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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A: Naomi Lowe, Nibsy’s

Naomi Lowe set up Nibsy’s, Reading’s first dedicated gluten-free café, in Cross Street in 2014, following a career in investment management. In the last five years the café has gone from strength to strength and remains Reading’s only venue specifically catering to this sector of the market. Nibsy’s won the Reading Retail Award for Best Café in 2017. Naomi is currently writing her first book of recipes. She lives with her husband and two children off the Oxford Road.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
Losing my “rhythm” and not being able to see my mum.

What’s the biggest difference you notice between corporate life and running a café?
Corporate life was easy. Running a coffee shop takes a lot more out of me (but gives back, too). I could go on about the differences and sacrifices I’ve had to make, but the reward and the team, the people and the sense of achievement are worth the effort.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The Oxford Road – it feels like home. And I like that Reading is big enough to feel anonymous but small enough to have a sense of community.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I feel like I should say L’Ortolan as it was the most expensive and memorable meal (it was a birthday present). But the happy memories are of when I used to grab a bag of chips from Smarts fish and chip shop in Henley and sit by the river with my boyfriend, now husband. They were consistently the best chips I’ve ever eaten. I don’t think they are run by the same people anymore.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
I’ve been calling a regular customer Martin for five years. He recently started following our Instagram page and it turns out his name is Tom. I’ll put that right when we re-open.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Eating digestive biscuits in bed, which my mum would bring me as a late night snack when I was a toddler.

How do you relax?
With a smoke and glass of wine, in the garden.

You opened Nibsy’s six years ago. How much do you think the food scene has changed for the gluten intolerant since then?
Massively changed for the better – it’s rare to go out and not have a few decent options. 

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
Probably Pho. There’s one dish that I always have –  the vermicelli noodles with mushroom and tofu. I don’t eat out very often, and am a sucker for sticking to what I like. Plus, I am comfortable eating there on my own: as I get older, “me time” is like gold.

What is your favourite word?
Tricky, but the first two words that come to mind are “bobble” and “yes”. Sorry, these are pretty random! But I’ll explain: “bobble” because it sounds like a happy word. And “yes” because it was the first word I ever said, and is generally a positive word.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
I suppose I’d have to say E.T. because it’s the film I’ve watched more than any other. Although my seven year old is watching Ratatouille on repeat at the moment and I love it: the story, the music, and the message “anyone can cook”. That’s nice to hear while I’m writing the recipe book. Series wise, the one I have watched twice is Breaking Bad: nothing else has come close.

Who are your biggest influences in the world of food and drink?
John Richardson, because of the knowledge he shares in his help books for coffee shop and café owners, and Gordon Ramsay because I love Kitchen Nightmares.

Where is your happy place?
At my mum’s little place in north-west London or my dad’s, in the south of France in a sleepy village called Auzas. Nothing happens there, the church bell rings every hour – even through the night – but the calm and fresh air is like nothing else. And he makes a great curry and plays his old vinyl.

Normally I ask people what their favourite crisps are. What’s your favourite gluten-free snack?
No, crisps ARE my go-to snack. My favourite brand is the special large bag of salt and vinegar ones that the Co-op do – I love these because they are so salty and vinegary. Otherwise, a specifically gluten-free snack would be the granola bars that we make and sell at the coffee shop.

What is the worst job you’ve done?
A temp job in my early twenties, in a virtually windowless building just off Oxford Street. I answered calls and filled in job sheets for engineers to fix faulty toilets and equipment. I was mostly on my own, which was the worst part. I only stuck at it a week or two.

What is your most unappealing habit?
I wanted to ask my husband for help on this one. He said “screaming at your husband.”

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Late night scoops of crunchy peanut butter before bed.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
Having racked my brain, there’s only one actress that springs to mind – Julia Stiles.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I’m distantly related to Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula.

Describe yourself in three words.
Warm, pragmatic, thinker.

Q&A: Glen Dinning, Blue Collar

Glen Dinning has been the mastermind behind Blue Collar Street Food for nearly four years, going from running a street food stall cooking burgers to a weekly food market, adding Cheese Feast and Feastival in Forbury Gardens as major events in Reading’s food calendar. In 2018 he won the Pride Of Reading Award for Entrepreneur Of The Year, and last year he was awarded the contract to provide the match day food at the Madejski Stadium, making Reading’s fans some of the best-fed in the UK. He lives with his girlfriend in West Reading.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
Street food, pubs, restaurants, football, everything. I’m desperate to get back to work – I’ve volunteered but can see myself being more of a hindrance than help.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Trying apple crumble for the first time. I still can’t get enough of it – brown sugar instead of white is the key. 

What’s the worst street food pitch you’ve ever heard?
Someone once rang to pitch their entomophagy stall (the practice of eating insects). At the time I had no idea what it meant so just nodded along until I looked it up, horrified, later. I’m all for giving things a go but the conversation with Environmental Health would’ve been a difficult one.

You’ve been running Blue Collar for coming up to four years. What’s the most ridiculous situation you’ve found yourself in?
Early on, a rival organiser tried to sabotage our events by getting their food traders to sign up, but pull out at the last minute leaving empty pitches. On a more positive note, the celebrations for Blue Collar’s first game at Reading FC ended at the bar with Sir John Madejski, Ady Williams and a drunken phone call to one of my heroes, former manager Brian McDermott.

What words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Do you know what I mean?”

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The independent scene in our town continues to build. You can have breakfast at Yolk, lunch at Vegivores or Shed and dinner at Bakery House, Clays or Geo Café and have an experience unique to Reading. The independent coffee places and pubs were thriving – before Coronavirus hit I genuinely thought in ten years’ time we would have an identity of our own as strong as Bristol or Oxford, but now I’m not so sure: everything is up in the air.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Obama, Gervais, Robin Friday and Don King – he’s a controversial figure but the best salesman there’s ever been.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
The Godfather.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
A meal at José, a tapas restaurant in London by the Spanish chef José Pizarro, had a big impact on me. It’s a tiny space, about four hundred square feet, walk ins only and the menus are chalked up daily depending on what’s available. The food is always brilliant and eaten stood up, with wooden barrels to rest small plates on. It’s a different kind of dining experience but there’s such a buzz to it, it’s so authentic and I’d love to try and open something like that one day. On the finer dining side of things, I really like Dinner by Heston and Manchester House by Aidan Byrne.

What’s your most unappealing habit?
Snoring.

Where will you go for your first meal after lockdown?
Bakery House for the chicken shawarma.

What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?
If you find a job you love, you’ll never work again.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
The original Hula Hoop.

Where is your happy place?
A long boozy lunch in the sunshine.

What would you be doing in life if you weren’t running Blue Collar?
I had visions of being a comedy agent and promoter for a while and started a little business hiring out pub function rooms, booking comedians and selling tickets. It led to a job selling shows at the Edinburgh Festival and was fun, but I think I’d find it difficult to enjoy something that isn’t food and drink related now. 

How do you relax?
When I started Blue Collar I was still young enough to be able to drink heavily to get through stressful times and not wake up with a monster hangover the next day. More recently, I’ve jumped on every fad going – my girlfriend has tried to get me into yoga during isolation but I’m not sure my body is designed to bend that way.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
If we’re being honest, it would be a low budget project that would go straight to DVD. A former Hollyoaks star would probably be the best I could hope for.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Cheese. The smellier the better.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
My first little food business was selling chocolate bars in the school playground when I was eleven. I used to dabble in a few other things too, like watches and pens, but then Jamie Oliver came along and banned schools from selling sweets in vending machines. It meant my only competition was gone and my sales went through the roof. I owe that man a Wispa.

Describe yourself in three words.
Ambitious, friendly, foodie.

The Hero Of Maida, Maida Vale

Despite the name, over six and a half years I’ve reviewed lots of restaurants which aren’t in Reading. To paraphrase David Brent, my world doesn’t end with these four walls. When I’m finished with Reading, there’s Henley, Windsor, Wokingham. You know. Newbury. Goring. Because I am my own boss.

Bracknell.

But I’ve always steered clear of reviewing London restaurants. I suppose part of that is analysis paralysis: how would you even go about picking which restaurants to visit? There are hundreds of London restaurant bloggers (not to mention influencers) swarming around all the hottest new restaurants, all the must-visit openings, so it’s hard to imagine anybody would be interested in my (provincial) opinion. And how useful would it be to my regular readers? You might be in London from time to time, but how likely would you be to go out of your way to try somewhere on my say-so? That’s why I’ve always stayed in my lane, remaining local with the occasional foray further afield on the train.

So what changed? Well, recently one of the restaurant bloggers I read wrote a review of a little Malaysian restaurant just round the corner from Paddington Station. It did what, in an ideal world, all restaurant reviews would do: it made me feel like checking the place out. After all, I’m in London reasonably often, I nearly always come home via Paddington and having decent food options to explore while I wait for an off peak train would be a very welcome development. I Retweeted the review, plenty of people showed an interest and at that point I decided: there would be no harm in adding the occasional review of venues in and around Paddington, to help out if you are in London and want to try out a good restaurant before coming home.

I picked Maida Vale for my first London review because that area has always been one of my favourite parts of the city. You leave Paddington by the exit that takes you right out onto the Grand Union Canal, turn left and meander past all the boats and the offices of Paddington Basin, the fancy gleaming bars and restaurants that have sprung up to cater for all those workers. Cross one of the pretty bridges you come to and you’re in Little Venice, ten minutes’ walk or a single Tube stop from Paddington but a world away in all important respects.

It’s loveliest in summer, but at any time it’s a house envy-inducing stroll. The Warwick Castle, tucked away on a sidestreet, is a lovely mews pub and not far from there is the equally gorgeous Formosa Street with the Prince Alfred, a cracking public house with little booths where you have to duck under a low door to pass from one to the next. If I didn’t have such a magnificent local already, I might well spend my days wishing it was mine.

The Hero Of Maida is just a little further out, on the border between Little Venice and Maida Vale, and in a previous incarnation it used to be called the Truscott Arms. I had a friend who worked in London and I used to go down after work on a Friday afternoon to meet her for a boozy dinner in that neck of the woods. We’d always stop for one last snifter at the Truscott Arms – it closed later than other establishments – before weaving back to the station and drunkenly going our separate ways, me on the Burger King Express back to Reading and her on a terrifying-sounding night bus to Tooting.

I was sad when the Truscott Arms closed but when I heard it had reopened as the Hero Of Maida under the supervision of Henry Harris (of legendary Knightsbridge restaurant Racine) offering a take on classic French cooking, I made a mental note to visit one day. So on a sunny weekday lunchtime my friend John and I paid it a visit, to finally break my London reviewing duck.

It’s a very handsome, light, airy room that instantly draws you in – tasteful muted tones, an attractive wooden floor, gorgeous tiles and a long, curving zinc bar. There’s a separate restaurant area upstairs (open in the evenings but not at lunchtime) but I didn’t feel I was missing out. Lovely tables, too, with button-backed banquettes looking out. It was quiet when we turned up, with a solitary customer plugged in and tapping away on his computer. We sat at the front by the windows, making the most of the afternoon light, although I did wish after a while that we’d grabbed a banquette. On the plus side it means my photographs are better than usual, but the drawback was that poor John was caught in a direct shaft of sun for some of the meal and had to keep shuffling his chair to one side.

The menu changes regularly and on the day we visited it was compact and appealing – just five starters, four mains and a sharing dish (pie for two, an offer I always find hard to refuse). A blackboard behind the bar offered a few other dishes, and although they were listed as bar food they seemed equally restauranty to me. Crucially, one was the same pie in an individual portion: a great relief, because it meant I didn’t have to implore John to change his mind. On another day I would have gone for another special: crispy lamb breast with salsa verde, six almost unimprovable words. “It’s National Pie Week”, our waiter told me, and in the end that made my decision for me.

There was a good selection of beers and we were slightly early for our booking so we started with a pint. My Notting Helles was pleasant enough, if not the most imaginative choice, but John enthused about his pint of Peckham Rye, a very nice-looking amber ale. Later I wished I’d gone for the coffee stout by Magic Rock, but we’d moved on to wine by then. It was a pretty decent wine list too, with plenty available by the carafe, but we settled on a chardonnay from the Languedoc which came in at just over thirty pounds for a bottle. It sounds odd to praise a wine based on all the things it wasn’t, but at the risk of sounding like Goldilocks it somehow seemed appropriate: not too dry, not too sweet, not too oaky, not too expensive. The list said it was a good alternative to a white Burgundy, and I thought that was spot on.

I’d been sorely tempted by the steak tartare, but with a pie on the way I decided to balance light and shade a bit by choosing a more delicate starter. Ibériko tomatoes with burrata felt more a test of sourcing than cooking, but even so I really enjoyed it.

The tomatoes weren’t as good as ones I’d rhapsodised over in Spain but they were close enough, with plenty of freshness and a judicious spot of salt. The burrata felt more like mozzarella to me – completely firm in the middle without any of the glorious creamy messiness of a good burrata – but that struck me rather than irked me. The salsa verde brought it all together, as did some greenery which wasn’t listed and which I didn’t recognise. It had a slightly vinegary bite but I couldn’t place what it was – not samphire, not salty fingers, not (I think) monk’s beard, but a perfect match in any event. Winning enough to overcome a couple of slight missteps: a dish, in many ways, emblematic of the whole meal.

John had chosen grilled mackerel with ‘nduja which, again, is a combination that sat up and begged to be chosen. I thought it looked fantastic, with a generous whack of the fiery, brick-red good stuff. John liked it, but not without reservations.

“I like the skin to be crispy, and this is a bit, well, flaccid. Flaccid is never a good word, is it?”

“No, it’s like damp. ‘Moist’ can be a good thing, but ‘damp’ never is.”

“There’s always ‘wipe down with a damp cloth’, I suppose” said John, equably. “Something else about this dish isn’t quite right. This stuff.”

That’s how we discovered that John, like me, is not a fan of radicchio – although, as a man who gets a vegetable box weekly, he’s very fortunate to only just be figuring that out. I understood though – again, the radicchio wasn’t mentioned on the menu and it did slightly skew the dish. I didn’t get to taste it, but from the look of the plate, also strewn with wild garlic and capers, I think I would have enjoyed it. John did find a few sizeable bones which had escaped the filleting process, though, another glitch that rankled.

John was properly delighted with his main course, though. Guinea fowl came two ways, with a hefty piece of the breast and a gorgeous-looking thigh complete with crispy skin. It was all on top of some silky celeriac puree, along with a big, coarse wedge of smoked Morteau sausage – we Googled it to make sure it was nothing like andouillette – and, apparently, “tropea onion”.

“This is lovely. I’m usually more of a starters man and main courses can feel like a bit of a let-down, so it’s a real pleasure to get such a good main course. And it’s a really big portion of guinea fowl, I wasn’t expecting that.”

I thought that was a good point – this didn’t feel like a little, cheffy plate assembled with tweezers but a proper, hearty dish put together with the diner firmly in mind. Good value at nineteen pounds, too.

My pie was, as so often, more a casserole wearing a hat and the pastry lacked the indulgence of a good suet crust. But underneath, you hit paydirt: a sticky tangle of slow-cooked lamb shoulder and a rich, savoury sauce, punctuated by coarsely chopped garlic and carrot. The greens that came with it were nice enough taken for a swim in the pie filling, but hardly the feature attraction. The whole thing was delicious but it just didn’t feel as much like a proper pie as I’d hoped; it was best described as high-ceilinged, with plenty of breathing space between the filling and the crust.

Many of these niggles were redeemed by the Hero Of Maida’s chips, which were as good as any I’ve had – huge, ragged-edged things, all crunch and fluff. I was initially dubious because they came skin-on, but even that didn’t detract. They were four pounds a portion, and I was relieved that John and I had the foresight (or greed) to order one each. I used mine to absorb every last molecule of the sauce left in my pie dish.

The dessert menu was also compact – just the four options – but we were on a roll and had no intention of letting that stop us. The list of dessert wines was equally streamlined, but we found a Coteaux de L’Aubance on it which was stunning, the colour of late summer afternoons with a clean, poised sweetness. The first sip was one of those little heavenly moments you want to remember for ages: our food so far had been lovely, the only plans for the rest of the day were a bimble from pub to pub talking about all sorts and, in my mind, I was an honorary resident of Maida Vale already.

Desserts were inconsistent in the same way as the starters, but the kitchen had garnered enough brownie points by then to earn some latitude. So for instance, my lemon posset was all out of kilter: far too big, and too cloying without the sharpness it badly needed to cut through. Instead, it felt like a big bowl of something very close to clotted cream and the crumbled amaretti biscuits all over it didn’t do enough to counteract that. It wasn’t what I ordered, or what I really wanted, but on the other hand there are worse things to do in life than eat a large bowl of clotted cream and, when push came to shove, I found I didn’t mind at all.

John’s rhubarb and custard pavlova sounded terrific on paper but again, wasn’t quite there. The rhubarb, John said, was delicious and he really enjoyed the hazelnut praline which played an equally starring role. “But this meringue”, he said, “I hate to say this but it feels shop-bought.” I saw him struggle to break it up and it seemed to be lacking any of the chewiness which would have made the dish perfect. Even so, I looked at his dessert and thought that I would gladly have ordered it myself.

Service, from one chap who seemed to be doing everything that lunchtime, was friendly without being faux-matey, knowledgeable and happy to talk about the dishes and offer recommendations. Again, it might be that if you came to the Hero Of Maida of an evening or on a busy Sunday lunchtime you might have a different experience, but I thought we were really well looked after. Three courses, a couple of pints, a bottle of white wine and two glasses of dessert wine came to just over a hundred and fifty pounds, including that old chestnut the “optional” twelve and a half per cent service charge. You could eat here for less, but I thought it was decent value.

You’ll have read all of this and you’ll already have an idea about whether the Hero Of Maida is the kind of place for you. You might think it’s ever so slightly too far from Paddington or a little too expensive, but I really enjoyed the place. And to save you the effort of questioning my verdict, I’ve already asked myself: was I being charitable because I was having such a nice afternoon? Was I letting the restaurant off the hook when, closer to home, I might have been harsher?

I don’t know. It’s possible. Maybe I was looking at the world through dessert wine-tinted glasses but if so, all I can say is that I thoroughly recommend doing so. Next time you’re in London and you’re on an off-peak ticket you could do a lot worse than booking the Hero Of Maida, especially when summer comes, and crossing the canal to treat yourself to something different before riding the rails back to Gare du ‘Ding. Make sure you get some chips: you’ll thank me for it.

The Hero Of Maida – 7.5
55 Shirland Road, London, W9 2JD
020 39609109

https://theheromaidavale.co.uk

Sen Sushi

I’ve always, I think, been a contrarian at heart. I really don’t like being told what to do. Few things irk me more than people using that Twitter trope “Retweet if you agree” (often I do agree, but I never Retweet). Or when someone tells you to “drop everything and read this”. I used to have a very opinionated friend who was always telling me what I should listen to or read: weekends away at his house in Kent were a bit like being in the musical equivalent of North Korea, being educated in whatever records 6 Music had told him to like that month.

The contrarian in me is why you get a review of Sen Sushi, the little Japanese restaurant at the Three Tuns end of the Wokingham Road, today. I know everybody wants to read a review of Osaka, the gleaming new Japanese restaurant in the Oracle. I completely understand why – the fit out looks superb, the menu has an impressive range and the buzz so far has been good. But something in me thought: what about Sen Sushi? It’s been there a few years, I had it recommended to me recently, and if not now, when would I go? So I hopped on a number 17 bus with my partner in crime Zoë to see if Reading had an undiscovered gem I hadn’t got round to visiting yet.

It’s a little restaurant that can probably seat less than twenty people. The front room has stools up at the window looking out, and a low table complete with tatami where you can sit cross-legged, provided you take your shoes off first. The back room has about half a dozen seats up at the counter where you can watch your sushi and sashimi being prepared. Behind the counter are a fryer and a gas range with four big weathered-looking woks, shiny with oil. That’s where we decided to sit, close to the action, and we had our pick of seats as we were the first customers that evening.

At this point, I pontificated to Zoë about how in many restaurants, being able to see the kitchen up close was considered a positive selling point. However (as we shall see) as the evening went on I started to wonder if it was such a good thing after all.

The menu was pretty big and covered all bases – hot starters, sushi and sashimi, rice and noodle dishes. We decided to try a bit of everything, but started with sushi and sashimi. Our waitress was lovely and polite but giving her our order was an interesting convoluted affair – she then went into the other room, printed off a ticket and came back to put it on the counter for the two chefs doing the cooking and prep. Admittedly, this made more sense when I realised that Sen Sushi also gets a fair amount of takeaway orders which also join the queue.

It really was fascinating watching as one of the chefs flattened the rice on the mat and cut strips of tuna, rolling the whole thing in front of us. Or seeing a beautiful piece of salmon come out of the fridge and be precisely cut into slices with an ultra-sharp Global knife. The wonderful thing about sitting at the counter is that there’s no hiding place in the kitchen: I found myself quite transported by the whole affair, and could have gawped at it for ages. I was possibly more transfixed than Zoë, who by this point was wondering why they hadn’t switched the heater on and was considering wandering over to the coat rack to retrieve her scarf.

The salmon sashimi was easily the nicest thing I ate at Sen Sushi – a really fine piece of salmon, beautifully marbled, soft and buttery. It was better than any sashimi I’ve had in Reading and probably up there with my favourite Japanese restaurants. The spicy tuna maki and avocado maki were fine but no more than that – initially they forgot that the tuna maki were meant to be spicy so they were whisked away and topped with a blob of sauce and a sprinkling of what I think was togarashi. Zoë thought they were a little ragged and lacking in uniformity, I was inclined to be a bit more charitable. Those reserves of goodwill got used up throughout the rest of the meal.

For our second round, we went for chicken gyoza, karaage (Japanese fried chicken) and, just to break up the chicken motif, some soft shell crab maki. The problem with sitting at the counter is that there’s no hiding place in the kitchen, so we saw a chef retrieve a tupperware container full of dumplings and another full of chicken nuggets – I thought it was from the fridge, Zoë reckoned the freezer – and put them in the fryer. Only the soft shell crab was done there and then, battered and then put in the fryer.

All three dishes were moved between the two fryers at what felt like random intervals, so I’m not sure how Sen Sushi would keep, say, vegetarian gyoza separate from the fried chicken. That’s especially ironic because I’m pretty sure they gave us vegetarian gyoza by mistake. They were oddly claggy, and the filling felt bulked out with something stodgy like potato. Zoë generously said I could have her last one and I said “no, I insist”, a sad inversion of how those discussions are meant to go with good gyoza.

Ignorance is bliss, and I wonder how I would have felt about the fried chicken if I hadn’t seen it being decanted from tupperware in front of my very eyes. I probably would have liked it more – the edges were nicely gnarly and crispy, and the meat was tender enough. But normally karaage comes with mayonnaise on the side, whereas Sen Sushi slathered the whole thing with wasabi mayo and a fruity sauce. Wasabi is strong enough, and enough of an acquired taste, that they should have left that choice to the diner: I found it off-putting. “You should have the extra piece, you’re hungrier than I am” I said to Zoë: a transparent attempt to dress up my lack of enthusiasm as gallantry.

Soft shell crab is one of my favourite things, so I was sorry that Sen Sushi’s maki also fell short. They looked the part, a fairly generous portion, the rice studded with tobiko, but putting both cucumber and avocado in with the crab and then drizzling the whole thing with mayonnaise and fruity sauce crowded out the flavours and felt like overkill. They were poorly rolled, too – half of the rolls weren’t closed off properly and fell apart when we tried to pick them up with chopsticks. I saw the chef struggling with rolling them: he had a couple of attempts and then clearly thought Fuck it and had one last half-hearted stab at massaging the sushi rice into the gap. Again, there’s no hiding place in an open kitchen.

What I was also quickly discovering about sitting next to an open kitchen was that it was impossible to have an honest conversation with your dining companion about whether the food was any good. “What do you think?” said Zoë. “Mmm” I replied, non-committally and in earshot.

Being overheard was even more of a problem when the mains turned up, because they were the low point of the meal. Zoë’s teriyaki udon noodles with char sui came in a high-sided, thick rimmed ceramic bowl. She whispered something to me which I couldn’t make out but which I was later told was “dog bowl”. And it’s true, it did look like a dog’s bowl. “I expected to get through it and see a picture of a bone on the bottom” she told me.

But there was no danger of getting through it, because it wasn’t nice at all. The noodles were thick, slippery and strangely oleaginous, the sauce bland and thin. And the char siu was nothing of the kind. Fidget & Bob’s exemplary char siu is so beautifully cooked that it falls apart when prodded with a spoon, and comes to the table anointed with a stunning sticky-sweet sauce. Sen Sushi’s char siu, by contrast, is three thick slabs of pre-cooked pork taken out of yet another tupperware container and chucked in the wok at the end to warm through. It was hard even to tear apart with your teeth, and not worth the effort.

My dish wasn’t cooked until after Zoë’s had been served up – an odd course of action in a kitchen with multiple woks and indeed multiple chefs. I had a rice bowl with braised Taiwanese pork and again, it was an unsettling thing to eat. Disturbingly uniform little cubes of pork were served in a dark sauce which managed not to be sweet, or spicy, or even savoury, just a sort of dark brown white noise. There were a few bits of spring onion scattered on top, but they just left me wishing for more food without that mushy texture.

I didn’t want to draw the parallel, but although Zoë’s dish had come in what looked like a dog’s bowl mine – chunks of meat in a thick but strangely flavourless gravy – was the one that felt like it belonged there. I ate as much as I could face. We weren’t asked why we’d left so much of our main courses, which meant that I didn’t have to fib about how full we were. That said, something about those last two dishes did make you feel unpleasantly full: they didn’t sit easily, and it wasn’t until much later the following day that I felt like eating again.

It’s a shame the food was so iffy in so many places, because the service – from the waitress and the chefs – was pleasant, friendly and attentive for most of our meal. Nice enough that I feel like a bit of a shit for slating the food, but not so nice that they asked whether we were happy with everything, or so nice that I volunteered that information. Sen Sushi does a few desserts (mostly mochi and a matcha ice cream) but we felt like we’d given them enough money already, so we paid and made our escape.

Dinner for two – all that food, two bottles of Kirin and two cans of San Pellegrino – came to just shy of sixty pounds. Perhaps I’m a traitor to the cause for pointing out the inconvenient truth that chain doesn’t necessarily mean bad and independent doesn’t necessarily mean wonderful, but I’m afraid you would get a far better return on that sixty pounds eating at Wagamama or Yo! Sushi than you would at Sen Sushi. You’d also be better off eating at Sushimania, or Kokoro, or taking the train to Windsor and eating at Misugo. And I don’t know how good a cook you are, but you’d probably also have a better meal at home doing a stir fry.

One of my favourite Japanese restaurants is a little place called Chez Taeko in Paris. It’s part of the Marché des Enfants Rouges in the Marais, and it’s just a few little benches and tables and a small menu, on a chalkboard, of sushi, bento boxes and rice bowls. All the food there is beautiful, and when I went there last winter I sat uncomfortably close to my fellow diners, under a heater, with limited elbow room in a little temporary structure like a gazebo enjoying terrific crispy chicken and rice, maki and then concrete-grey sesame ice cream, like edible Brutalism. I honestly couldn’t have been happier.

At the end when I went round the corner to pay the bill I saw the tiniest kitchen, the staff in it working flat out, serving up terrific dish after terrific dish to the lunching Parisians. I so wanted Sen Sushi to be like Chez Taeko, to have the potential to become a happy place, but it didn’t even come close.

“It really did look like a dog bowl” said Zoë when we were safely ensconced back in our house, the meal an uncomfortably recent memory. “If my mum or dad had been there when they served that up they would have wet themselves.”

“You didn’t like it at all, did you?” I said. My initial thoughts had been that the sushi was pretty good and perhaps mitigated the disappointment of the other dishes, but the more time passed, the more I felt that I was being too kind.

“No, I really didn’t. I wouldn’t go back. And it was so cold in there – they had a heater on the wall, why the fuck didn’t they switch it on? And what about the gloves?”

“The gloves?”

“Sometimes the chef was wearing blue gloves and sometimes no gloves at all. What was that about?”

“Well, he wore gloves when he was handling raw fish though, didn’t he?”

There was a pause: Zoë was clearly deciding whether to break bad news to me.

“Not always. And I didn’t appreciate one of the chefs taking a fag break while we were eating our main meals with the back door open, so I had my dinner with a side of Benson & Hedges.”

Again, I hadn’t noticed that.

“It’s a real shame,” she went on “because I wanted to like them, but that char sui was just… it wasn’t good at all.”

“You’re right, I’m afraid.”

Zoë’s accompanied me on nearly twenty reviews by now: I’m starting to think she deserves some kind of promotion (or time off for good behaviour, at the very least). As for me, I’m sure I should learn something from this whole experience. But I fear I’m far too contrarian for that.

Sen Sushi – 6.0
199 Wokingham Road, RG6 7DT
0118 9664636

https://sen-sushi-japanese-restaurant.business.site