Restaurant review: Shree Krishna Vada Pav

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Competition: Kamal’s Kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restaurant review: Flavour Of Mauritius

Over the last nine months or so, every time I’ve posted my to do list on social media and asked where people would like me to prioritise for a review the answer invariably comes back: Flavour Of Mauritius, please. That’s understandable, I think. First of all, there’s the inevitable air of novelty: Reading is excited about new places at the best of times (it’s a town, after all, that managed to get aerated about Jollibee’s) but the prospect of a Mauritian restaurant is bound to arouse the curiosity of the town’s gastronomic adventurers. What’s Mauritian food like, anyway?

The answer, it turns out, is an intriguing blend, with influences from India, China, Africa and France, resulting in dishes which are a complex cross-pollination of those influences. So some dishes, despite not seeming especially French, have French names – like the bol renversé or upside down bowl, which is far more Sino-Mauritian in character. But biryani is commonplace in Mauritian cuisine too. 

“I stayed in Mauritius for a few nights en route to Réunion once” my well-travelled friend Mike told me on FaceTime over the weekend. “I think I remember eating a lot of Creole food.” Creole food, it turns out, is another speciality of Mauritian cuisine, including dishes like vendaye (fish with onions and mustard) and rougaille. To my shame, before I did my research and wrote this review I thought the latter was just something you might use to treat male pattern baldness.

There’s another reason why Flavour Of Mauritius has been so interesting to Reading folk. We all love a good back story, and Flavour Of Mauritius definitely has one. Husband and wife team Yogeetha and Mark Faulkner had been catering Mauritian food for some time, always with the dream of opening a restaurant one day. And then, when lockdown struck in 2020, and their events were being cancelled left right and centre, they put their talents to good use offering food to hospital workers at the NHS, the police, the fire service, you name it. All told, they delivered over three thousand meals.

Off the back of that, they took the plunge later that year and signed a lease to take over part of the old Standard Tandoori site on the Caversham Road. Standard closed early last year and finally, Flavour Of Mauritius opened over the summer. So – a cuisine not represented anywhere else in Reading, a husband and wife team and the realisation of a long-held ambition: no wonder I get asked to review it so often. 

Arriving at their site around one o’clock on Saturday, I was disconcerted to find the place empty. Not just empty, but sort of closed-looking: no lights on, no music, no signs of anybody there. We loitered for a few minutes, and then a staff member came out from the kitchen and it was as if someone had put a coin in the meter: on came the lights, the music started and suddenly an empty room was a restaurant again.

They’ve done a nice job doing it up, I think. The walls are covered with bright colourful images, some of the brickwork has been painted too and the bar does look a little like a beach bar. They’ve converted part of the front to a kiosk, with a straw roof, selling Mauritian delicacies. I imagine at night, when the place is fuller, it could have a lovely atmosphere. 

All that said the front of the restaurant, with light from the windows, felt like a better place to sit: I’m not sure I’d have wanted to be at the back where things seemed a little dingier. A couple more tables were taken during our lunch but truthfully, it was on the quiet side throughout and I was painfully aware that I might not be judging the ambience at its absolute best.

The menu was wide enough to offer choice but sensibly, didn’t feel overwhelming. Many of the starters are fritter-based (confusingly called gateau on the menu) although there are a few samosas and other bits and bobs: I was disappointed to see that the spicy chicken livers on the menu online hadn’t made it across to the hard copy. Mains are a real mixture of curries, biryani, fried rice, noodles, stir fry and a couple of Mauritian specialities. Nothing is expensive – few of the starters creep past a fiver and only a few mains cost more than a tenner.

Service was friendly and helpful, and the wait staff talked us through some of the dishes – recommending some fritters and explaining the difference between the plethora of rice dishes on offer. We started with a crisp cold beer – looking at something resembling a beach bar will do that to you – and I was delighted that they stocked Phoenix, Mauritius’ very own lager which has been made on the island since the Sixties. It was everything you want from that first beer, that almost-holiday feeling in a bottle. Would I be able to tell it apart from Peroni in a blind tasting? Probably not. Did I find it immeasurably cheering that they stocked it instead of Peroni? Absolutely.

I’ve just remembered that I should also mention the wine list, mainly because it’s surprisingly good. Most of it is thirty pounds and under with some whites that I imagine would pair very well with many of the dishes. It was especially welcome to see a few whites by New Zealand producer Greywacke, at sensible prices. The wine list was definitely better than it needed to be, and I’ll make inroads into it next time I go.

Our starters took a little while to come out, which I found a hugely reassuring sign. These felt like they were made there and then, not fished out of a freezer. We’d started with a selection of fritters, and they turned out to be an excellent choice. I’d seen lots of good reviews online of the cabbage fritters (gateau le choux, don’t you know) and they were completely justified – delicious, greaseless, crispy morsels like the bhaji’s slightly more well-to-do cousin. 

And the chickpea fritters, the gateau piment were also very enjoyable, a crunchier, more rugged variation on falafel. They’d been recommended to me on Twitter, and I’m glad I took the advice. Both sets of fritters went nicely with a fresh mint chutney, with a little hot sauce in a dish on the side to give things edge. Each dish cost less than three pounds, which is a steal any way you want to look at it.

I wasn’t quite so wowed by the third of our starters. We’d hoped to try the lamb samosas, but they were out of them (again, a reassuring sign) so we went for the fish pasties. These were little things filled with minced fish which felt a little too close to Shippams for my liking, and although a dab of that hot sauce improved matters I did feel it was probably concealing rather than augmenting the taste of the dish. This dish cost a smidge over four pounds: if you go to Flavour Of Mauritius, order more fritters instead. 

There was a nice sociable pause between courses, enough to grab some more Phoenix, and I found myself looking forward to what came next. And, in the main, it lived up to the promise. Let’s start with the best dish first, the Mauritian fried noodles. We’d chosen these with chicken, but they ended up coming to the table with both chicken and egg (and no, I don’t know which came first). 

Either way, it was an excellent dish – generous, rich, glossy and absolutely delicious. Everything was just right, and the sauce which coated every strand of every noodle was the star player: sweetly smoky, with more of ketjap manis than soy about it. It dialled up the contrast on everything else, making the chicken more tender, the ribbons of still-firm carrot bright and harmoniously sweet. You might think here he goes, enthusing about chow mein again, and if you do I’d say that (a) I don’t care and (b) at seven pounds fifty you’d be a fool not to order this.

The lamb stir fry was also excellent, with a plethora of veg. The lamb was the headline act here, though, rich and earthy and properly tasting of lamb, not some pale imitation. What I liked a lot about this dish was that I approached it expecting the sauce to be broadly similar to that in the noodle dish, and nothing could have been further from the truth: it still had that lustrous silkiness, true, but there was a good punch to it. If anything, the dish was on the drier side, which meant that there wasn’t enough for the rice to do: I imagine if you order one of their curries, you won’t have that problem.

The only duff note was the vendaye. This dish is served cold (you know, like revenge) but I found it extremely challenging. It was slightly tough pieces of fried fish, some containing a few more bones than I’d have liked, with almost-raw onion, coriander and a spice mix involving industrial quantities of mustard seed. The whole thing was dry in more ways than one. It needed a little moisture, some oil to make it less of a slog. “It’s not for me” said Zoë, almost immediately annexing the rest of the stir fried lamb.

But also, it almost felt dusty on the palate, and the mustard was overpowering. If you can’t get enough of mustard and raw onion, I can confidently say that all your Christmasses have come at once and you really should hightail it to Flavour Of Mauritius at your earliest opportunity. But this, to me, was what my friend Ivor likes to refer to as “advanced”. I fully expect that it’s nothing if not authentic, and I’m glad I can say I’ve tried it, but I’m equally glad I won’t have to try it again. It was also, weirdly, one of the most expensive dishes on the menu. Flavour Of Mauritius has octopus vendaye on the menu too, and I’m glad I didn’t mar my many happy octopus memories by ordering it.

Although service had been pretty attentive during the first part of our meal, it died away after we’d finished our mains. Despite there only being three tables, our finished dishes sat in front of us for quite some time. And that’s a real shame, because if they’d been whisked away I suspect we’d have ordered dessert – the dessert menu was full of interesting things – but the longer you wait the longer your mind has to register that your stomach is actually full. 

By this point a chap who I imagine was the co-owner was doing the rounds and again, he was likeable, chatty and personable. If he’s running the front of house there and you were in the restaurant on a Friday or Saturday night, I can imagine the experience would be completely different: I can see myself going back, further down the line, to put that theory to the test. But as it was we got the bill, settled up and headed off to Phantom for some liquid dessert in the shape of a chocolate dipped pineapple imperial stout which rather knocked my socks off. Our meal came to sixty-two pounds, which includes an optional fifteen per cent tip: I saw some people on TripAdvisor bitching about that, but that’s TripAdvisor for you.

The place Flavour Of Mauritius reminds me most of in Reading is probably O Portugues: authentic, charming and a little rough around the edges. I think in both restaurants you could have a fantastic meal or a distinctly less fantastic one, because each menu contains pitfalls. In one, you could end up with that dusty vendaye, in the other there’s always a risk of a bowl of minuscule snails. And that’s where both places, where all restaurants, to be honest, could use someone like Kungfu Kitchen’s Jo, Geo Café’s Keti or Nandana at Clay’s – a great communicator who knows that food is all about stories, and that you need to bring an unfamiliar cuisine to life to win hearts, minds and stomachs. 

It may be that on another night, Flavour Of Mauritius does that, but it was missing during my visit. But none the less, Flavour Of Mauritius has plenty of heart and I think it deserves support. Even if you just go for the fritters, some fried noodles and an ice cold Phoenix on your first visit, you could do a lot worse. And maybe you can explore the rest of the menu from there: I imagine it contains many pleasant surprises. They have a great back story, like I said. But now they need to do a little more to tell all those other stories.

Flavour Of Mauritius – 7.4
143-145 Caversham Road, Reading, RG1 8AU
0118 4375694

https://www.flavourofmauritius.co.uk
Delivery via: Deliveroo, Uber Eats

Restaurant DIY kit review: Côte At Home

I’ve always liked Côte’s food. And I’m a big fan of eating nice meals at home, especially when the wind is howling outside and the garden is relentlessly battered with rain. So this week, I thought I’d see whether it’s possible to appreciate both at the same time.

Côte’s always been arguably my favourite of Reading’s chains and if the last two years had been anything like the two before that, I’ve no doubt that I’d have eaten there a fair few times. Grabbing one of their outside tables on a sunny day for their prix fixe when I couldn’t be arsed to cook, for example, or having a weekend brunch there and enjoying their soft, crumbly boudin noir. And if they’d been on delivery apps, you can bet you’d have read a review of that last year. 

But Côte chose a different path, an interesting one that differs from most other chains – and most other restaurants, come to that. Instead of doing takeaways, in the summer of 2020 Côte launched Côte At Home, offering a subsection of their menu that can be easily heated at home. It makes sense, when you think about it: Côte prepared some of their meals in a central kitchen and finished them in the restaurant as it was, and this model converted what you could see as a pre-pandemic weakness into a distinct advantage after Covid-19 struck. 

My experiences of heat at home restaurant kits, especially this year, usually left me thinking that I’d eaten a glorified ready meal at inflated prices. Côte offers a simplified version at far closer to ready meal prices, so I wanted to see if they made a case for a better heat at home model. And pricing isn’t the only difference between Côte’s model and operators like Dishpatch. They clearly benefit from scale because they deliver every day, with free delivery if you spend over forty pounds. You have to order forty-eight hours in advance, although some items qualify for express delivery, which means they reach you quicker. 

It isn’t difficult to spend forty quid. Everything is crazily affordable – think five pounds for starters, ten to fifteen for mains, and a fiver for dessert – but they also sell a good range of French cheeses, plenty of wine and beer, steak, sausages and confit duck. The latter comes in at an astonishing four pounds fifty a leg, making it miles better value than my meh-fest at Andrew Edmunds. I picked up a three course meal for two, and added a couple of bottles of Meteor to nudge it over the forty pound threshold (it’s a shame they don’t add their Breton cidre to the website: they’re missing a trick there).

Another contrast between my previous restaurant DIY kit experiences and Côte At Home was how user-friendly delivery was. With the others, you pay over ten pounds for delivery and essentially, they reserve the right to turn up at any point during the day. With Côte At Home, if you pay five pounds they’ll make sure it reaches you before noon. So lo and behold, it was with me first thing in very natty packaging. Inside the box there were an impressive four ice packs, and everything was fetchingly branded. A slip inside explained that literally all of the packaging was recyclable, too. Stowing it all away in the fridge I felt properly curious and excited about the meal that lay ahead, even if it’s the hope that kills you. 

This meal gave me an excuse to try out Côte At Home’s bread, which you finish off in the oven. Back in the day – by which I mean 2014 – I thought that Côte’s bread was the best in Reading, and although many bakers, artisan and otherwise, have wafted through town in the last eight years I still think Côte’s beats most restaurants round here, so I wanted to see how the heat at home stuff compares. And the answer was reasonably well – not up there with, say, Geo Café’s sourdough baguette straight out of the oven that morning (not much hits that exalted standard) but far better than the pasty part-baked baguettes you pick up from a supermarket. They throw in some salted French butter: a nice touch, but really we’d bought the bread to pair with our two starters. 

Of the two, as so often, Zoë’s was better. Smoked salmon rillette was properly lovely stuff, a very generous portion in a handsome ceramic pot (“that will be handy for olives”, she said later) with just enough smoked salmon in the mix to give it a wonderfully wintry taste without overpowering matters. It was a model of simplicity – fish, crème fraîche, capers, shallots and herbs – and extremely good value at four pounds fifty. Most of the Côte at home starters are chilled, with a couple you either heat up on the hob or in the oven, but this one struck me as the pick of the bunch.

It was certainly nicer than my chicken liver parfait, also served in one of those pots. And don’t get me wrong, it was earthy, smooth and reasonably indulgent. But it was hidden under a permacrust of clarified butter that was a little too thick and too much like hard work. And fundamentally it just wasn’t the smoked salmon rillette: food envy had set in at that point, and nothing would redeem it. It did make me wish I’d ordered some cornichons to accompany it – a snip at two pounds – or better still, had the foresight to have some in the cupboard. 

But again, to put this in perspective, if I’d been served this dish in a restaurant I’d have been quite happy with it. And in a restaurant it wouldn’t have cost five pounds. With all the restaurant kits I’d ordered so far it felt like the price was inflated for what you got – I’m sure Côte At Home benefit greatly from economies of scale, and having that central kitchen, but it does give you an idea just how cheaply you can deliver this model.

I’d like to say that the main course lived up to that promise, but it didn’t quite. Again, it was impressive value: a beef bourguignon for two people, with potato purée thrown in, set you back fifteen pounds, less than you’d pay for a single portion in a restaurant. But there was some inconsistency, both in how you cooked it and how it tasted. Some of Côte At Home’s dishes, like the potato purée, only come with instructions for microwave cooking and for those of us without a microwave that can be frustrating: you’d think they’ve had figured out alternative instructions by now.

That said, the potato puree – which I had to improvise, decant and heat up in the oven – was really very good. It was rich, silky and buttery: in short, far better than anything I could rustle up at home and streets ahead of anything you can buy in supermarkets. More expensive than an M&S “ultimate mash” (though not by much) but easily worth the money. 

The problem was the bourguignon. In fairness, when I looked at it there in its plastic tray, brown sludge at the bottom and highlighter-pen-pink nuggets of bacon on top, I thought Oh dear, this just looks like a ready meal. And I was partly wrong, because some lovely alchemy happened in the oven and it came out thoroughly looking the part. And the taste was decent – the onions had softened and sweetened beautifully and the sauce, if thinner than I’d have liked, had all the right notes in the right order. 

But a dish like this stands or falls on the star ingredient, and the beef was variable at best. One bit was so tough and fibrous that I gave up trying to cut through it, another was so unpleasantly gristly that I had to abort mid-chew. A dish like this about the right cuts of meat slow-cooked into submission, and there’s no excuse for something this bouncy or unpleasant. “I don’t know what you’re talking about” said Zoë. “All of mine was fine”. So it’s not all bad: if you order this you might get lucky, but don’t be surprised if your other half pulls faces.

We’d gone for a vegetable side of minted peas with baby onions and baby gem lettuce – and again, it only came with instructions for microwave cooking. It reheated just fine on the hob, though, and I liked the dish a lot – the peas still slightly nutty, the mint and garlic butter playing nicely together – but it was a tad annoying that they’d not thought about non microwave users. And the website could do more, I think, to highlight dishes that are microwave only than have a little sentence squirrelled away that says cooking instructions, ready to microwave. But again, a minor irritation in a pleasant, perfectly serviceable meal.

Although Côte At Home sells a tarte aux pommes – which you definitely don’t have to bung in a microwave – and a very tempting lemon posset, along with a cracking selection of cheese including Morbier, Roquefort and one of my very favourites, Saint Marcellin, Zoë and I both found it impossible to stay away from the chocolate mousse. And again, this was close to the restaurant experience at a far lower cost: for three pounds seventy-five you got a dish that would cost you one pound fifty more if you dined in.

And again, it was difficult to distinguish from the mousse I’ve eaten many times over the years at Côte. It was incredibly smooth and glossy, with either very fine bubbles or no bubbles at all, and if I had one criticism it would be that what’s described as a dark chocolate mousse feels about as dark as an episode of The Repair Shop. But looking back at my review of Côte eight years ago I ordered the chocolate mousse for dessert and said almost exactly the same thing. So you can hardly fault them for consistency.

So, with the exception of that unforgivably bouncy meat, Côte At Home was hard to fault. Incredibly generous portions, a routinely high level of quality, a supremely convenient delivery experience and great packaging. And of course you can add cheese, or wine, or confit duck to your order and suddenly it goes from a single meal in to a combination of a brilliant midweek supper and a trip to the deli. So why do I feel like there’s a slight underlying note of being underwhelmed in this week’s review? Do you feel that too?

I’ve been pondering that all week, and I think it comes down to the fact that a restaurant is so much more than its food. Part of they joy of eating in Côte, of what a treat it is, is how convivial it can be – the hubbub, the people watching – and that it can be done on the spur of the moment. It is, as eating out always should be, a bit of a special event. And takeaways can be like that too. I’m sure that at their best – although I’m yet to experience this myself – restaurant DIY kits also feel like a treat. And Côte At Home’s genius is also their biggest drawback: something about it feels unspecial. It really does sit in a new space between ready meals and takeaways, and it’s such a new space that I don’t really know how I feel about it.

And if you need any more evidence that this is an evolving area, you don’t have to look any further than Ocado. Because if you fire up your computer to place an order with Ocado (and if you do, I recommend the M&S “Our Best Ever Steak Pie”: it’s miles better than this week’s bourguignon) you’ll find some dishes from Côte At Home in there. You’ll also find options from Pasta Evangelists, another of the earliest ventures delivering restaurant quality food to your doorstep. And if they don’t appeal, you could just pick up a steak from Hawksmoor. 

The lines are getting blurred, and with that come plusses and minuses; you can get fancier versions of the convenience you’re used to, but the experience of treating yourself might lose some of its magic. Convenience, I’m increasingly starting to think, often has that effect. So I would cautiously say that you should give Côte At Home a try. I’m sure I’ll use them again, if only to enjoy confit duck and potato gratin one midweek evening (with a selection of cheese for later on). But I do worry that we’ll reach a stage, to paraphrase George Orwell, where we’ll look from ready meal to DIY kit, and from DIY kit to ready meal, and from ready meal to DIY kit again, but already it will be impossible to say which is which.

Côte At Home

https://coteathome.co.uk (or via Ocado)

Restaurant review: Zero Degrees

There is a parallel universe in which this week’s review is of ThaiGrrr!, the Thai place in Queens Walk whose takeaway I so enjoyed earlier in the year. I’d had a tip-off that the place was almost deserted early in the evening, and so I fully intended to pay it a visit and write it up properly. I’d like to live in that parallel universe. But in that parallel universe I didn’t walk into it and think “what in Christ’s name is that smell?” 

And it wasn’t just me – Zoë looked at me and said “this place smells like our old cat’s litter tray”. We waited a minute and the stench – no other word would do – did not abate. And it didn’t feel like an odour to which one could, or would want to, acclimatise. I bumped into the person who’d suggested ThaiGrr! the following day at Blue Collar and told him of our experience. “That’s such a shame, it’s never smelled like that when I’ve gone there” he said. Maybe they were having problems with their drains: I imagine at some point I’ll go back and give it another try. A couple of tables were occupied, possibly by people who hadn’t yet realised that they had Covid.

There’s another parallel universe where, having passed on ThaiGrrr!, we walked home and ordered a takeaway for me to review this week. I’d rather like to live in that parallel universe too, but I’m afraid on the way back we walked past Zero Degrees and Zoë, not unreasonably, said “that place has been on your list to re-review for some time”. And looking in the window it was practically deserted. That made it a safe place to review but, with hindsight, I should have taken the hint; when a restaurant that’s been trading for nearly fifteen years is dead on a school night, there’s probably a reason for that.

Zero Degrees probably needs no introduction by now, but I’ve often thought it so far ahead of its time that it wasn’t a trendsetter, more a lucky guess. Craft beer and pizza have both exploded in recent times, and yet in 2007 when Zero Degrees opened, a combination of microbrewery and pizza joint, it was relatively without fanfare. I visited it on duty in 2013, my second ever review, and it’s fair to say that I wasn’t impressed. “It should be marvellous, but it isn’t”, I said. In addition, and re-reading this I wonder if my trip there this week was via some kind of wormhole in time, I said “in a big open restaurant with only four occupied tables, good service should be easier than this”. Anyway, that’s enough foreshadowing.

It is a big, handsome space, you know – with genuine, not fake, exposed brickwork, plenty of room and a nice view out on to Gun Street. We sat close to the window and far away from the only two occupied tables, both of them hugging the wall. “Just imagine if someone like Clay’s had this site” I said to Zoë. By the end of the meal – sorry, more foreshadowing – that felt like yet another parallel universe preferable to this one. 

Back in 2013 the menu had felt huge and unwieldy – too big to execute well – and little had changed eight years later. Some of the abominations on the starters and pizza section had been removed, while others (like the pizza with “Mexican sausage” or the one with crispy duck, hoisin sauce and crispy tortillas) remained. In a concession to the food trends of the last few years, burrata and ‘nduja were visible in several places. 

But the menu still felt like it was throwing everything at the wall, exposed brickwork and all, and seeing what stuck: a plethora of pizzas, five types of mussels, vegetarian and vegan food lumped in with the salads like an afterthought and plenty of pasta and risotto dishes. Overkill. Maybe if they had fewer items on the menu they would have had more time for proofreading and wouldn’t be offering customers “faltbreads” or “Ceasar salad”.

Anyway, we ordered a couple of beers while looking at the menu, and this is where the trouble began. Because, despite only having two other occupied tables in the whole restaurant, our beers just didn’t arrive. And the person we’d ordered them with disappeared. He materialised about fifteen minutes later, with no real sense of purpose, and so Zoë managed to get his attention and said we were still waiting for some drinks. He indicated that he’d heard this and promptly vanished again. 

Another quarter of an hour passed, by which point I was starting to wonder whether the other two tables had been trying to settle their bills since mid-afternoon. Zoë took the unusual step of getting up and searching for the waiter to track him down and ask where our drinks were. When I reviewed Zero Degrees in 2013 I described the wait staff as “omni-absent”: some things haven’t changed.

Personally, I’d have taken this as an opportunity to cancel the beers, escape into the night and have that takeaway I was hoping for, but I was overruled. So over half an hour after we asked for a couple of beers, when they still hadn’t arrived and against my better judgment, Zoë told the waiter we were ready to order food. We had to explain the dishes to him a couple of times, as if he’d never heard of them before.

“I don’t understand why their wait staff aren’t trained to just hop behind the bar and pull a pint” said Zoë. Me neither. And worst of all, from that point onwards it really did look like our food might come out before our drinks, but the beers just pipped them to the post. Our waiter brought them about a minute before the starters, and had thoughtfully upgraded Zoë’s from a half to a pint. She was having one of their specials, a black lager, which was described as “meh”. “It’s pretty tasteless”, she added. 

I’d chosen a Radler, having enjoyed one enormously in Malaga earlier in the month, but if I’d had my eyes closed I honestly could have mistaken it for a San Pellegrino garnished with a measly slice of lemon: there was that little to it. By this point both the other tables had managed to pay up and skedaddle, leaving us literally the only customers there. Had they shot us a look of pity on the way out, or was that just my imagination?

I wanted the food to be good, and I did try to approach it with an open mind, but I’m afraid it was downhill all the way from there. Bad things are supposed to come in threes, but you got four arancini on a plate, pointlessly drizzled with balsamic glaze, presumably to try and add some – any – flavour. The inside was a pappy mulch, with none of the advertised pea and spinach and it was hard to even make out individual grains of rice. They felt to me like something you might choose not to buy in Iceland.

Worse – because, it turned out, that was possible – was the ‘nduja. I’m used to small quantities of deep crimson, ultra-potent ‘nduja, very much the mighty atom of Italian food. I’m not used to it coming in industrial quantities, dense and fridge-cold, in a ramekin, with a leaden, fatty texture, like rillette cut with chilli powder. It was woeful, and it came served with triangles of pizza bread (garlic bread according to the menu: the menu is fibbing). The bread wasn’t unpleasant but by the time you had applied a wodge of frigid red bullshit to it, what you were left with was a claggy horror of lukewarm bread and something claiming to be ‘nduja which showed no signs of ever, ever melting. I left a lot of this.

Finally, the legendary “faltbread”, which was meant to feature mozzarella, gorgonzola and truffle oil. It only had the slightest whiff of truffle, which itself was only detectable thanks to the almost total absence of blue cheese. So a small shit pizza, then, for just under seven pounds – the price, coincidentally, of a not-small, not-shit pizza from Franco Manca.

As with the meal itself, I’m keen to bring this review to an end as quickly as possible and not prolong anybody’s suffering. So the dish I’d chosen as a main course could be described as a not-small, still-shit pizza. I’d unwisely chosen “carne asada”, which involved rump steak, smoked cheese and a basil and coriander pesto; if you look at that description and think that sounds awful then congratulations, because you’re light years ahead of me. But awful it was.

The steak was in the form of leathery slabs, any give comprehensively cooked out of them. I was hoping in vain for some marination, praying that the beef would be thinly sliced, pink in the middle and maybe strewn over the top at the end rather than cooked through. More fool me. The pesto managed not to taste of coriander or basil: instead it felt like munching on a manky hedgerow.

The mozzarella was as much of a non-smoker as I was and the other attempts to add some interest, a crude salsa of tomatoes, red onion and avocado, didn’t work. Putting cold stuff on top of a pizza, as with the ‘nduja, just made everything lukewarm, and the avocado started to go brown not long after this was set down in front of me.This cost fifteen pounds: you can get an infinitely better pizza at Buon Appetito for less.

Zoë had chosen a dish she said was a banker at Zero Degrees, something called lime and tequila chicken tagliatelle which was, gastronomically at least, of no fixed abode. And although it was better than my pizza it still wasn’t great, the pasta overcooked and clumpy with no bite. I didn’t detect any tequila but then again, given how hard it seemed to get booze out of Zero Degrees I wasn’t exactly surprised. Like the pizza it was studded with acrid, tastebud-destroying slices of chilli, and like the pizza it was about as Italian as the Dolmio puppets. The chicken was in distinctly uniform catering pack-sized mini fillets: the first one I tried was decent, the second had a slightly musty taste, as if it had been reheated.

We didn’t finish our mains, and although the second waiter who took our plates away was better than the first, largely by virtue of actually turning up, he didn’t probe as to whether we’d enjoyed our meals. By this point my only real concerns were leaving as soon as possible, opening up whatever chocolate I had at home and getting back in time for the Bake Off final on Channel 4+1. Our bill for two, including a 10% service charge I was too fatigued to knock off, came to sixty-two pounds: the final insult. 

On the way home I annoyed Zoë greatly by pointing to restaurants on the Oracle Riverside and saying “we could have had a better meal here… or here… or here”. The only place I didn’t include in that analysis was TGI Friday. As we passed the Lyndhurst, Christmas lights on and warm glow coming from the windows, I couldn’t help myself.

“Just imagine what sixty-two pounds could buy you at the Lyndie.” 

“Oh for fuck’s sake, shut up” came the understandable response.

The funniest thing, though, happened as we were leaving the restaurant. We walked through the place to leave through the exit on Bridge Street, and the bar was full. Properly full. Every single table had people at it, drinking and chatting, and it turned out that the joke was well and truly on us: Zero Degrees had plenty of staff, they simply didn’t have any of them working in the restaurant that night. Perhaps Zero Degrees has just given up on its food. Having tasted it, that makes two of us.

Zero Degrees – 4.9
9 Bridge Street, Reading, RG1 2LR
0118 9597959

https://www.zerodegrees.co.uk/restaurants/reading/
Order via: Deliveroo