of the things I miss out on by eating new food in this way. It’s lovely to eat dinner on your lap watching Interior Design Masters With Alan Carr, and it’s lovely not to have to brave the rain or leave the house wearing trousers that don’t have an elasticated waist. But even though La’De Kitchen’s food was terrific, it made me think how much I would have liked to eat it in their restaurant, taking my time over everything, getting through a bottle of a great Turkish red and catching up with good friends. And I imagine La’De Kitchen’s food could be very easy on the eye in the restaurant, far nicer than my very limited plating skills make it look.

But to make too much of that would be to be one of those people who looks at good takeaway food and says “I’ll come in to try it when they reopen”, because these restaurants need our help to make sure they can reopen. And La’De Kitchen, as much as any restaurant I’ve reviewed this year, absolutely deserve that support. There is nothing revolutionary about what they do, arguably, but they do it superbly. And actually, I don’t think Reading has ever really had a good Turkish restaurant: I’ve always had to head to Didcot, to the amazing Zigana’s Turkish Kitchen. Zigana does positively life-changing lamb chops: the fat is even more prized than the meat. 

I introduced a friend to Zigana a couple of years ago, and she and her husband regularly went there to eat before Covid. He orders the lamb chops – just the chops, no chips or rice or garnish – and ploughs through them without a care in the world, in his happy place. After I’d finished eating my meal, I messaged my friend. I’ve just eaten the most delicious Turkish food. I said. The restaurant has a Pangbourne branch that could probably deliver to you. I haven’t tried their lamb chops, but I reckon they’ll be excellent. It felt like the right thing to do: passing on recommendations is what this blog is all about. And thanking people for recommendations, too. So thank you, Mansoor. See you at the next readers’ lunch?

La’De Kitchen
61-63 Crockhamwell Road, Woodley, Reading, RG5 3JP (also in Pangbourne)
0118 9692047

https://www.ladekitchen.com
Order via: Direct through the restaurant, or via JustEat

Takeaway review: The Lyndhurst

It’s been a month since I started publishing takeaway reviews, and the feedback has been fantastic: I really appreciate all the social media posts, comments, Retweets and emails from people who have discovered new places to order from as a result. It’s lovely, too, that so many people have told me that reading a new review every week makes life feel a tiny step closer to normality. I feel that way too, and by my reckoning we have at least another six more reviews to look forward to after this one before lockdown is eased to the extent where we can all eat outside once more, assuming that the weather – and those pesky virus variants – play ball.

I said that I would predominantly focus on restaurants I haven’t previously reviewed, which means that the last month has been one leap into the unknown after another – some very good, some terrific and some best forgotten (I actually had a very nice email from the Forbury Hotel inviting me in for a comped meal when they reopen and asking me to take my review down in return: you can probably guess how that discussion went). 

By contrast, this week’s review is a return to an old favourite, and about as close to a home fixture as you can get on this blog. The Lyndhurst, the gastropub on Watlington Street, is the closest restaurant to my house, and by my reckoning I’ve probably ordered takeaway from them more in the last year than from anywhere else. And that means that I do have to add a caveat before we get under way: the team at the Lyndhurst have hosted one of my readers’ lunches, so I am not anonymous to them. 

Even so, I’ve seen enough of their customer service, and looked enviously at enough photographs of their dishes taken by other people, to be confident that I don’t get special treatment as a paying customer. In fact, the Lyndhurst is so modest about its cooking that I fully expect them to be amazed to see themselves featured in the blog this week. It frustrates me that they never shout as much about their food as I’d like them to, so I’ll just have to do it for them.

So why the Lyndhurst this week? Their delivery has always felt a bit of a well-kept secret. They started it in the summer and they continued to offer it on the side when they reopened as a restaurant in July, although it never felt like something they promoted very strongly. I made regular use of it in the second half of last year, and had emotional reunions with many of my favourite dishes: the phenomenal chilli beef nachos, their superb katsu chicken burger, that Scotch egg. 

But the Lyndhurst never stayed still for long, so new dishes were always cropping up. There was a chicken dish with a stunning morel sauce that blew me away, another with both pork belly and presa Iberica which livened up several wintry Saturday evenings in front of Strictly and a take on poutine featuring confit duck that had instant classic written all over it. But when Reading went into Tier 4, followed swiftly by a third national lockdown, the Lyndhurst decided to take a break. January passed without a peep, and I found myself worrying about what the future held for them.

Worrying unduly, as it turned out: at the start of February the Lyndhurst announced that it was returning for takeaways. The menu looked good, too, with the old favourites still in place – burgers, fish and chips, the legendary nachos – but supplemented with brand new dishes many of which, like chicken tinga tacos, steak arepas and feijoada, showcased a new Latin American direction. 

That in itself might have been enough to prompt me to review them, but the clincher was that gradually over the last few weeks the Lyndhurst have been ramping up their delivery options. Initially the pub only delivered to the surrounding areas, but when they relaunched on the 4th February they specified that they would deliver within a mile of the pub. Last week that delivery radius was extended to two miles, which opens it up as a realistic option to people across Reading. 

I live just down the road, so I’ve been able to try their food all along, but I thought it was time to review it so everybody else could see what they might have been missing out on. Besides, that whole modesty thing (again) means that most people probably don’t know that the Lyndhurst delivers that far afield. The pub has started mentioning it, almost as if in passing, but sometimes on social media talking isn’t enough and you have to do a little more: not the hyperactive look-at-me-look-at-me style of some businesses, but at least raising your voice somewhat.

The Lyndhurst serves food on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and on Sunday lunchtimes. I booked in a delivery for Saturday evening relatively early in the week and spent a few days idly looking at the menu, trying to work out whether to go for the tried and tested or whether, in the spirit of all those leaps into the unknown, I should pick dishes I knew less well. But I didn’t finalise my order until Saturday lunchtime, because the Lyndhurst also supplements their regular menu with a small selection of specials and I wanted to wait to see what they were.

The Lyndhurst uses specials cleverly, as a way of testing dishes that may graduate to the permanent menu. Not only that, but they told me a little while back that apart from the core dishes they were thinking of changing everything on the menu on a regular basis. So technically much of the menu could class as a special, and it’s possible that by the time this review is published some or all of the dishes I ordered may have been replaced.

Even without the specials, the menu is just the right size and, cleverly, it only loosely distinguishes between starters and mains. Prices range from about eight to fourteen pounds, with most dishes hovering around the ten pound mark. You can tell, from the pricing and the dishes, which ones are technically starters, but when you’re ordering takeaway and everything comes at the same time those distinctions are less useful.  

What is helpful, though, is how smartly the menu has been put together: many of the Lyndhurst’s dishes – tacos, nachos, Korean chicken wings – make excellent sharers, which makes it a lot of fun for bigger households. It also helps – and I know this from extensive personal experience – that portions across the board are really generous. By way of illustration, and bear this in mind when you see the pictures further down, I have pretty large dinner plates. Everything the Lyndhurst dishes up, without exception, manages to make them look small.

Tempting though the specials were, I had got it into my mind that this might be one of my last chances to try some of the dishes on the main menu, so I made my selection, paid the Lyndhurst and spent the rest of my Saturday happy in the knowledge that dinner was taken care of. It arrived bang on the dot at the requested time, and the paper bag which came out of the insulated box was perfectly hot and full of goodies. Laying them out on the kitchen worktop I was struck by the effort that the Lyndhurst puts into its packaging – everything was sturdy, well thought out and recyclable, and everything held its heat superbly.

My previous experience of feijoada – a Brazilian stew with beans – was at Katesgrove’s Pau Brasil where I’d found it gelatinous, stingy and bland. Nobody would accuse the Lyndhurst’s version of any of those things – it was a meaty symphony of a dish, deep, rich and absolutely delicious. I had it shortly after they added it to the menu and at that point it felt a little bit like they’d thrown the kitchen sink at it – so many different types and cuts of meat, along with chunks of sausage that felt suspiciously close to frankfurters. But the Lyndhurst is always tweaking, revising and improving, and the version that arrived on Saturday night was an impeccable v2.0, streamlined with all the kinks ironed out.

There were big, tender pieces of meat along with several ribs, all of which shed their bounty with minimal persuasion, and many more slow-cooked, tangled strands. The black beans added bite and texture, and the crowning glory – pretty much literally – was a good slab of pork belly, soft and yielding underneath but with an exemplary salty layer of crackling on top. I think the Lyndhurst understands how to cook pork belly better than any kitchen I can think of, and the whole thing added up to an embarrassment of riches. 

It came with fluffy white rice, deep, verdant shreds of spring greens and – a good flash of colour in a predominantly brown dish – a few slices of orange. I didn’t realise these were a traditional accompaniment to feijoada but it turns out that they are, and having eaten them with the stew I could completely understand why. This dish costs thirteen pounds fifty, and at that price I somehow felt as if I was conning the Lyndhurst, even though they’re the ones who set it. If it even remotely sounds like your sort of thing, I strongly advise you to grab some before it comes off the menu, to be replaced no doubt by something equally splendid.

The other “main”, so to speak, was the steak arepas. An arepa is a Venezuelan dish made from ground maize dough, a little like a bun made of cornbread, and my previous experiences of them had been mixed to put it lightly. I’d had them in Reading a long time ago, when we briefly had a Venezuelan restaurant called Arepas Caffee, and I renewed my acquaintance last year when Pabellon brought their award-winning arepas to the Blue Collar-hosted British Street Food Awards.

I could tell that Pabellon’s were streets ahead of Arepas Caffe’s, but both times I found them hard to love – there was something fluffy, almost woolly, about the texture that I just couldn’t take to. But the Lyndhurst’s version was absolutely a case of third time lucky.

Eating my steak arepas I was struck by how often it’s the sandwich, not the filling, that lets a dish down – I’ve lost count of the amount of brioches I’ve waded through that disintegrate long before the burger is finished, or bread that simply doesn’t have the oomph to live up to what’s stuffed between the slices. No such problem with these arepa – they were robust, burnished things, perfect for holding together and with a beautiful flavour that worked alongside, rather than fought against, the filling.

And there was certainly no problem with the filling either: tons of steak, most of it tender, a couple of bits slightly chewier, with rocket, red onion and a combination of two sauces that elevated the whole shebang. One was a deep, dark spicy sauce a little like mole that gave the dish punch and heft, the other was a bright, tangy chimichurri that deftly nudged the contrast dial (little tubs of both were provided in case you wanted even more: I did).

This is again a good point to talk about the Lyndhurst’s generosity: one arepa would be a fantastic steak sandwich, accompanied by the Lyndhurst’s chips which are, for my money, the best takeaway chips I’ve ever had anywhere, all crunch and rustle and salt. You actually get two arepa for your money, and “money” in this case means the almost comically generous sum of ten pounds fifty. I said it earlier on, but I have big dinner plates: look at this picture, and see if you can see much room left on this one.

Our third dish was the chicken tikka naanza, and this felt like the only misfire of the meal. The chicken tikka itself was beautifully done, but the naan felt heavy rather than fluffy and generous though the topping of cheese was, it felt dangerously close to just being a chicken pizza. I would have liked to see a more unconventional tomato base with fire and spice in it, a lighter, crustier base, a bit less emphasis on the cheese and the chicken being given more of a chance to shine – and perhaps a raita on the side rather than the garlic mayo that came with it. The Lyndhurst’s garlic mayo is incredible, don’t get me wrong (so good you’ll wish you’d saved it for your sandwich the next day), but it felt like a misstep.

That said, it wasn’t a bad dish by any means: even the Lyndhurst’s less outstanding dishes are better than many restaurants’ star players. More to the point I think the fault probably lies with me, because it delivered absolutely what it said on the tin. I just think, with hindsight, that what it said on the tin perhaps wasn’t for me. 

Our three dishes came to just under thirty-two pounds. That doesn’t include a delivery charge – the Lyndhurst doesn’t charge for delivery, but you do have to spend over twenty-five pounds unless you’re ordering for collection. That said, you absolutely can and should tip them – which I always manage to do, usually after a decidedly Mrs Doyle exchange with them where I insist that I will and they insist that I mustn’t. Their food is crazy value, to the extent that I worry about them making a profit, so tipping is the least I can do.

And for those of you considering delivery, it’s really very easy to spend twenty-five pounds with the Lyndhurst: I see they’ve added a black pudding Scotch egg to their specials for this weekend, so just keep adding those until you’ve passed the threshold (and if you find yourself with more black pudding Scotch eggs than you can physically eat, just let me know and I’ll meet you on the street corner of your choice).

I make no bones about being so unreservedly positive about the Lyndhurst. I think we’re incredibly lucky to have such a good, inventive kitchen in town constantly experimenting and innovating, doing brilliant food which is simultaneously very unfussy but involves a huge amount of thought and hard work. They can be apologetic and reserved about their food in a way that reminds me of Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen, Reading’s other great food introverts – perfectionist, always critical of their own efforts and deeply uncomfortable with bigging themselves up. And yet on quality alone, their food – like Clay’s – shouts from the rooftops. 

It will be all I can do not to get in touch with them between finishing writing this and it being published on Friday morning to book another delivery slot for Saturday night – in fact, they single-handedly present one of the biggest obstacles to my ongoing project to keep making those leaps into the unknown, ordering from new restaurants and different kitchens, trying to unearth more gems for you, boldly going where no restaurant reviewer has been before. But that’s my problem. On the other hand, if you live within two miles of Watlington Street and you feel even remotely peckish you suddenly have one fewer problem than you did ten minutes ago: if that’s you, I truly envy you.

The Lyndhurst
88 Queens Road, Reading, RG1 4DG
0118 9503888

http://www.thelyndhurstreading.co.uk/
Order via: Direct through the pub, Thursday to Sunday

Takeaway review: Finn’s

I rather missed fish and chips last year. It wasn’t in the A-list of things I missed – I didn’t miss it as much as going to restaurants, getting on an aeroplane, waking up in a hotel, or hugs, or impromptu nights down the pub, or the first beer of the holiday – but even so it was a small, nagging thing that I missed for the best part of 2020.

If I had felt comfortable going out to get fish and chips I might not been that bothered, but because I didn’t there were moments here and there that blindsided me on a week night when I was suddenly struck by how nice it would be to wander to the chippy, place my order and rush home with it while it was still hot. It’s one of those meals that can perfect a summer night, eaten out in the park or on a bench, or a cold winter’s night, the steam rising from the bag as you take those final steps home.

Fish and chips is one of those curious dishes that is sometimes eaten in restaurants – London Street Brasserie and the Lyndhurst both do excellent versions – and often eaten at home as a takeaway, but relatively rarely delivered. And until this year, I couldn’t have reviewed most chippies because you couldn’t eat your fish and chips in – it’s a very long time since Reading had a Harry Ramsden’s at the top of the Oxford Road (and eating there was always a very strange experience) and the gentrified likes of Kerbisher & Malt or Poppie’s have never made their way down the M4 to Reading from the capital.

We have plenty of burgers and a fair amount of pizza, but if you want fish and chips you still generally head for your favourite chippy and pick it up from there. And when it comes to favourite chippies, people in Reading all fly the flag for different ones. Caversham types are proud of Wings on the Gosbrook Road, Whitley residents will sing the praises of Deep Blue up on the Basingstoke Road. If you live in Earley you might have a view on Top Table or Terry Ling’s, and down in West Reading there’s 555 Fish Bar, a pescatarian take on the number of the beast.

I used to live near Seaspray, a lovely little place on Crown Street, and I was very sad when it closed. There was no longer anywhere decent within walking distance, and even if there had been going wouldn’t have felt right: people get tribal about chippies, you see.

These days my nearest fish and chip shop is Finn’s, the subject of this week’s review. It’s a few doors up from student breakfast hub Café Yolk on Hatherley Road, and I believe it’s owned by the same people. But I’m not reviewing it because it’s the closest, I’m reviewing it because it’s a more interesting beast altogether. Most fish and chip shops are still stuck in the world of a few decades ago, the turn of the century, but Finn’s is a very modern establishment. It set up an Instagram account back in 2018 and never put much effort into it, but last summer, waking up to the existential crisis faced by all hospitality businesses, it started taking social media seriously. So if you look now you’ll see an active Instagram account full of pictures that are likely to make you peckish. 

And not just that: Finn’s does gluten free fish and chips on Tuesdays, and has a well-regarded vegan offering every day. And crucially, at the start of this month, Finn’s joined Just Eat, so now you can get it delivered to your door provided you live less than two miles away. This felt like a win-win to me: I was used to having to pick it up and walk home, but I was close enough to the restaurant that a delivery was bound to get to my house quicker than if I’d collected it myself.

The core of the menu is pretty compact – cod, haddock, masala fish or vegan fish (the menu doesn’t say what’s in it, which surprised me) all of which come with chips. Some come in a large, some in a regular and with some you get to choose: I have no idea why. This does mean you can’t, as some people would at a chippy, get a portion of fish each and share a bigger portion of chips, but that felt like a minor drawback. 

You can also have a variety of other dishes with chips – prawns, scampi, fishcakes and so on – or you can order those as sides. Finally, of course, you can go for sauces and mushy peas, and Finn’s also serves poutine, the Quebecois speciality of chips in gravy with cheese curds. Zoë and I had had the kind of shitty day which is only really medicated with calories and booze, so we went wild in the aisles, ordered a bit of everything, poured a couple of beers and waited for our dinner to arrive.

This will disappoint a lot of you, and probably shorten the review by at least five hundred words, but my JustEat experience was absolutely exemplary. We placed the order just before 6pm and twenty minutes later the driver was outside the front door, in an Ola cab, opening up an insulated bag (a Deliveroo one, but I imagine he works for them too) and handing over a branded paper bag with our food in it.

Most of it was packed in faux-polystyrene cardboard, and all of it was piping hot, but it wasn’t without its challenges. For instance, Zoë had ordered a large cod and chips and I had ordered a large haddock and chips, but there was nothing on the boxes to indicate which was which. So I can tell you about my fish – and I think it was haddock because I picked the one with the flatter, more delicate looking fillet – but really, I can’t guarantee it wasn’t cod. Similarly, we had ordered a range of sides – the panko breadcrumbed prawns, the scampi and – this wasn’t my choice, believe you me – a battered sausage. All of them came in the same container, which didn’t bother me but might irk you if you were a pescatarian.

None of these are dealbreakers, but they’re worth mentioning. Similarly, many of my quibbles with the food were exactly that – minor quibbles, and probably things that wouldn’t occur to most people. So I would have liked my fillet of fish to be ever so slightly bigger (and my chips to be slightly smaller). I would have liked my batter to be a little crispier and not quite so soggy underneath, and I would have liked the chips to be more of a mixture of big, floury ones and the little sharp scraps that so enliven the bottom of the bag when you pick them up from a chippy.

But even so, having a fish supper on a Wednesday night on the sofa, in my comfies, watching the strangely compulsive Lightning on BBC2 (just me?) still made for a deeply enjoyable experience. The batter had plenty of flavour and seasoning, the fish fell into deeply pleasing flakes and if you can’t enjoy a plate of hot chips there might be something medically wrong with you.

The side dishes were more of a mixed bag, I’d say. I really liked the panko breadcrumbed prawns (I was put on to them by theatre impressario and one-woman arts whirlwind Steph Weller, who introduced me to Finn’s in the first place years ago), which were beautifully done with a neat contrast between the light, crunchy interior and the firm, meaty prawns within. The scampi, also breaded, but a little more claggy inside, were less successful but still decent. What both really needed, and were missing, was a dip – it would have been good to have a little tartare sauce, say, thrown in.

The battered sausage was Zoë’s idea. “You won’t eat this, will you?” she said. “When it comes to sausages you like the posh shit.” She cut into it, had a mouthful and then realised that over the last few years I’ve sneakily (and successfully) converted her to the posh shit, too. “No, I won’t finish that. But I’m fucking full anyway.” I looked at the cross-section and it did have the look and texture of mystery meat that so puts me off that kind of thing. Your mileage might well vary, but it felt to me mostly like an item you’d order if you wanted to be ironic. Some things are best left in the past, and I suspect battered sausage might be one of them: that said, if Finn’s ever decides to do a black pudding fritter I’d be the first in line for it. I’d probably camp outside the night before.

Last but not least, the poutine. This was slightly a victim of us having ordered so much food, and the way it was served – in a foil tray with a cardboard lid – meant that it felt like it went cold a lot quicker than everything else. Given that chips come with pretty much any main you order this is always likely to end up as an add-on, but that said I did quite like it. The curd cheese was firm and squeaky as it should be – like halloumi but without the saltiness – and worked beautifully and the gravy was thick and salty, if a little lacking in flavour beyond that. 

It’s definitely a dish to file under Tastes better than it looks. But when you read, earlier on, that poutine was chips in gravy with cheese on top you were probably either filled with longing or revulsion, so I suspect you already know whether it’s your kind of thing. If it is, or if you’re just curious about whether eating it would make you feel dirty in a good or a bad way, I’d say it’s definitely worth a shot. It’s a shame, really, that they don’t allow you to upgrade regular chips to poutine to save you from double carbs.

The main fish you might detect in this review, I fear, is carp. Looking back through it it’s all a bit Goldilocks And The Three Bears: my fish is too small, my batter is too soggy, my poutine went cold, wah wah waaah. Did I mention that I loved my meal? Maybe I didn’t say that loudly enough, and I really should have done. The thing is, the niggles I mention are the kind that I used to have back in the good old days, when I was so blasé that I ate in restaurants all the time and was probably a lot more critical. I probably mention them more from muscle memory than genuine sentiment: the fact is, I absolutely adored my fish and chips – chips scattered with salt and drenched in Sarson’s, a lovely crimson pool of Stokes’ Bloody Mary ketchup on the side. 

Our order cost just shy of thirty-five pounds, including a two pound fifty delivery charge and a fifty pence service charge. But we really went for it: if you just had a couple of portions of fish and chips the whole thing would come in around twenty quid and personally, I think that’s thoroughly decent value. What a time to be alive, when you can get someone to turn up at your door with fish and chips! When I thought about it that way, and had another gulp of my beautifully cold beer, I found that, ultimately, all was well in my little world. You may still cleave to your regular chippy, and I may not be able to change your mind, but I’ll just leave you with this: Finn’s really delivers.

Finn’s
Hatherley Road, Reading, RG1 5NA
0118 3271960

https://www.facebook.com/finnsfish
Order via: Direct through the restaurant for collection, JustEat for delivery

Takeaway review: The Reading Room at the Roseate Hotel

Normally with my reviews, as most of you know by now, you get a preamble. That’s the bit before I talk about the food – the bit some of you think is too long – that gives some context and explains why, this week of all weeks, I picked this restaurant of all restaurants.

I had a preamble all ready in my mind for this week’s delivery from The Reading Room, the restaurant that’s part of the Roseate Hotel. You know, what used to be Cerise in what used to be in the Forbury Hotel. In it, I was going to talk about how, oddly in 2020, Reading’s high-end dining scene saw more activity than you’d expect in the middle of a global pandemic. The Reading Room launched with a new fine dining offering and then the Corn Stores reopened with a constantly-changing Michelin-chasing tasting menu.

I would have gone on to say that both restaurants have pivoted in different directions in lockdown. The Corn Stores seems to have been offering a fancy, expensive, heat-at-home option, in keeping with other highly regarded restaurants nationwide (although best of luck finding any details on their website). By contrast, the Reading Room has chosen to offer gourmet burgers via the usual delivery apps, a limited menu focusing on quality.

I know, burgers. But then I remembered that it’s three years since I reviewed Honest Burgers, during which time they have established themselves at Reading’s favourite burger, the Coke to 7Bone’s Pepsi. And I wondered whether the Reading Room was a genuine contender to that undisputed primacy, so I decided to place an order and see whether they lived up to the promise.

Unfortunately, that preamble has been derailed somewhat by the Apocalypse Now of delivery experiences, one so horrendous that I can’t imagine myself ordering from the Reading Room again, or using Uber Eats for the foreseeable future. Those of you who enjoy my misfortune, and I know there are a few of you, will enjoy picking through the debris of this one. For my part, I’ll just tell you what happened and maybe you can decide whose fault, if anybody’s, it all was.

The Reading Room delivers through all three main delivery partners, but I fired up Uber Eats on a weekday evening to make my choices. The Reading Room’s options were nicely compact: there are three beef burgers, a chicken burger, a pulled pork burger, a “lean turkey burger” (do you reckon that really appeals to anybody?) and a couple of vegan and vegetarian options. They all come with fries and there are a few optional sides – chicken wings, onion rings, that kind of thing. The limited range was more Honest than 7Bone, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I placed an order at quarter past seven and twenty minutes later the app told me my driver was en route. It said he was making another stop on the way to my house, although the map of his route made it look like he was heading all the way across to the other end of town, but I decided to reserve judgment. And sure enough, he was outside my house ten minutes later, holding out a bag to me. So far so good, except that it had a Tasty Greek Souvlaki sticker on it, and somebody else’s surname scrawled on it in biro, all block caps.

“I’m really sorry, but this isn’t my order.” Funny how we always apologise in these circumstances.

“But this is the right address.”

“It might be, but I didn’t order from this restaurant and that isn’t my surname. We ordered from the Roseate Hotel, the burger place. The app said this was your second stop, are you sure you didn’t deliver our food to them?”

“No, I had to drop something off at the Roseate Hotel.”

This made no sense.

“Hold on a second” he said. A car was trying to pass on our narrow one way street, so he pulled away. I assumed he’d come back to continue the conversation, but no – he had vanished, never to return. Shortly after this, my phone pinged to notify me that the order had been cancelled and I wouldn’t be charged. I have no idea why they didn’t send me my food, but they fixed it quickly and the driver was perfectly pleasant, if a little rabbit in the headlights, so up to this point I had no complaints. Uber Eats even gave me five pounds off my next order, which seemed very nice of them.

I did what I expect most people would do in my situation: I fired up the app and reordered the same dishes. With hindsight, maybe I should have cut my losses: the alarm bells rang when about eight minutes later the app informed me that a driver was on his way with my food.

“That’s far too quick for them to cook it all again from scratch, isn’t it?” said my other half, Zoë. Quite.

Our second driver, who was also perfectly pleasant, pulled up in a black cab and got out holding a paper bag with our order in it. He may have had an insulated bag on the back seat but if so, I didn’t see it.

“I’m concerned that this might be my original order, which was ready over half an hour ago.” I said. “This has arrived far too quickly to be a new order. Can you wait while we just check if it’s hot?”

“Sure” he said. We took it into the kitchen and opened it up. It felt around half an hour from being hot – surely it had to be the original order, given that it had arrived so quickly? If they’d cooked it straight away at speed and the driver had scrambled it to us in five minutes flat, I would have expected it to be piping hot.

“I’m sorry,” I said – sorry again, for some reason which escapes me – “but this isn’t hot.”

“You’ll have to take it up with Uber Eats, I’m just the delivery driver” he said, and like that he sped off into the night. So, it was a lukewarm burger and chips for dinner and my main task was to try and work out whether, if it had been hot, it would have been the worldbeating burger you would hope to get from what used to be the Forbury Hotel. 

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that it’s a no from me. I went for the “Reading Room Prime Steak Burger”, their premium option with mushrooms, Stilton, tomato relish and “sticky bacon” which I opted to add on. According to Uber Eats the meat is “sourced from the Windrush Valley at the food of the Cotswold Hills”. 

Well, bits of it were nice. The Stilton had a good salty kick and I didn’t mind the tomato relish at all. But the bacon was a flaccid rasher of back, more icky than sticky, and the burger was chewy and unseasoned, grey rather than pink in the middle. I can only guess whether it would have been better straight out of the kitchen – possibly, yes, and that half an hour delay would have seen to any remaining juiciness, but the whole thing was dry and tasteless and I suspect that would have been the case one way or the other. The chips weren’t good either: the last time I had half an hour old chips was in a staff canteen, and even they were better than the Reading Room’s “skin on chips”.

Zoë’s pulled pork burger was a little better – “it’s stayed hotter because it has this big rosti on top of it”. The patty was minced pork, the rosti was apparently pretty good and there were some tender pieces of pork belly on top of the whole thing. “I’d probably order this again” was her verdict, although it’s hard to imagine a situation where that will ever happen. I’m not sure that you could ever describe this as a pulled pork burger, though, unless by “pulled” they meant “pulled a fast one”.

I don’t hugely like chicken wings as a rule, but my burger and chips were so dismal – I didn’t finish either – that I decided to try them. One was pleasant enough, the second had a fishy aftertaste which I couldn’t put my finger on. They were pretty much stone cold. Zoë, who does like chicken wings, could only manage one. “They’re overcooked and dry” was her verdict. A meal like this is barely a meal at all. It’s worse than a meal, the absence of a meal, and was worse than any of the things I could have cooked up with the contents of my fridge. 

After what passed for my dinner, I tried to get in touch with Uber Eats to complain about my cold, late food. Their app does everything it can to guarantee that you can’t speak to a human or call a phone number – to Deliveroo’s credit, they are at least contactable – but I went through the options on their help section and was told that somebody from Uber Eats would be in touch about the issues I’d raised. You can’t fault their promptness, because in less than half an hour I received an email. It didn’t give a phone number, an email address or any way to get in touch with them if you found the response inadequate, which is interesting given what it said. Here is a screenshot.

I contacted Uber Eats on Twitter to see if they wanted to talk about this, but I didn’t hold out much hope. Looking at their mentions, it seems they take over 24 hours to respond to unhappy customers, and I’m guessing that’s because there are so many of them.

“My food took 30mins to arrive after leaving. I’m one mile away. Food stone cold and incorrect” said one. In another, Uber Eats said that they couldn’t do anything because the order was placed 48 hours ago, although it probably took them that long to pick up on the complaining Tweet. “You keep sending me an automated message and ignoring the situation” said a third. My 29p credit probably puts me in the top percentile of people whose dinner plans are ruined. The worst thing is that it’s a credit not a refund, so I can’t even go crazy, go out and blow it all on some Space Raiders.

This is the tricky thing about this model with a middle man involved: the driver says you should complain to Uber Eats, whereas Uber Eats’ line is that you should just give the restaurant a poor rating on the app. I did consider contacting the Reading Room to get their feedback, but the website lists no phone number or contact details and the Twitter feed hasn’t uttered a word since summer 2019. It’s almost like they don’t want customers, which is probably for the best under the circumstances: I can’t see them getting any from this review.

I still don’t really know whose fault it was that I had such a dire meal. Was it Uber Eats, for some kind of software snafu that meant I never got my order from Driver A? Was it Driver A for making it to the Roseate and not realising that he was meant to collect some food there? Or was it the restaurant for seeing the second order coming in and thinking “well, we have that sitting here under the pass and we’ll only have to throw it away”? And weirdest of all, I’m giving the restaurant the benefit of the doubt by assuming that they sent out my food that had been sitting under the lights for half an hour – if it was a brand new order that turned up to my house, tepid and underwhelming, that would reflect even worse on them. 

Or, equally plausibly, maybe I am just a moron who should have foreseen that this was exactly what would happen if I tried to order exactly the same dishes all over again. Who knows? Answers on a postcard. In the meantime if you want a burger delivered to your home stick to Honest, and if you can order a takeaway directly from the restaurant instead of using a third party please do.

In any event, if you really do want Reading’s best burger these days, you need to make your way to Blue Collar on a Wednesday lunchtime and grab one from the dubiously-named Meat Juice. It only comes one way – with proper bacon, a slab of mature Cheddar, burger sauce and pickled red onion. The patty is made from minced chuck steak, perfectly seasoned with just a hint of chilli in the mix. There aren’t any fries with it and it will only set you back six pounds fifty. Eaten on a bench just round the corner from Market Place it is pretty damn close to perfection. 

Having said that, if you want a better meal than the one I had at the Reading Room, you could just go out and buy some Space Raiders: they would outperform it in pretty much every respect. I’d give you the money for that myself but I’m afraid it’s resting, Father Ted-style, in my Uber Eats account, unlikely ever to be redeemed.

The Reading Room
The Roseate Hotel, 26 The Forbury, Reading, RG1 3EJ
0118 9527770

https://www.roseatehotels.com/reading/theroseate/
Order via: Deliveroo, JustEat or Uber Eats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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