Restaurant review: Manteca, Shoreditch

I have a note on my phone which is just a list of London restaurants. I mean, doesn’t everyone?

Strictly speaking, it would be more accurate to say that I have a note on my phone which is two lists of London restaurants. The first is a set of restaurants near Paddington, and dates from the time early in 2020 when I thought it might be a good idea to branch out. I figured that many of us end up having to drag our feet in London to take an off peak train home and that some reliable restaurants people could visit in the meantime might prove a godsend.

It was a good idea in theory, but I only managed one before suddenly all of us were taking far fewer trains, and heading to London became a pipe dream. But the list’s still there, and one day I may get back on it, exploring the Malaysian restaurants around Paddington, the Lebanese joints on the Edgware Road, or just revisiting my favourite little side street Greek place in Maida Vale.

The second list is of all the London restaurants I’ve always wanted to review but never got round to. Some, like Rules and Noble Rot, I’ve been to before. But others are ones I’ve read about in newspapers or in blogs and told myself I’ll visit one day. Like the Wes Anderson-esque French stylings of Otto’s in Clerkenwell, or the little dining room above Soho’s French House where Neil Borthwick,  Angela Hartnett’s husband, cooks a small menu of Gallic classics. They’re not all French, I should add: Smoking Goat, Kiln, Quality Chop House all get a look in. Even with all the casualties in hospitality, I know this list will only ever increase in size. One day, it will see me out.

Manteca has been on that second list for quite a while. It started with a brief spell on Heddon Street (not far from where Casa do Frango is now) before spending some time in Soho and then relocating to Shoreditch’s Curtain Road in late 2021. At every step critics and bloggers have had nothing but praise for it, and looking at the menu in the run-up to my visit it was easy to see why. They make their own pasta on site – so far, so Padella and Bancone – but also specialise in nose to tail eating and make their own salumi, so nothing gets wasted.

The acclaim was so universal that this felt as close to a sure thing as you could get, so I made a lunch reservation for the Saturday of May’s last long weekend, so Zoë and I could try it out after a shopping expedition. Arriving a little late – finding your way there from Liverpool Street can be a bit of a horror show if you get lost in the Broadgate Centre – the welcome was warm and forgiving.

It’s a sizeable site, although you’d never know it was a Pizza Express in a previous life, and they pack them in, with the overall effect that you can barely hear yourself think (would-be restaurant inspector and all-round gastro-spod Andy Hayler complained that it was “like eating in a nightclub” – as if he’d know), and once you’re wedged into your table you’re going nowhere in a hurry. Our server initially tried to seat us at a dingy, unloved table right at the back, far from daylight, and when I asked if we could instead have a nicer table near the window she seemed taken aback, as if the idea had never occurred to her.

The menu’s brilliant at creating agonising dilemmas, more than nearly any restaurant I can remember. There are snacks and nibbles, small plates and a handful of pasta dishes – fewer than you might expect. Small plates are around a tenner, pasta closer to fifteen. Finally, there were some bigger dishes which came in at thirty pounds plus.

Our server explained that pretty much everything was designed for sharing. She also talked us out of ordering two of the large plates once she’d taken the rest of the order, a fact for which I was very grateful further down the line. I sipped a gorgeous cocktail made with Amaro and lemonade – how did I not know that was a thing? – while Zoë, as is her habit these days, tried (and loved) her negroni.

We started with a few snacks while we made up our mind and they contained the only dud of the meal. Focaccia was, to my mind, nothing of the kind, being dry and stodgy and only having a whisper of oil in it. The top crust was great, but that was the tip of the iceberg. And the iceberg was dense and heavy going. I should add that Zoë loved it, but she’d spent the week on a carb-free diet so she might just have been euphoric to be eating bread again.

Much better were the fried olives, little breaded spheres of sausage meat and olives that I could have eaten all the live long day. At three pounds each, though, you might be broke before you were full. Nonetheless, this was the first hint that something special was in store, a hint which quickly gathered momentum, becoming a firmly held conviction.

I’d seen the first of our starters on Manteca’s very distracting Instagram page, along with a caption that said it was only on the menu when they had the right cuts to make it. Ciccioli was lean pork, braised in rendered fat and then pressed into a cake and fried to a burnished crisp. It fell apart under the fork, eager to be dabbed with the sweet-sharp apple mostarda on the side. More than just the acceptable face of mystery meat, this was a symphony of flavour and texture and I wish I’d had one all to myself: if you go, and it’s on the menu, order it.

Less successful, possibly because it’s a dish that happens to share my porn star name, was hogget sausage. I liked but didn’t love it: knowing that Manteca does all its butchery on site reassured me that this was packed with the good stuff, but the texture was still smoother and closer to saveloy than I’d personally choose. The flavour more than made up for it, the whole thing draped in wild garlic leaves, because ’tis the damn season. Probably should have kept some of that slab of bread to mop up the juices – maybe that’s what the restaurant had in mind for it.

I think I read somewhere that Manteca used to do their pasta courses in a small and large, but they’ve done away with that now and a portion is very respectable size – enough for you to eat as a main, if you’re no fun, or a beautiful stepping stone between the smaller and larger plates. Manteca’s brown crab cacio e pepe is so fêted that it might be the closest thing the restaurant has to a signature dish, so naturally I ordered it.

It was a gorgeous, simple plate of soothing sustenance which didn’t outstay its welcome. The pasta – strozzapreti in this instance – was terrific, al dente almost to the point of squeakiness. And the crab didn’t dominate, playing nicely with the cheese and pepper to create something beautifully emulsified and far greater than the sum of its parts: if anything, the foremost note was a brilliant tingle of lemon that prevented it from cloying. Like most of my experience, it thoroughly justified the hype.

Wild garlic made another appearance in Zoë’s pasta. Chitarra, a sort of square spaghetti, if you can imagine that, was positively luminous with wild garlic, its edges fringed with racing green wild garlic olive oil. An egg yolk nested in the centre and although it looked slow-cooked and fudgy, once nudged with a knife sunrise spread across the plate. I didn’t try any, because it struck me as a messy thing to reach across the table and eat, but Zoë loved it. She tasted citrus in this too – lime, she thought, although that might have been synaesthesia because it was just so very green.

The one thing that doesn’t tell you about those two pasta dishes – one of the few frustrations of eating at Manteca – is that they came to the table ten minutes apart. When Manteca said their dishes were intended to be shared I assumed they couldn’t mean the pasta because nobody shares pasta, except in Lady And The Tramp. Perhaps they honestly thought we’d share the first pasta dish and then share the second, but they’d also said, in a Wagamama-esque spiel, that dishes from the same section of the menu would come out together.

Does it matter? On many levels, not really. We were having a lovely time, by this point we’d ordered a beautiful bottle of an Australian pinot noir/syrah blend and all was well with the world. But it’s always weird to sit there while your dining companion watches you eat and then have your roles reversed: it’s why I so rarely send steak back in a restaurant. More to the point, we only had the table for two hours – less, because we’d showed up a little late, so you’d think they’d be tighter on time. As it was, because they didn’t rush us through the pasta, which they should have done, things got more frantic at the end.

But this was the only misstep in a meal where even if we were slightly processed, it never felt like it. Manteca’s front of house team were quite fantastic from start to finish, working in one of the busiest, buzziest restaurants I’ve eaten in for a very long time. Also, given the acoustics, their hearing must be exceptional – for the first half of the meal Zoë and I probably had to repeat almost fifty per cent of everything we said.

Arguably, the best way to deal with the challenging noise levels is to dish up food so good it renders customers speechless. I think that might have been Manteca’s plan, and they achieved it admirably with the next set of dishes. Grilled duck breast, pink and tender underneath caramelised skin, was superb, and pairing it with sausage – I think also made from duck, but I might be wrong – was a masterstroke. But the thing that made the dish, for me, was the preserved quince that came with it: fruity, ever so slightly chewy, a fantastic foil for all that meat. It reminded me, ever so slightly, of Georgian fruit leather (don’t knock it til you’ve tried it) and I’d choose it over red cabbage any day. We were approaching full by the end of this dish, but we heroically soldiered on.

The accompaniments were a mixed bag. Grilled greens were a wan medley of cauliflower and chard, and although they tasted decent the texture was too limp for my liking. A thousand times better – and again, almost reason to visit on its own – were the pink fir potatoes, cooked until golden and crispy and smothered in something the restaurant calls “salumi brown butter” – little crunchy nuggets of meat, herbs and fat. I could have eaten these on their own and left the restaurant a happy man, but being able to pair them with duck, or sausage, or use them to soak up the pool of juices at the bottom of the plate, was nothing short of heavenly.

By this point we were decidedly full but still up for attacking the dessert menu, possibly with something from the restaurant’s extensive list of amaros, once we’d finished our bottle of red. Our minds were concentrated wonderfully by our server telling us we had less than twenty-five minutes before they needed the table, so we were forced to accelerate matters.

The dessert menu is skeletal, with just three options. Zoë’s choice, a chocolate choux bun filled with chocolate cremoso, tasted very nice indeed but I was delighted I hadn’t ordered it because I’m not sure I could have pretended to you that I could taste the “whey caramel” it apparently contained, or even for that matter tell you what whey caramel tastes like.

I’m also delighted I didn’t order it because the dish I did order, pistachio cake, was one of the finest desserts I’ve ever had. There was an awful lot going on here, all of it good on its own yet better together. The cake, which could so easily have been stodgy or unremarkable, had a beautifully dense texture with flashes of salt and pistachio in every spoonful. The ribbons of candied, pickled fennel on top added a fragrant sweetness that never overpowered: I’d have liked more of them, but fennel always has that effect on me. And the preturnaturally smooth pistachio ice cream was as good as anything I’ve had in Italy – or for that matter at Clay’s, who do a mean pistachio ice cream these days. Resting the sphere on a handful of salted, roasted pistachios, though, was an inspired touch.

Zoë had a spoonful, and her reaction was immediate: “you win”. If we’d had our table for longer, I think she’d have ordered one as a second dessert. It’s rare for me to rave about dessert, rarer still to do it about a dessert with no chocolate in it, but I’ve thought about this every day since my lunch at Manteca, wondering quite how they elevated something seemingly so everyday to a dessert so extraordinary.

As we were tight for time, there was no digestif. But there was still room for one last delight, so along with the bill we asked for a couple of pieces of beef fat fudge to send us on our way. I’m not always sure about beef fat in desserts – I still remember a beef fat caramel I had at an otherwise excellent restaurant in Cardiff for which no word other than “minging” will do – but this lent a certain glossiness while omitting the overtly bovine notes. It was one pound fifty for a generous cube, deftly sprinkled with salt, and it took all my strength not to ask them to make me up a box. I wasn’t hungry any more, but I knew I would be later. Or rather, I wouldn’t be hungry but I’d have made enough room for more of that fudge. Another time, perhaps.

Our bill for all that food, a couple of aperitifs and that gorgeous bottle of red – which I liked so much that before the end of the meal I’d tracked it down and ordered a few bottles online – came to just over two hundred and fifteen pounds, including service charge. You could eat there for less, and have less fun, but honestly, when you have a meal this good it costs what it costs, and you don’t give a shit. We emerged blinking into the Shoreditch sunshine, and made a beeline for the Mikkeller bar for a beer and a post match debrief. Our ratings are usually a gnat’s crotchet apart, but for this one they were identical.

You can see that rating just a few paragraphs below, but what’s more important is to talk about just how good Manteca was. Because the truth is, back when I used to eat in London more often – but wasn’t reviewing those restaurants – they never quite lived up to my expectations. To the point where I worried that I was becoming semi-professionally underwhelmed. So I did the likes of St John or Quo Vadis, the places everybody likes, and I wondered what I was missing.

I sometimes think that London has to survive on a bubble of hype because if it wasn’t for that, people would wonder why they’re paying such unsustainable amounts of money to live and work there. And indeed my two recent visits to highly rated London restaurants, Casa do Frango and Chick ‘N’ Sours, left me equally ambivalent. So I can’t tell you how happy I was to eat somewhere that not only justified the hype but made me want to add to it, to lend my voice to the chorus of voices shouting about how special Manteca is. Though hopefully you’ve been reading my blog long enough to know that I don’t really do hype. I’m just as likely to walk away from somewhere critically acclaimed feeling nonplussed as I am delirious with joy, if not more so.

So there you have it: Manteca served up one of my favourite lunches of the last ten years and is well and truly one restaurant ticked off my “places I must get to in London” list. Although it doesn’t make matters easier because now, when I try and work through the other restaurants on it, I’ll always be thinking, in the back of my mind, or I could just go back to Manteca. Anyway, hopefully you’ve read this and might add it to your own version of that list. I’m still kidding myself that everyone has one, because in my echo chamber they probably do.

Manteca – 9.0
49-51 Curtain Road, EC2A 3PT
020 71395172


Restaurant review: Casa do Frango, Piccadilly

This week’s review came about for a simple reason: I went to Nando’s. Six weeks ago Zoë and I were in town on a slow Sunday lunchtime, neither of us could face cooking that evening and we longed for the comfort of a known quantity. Judge all you like, but when I feel that way Nando’s makes it on to my long list, which means that occasionally it makes the shortlist, and sometimes it winds up on the podium.

I mean the Friar Street branch – no offence if you prefer the one in the Oracle – and my usual order is butterflied chicken, medium, with macho peas, spicy rice, garlic piri-piri sauce on the side. It always delivers, and it did on this occasion: I left sated and happy, putting a picture on Instagram to show that I’m not all preaching and indies. Later that day I got a message from my friend James (last seen on this blog living it up in Marmo).

“I’ve recently cracked how Nando’s do their chicken” it said. This was a very James thing to say: naturally I was intrigued.

“Don’t they just cook it, keep it in a drawer and then finish it on the grill after you’ve ordered it?”

“They slowly cook the chicken at about 90 degrees over a couple of hours, almost poached in a basic marinade.Then they grill and layer on the piri piri multiple times to create a layer of flavour: baste, seal and grill, turn, baste etc.”

Doing this sort of painstaking research was also very James. But better was to come, because when Zoë and I went to stay with him and his partner Liz over Easter weekend, he went a step further. “I’m going to recreate it”, he said. He was true to his word, so one night we sat down to the most glorious slow-cooked, basted and grilled piri piri chicken. James cooked the chicken, Liz made the macho peas, the coleslaw and fries were from the supermarket. The whole affair was even more soothing than the real thing: Nandos-esque rather than just Nandos-ish, if that makes sense.

“The place I keep meaning to try is Casa do Frango.” I said, between mouthfuls. “They started out with one near London Bridge and now they have three across the city.”

“Let’s do it!” said James.“I’d love to accompany you.” So we did: some people might find this eccentric, but James and I booked a Friday off work and headed to London on the train, on a pilgrimage for the best piri piri chicken outside Portugal.

Casa do Frango (the house of chicken: in Portuguese it sounds far more exotic than, say, the hut of pizza) came to my attention five years ago when the original branch got a glowing review in the Observer. And I always intended to go at some point, to see if it could get anywhere near the best piri piri chicken I’ve ever had, in a little Lisbon alleyway. That was at a place called Bonjardim and it remains a real death row food memory, the skin brittle and intense, rubbed with lemon and salt, the meat underneath a yielding feast. Nando’s, much as I like it, has never displaced it in my memory, but perhaps Casa do Frango could.

For this review I decided to visit Casa do Frango’s newest, most central branch. It’s on Heddon Street, just off Regent Street and a stone’s throw from Liberty, and I picked it partly because it’s become their flagship, partly because it fitted better with our plans for the rest of the day but mainly, in truth, with you lot in mind. After all, a decent affordable place to eat not far from from Piccadilly Circus might potentially be of use to a lot of you (although not one of my readers who recently got in touch to tell me that, although he read the blog religiously every week, the recent ones hadn’t been hugely useful given that he was allergic to chicken – sorry Tom!).

On the way in I realised that it must be the best part of three years since I’d set foot in central London, over three years since I’d taken the Tube. That means I’m a tedious Johnny-come-lately when it comes to how game-changing the Elizabeth Line is to Bond Street (although I enjoyed my guided tour of the Elizabeth Line, thanks to James who is quite the public transport enthusiast). It also meant I wasn’t prepared for how quiet it was on a Friday – not Vanilla Sky Times Square levels, but I’d never seen Regent Street so sparsely populated. “Thursday is the new Friday” said James.“Everyone’s working from home today.”

Heddon Street is a little alley literally lined with restaurants – a ramen place, an outpost of Gordon Ramsay’s empire, a pub called The Starman (the cover of Ziggy Stardust was shot outside) and a café called Ziggy Green, because people are nothing if not unimaginative. We walked past Michelin-starred Sabor, which looked gorgeous inside (“I’ve been, it’s great” ventured James) and I wondered if I’d have restaurant regret. But Casa do Frango is a handsome-looking spot, and I loved the tiles outside reading RUA HEDDON. The muggy drizzle said we were in London, but it still had the potential to be transformative.

It’s a big site, with two large dining rooms upstairs, some private dining and a very swish-looking speakeasy bar downstairs. We were in the back dining room, their first customers, ultra keen at high noon. It was a great space, ceiling fans whirring, the whole thing surprisingly well lit, tasteful bentwood chairs, brick, tile and warm burnt orange tones. We got a good table up against the wall so we both got a view of the dining room, and it slowly filled up over time. They lunch later in London, the lucky blighters.

The menu only has one main course – that chicken – so it’s all about the starters and sides. The chicken is twelve fifty – back in 2018 when the Observer visited it was still less than a tenner – but most of the small plate starters (billed as “to share”) clocked in between eight and ten. Technically you could eat here as a vegetarian, if you were dragged here, but you’d find it all foreplay and no shagging, so to speak.

I was particularly impressed with the drinks list. The compact selection of cocktails is more than skin deep Portuguese, so licor Beirão and ginjinha both make an appearance: I have happy memories of both. The wine list is one hundred per cent Portuguese, even down to the dessert wines, with a separate section for vinho verde, much of which is available by the glass. Even the port is the lesser-spotted Offley rather than a bigger name. We started with a gorgeous, zesty white port and tonic – I picked up the habit for these in Porto five years ago, they can quite make you forget about G&T – and made our choices.

To begin, that meant trying to eat a representative sample of the small plates. Bacalhau fritters were the best of them – salt cod is one of my favourite things about Portuguese food and these were light-shelled with the perfect balance of carby potato lending bulk and the fish landing the perfect hit of flavour. The aioli, golden and sunny, rounded things off nicely, though I wasn’t sure they needed to glue the croquettes to the dish with more of the stuff.

The pork croquettes were also decent enough, although they lacked the same wow factor. These were served with a mustard bechamel I liked slightly less, and although the flavour of the croquettes was good, the texture suitably silky, I couldn’t help thinking we’d ordered two dishes too similar. The chorizo, grilled with black olive mayo and pickled chillies, might have been a better choice. The croquettes and the fritters, at eight pounds, felt a tiny bit sharp for what you got.

I did love the salgadinhos – little empanadas stuffed with kale, mushroom and onion – though. It’s interesting how the mind can be redirected by pricing: at two pounds each these were technically the same price as a single croquette or fritter, but they felt bigger, better and better value. The salt flakes liberally sprinkled on top gave each mouthful a pleasing little saline spike.

Our final starter promised much but didn’t entirely deliver. A whole head of cauliflower, marinated so effectively in piri piri that its centre had a pinkish tinge, had been charred and then drowned in a vivid green slick of yoghurt and pistachio. Eating this dish felt like reading a well-written novel and not enjoying it as much as I thought I should. Everything worked – the flesh of the cauli firm, the sharp tang of the yoghurt augmented with lime – but by the end it felt like a slog. If the other small plates were a little small, paradoxically this could have benefited from being smaller.

The eponymous chicken arrived as we’d polished off a cold glass of Super Bock. This is where I’d love to dust off my hyperbole but instead, I fear I’ll be delivering some faint praise. There was literally nothing not to like, but perhaps nothing to rhapsodise over either. You get half a chicken per person, and yes, it was juicy and swimming in brick-red juices (“the key is to use smaller chickens” said James, knowingly). But the flip side is that tender though it was, there wasn’t masses of meat and some of it took more persuading off the bone than I’d expected. I was hoping for that hit of crispy skin, too, but the whole thing felt a tiny bit underpowered.

It didn’t compare to my memories of Bonjardim – perhaps the power of nostalgia meant it never could – but I wasn’t sure it was better than the rendition at Casa do James, either. I should add that James liked it more than I did, and he has the added benefit of knowing what he is talking about. We both largely eschewed the little tub of piri piri sauce it came with – “that’s for tourists”, said James – instead trying to get every bit of the glossy, spicy oil coating the bottom of the steel plate.

I should also mention the surprise MVP of our meal, hidden at the back of the photo above. Casa do Frango’s chips are nothing to look at – verging on blond and, on appearances, unlikely to deliver much. In reality they were phenomenal – salty with huge amounts of crunch and staying hot, seemingly, for ages. They didn’t have to be this good, god knows the ones from Nando’s rarely are, and yet this was the dish James and I kept coming back to for the rest of the afternoon. Those fries, though.

Perhaps the reason the chicken was lacking in crispy skin is because Casa do Frango had the genius idea of stabbing huge shards of it into its African rice. This was a phenomenal side, the rice studded with chorizo and sticky plantain and, with the exception of a few clumps, virtually flawless. If they sold a side that was just a bowl of crispy chicken skin I’d have bought several. And taken a doggy bag.

Our final side of Hispi cabbage, though, was too similar to that cauliflower starter, being a brassica charred and festooned with yoghurt. This one was accented with red pepper and a parsley sauce a little like a chimichurri or salsa verde. But even more than the cauliflower, this felt more like a virtuous trudge than an indulgence. The way it was plated was frustrating, too: one wedge of cabbage was perched on top of the other, with the end result that only one of them, really, was properly dressed.

I was ambivalent about dessert, but James had his heart set on one – for research purposes, no doubt – and so we acquiesced. It helped that we accompanied them with a glorious glass each of Moscatel de Setubal: Portugal never gets the credit it deserves for its superb dessert wines and this one was a glowing schooner of sweet, sweet sunshine (I neglected to mention the vinho verde we had with our chicken: superb and ever so slightly effervescent). The service was excellent throughout and our server steered James in the direction of the almond cake which she said was her favourite – she couldn’t eat gluten, which was part of why she loved it so much, but James adored it too.

Settling into my role as designated party pooper, I had a pastel de nata. Well, you have to: any coffee without one in Portugal feels like a coffee missing its soulmate. And although Casa do Frango’s looked the part, it was a fascinating study in contrasts where everything was not quite as it should have been – the pastry, which should be ethereally light, was heavy going and the custard, which should be just-firm with a little wobble, was gloopy. I should have seen the warning signs when they brought it with a teaspoon. What kind of egg custard tart needs to be eaten with a teaspoon? This one, it turns out.

So a proper mixed bag, with plenty to celebrate. But, like Joni Mitchell in Both Sides Now, I worry that it’s Casa do Frango’s illusions I recall. So let’s try and focus on the positives – the wine list is fantastic, some of the small plates are delicious, that rice will live long in my memory and I’m still astonished that the fries were so much better than they looked at first blush. The service – attentive, endearingly laconic, properly Portuguese – was a joy and every bit worth the twelve and a half per cent. It’s a beautiful room and, as I discovered on a foray to the basement, the handwash in the gents smells heavenly.

But I do wonder if the things I really enjoyed about this meal were more about the context of the meal than the food itself. I was on a day off, on a Friday with a good friend, with nothing to do but drift from restaurant to shop to bar to restaurant again. I was in London properly for the first time in eons and it almost felt like we had the city to ourselves. In those circumstances, many meals would feel special. It’s important to try and push that slightly to one side and focus on what we ate.

The whole thing – all that food and four different alcoholic drinks apiece – came to a hundred and sixty pounds, including the service charge. And that’s where you have to stop and think. Is the place better than Nando’s? Objectively yes, of course it is. Is it easily three or four times better than the significantly cheaper Nando’s? I’m not so sure about that. Does it command grudging affection like Nando’s? No, I’m afraid it doesn’t.

And, on Heddon Street at least, Nando’s isn’t even its competition. If you’re in this part of town there are plenty of other ways to spend your money at superior reimaginings of nationwide chains – a short walk away off Carnaby Street, for instance, you could stop into Pizza Pilgrims. It may be a step up from the likes of Franco Manca and Pizza Express, but if you manage to spend a hundred and sixty pounds between two there I’d be very surprised.

The strangest thing about my visit is this: even though pedestrian old Nando’s is an identikit recreated across the country, without the beautiful decor and attention to detail of any of Casa do Frango’s sites, I found this visit made me appreciate the former more than the latter. In fact, shameful confession time: I went back to Friar Street in between visiting Casa do Frango and publishing this review, just to check that I wasn’t on mushrooms, and I stand by what I’ve said. Doubtless that will get me excommunicated from the Guild Of Food Snobs, and I know I’m disagreeing with Jay Rayner again. But would you expect any less from me by now?

Casa do Frango – 7.1
31-33 Heddon Street, London, W1B 4BL
020 35355900

Restaurant review: Eat The Bird, Exeter

I found myself in Exeter in a very specific set of circumstances: I was down in Padstow last week, celebrating my dad‘s birthday, and looking at how long the train took Zoë and I decided to break our journey en route and spend the night somewhere along the way. It quickly came down to a choice between Totnes and Exeter and although I was tempted by the former – I have happy memories, the one time I visited Totnes, of arriving on Midsummer’s Eve to stumble upon what can only be described as some kind of Druidic ceremony under way in the town square – the former won out, on account of being bigger with potentially more to do.

As it turned out I rather liked Exeter, revisiting it after an interval of close to twenty years. It has an absolutely superb bakery and coffee shop slap bang next to the central station which did a splendid job of refreshing me the afternoon I arrived and the morning I departed; my only regret is not getting to try the craft beer and gin bar next door. What a contrast between this and stumbling out of Gare Du Ding to choose between a Mitchell & Butler and a Fullers pub: we could learn a lot from Exeter.

Not only that but Exeter also had, as I discovered, a burgeoning coffee scene with several marvellous coffee shops, mostly clustered round Fore Street. I stopped at the excellent Crankhouse Coffee and enjoyed a superlative latte, picking up some beans to take home (one trend I did spot in Exeter was people in cafés bed blocking tables for hours with a laptop and a glass of tap water, not buying any coffee: it must drive the owners nuts).

Fore Street also played host to a brilliant independent bookshop and a bottle shop whose owner had got his hands on stuff from all sorts of intriguing American breweries I’d never heard of before. I left with a pair of novels for my holiday and a couple of imperial stouts it took all my strength not to open before the end of my trip.

It wasn’t all beer and skittles, mind you. Without wishing to channel my inner Pevsner or Betjeman, Exeter has as much postwar architecture as the next place, some of it fascinating and some downright ugly. I was surprised by how many premises were boarded up, even if the area round by the Cathedral was blessed with the usual suspects – Côte and what have you – along with a branch of The Ivy, the Wetherspoons for people with more money than taste.

I was in the unusual position of having some Exeter recommendations from Ruth, a long-standing reader of the blog who moved to the city from Reading three years ago. It was Ruth who tipped me off about Crankhouse Coffee, and I can only apologise that I didn’t get to try out her other suggestions. So apparently there’s a little enclave called St Leonard’s a mere ten minute walk from the centre with a terrific tapas place called Calvo Loco and a cutting edge small plates restaurant called Stage: I promise, scout’s honour, that I’ll check them out next time.

But I’m afraid, because I’m basic that way, I probably disappointed Ruth by having my eye on a fried chicken restaurant called Eat The Bird, the second in a tiny chain based in Taunton, Exeter and Cardiff. I didn’t just disappoint Ruth, either: when I told the thoroughly nice, distinctly urbane chap at our hotel our planned destination was it my imagination, or did he roll his eyes despairingly? He recommended some good gin bars I could stop by on the way there, but I was beyond redemption.

Eat The Bird is at the end of Exeter’s rather long High Street, a wide-pavemented thoroughfare which somehow reminded me of Belfast, just past a retro-looking party shop called Streamers, at the point where the city starts to look a little postmodern (put it this way: it’s opposite a bookie and a Poundland).

But I quite liked the interior: it was well done, in a sort of stripped-back way. The main dining room in the front was all partitioned booths, the floor bare concrete and the brick wall painted a vivid crimson. The kitchen itself was in a shipping container plonked in the middle of the restaurant. The overall effect was about as close to street food as you could get while still eating indoors, but the whole thing was transformed by warm, enthusiastic service from start to finish.

The reviews I’ve read of Eat The Bird’s menu tend to focus on the laddishness of the puns behind most of the dishes. And yes, I suppose calling a Korean chicken burger “the Chicktator” is a little hackneyed, as is giving other sandwiches monikers like “Clucking Hell” or “Cluck Me Sideways”. But the same bloggers clutching their pearls about that do like to wank on about “falling in lust” with dishes, describing them as “lascivious” or generally rambling on as if they’ve never met a risotto they didn’t want to shag, so maybe some perspective is in order. Personally I blame Nigella and Nigel, the patron saints of that kind of food writing.

The thing I’d focus on is the drinks menu: I’m really not sure that calling a cocktail “Hobo Juice” and serving it in a brown paper bag is the wizard idea they thought it was. But their house IPA Wing Fingers, “a 3 way collab between us, Many Hands Brewery and hip hop artist MC Abdominal” (really?) was truly gorgeous, just about sessionable and spot on with all of the food we ordered. And we ordered a lot, as you’re about to discover.

The menu focuses on chicken – you don’t say – but mostly boneless, either as burgers or tenders. You can get wings, but not whole pieces of chicken on the bone à la KFC or Popeyes. There are a handful of beefburgers, more than lip service, which looked very good indeed, and four vegan variants of the chicken burger featuring everybody’s favourite apostrophe-ridden meat substitute, something called “chick’n” about which I’m perfectly happy to know nothing. Most chicken burgers will set you back eleven or twelve pounds, and there are also four different types of loaded fries including a tempting-sounding poutine.

But best of all, they also served frickles. If I could do it again I’d order these with the beers rather than having the food come all at once, because they were one of the finest beer snacks I can recall. So often they’re big watery things, the batter not adhering (a problem Honest’s onion rings, much as I like them, also have). Here they were smaller, punchy slices of gherkin, salt and sharpness in perfect harmony, the impeccable batter leaving your fingers shiny. Good on their own, even better dabbed in a pot of ranch dip; even Zoë, a pickle hater of long standing, liked them.

Better still – and yes, we ordered these as well as having burgers, because gluttony – were the chicken tenders. You got a generous helping of these, along with a little pot of dip, for a crazy six pounds fifty. And honestly, they were so good – all gnarled exterior, a fantastic coating that delivered on taste and texture. Good dipped, just as good on their own, close to the summit of what this kind of food can be.

Having eaten at Popeyes not so long ago, I remember thinking that although the American chain had perfected the crunch the flavour had just not bothered to show up. I thought at the time that something was missing: what was missing, in honesty, was that they weren’t these. Whisper it quietly, but these might even have been better than Gurt’s tenders, and they’ve attained near-legendary status in Reading. We ordered two other dips on the side, a ranch for Zoë and a decent, if slightly gloopy, Korean one for me.

Both of those things were strong contenders for my favourite dish, but so were the fries. We’d picked the tastefully renamed Kyiv fries which were loaded up with little nubbins of fried chicken, confit garlic butter (apparently), garlic mayo and an avalanche of Parmesan. Yours for seven pounds, and in my book easily worth that. I didn’t really get the garlic butter, and the overall effect was almost like a portion of chips covered in a really potent Caesar dressing. But even once the Parmesan and the mayo had run out – which they only did towards the end – what was left were gorgeous, still-crispy chips. So often this kind of dish is a way to charge more for fries and conceal how poor they are, the old street food confidence trick, but here every single element was best in class. “These have to be the best loaded fries I’ve ever had” was Zoë’s verdict. I completely agree.

If I’ve saved the burgers til last it’s almost because, with everything else, we arguably didn’t need them. And if they didn’t quite scale the heights of our other food it’s simply because that had set a tricky standard to meet. But the chicken burger itself was extremely good – generously proportioned, again in that top notch coating and holding up against everything dumped on top of it. It was breast rather than thigh, and although thigh would always be my preference this was excellent, tender stuff. I imagine it’s brined, or soaked in buttermilk or unicorn’s tears and all that bla, but however they do it, it comes out superbly.

Zoe had hers – the “Holy Cluck”, don’t you know – with brie, bacon, garlic mayo and onion marmalade and was an enormous fan of it, but for me that oozing brie would have been overkill.

I’d chosen the “Proper Filth” – let’s not go into how this kind of food tries to present poor hygiene as a good thing – and I loved it. Instead of brie it has smoked cheese and that, along with bacon and a decent barbecue sauce gave the whole thing a hulking whack of smoke that worked beautifully. I’d have preferred the bacon streaky and better cooked, but I’ve been saying that about most of the bacon I’ve encountered for many years and I don’t expect that to change any time soon. The bacon was the weakest element of the burger, the burger was the weakest element of the meal, but by weakest I just mean “least utterly excellent”. It was still utterly excellent.

One thing I found odd about the restaurant was that although they took your order at the table, they gave you the option to settle up by scanning a QR code. We did that, and I suppose I can see it’s convenient, but it felt jarring that you could just pay your bill and sneak out into the night without human contact. I partly say that because the service was excellent all round. It was surprisingly apologetic too – I think our food came out in around forty minutes and what with the gorgeous beer, and the buzz, and the feeling of being on holiday that was perfectly fine with us. Maybe it wouldn’t have been with other tables, but they really didn’t need to say sorry for making us wait. If anything, it gave me confidence in the food.

At the end the chap who had mostly looked after us came over, we chatted about fried chicken in general and the places we were keen to tick off in London (Chick ‘n’ Sours has been on my list for as long as I can remember) and I got a clear impression that the people who worked here loved food, loved Eat The Bird’s food and cared about food and service in general. It’s always nice when you’re served by someone who is as interested in restaurants as you are, something that also happened the last time I went to COR.

Our bill, which we’d already paid by then, came to sixty-three pounds not including tip, for all that food and a couple of two-thirds each of the house beer. Personally I thought that was solid value – especially when someone more sensible, less greedy, less on vacation and less of a tourist would most likely have spent less.

I know a review like this is all a bit “what I did on my holidays”. Exeter, of all places: some of you will never read it, many of you will never go there. But the point is that you have to try the Eat The Birds of this world to understand why the likes of Popeyes are so desperately pisspoor. You have to eat the unhyped stuff, sometimes, to understand that the hyped stuff is all smoke and mirrors.

If you want Reading to have ambition, you need to try and work out who its role models should be. And places like Eat The Bird – small, independent, growing cautiously and still clearly taking pride in everything they do – are the kinds of places we should be getting. They’re also the places we don’t get, and that is a worry.

Full and happy, we wandered out into the night and ended up at a place called Little Drop Of Poison – also on Fore Street – which was a captivating jumble of styles. There were old men drinking cask, hogging big tables, who had probably been drinking there since before it was a craft beer place and were too stubborn to switch their allegiance. There were a bunch of impossibly young people, one of them still wearing his staff t-shirt from Boston Tea Party, congregated around the pool table drinking the kind of brightly coloured ciders I hurt my liver with when I was their age.

And finally, in a cosy table near some twinkling lights, there were Zoë and I, taking advantage of beer lines full of obscure treats – IPAs from a little brewery I’d never heard of in Worthing, pastry sours from Poland’s Funky Fluid, imperial stouts packed with chocolate and chilli by Põhjala, brewed in Tallinn. It was just a quietish Wednesday night, but I felt a real gratitude to the city for showing me just a fraction of the stuff that doubtless made it a lovely place in which to live. So I silently raised a glass to Ruth, even if I hadn’t wound up drinking in one of her recommended pubs, because she was right after all. Exeter has an awful lot going for it.

Eat The Bird – 8.3
183 Sidwell Street, Exeter, EX4 6RD
01392 258737

Restaurant review: You Me Sushi

2022 was the Year Of The Sushi Restaurant in Reading: you waited ages for somewhere to come along to challenge Sushimania and the bigger chains, and then three came along practically at once. The most upmarket, grown-up proposition was Intoku, which I reviewed last year (tl;dr – great food, everything else was problematic). But the other two – what are the chances? – opened a few doors and a few weeks apart on Friar Street last summer.

One, Iro Sushi, took the tiny site previously occupied by Raayo, which I reviewed last year (tl;dr – a nice pulled pork panini I was sorry to see the back of). The other, You Me Sushi, was bigger, the latest franchise in a chain previously confined to London. Before that, that site was home to the now defunct STA Travel, something I only know because I Googled it. It’s sad, I always think, when you can’t remember what something used to be.

Both Iro Sushi and You Me Sushi are far more aimed at the casual grab and go market, closer rivals to Itsu than to Yo!, I would say. I don’t think either sells alcohol and although both are open until the evening they feel more like lunch venues, somewhere you would eat without necessarily hanging about. Both are on delivery apps, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a reasonable amount of their custom comes through that channel. Size is a factor there: Iro only has about five stools, two facing the bar and three looking out of the window, while You Me has a smattering of tables and maybe twenty or so covers.

You nearly got a review of either of them this week. Zoë and I wandered in that direction ready to take our chances, but although my heart said Iro (besides, somebody told me they make everything to order whereas You Me has readymade sushi on display) there were people sitting up at the window there, whereas You Me was empty. So the choice was made, although I did wonder in the back of my mind whether You Me Sushi was empty for a reason.

It’s perfectly pleasant, if a tad sterile, inside. They have some of the same furniture, I think, as Kokoro and it’s very much reminiscent of the likes of Kokoro and ThaiGrr! – functional, utilitarian, lacking in any homeliness (unless your home resembles a dentist’s waiting room). It’s mostly black and white – one black wall, a white tiled kitchen at the back – although a bright graphic on one wall adds colour and character.

This might sound like a basic error, and I’m not sure if it’s mine or theirs, but there aren’t any menus on the table. A lot of premade sushi boxes are on display in the fridge – a very good range, in fact – but it wasn’t clear to me until later that there were menus up at the counter and you don’t have to limit yourself to what you can see. That was very much my mistake, but I still found it weird to not make the menus a little more visible.

Most of the stuff they had out were the more expensive sushi rolls or selection boxes, but even then prices weren’t eye-watering: nearly all the boxes on delay were under or at the ten pound mark, and they also had some reliable staples like avocado maki. Over the counter illuminated menus offered soups and hot dishes – the latter very reminiscent of the sort of thing you can get at Kokoro – along with poke bowls, something which always seems to be huge whenever I go to Europe but which hasn’t really caught on in this country. From my photo one of their screens was out – maybe that’s where the more conventional bits of the menu should have been.

When I did eventually get a look at the menu, I saw that you could get a decent range of maki, uramaki, temaki, nigiri and sashimi – along with something called the “crazy crunchy roll” – at reasonable prices. So you don’t have to take your pick from the fridge and, in most cases, they’ll make it there and then for you like Iro, their near neighbours. They also apparently offer free delivery for orders over twelve pounds – I have no idea what the small print on that is, or how on earth it’s viable, but it’s worth knowing.

Anyway, by then I had grabbed a bunch of stuff from the fridges, which along with a couple of soft drinks came to just over twenty-four pounds. I told myself that if we liked it, and we were still hungry, we could always go up and order some more stuff.

First up, something called the “salmon box” which, confusingly, wasn’t all salmon. Nigiri, never my favourite, were actually really nicely done and I loved the salmon and avocado maki, arguably the best entry-level sushi out there. But the real pick, for me, was the salmon free zone: the California roll, with crab stick and avocado, the pop of tobiko and the elevating factor, a smidge of wasabi. Just enough to lend an edge without shouting everything down. I really loved it. Just over ten pounds for this, although I think they’re meant to charge more if you eat in – looking at my bill, I think they forgot to do so.

Avocado maki are an absolute must-order for me and I liked You Me Sushi’s a great deal. Ever so slightly raggedly rolled – the nori didn’t join up on all of them – but at under two quid for a dozen I was very much not complaining. You could hit their twelve pound delivery threshold by just ordering a fuckton of these and you (well I, anyway) could have a very enjoyable meal.

Last but not least, we’d also chosen the crunchy salmon box. Now in hindsight I probably should have picked something with a little more variety – a lot of this review could basically be summed up as “textures of salmon” – but even so it was very enjoyable. The crunch here was partly supplied by some crispy onion, of the sort you used to get in plastic tubs and sprinkle over salad, glued on with something like Kewpie mayo, and by little batons of finely sliced cucumber, in the mix along with the ever-present avocado. Seven fifty for this and, again, very respectable at this price point.

Having eaten and enjoyed everything we had, sipping away on a rather nice ginger and lemon kombucha (unusually, You Me Sushi sells multiple kombuchas), I was seized with the thought that by picking from the stuff already in the fridge we may not have given the place a fair crack of the whip or tried enough of what they had to offer. So we conferred over the menu, and I went up and ordered a few more dishes at the total cost of another twenty-six pounds. I know, the lengths I go to for you lot. Looking beyond the counter I could see the kitchen behind, all precision knife work and efficiency, and it made me glad that I hadn’t left it there.

They offer salmon sashimi either as it comes or seared, and for scientific purposes we ordered one of each. It was a beautiful piece of salmon and although it was interesting to see how searing slightly changed the buttery texture of the fish I’m not sure it was worth the extra quid to have them do that and then scatter some sesame seeds over it. They weren’t the most generous cuts of salmon though – slightly thin slivers that draped limply over the chopsticks. It’s also worth mentioning that even if you order at the counter to eat in, everything comes in disposable plastic trays. That didn’t sit easily with me: I really hope they do plenty of recycling.

Last but not least we tried soft shell crab, one of my favourite things, in temaki, big conical hand rolls. The crab itself, still warm, was delicious with just enough crunch. But it had to carry the whole show. There was tobiko but not enough, a spiced mayo but not enough, avocado but not enough and so on. Just past the halfway mark there was nothing really left but rice, and it was time to give up.

Short and sweet this week, then, a little like You Me Sushi itself. By my reckoning we can’t have been there much longer than forty-five minutes – and that’s ordering two rounds of dishes, so you can probably see why I think this is definitely a quick lunch spot more than anything else. And this is where I do slightly worry about the place, because I’m not sure that people in a hurry want to drop fifty quid on sushi, even when it’s decent value and surprisingly good.

That second bit, the “surprisingly good” part, bears repeating. You Me Sushi had the misfortune that I visited it the day after eating sushi from Misugo, possibly my favourite Japanese restaurant in the world. And I’ll say this for the place – if their sushi wasn’t quite as good at Misugo’s, it was far, far closer to it in quality than I was expecting. Add in a pleasant, if functional, room to eat in and very friendly, polite and efficient staff and you have something of a surprise package.

When you also factor in their free delivery for orders over twelve quid – an offer that, even as I type it out, still seems too good to be true – You Me Sushi may have a viable business on its hands. I very much hope so, because it definitely adds to Reading’s food scene, especially in the town centre. It isn’t really a competitor to Intoku or Sushimania, nor a like for like comparison either. But I would choose it over drab old Itsu eleven times out of ten. Fingers crossed enough people do likewise.

You Me Sushi – 7.4
150 Friar Street, RG1 1HE
0118 2290616

Restaurant review: Popeyes

Yes, Popeyes. Now, I imagine some of you think it must be Shooting Fish In A Barrel Week here on Edible Reading, that I’ve gone for the easy option of punching down for those sweet, sweet clicks. And who can blame you? Fried chicken restaurant Popeyes is the latest, though by no means the last, big American chain to touch down in Reading, continuing a trend that began with Five Guys ten years ago and which, if anything, is accelerating. You know this already, I’m sure: we’ve also had Chick Fil-A, Wingstop, Taco Bell and, of course, Wendy’s.

And, just as with Wendy’s, from the moment the news broke about Popeyes our local press – what’s left of it – went completely gaga. OMG Popeyes is coming to Reading! it gushed last March, followed by It’s going to be in the old Gap store on Broad Street! in November. I especially loved the photo caption – always a Berkshire Live speciality – saying “Popeyes is an American restaurant that sells fried chicken” (who writes them, Mr Chips from Catchphrase?)

“Customers can now sign up for updates about when the new Reading Popeyes will open and a lucky few are in with a chance of being invited to the grand opening of the store” said an article, suspending any remaining critical faculties. But why sign up for updates when you can just read Berkshire Live as it pumps out more free advertising for a well-backed business which doesn’t need it?

So a couple of months ago Berkshire Live confirmed that Popeyes was opening on the 23rd February, and that the first two people in the queue for the first three days would win a year’s supply of chicken sandwiches. It must have been a slow news day on the 22nd February because it ran almost exactly the same story again: copying and pasting from TripAdvisor is bad enough, but copying and pasting from your own website must be a new low.

I hope after doing all that free advertising for Popeyes the drones at Reach plc at least got some free food in return, you might be thinking. Well, don’t worry – they did! “I was lucky enough to be invited down to the Reading restaurant for a sneak preview of what the international chicken chain has to offer”, an article began. “With celebrity fans including Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian, I’ve been eager to try their famous Louisiana cooking for quite some time.”

You might be astonished to find that our local Reach plc publication absolutely loved its free food: I know I was. “I tried Reading’s Popeyes and was blown away by one thing” said the headline, although the article then raved about both the chicken sandwich and the Cajun fries, so even that was an inaccurate report of their own meal. By my reckoning Berkshire Live sounds like it had two meal deals, so it sold its soul for twenty quid: that’s roughly what it’s worth. “If I was walking through town, wondering where to stop for a quick bite to eat, I’d head straight there” it concluded. Talk about a plot twist!

Not to single Reach plc out, the Reading Chronicle managed an even more glowing writeup of its free scran, although one that copied out more of the accompanying press release. “This burger is put together like a piece of art…” it enthused, with a touch of hyperbole. “Every bite makes you want another and by the time you know it you’ll be buying another portion.” Pretty potent stuff for a chicken burger you might think, but apparently, it had the author’s “jaw hitting the floor”. The overall impression was that Popeyes made Pulp Fiction’s legendary Big Kahuna burger taste like the contents of a warm food recycling bin. Two local journalists can’t be wrong, can they?

So yes, the scene is set for me to give Popeyes the time honoured kicking that I’ve doled out, over the years, to the likes of TGI Friday, Taco Bell, even Wingstop. But here’s the thing: my antipathy towards big American chains and the homogenisation of Reading is on the record and has been for years. And yet, on the other hand, I really love fried chicken. Always have. I love it in all its forms, from a crafty KFC to Blue Collar’s legendary Gurt Wings, from Bristol’s Wing’s Diner to the Lyndhurst’s karaage chicken to Clay’s Kitchen’s payyoli chicken fry and everything in between. The crunch and yield, the seasoning and the sauce: there’s nothing else out there quite like it.

It’s a proper Achilles heel and if I found a good one I doubt I’d care if the restaurant serving it was the property of a holding company co-owned by Elon Musk, Tim Martin and Scrooge McDuck. And all the talk and hype about Popeyes, about how its chicken sandwich “broke the internet” back in 2019, raises at least the possibility that it could be a game changer. So we have a classic scenario: what happens when an irresistible force (my love of fried chicken) meets an immovable body (my disdain for big American chains)? If you know the answer already you were one step ahead of me when Zoë and I stepped through those doors on Broad Street on a Bank Holiday Monday afternoon.

It’s hard to believe the interior had ever been a Gap, that much is true. But beyond that I’m not sure what there is to say – there are big touch screens at the front on which you can place your order, there’s a counter right at the back and there are loads of very functional-looking wipe-clean tables, most of which are occupied at any given time. If it sounds like I’ve described McDonald’s, there’s a reason for that: it’s not that different from one (and I actually went to the McDonald’s on Friar Street a few months ago – after an afternoon and evening on the sauce, in my defence – so I vaguely know what I’m talking about).

So yes, it’s a big cacophonous space where you sit, eat your food and sod off. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but let’s not pretend it’s a masterpiece of interior design that will make you long to linger. It’s almost designed to be just insufferable enough that you vacate your table nice and quickly so they can make money off the next group to plonk themselves down there. Someone on Twitter said to me that the interior was much nicer than KFC. I’m not sure it is, really, I think it’s just a lot newer.

Although you can order at the big touchscreens – and I hope for their sake they’re more effective than the ticket machines in Reading Station – there’s also a QR code on the table so you can grab a seat and look at the menu at your leisure. Not that it will take long, because Popeyes does chicken, chicken and chicken. Oh, and something called a Creole Red Bean Sandwich, for vegetarians who are dragged to Popeyes by friends or family who don’t much like them. But beyond that, it’s just how you want your chicken: in a bun, on the bone, on the wing or as tenders. The only other permutation is whether you want it regular or spicy.

Oh, and the sandwiches are either normal or “Deluxe”. Want to guess what Deluxe means? It means they charge you an extra pound and give you cheese and some lettuce. I know we’re in the middle of a salad shortage, but when did salad become a luxury item? Is it only a luxury to people who are going to Popeyes for dinner? It’s a puzzle. Anyway, sandwiches are six or seven pounds, if you bundle them with fries and a soft drink you’re spending something like a tenner. I don’t eat in Popeyes’ peers often enough to tell you if that is especially expensive in relative terms, but in absolute terms it’s pretty affordable.

We decided to try a little of everything so we placed our order, which came to just under twenty-eight pounds, all in, and waited the grand total of six minutes before a tray was brought to our table. They bring you the food, but you have to go up and get your own drinks – I’m not sure why. Weirdly they also charge twenty-five pence extra for fat Coke, although I’m not sure how they enforce that.

The fact that everything I’m about to describe are iterations of the same dead animal in one of two different coatings might make what follows a tad monotonous. Let’s whip through it. I’d chosen the classic sandwich, the one that allegedly broke the internet. Those two local articles I’d read raved about how huge it was, as if they’d somehow deep fried some ostrich; it’s not a meagre burger, but it’s not colossal. The one thing the articles did get right was the crunch: the crunch Popeyes achieves is quite something. It does have that almost-brittle snap spot on, and the coating adheres to the burger perfectly. That’s the good news.

The bad news, and I’m not sure how they managed this, is just how little it tastes of anything. It’s all very well raving about how huge and thick the burger is, but if the coating is bland it just means that however tender the flesh underneath is the whole shebang feels like a bit of a chore. And that, sadly, is how I felt about it. With KFC, there’s no mistaking that blend of herbs and spices. It’s not for everyone, and it’s probably just as well I don’t know what goes into it, but it tastes of something. It leaves you gasping for a cold drink, it dehydrates the inside of your mouth with every bite. But it tastes of something, and afterwards you feel like you’ve done something disreputable but indulgent.

Popeyes’ burger, on the other hand, could have been produced on a 3D printer and I’m not sure I’d have been any the wiser. A splodge of mayo and some watery slices of gherkin weren’t going to change that.

Popeyes’ fries, especially their Cajun fries, also come in for a lot of praise. I quite enjoyed them, actually – they had good crunch and the dusting of Cajun seasoning (yours for an extra quid) definitely added a dimension. But they were lukewarm when they arrived and cold not long after that, one of the most basic things fast food restaurants have to get right. KFC used to get a lot of stick for its fries and it worked on improving them: they’re still not best in class, but they’re not noticeably worse than Popeyes’. Zoë dunked hers in some ranch dip, which apparently improved matters.

Being fancy, Zoë had gone for the spicy Deluxe burger – just look at that luxury iceberg lettuce – and had similar feedback to mine. “It’s okay, but it’s not that spicy and it’s really not that special. To be honest, I prefer the McSpicy.” McDonalds put the McSpicy back on its menu permanently in February, apparently: it’s almost like they knew Popeyes was coming. If I went to Popeyes again, I’d be tempted to order this just to see if it supplied the so what factor, but, as you’ve probably already guessed, that’s unlikely to happen this side of Christmas.

For completeness we also had chicken without bread in a slightly different shape or, as the menu likes to call them, tenders. And again, the disconnect between looks and taste couldn’t be starker. These look the part: they look like they’re going to taste amazing. And when you bite into one, your teeth tell you you’re in for a treat, with that almost audible crunch. And beyond that? Nothing much.

If you dip them into something, they at least taste of the dip but that, I’m afraid, is as far as it goes. I tried them with a “Bold BBQ”, which really wasn’t, and a “Red Hot Honey” dip which I rather liked, despite it not being especially hot. It was more like a sort of sweet chilli number, and perfectly agreeable (I looked on the label on the lid of the plastic tub: the main ingredient was water).

Zoë also had some chicken wings, thrown in as part of a promo the restaurant was doing. I almost forgot she’d ordered them, in the course of writing this, but that’s okay because I think she almost forgot eating them too.

So, let’s recap. The sandwich may have broken the internet, but this review will not. Throughout my meal, my jaw remained resolutely undropped. I didn’t have one bite after another until, as if possessed by some kind of hypnotic superpower, I wandered over to the touchscreens, zombie-like, to order another portion. Sorry to piss on anybody’s (Cajun) chips, but if this restaurant was half as good as Berkshire Live and the Reading Chronicle said it was, it would be ten times as good as it actually is.

And yet this isn’t a hatchet job, and the mark below isn’t savage. And why’s that? Because, I’m sorry to say, it’s so boring. It’s not terrible food – not like Taco Bell, or Wingstop – it’s just bang average with a thick dusting of weapons-grade hype. I’ve always thought chains opening in Reading shouldn’t be a problem if they do something nobody else does, or if they do it better than everybody else. The best chains, like Honest, understand that.

But on either of those counts, Popeyes falls flat on its face. You can get a chicken burger in countless places, and most of them are easily as good as theirs. Honest’s has gone from strength to strength, even Blue Collar Corner is doing one at the moment – it’s a little bland, but at least it’s chicken thigh and it’s still probably more exciting than Popeyes. And speaking of Blue Collar, if it’s fried chicken you want Gurt Wings is in the market Friday lunchtimes and their tenders knock the spots off Popeyes’,

I’m not even angry, and I can’t bring myself to hate Popeyes. It’s good that people are excited about it, even if that’s mainly because they’re excitable, and bringing new jobs to the town centre can only be a good thing. But while I was eating it, and as I cogitated on it afterwards, I couldn’t help thinking, in the immortal words of Peggy Lee, is that all there is? Is this all it takes to get half a dozen articles in the local press, while newcomers like San Sicario get ignored?

It frustrates me that people think Reading is so easily mugged off with the latest shiny thing, that nobody wants to look beyond the obvious to the people and places that make this town so interesting. Why even now are we, as a town, so happy to settle for second best? I can already picture Reading Borough Council’s bid for city status in 2026: Look, we’ve got a Popeyes!

Just this once – and these are words I never thought I’d say on the blog – I’ll leave the last word to Beyoncé. She may have got a lifetime loyalty card from the restaurant, but that was back in 2003. What does she say nowadays?

“I can’t really eat it anymore.”

Popeyes – 6.5
107-108 Broad Street, RG1 2AX
0330 1758760