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

Oishi

N.B. As of October 2019 Oishi has a hygiene rating of 1 from Reading Council.

I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten somewhere quite as apologetic as Oishi, the new Japanese restaurant on the Oxford Road. I turned up on a Wednesday evening to find the place completely empty; I asked the waitress whether it was okay to have a table for two, and she mumbled something about how most people come in to get takeaway, or phone up for delivery. That didn’t feel like either a yes or no, but then she smiled, said “yes, sit anywhere” and gestured around her. It’s a Spartan room, but tasteful and nicely kitted out, and I took a table in the window, reasoning that if people walked past at least they’d know somebody was eating there and maybe they’d come in too.

There was further confusion when the menus were handed out. There’s no way of getting round this: they were takeaway menus, proudly advising that you could have free delivery within a three mile radius if you spent fifteen pounds (which, incidentally, is pretty reasonable). Not just takeaway menus, but takeaway menus for Oishi’s branch in Brentford: the telephone number had been scrubbed out and a Reading number written underneath it in scratchy blue biro. On the plus side, at least we weren’t in Brentford.

“Would you like a drink?” said the waitress.

“Do you have a drinks list?”

There was a pause, long enough for me to realise that there was no more a drinks list than there was a menu.

“We don’t serve alcohol.”

Well, I’ve had more promising starts to a meal out, I said to myself.

Anyway, that’s getting ahead of ourselves. First, the context: I’d wanted to visit Oishi ever since it opened in August. Reading has long needed a Japanese restaurant that could rival the likes of Misugo in Windsor or Kyoto Kitchen in Winchester, both of which are terrific. I’m also a fan of Oxford’s Taberu, and when they announced that they were opening a second branch down the Oxford Road I thought my prayers had been answered.

At first things went well: Taberu did the place up (previously the first home of sadly departed and much mourned Indian restaurant Bhoj – there was a lot of burnt orange to paint over) and began serving takeaway with the promise that they’d open as a proper eat-in restaurant later on. Then, somewhere along the line, it all went awry: opening as a full restaurant never happened, then Taberu closed completely and then, after much speculation, it reopened as Oishi. Oh well, at least they didn’t have to redecorate.

I especially wanted to try Oishi because I recently ordered food from Sen Sushi, Reading’s other Japanese restaurant at the opposite end of the 17 bus route, and I’d been so disappointed. Having sushi delivered on a Friday night felt like a massive treat, but what turned up was mediocre: oddly wan salmon sashimi, sinewy, badly-cut tuna sashimi, yakitori chicken skewers with a bonus knot of gristle. I wanted to support small independent businesses, but this wasn’t as good as Yo! Sushi.

My dining companion this week was my friend Jerry. Now, Jerry is a very dangerous man to go out with on a school night. He likes a drink, but he’s retired and consequently he never, ever has to get up for work the next day: many’s the time I’ve forgotten this fact and meandered home from Jerry’s flat of an evening, rather too much wine to the good, only to face a painful awakening the following morning (and a message from Jerry, fresh as a daisy, saying what a lovely evening it was). More significantly, and uniquely among people who have accompanied me on reviews, Jerry doesn’t actually read the blog, so I can say what I like about him without fear of reprisal: believe me, the temptation to claim that he sports a mohawk is considerable.

Not only that, but Jerry told me in the run up to our meal that he’d never had Japanese food before. Looking through the menu, I found myself wondering what the least intimidating dishes might be for a newcomer. The usual suspects are all present and correct – a small selection of sashimi, some sushi (maki, uramaki and hand rolls), some hot starters and a range of hot main courses – rice dishes, noodle dishes and ramen, mostly. In the end I decided to go for a sort of greatest hits: I could try and pretend this was to fully test the range of the menu, or to give Jerry the best possible introduction to Japanese food, but by now you’ve probably figured out that it was more to do with greed and hunger.

“Have you really never eaten Japanese food?”

“No, I haven’t! The closest I’ve ever got is Wagamama.”

Jerry’s education began with the classics. I have a real weakness for soft shell crab, so I ordered some soft shell crab uramaki (“I was going to put in a request for those!” he said excitedly) and they were one of the first dishes to turn up. The presentation was endearingly amateurish – I’m used to slightly more precision and focus on clean lines – but they looked good, coated in bright orange tobiko (fish roe, the wonderful stuff that pops under your teeth), plonked on a board with a small pile of ginger in one corner and a dab of wasabi in the other. They were nicely rolled with no gaps or ragged edges, and the addition of a little cucumber added a nice textural crunch. If I had a criticism it was about size (don’t let anybody ever tell you it’s not important) – I’m used to having the same dish at Misugo where it feels like a sea monster is trying to escape from the rice, whereas these were somewhat diddy by comparison. At eight pounds it was the single most expensive dish we had, and probably not quite worth that.

I also ordered tempura prawns, mainly to ease the culture shock for Jerry: most people have eaten something like this at some point in their lives, after all. They never amaze and they rarely disappoint, but actually I was quietly impressed by Oishi’s rendition. Often menus claim that it’s tempura batter but what you get is stodgy, or greasy, or you take one bite and the rest of the batter falls off. These were very nicely done indeed – light, delicate and lacking in oil. They came with a pretty anonymous dipping sauce.

“It’s all very clean-tasting, isn’t it?” said Jerry. By Jove, I thought, he’s got it.

Sashimi came next: a big test for me, especially after such an iffy experience at Sen Sushi. Oishi has a limited sashimi selection – no sea bass or mackerel here – so again I opted for the reference dishes, in this case tuna and salmon. The slices were beautifully marbled, nicely sized and well-cut, with beautiful colour to them, but again the presentation was a tad haphazard. There was no daikon and the fish was fanned out on what looked like seaweed, which slightly affected the flavour of the pieces at the bottom.

That was a pity, because otherwise the sashimi was quite beautiful. I know some people are funny about raw fish, but for me there’s something magical about salmon sashimi in particular – the almost glossy texture, the way it manages to be both oily and pure all at once. The tuna was just as good – firm, meaty and expertly cut, everything as it should be. I dipped mine lightly in soy sauce and rhapsodised, while Jerry – showing a leaning toward the ascetic that was news to me – ate his au naturel. Oh, and there were two random and completely pointless slices of lemon: if you need these, you probably shouldn’t be eating sashimi, and I imagine they’d give purists conniptions.

By this point, I was starting to feel like things might turn out rather nicely, although I was also increasingly aware that this might have been the longest I’d ever been in Jerry’s company without imbibing alcohol of some description. Not that it seemed to deter him in the slightest as he launched into a long and very entertaining story about going to a wedding in North Devon only to meet the village character, a lady of advanced years who had booted out her husband because of his failure to perform, exhausted the limited pool of locals via Tinder and ended up working in a massage parlour because she’d said, he told me, “I might as well get paid for it”. Where did he find these people? I wondered.

Jerry concluded his tale just as our – presumably slightly aghast – waitress turned up with the next dish, duck gyoza with a little dish of hoi sin for dipping. Now, these are a stable at the likes of Yo! Sushi and Wagamama, and Oishi’s were fairly similar to the gyoza you can get at those places, but even then there were little differences – some finely chopped cucumber, or possibly spring onion, in the filling just adding another dimension. Nice work.

Finally, what I suppose you’d class as our main courses arrived. I’d given Jerry first choice, after talking him through the options, and he’d gone for chicken katsu curry. “It’s sort of breadcrumbed chicken breast and rice and a curry sauce, but it’s not a really hot spicy sauce.” I said. “It’s kind of mild and creamy, you know, like a chip shop curry sauce.” I think that latter reference is what sealed it, and when it was placed in front of Jerry I realised I had inadvertently described it perfectly. It was indeed some rice, some breaded chicken and some curry sauce, all separate, practically deconstructed you could say. I used to have a friend called Fiona who had to eat every component of her meal separately – first the potatoes, then the veg, then the meat, never crossing the gastronomic streams (well, it takes all sorts). All I can say is that Fiona would have loved Oishi’s chicken katsu curry, although I wasn’t so sure about the self-assembly aspect myself.

None the less, as before, Oishi may not have got the presentation right but the content was very good indeed. The chicken was just right – a brilliant juxtaposition of crispy and tender – and although the breadcrumbs mightn’t have been panko it was far too tasty for me to care. The sauce was sweetly mild but a very long way from inoffensive, and the rice was, well, rice. I personally would have poured the sauce over the rice and chicken and had at it, but Jerry ended up dipping the chicken and forkfuls of the rice into the sauce like some kind of exotic fondue; I found it far too endearing to correct him. Oh, there was also some salad but I don’t think Jerry touched it. I kind of found that endearing too.

My main course was teriyaki chicken, and I so enjoyed it. It was a very generous portion of chicken thigh in a bowl, on top of a bed of plain rice and at first I had reservations because it looked perfectly sticky but I thought everything underneath would be dry. How wrong I was: all the teriyaki sauce had percolated through the grains of rice, leaving a glorious sweet reservoir at the bottom that simply made everything delicious. Not only that, but the dish had plenty of other stuff going on – the crunch of beansprouts, carrots and red onion, every mouthful perfect in contrasts of flavour and texture. And the chicken, although I might have liked it absolutely piping hot, was beautifully cooked. This dish was on the menu at six pounds fifty and I couldn’t believe what superb value it was – a feeling that was only marginally dented by being charged seven pounds fifty for it when the bill arrived.

Service was truly lovely thoughout – the lady who served us was so friendly and polite (after the baffled and diffident start) that it truly saddened me that there were no other customers eating in the night that we went. There was a regular stream of deliveries going out the door, and a couple turned up to pick some food up towards the end of our visit, but even so it felt forlorn to be the only people sitting there enjoying such good food. “We did have some tables in before you arrived”, the waitress told us and I fervently hoped that was the case.

Everything we ate that night, along with a Diet Coke (for Jerry: what do you take me for?) and a pomegranate green tea (for me: that’s what you should take me for) came to fifty pounds, not including tip. None of the dishes we had cost more than eight pounds and many – the katsu, the teriyaki chicken, both sets of sashimi – felt like impressive value. We left with warm – if sober – goodbyes and an steadfast conviction that we’d be back before long, which is exactly how you want to feel at the end of a trip to a restaurant.

“Wasn’t it lovely?” said Jerry, clearly a convert to Japanese food.

“It really was. Now shall we have a debrief at the Nag’s?”

“Absolutely!”

Independent restaurants, in my experience, rarely get everything right on day one, week one, or month one. Very few spring forth fully-formed and fully-realised in the way that, say, Bakery House or Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen did. They make mistakes, they learn, they correct. Early adopters are helping with the beta testing, and it’s a high wire for small restaurants: do you open before you’re totally prepared, or do you wait until everything is perfect? Taberu waited until it was ready for eat in customers which never came, and then it closed. Oishi has done it the other way round: it’s serving customers without necessarily being confident about how to do it.

And this is where we come in. Because when places like Oishi open, what they really need is customers. Not just any punters, but customers who are prepared to overlook the glitches, the lack of booze, the slightly scruffy presentation and the rather apologetic approach. But look at what you get in return: beautifully cut, delicious sashimi. Tender chicken thighs in sweet sticky sauce with the freshness of finely cut carrots. Spot on katsu curry. But more than that, you get the knowledge that you’re doing your bit, helping that restaurant to grow and evolve, to serve a community and improve a town. I think that’s a pretty good deal: but I would, because I like to think that I’m that kind of customer. I reckon some of you might be, too.


Oishi – 8.0

314 Oxford Road, RG30 1AD
0118 9599991

https://www.oishi-reading.co.uk/

The Sushi Maki, Newbury

I spotted The Sushi Maki earlier this year, on a trip to Newbury to pay a return visit to Brebis, one of my restaurants of last year. I literally did a double-take when I walked past it, on the market square: A sushi restaurant? In Newbury? Not only that, but it looked lovely – lots of little tables with people huddled round them on tasteful wooden seats which looked like a cross between chairs and stools, along with a row of diners lined up at the bar. It was bright and buzzing on a Saturday night, and I did that thing I often do when I pass a restaurant I like the look of: I slowed down to a stop outside the menu, read it and made an extensive mental note before moving on.

This is a pipe dream I know, but I occasionally daydream about getting some cool Edible Reading business cards printed and dropping them off surreptitiously in restaurants and cafes to try and spread the word. Although I can picture the front perfectly (the lion logo, printed on crisp good quality card stock) the words on the back are harder to imagine. Would it just have the website link? A quick biography of some description? One thing you could definitely include in the blurb, though, is this: Will travel for sushi.

Well, if you live in Reading you kind of have to (once you’ve tired of Yo!, anyway). But I don’t find that a hardship, because I just adore the stuff. Done well, sushi is a real art form – in the literal sense – and so once I clapped eyes on The Sushi Maki I knew that going back was inevitable, if only to see whether it could supplant Misugo, my go-to sushi restaurant in Windsor, in my affections. After all, Newbury is an awful lot easier to get to – a nicer train trip, out through the beautiful West Berkshire countryside, with none of the horrors of changing at Slough.

Returning for a weekend lunch visit the place was much more serene, but if anything with less people you could see even better what a little, tasteful restaurant it was: a handful of high tables, seats at the window and along the bar, capacity for barely more than twenty people. Smart without trying too hard, a look I particularly admire. Each place was laid out with a small bowl for soy sauce, a red paper napkin and a pair of chopsticks – just the right side of the divide between pared back and austere.

I once read somewhere that in Japan restaurants specialise, so you’ll get a sushi restaurant, or a yakitori restaurant, or a ramen joint. In that sense if no other, The Sushi Maki is authentic: the menu is small, without the distraction of bento boxes, rice or noodle dishes, katsu curry or big plates of tempura. Instead it really is practically all sushi and sashimi, mostly familiar combinations with a few daily specials up on the blackboard behind the bar.

Now, from here on in it starts to get tricky. Much as I love sushi, it turns out that it’s quite difficult to write about, mainly because it’s all variations on a theme – rice, fish and, well, some other stuff. And there’s only so much you can do to lift the monotony, especially when the main other thing you’re eating is sashimi which is made of, err, the same fish you’ve just had in the sushi, most likely. So if what follows is a bit too much like a list I’m sorry, and you’ll have to take my word for it that it was more fun to eat than it was to read about.

We started with the sushi roll selection – four lots of four sushi rolls, the daily special up on the chalkboard. Some of this was downright beautiful like my favourite, the crunchy tempura prawn, all light clean flavours, a swoosh of teriyaki on top with – and I’ve never tried this before – what seemed to be crisped rice on the outside. The same technique was used in the spicy tuna roll, which was equally tasty (although it looked like there was mayonnaise inside, which I found a tad strange). Snow crab and cucumber rolls had that jarring mayo too but even so they were a delicate delight, with shreds of crab meat and laser cut slim batons of crunchy cucumber, specks of white and black sesame seed dotted around the outside (how I love sesame!). Last but not least, the salmon and tobiko roll was probably the closest to the kind of thing you’d pick off the conveyor at Yo!, salmon and avocado on the inside but loads of tobiko – bright orange roe – on the outside (not everyone will like the idea of that, but I take a certain childlike glee in feeling those tiny spheres burst between my teeth). That selection, sixteen pieces for fourteen pounds, felt like decent value.

SushiMaki1

We did go for a second round of sushi, out of pure gluttony. I had to have the spider crab roll because soft shell crab is one of my favourite things in all the world (how do these poor creatures survive when they’re so fragile and so delicious? I’ve always wondered) and it didn’t disappoint. The crab was lightly battered and fried – fairly recently, I’d guess, because it was still warm – and formed the centrepiece of big, thick sushi rolls topped with more of the teriyaki sauce and, in something of a kitchen sink approach, more of that tobiko. Only the avocado maki disappointed – the avocado was in big buttery chunks, but the maki weren’t well rolled and the seaweed didn’t quite meet perfectly. Still, bad avocado maki is better than no avocado maki, or indeed good most other things (except Frazzles. Gotta love Frazzles).

SushiMakiCrab

Oh, and we also had something called “sunshine roll”, mainly because of the name, with sweet prawn and cucumber inside, pieces of salmon sashimi draped on top and some more teriyaki sauce and tobiko to finish it off. This was so big that biting into it would have caused it to collapse, so instead I simply distracted my companion (“is that a wolf spirit fleece that woman is wearing?”), unhooked my jaw and gave it my best shot. I just about pulled it off. Anyway, the sunshine roll was quite nice, if not standout, and by this point I did feel like I was just eating something which felt like a slightly different permutation of everything I had eaten before. And that was the problem with the sushi in general, I think. It was nice. It was pretty. It was delicate. But it was all a bit lacking in distinct personality. Or maybe I just ordered too much of it, although I’m struggling to process the concept of too much sushi.

I also tried the sashimi, out of a combination of completism and gluttony. It was all good quality, beautiful sections of marbled fish and, just like the sushi, tastefully presented. But here I was mainly struck by how much you paid for how little. So the usual suspects, the salmon and tuna, were both lovely specimens – but three pieces of the latter cost you five pounds fifty. The mackerel (three pieces for a fiver) was also delicious and came topped with spring onions in soy, one of the only attempts to jazz up the presentation at all. Again, I liked it but I was very aware that down the road in Windsor you get more sashimi for less money, and you also know it comes from the fishmonger practically next door.

SushiMaki2

The drinks were good. I had a couple of thimbles of sake (50ml each, apparently) that had a gorgeous almost sweet taste which became even better once I’d started eating the sushi, all smooth with just a hint of banana. It was at room temperature and personally I’d have preferred it chilled, but maybe that’s me being a sake heathen. My companion has a thing about drinking beer with sushi – your guess is as good as mine – and apparently the Asahi was lovely. Service throughout was polite and quiet, almost shy, although neither the waitress nor the chef appeared to be Japanese (and neither was the name on the license, to my Western mind). The restaurant was busy with groups, lone people and a fair bit of takeaway trade but I never felt ignored or neglected and the total bill for rather a lot of food, plus two drinks each, was sixty-four pounds excluding tip.

So, a nice lunch then. But nice enough? Hmm, probably not quite: at some point in the meal – possibly in between the first batch of food we ordered and the second, failing that definitely between finishing the second batch and the bill arriving – I started to realise that The Sushi Maki was not going to become my go-to sushi place. It’s not a bad restaurant, by any means, and if it was in Reading I would probably go there quite often. The people of Newbury are lucky to have it right in the centre of town, and I can see it would be a good place for a light lunch, but I couldn’t imagine spending an evening there or it being a destination of itself. I found myself longing for the low tables at Misugo, the atmospheric lighting, the wider menu. Eventually, I just found the stools a little bit too high and uncomfortable, the tables a little bit too cramped, the sushi a little too pricey, and I’m afraid that’s the moment – pardon the pun, but it’s been coming for the whole review – when the scales fell from my eyes.

The Sushi Maki – 7.3
23 Market Place, Newbury, RG14 5AA
01635 551702

http://www.thesushimaki.co.uk/

Itsu

Whatever you think of the food, Itsu’s biggest success – for me, anyway – may be how it’s transformed the bottom of Queen Victoria Street, banishing the grisly memory of temporary shop after temporary shop selling nylon shoes or mobile phone accessories. It gives that corner a certain glow, all shiny, fresh and welcoming; it’s strange how even though it’s only been open for a couple of months, it somehow feels like it’s been there forever.

It forms part of a long-established trend, which on balance is probably a good thing, of smaller, more exclusive chains picking Reading to be in the vanguard for any expansion plans. Bill’s started this, of course, and then there was Five Guys, but although Itsu is the latest it’s unlikely to be the last: West Country pizza and cider chain The Stable is rumoured to be opening on Bridge Street, and Bristol-based barbecue specialists Grillstock were linked to a site on Friar Street recently.

Itsu wasn’t top of my wish list of chains (I’d love a branch of Leon or Busaba, personally) but it’s an intriguing prospect – a place offering healthy lunches and dinners low in calories and saturated fats. Salads, smoothies, sushi, sashimi: splendid, surely? I’m one of those people who goes to Yo! Sushi with the best of intentions and then ends up ordering anything and everything the kitchen has to fry, but I decided to put my reservations (and my love of alliteration) to one side and give it a try one weekend lunchtime.

Inside, the chillers are packed full of options – sushi and sashimi on the left and salads on the right (although many of the salads are in fact on a bed of sushi rice, which in some cases can make your dish look more like maki that couldn’t be bothered to get dressed). There’s also a range of hot noodle and rice dishes which you pick up at the counter. I decided to order a little of everything – in the interests of balance, naturally – so I headed up the stairs with a heavy tray and a growing sense of excitement.

Now, before I get on to the food I’m afraid I need to wax lyrical about the view from upstairs, so feel free to skip this paragraph. It really is a gorgeous spot up there, full of tastefully done long tables with stools, USB charging points – which could come in handy if you plan to be on your iPhone for longer than, I don’t know, fifteen minutes – and most importantly a gorgeous first floor view out across town through the lovely floor to ceiling windows. In one direction you get to look up Queen Victoria Street, a symphony in Victorian red brick only equalled by the Town Hall, in the other you get to gaze out on John Lewis, one of Reading’s most handsome and iconic buildings. You can even make out, behind some of the façade, the word “HEELAS” in block capitals on the front of the building, a little detail for those of us who still think of it that way. It made me realise how few restaurants in Reading give you a view to go with your food, unless you happen to be a fan of Ed’s Diner (is anyone, I wonder?).

That architectural diversion aside, let’s start with the good news: the chicken teriyaki potsu (Itsu’s slightly twee way of saying it comes in a cardboard pot) was truly splendid. Lots of slices of tender thigh meat, so much more interesting than breast, sat on top of a big pile of brown rice, itself so much more interesting than white rice. Interesting is the right word in general, because it managed that rare trick of making sure there simply wasn’t a dull forkful – so much going on in the rice, with beans and petit pois adding a bit of crunch, leek for sweetness and little ribbons of piquant ginger running through the whole lot.

At first I thought the dish looked a little dry and that I might need to top up with the sauce bottles at the table, but digging deeper I got to the liquor, a wonderful sweet-salty mixture of teriyaki and broth that made every mouthful magnificent. If I was being critical it was warm rather than hot, but even having said that I could happily eat this every week for a year and never get bored. At little over a fiver it felt fairly priced for lunch and keenly priced for a light dinner, too.

ItsuPotsu

The sushi was less successful. An assorted pack of small maki – seven each of salmon and avocado – felt a bit clammy, claggy and unremarkable. I didn’t mind them, and at about four pounds fifty they clocked in very reasonably compared to Yo!, but they were difficult to get excited about (a shame, because I adore avocado maki). I nearly didn’t order them because I wasn’t sure how much they would tell me about the kitchen’s skills but as it turned out they were badly rolled, with most of the maki having gaps where the seaweed didn’t form a complete circle.

ItsuMaki

Prices in general are quite variable at Itsu, so although these were fairly competitive the sashimi and some of the bigger maki are priced outside the territory of a light lunch on the run. One of the salads I considered buying – a piece of rare salmon, some leaves and some dressing – was just shy of eight pounds, and I’m really not sure who out there is going to buy an eight pound salad from Itsu.

The other dish I ordered, to cover all bases, was vegetable dumplings on a bed of sushi rice. I quite liked the dumplings but quite liked is probably as far as it goes. They’d been steamed and then chilled, giving the outside a texture just the right side of cardboard, but the filling was decent enough. They were sprinkled with something that looked and tasted like togarashi which gave them a bit of oomph and the wee pot of teriyaki sauce on the side added savoury depth to the proceedings. It didn’t quite disguise that texture, but it did make them feel a bit less like a health food.

They came on a bed of rice, a thick layer of carbohydrates which didn’t remotely go and felt like hard work towards the end. You pay a quid extra to have this edible plate, and with hindsight I don’t think it was worth it. I did find myself thinking about Sapana Home, a hundred yards yet a whole world away, where you get a huge plate of freshly-assembled, freshly-cooked momo for only six pounds. I also worried about how many people would never discover Sapana Home because they never looked past Itsu’s snazzy exterior.

ItsuDumpling

I couldn’t quite bring myself to order a “raw smoothie” for just under a fiver (perhaps I’m not cut out for this whole healthy eating caper, because I just found myself thinking I could get a pint of cider and a packet of Scampi Fries in the Allied for that), so instead we went for a couple of drinks from the fridge. Coconut and lime pressé, which isn’t made by Itsu, was light and refreshing, although I got more lime than coconut. The carrot and ginger juice drink (also known as “Detox iii”: what a horror movie that would be), which is made by Itsu, was pretty grim. I was expecting something like the terrific carrot and ginger juice you can get at Bill’s but this was a nasty, thin, watery pastiche of proper juice. Looking at the label I got a vague idea why: water was the single biggest ingredient in it. It also contained a mysterious substance described only as “Thorncroft detox cordial”, which sounds about as enjoyable as an hour stuck in a lift with Gwyneth Paltrow.

That sums up my problem with Itsu, because it doesn’t make healthy eating as fun as the happy-clappy blurb on the website and the pictures of people enjoying volleyball outside the shop suggest it will be. The staff are lovely, and my hot chicken teriyaki dish was beautiful – if I went back, it would be for more of that – but still something about the place jarred with me. Even the cans of Coke in the fridge are a mingey 250ml rather than the standard issue 330ml (drink them if you absolutely must seems to be the message). The meal for two, three dishes and two drinks, came to just over eighteen pounds, which feels like a lot for what we had, especially when you think how much of it was just rice. Also, I’m just not sure when I would eat here rather than spend less and go to a café or spend more and go to a restaurant. I have no doubt that Itsu will do extremely well – the crowds already suggest I’ve got this one completely wrong – but it left me really fancying a KitKat Chunky. Or some Frazzles. Or a chip butty. Something tells me that wasn’t their intention.

Itsu – 6.6
31 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY
0118 4020979

https://www.itsu.com/locations/shops/reading_UK69.html