Pub review: Park House

I try my best, doing this restaurant reviewing lark, to visit places I think are likely to be either good or interesting, or ideally both; with a few notable exceptions, I don’t go anywhere where I think I’m definitely going to have a bad meal. And even if I have my reservations, I try to turn up with an open mind, ready to find the positives in my experience, however difficult that is. Sometimes the gods smile on me and I have a run of beautiful meals, one after the other. And that’s brilliant – exceptional meals are easier to write about, and people enjoy reading about them. Conversely, the worst thing is a run of bad meals. A succession of stinkers. That does rather break the soul.

The worst run I can remember started at the end of 2019. It began with a truly awful dinner at TGI Friday, and continued with the grisly spectacle of doner meat nachos at German Doner Kebab. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was going to the Dairy, the university bar and kitchen just down the road from the MERL. I’d always loved drinking there, especially on a hot day, but the food was bloody awful. That made three cruddy meals on the spin and nearly two months without enjoying a meal on duty: it was the kind of vale of tears that makes you seriously think about chucking the whole thing in.

Then at the start of this year, there was a surprising development: the Dairy published a completely new menu on Instagram. And it made all the right noises – beef came from the University’s farm four miles down the road, eggs were from Beechwood Farm (did you know that Beechwood Farm was run by Reading University alumni? I didn’t) and all the bread was supplied by Waring’s. Not only that, but the menu was full of the kind of things you might actually want to eat. Crispy fried chicken and pickled watermelon burger? Brisket and blue cheese ciabatta? Jerk spiced plantain and halloumi skewers? Count me in!

Something was clearly afoot at the University because a week ago Park House, its bar on campus, published a brand new spring menu. Again, it all looked distinctly tempting, and again the provenance was called out, with the beef coming from the University’s farm and name checks for the excellent Nettlebed Creamery and the Cotswolds’ Hobbs House Bakery. (Not everyone was overjoyed, mind you: I really can’t believe you won’t sell cheesy chips any more, said one comment). Park House has always been one of my very favourite places for a pint in the sunshine, but was it possible that it also offered great, affordable food under the radar? Zoë and I ventured out on a sunny spring evening to put it to the test.

It’s truly a gorgeous spot, inside and out, one of those beautiful Victorian redbrick buildings Reading so specialises in (I think I read somewhere that it’s by Alfred Waterhouse, of Reading Town Hall and Foxhill House fame: I can’t find any evidence of that, but it’s definitely in keeping). It used to be the university’s Senior Common Room, and it still has a distinctly clubbable feel inside, all dark panelled walls and solid wood floors. You could imagine trying to have an intellectual conversation in those rooms, put it that way.

And if you failed it would probably be because of the selection of beers. Park House punches well above its weight with a range many Reading pubs would envy: a dozen beers and ciders with a range of cask and keg. And again, there’s a distinctly local feel with Siren Craft, Elusive, Double-Barrelled and Phantom well represented (in fact, the most exotic drinks on the menu are from Cotswold Cider Company, a colossal 39 miles away). It doesn’t surprise me that Park House has made it onto Reading CAMRA’s Ale Trail this year and the things we tried – a couple of pales from Siren and a mild from Elusive – were yet another reminder of how well served we are in these parts for beer.

Having praised the interior, we did end up eating and drinking outside for a couple of reasons. One was that Park House was distinctly crowded: 6 o’clock on a Monday, surprisingly, seems to be peak eating and drinking time. The other, more happily, is that Park House’s outside space is a natural sun trap, and further proof – if any were needed after visiting the Nag’s Head – that there are few car parks you couldn’t improve by turning them into beer gardens. It’s a proper happy place for me, and it’s where I had my first al fresco pint last year after the longest lockdown winter of all time (14th April 2021, since you didn’t ask). So, the scene was set: was Park House going to be a surprise find, or a disappointment of The Dairy 2019 proportions? It was time to find out.

There are separate menus for breakfast and Sunday lunch, but the rest of the time Park House offers a relatively compact lunch and dinner menu – more compact than I thought, because for some reason the “Crafty Grill” section, offering burgers and hot dogs, wasn’t available. I think it’s also a Sundays only thing. So actually you have a nicely streamlined choice in front of you – less than half a dozen starters and eight mains, one of which is just a bigger portion of one of the starters. The use of “starters” and “mains” might give you the misleading idea that you can order them all at the same time to arrive at different times: don’t try this if you go there, because I just got a blank look and a polite request that you order as you go. Still, it beats the Wagamama approach of bringing anything out whenever they feel like it.

I should also add that everything is ultra-reasonably priced: most of the starters hover around the five pound mark and the vast majority of mains are less than a tenner. Laudably, they’re also trying to include calorie counts on their menu, although this seems to be a work in progress and I for one would rather they didn’t bother.

I really wanted to try the rarebit on the starters menu: Highmoor is one of Nettlebed’s finest cheeses and the thought of it bubbling away on Hobbs House sourdough – for a smidge over four pounds, into the bargain – was a delectable one. But sadly it wasn’t available, and although I was disappointed that they’d run out of either bread or cheese I was also pleased to see that they didn’t try and pass off something inferior instead.

The pick of the starters, anyway, were the smoked pork ribs. They were huge, irregular beasts that came away from the bone cleanly, and I loved the decision to give them a dry spice rub rather than slather them in sauce – so you got mustard seed, what I suspect was cumin and even some honey notes in there. They were served with a wonderfully light and clean coleslaw, and even here you could see the attention to detail, with crisp thin batons of apple and scarlet slices of chilli which added more colour than heat. Like the ribs, the coleslaw was better than it needed to be, and that’s always a winning quality.

I loved this dish, and at just under six pounds it was the kind of thing you could order just because you had a cold beer it would go perfectly with, or because the sun was out, or because it was a Monday. If only all bar food was like this. I loved it so much, in fact, that we ordered a second portion to come with our main courses: maybe there were advantages to ordering each course separately, after all.

The smoked cod croquettes were less successful, which was a pity because they leapt off the page as something I had to try. It was just weird that they came without breadcrumbs: the picture of this dish on Park House’s instagram shows the croquettes breaded, but these were lacking a coating and looked weirdly naked, as if they’d been skinned. And that had an impact in a couple of ways – it meant they didn’t have that lovely crunchy shell, but also it meant that when you cut them with a knife they sagged and deflated, like a sad party balloon.

It’s a pity, because the bones of the dish were good, with a nice whack of salt cod and a fresh and tangy tomato salsa (although again, it could have done with more heat from the chilli). Only afterwards did I realise that maybe the croquettes had no breadcrumbs for the same reason that the kitchen couldn’t serve rarebit. I daresay that if you order it, you’ll probably have better luck than I did.

Mains were uneven too but, as with the starters, the best of them showed real imagination. Confit duck salad, Zoë’s choice, was a beauty – partly because of the confit duck, which is never not good, but mostly because of what it was paired with. It could have given salad a good name, because it had so much going on – ribbons of carrot and radish for texture, segments of orange adding bright sweetness and a welcome scattering of edamame. It was all brought together by a fantastic dressing with plenty of aromatic sesame oil in the mix.

What this had in common with many great dishes from far more lauded restaurants was that every forkful could be slightly different from the last, but every bit as delicious. In an ideal world I’d have liked the duck leg to be ever so slightly bigger – so I could have tried more of it – but for less than nine pounds it was hard to fault.

I wish my fish and chips had been equally hard to fault, but it wasn’t to be. The best of it was the fish itself – beautifully cooked, the batter light, lacey and full of delicious crenellations. But the chips, which I’m pretty sure were bought in, were a little variable with a few grey patches that put me off them. There were peas, if you like that sort of thing: I don’t especially, but they were just fine. Tartare sauce was good, but there wasn’t anywhere near enough of it. And for that matter, lovely though the fish was, it was on the slender side for just over ten pounds. I couldn’t help but compare it with the colossal slab of fried leviathan you get at the Lyndhurst for eleven fifty (the Lyndhurst’s chips are miles better, too).

All in all, our meal – three starters, two mains and a pint and a half each – came to just under fifty pounds. It’s worth calling out the price of drinks in particular, too – our beers and ciders came in at around four pounds a pint, a mile away from the rarified prices you’d get in town at the Allied Arms or Blue Collar Corner.

So Park House isn’t the home run it could have been, but it was none too shabby all the same, with bags of potential. If you went there and just ate the ribs followed by the confit duck salad – Zoe’s order, but then she always picks well, present company excepted – you might well come away raving about the quality and the value. And if you went on a day when all their figurative ducks were in a row, the rarebit was on the menu and the croquettes hadn’t been flayed alive, you’d be counting the days until a return visit.

But I easily saw enough to persuade me to recommend it. The thought that had been put into the menu, the little touches in some of the dishes, the fact that they didn’t just knock up a rarebit with second-string ingredients – all of these things couldn’t help but endear me to the place. And it’s still one of the best spots, on a sunny weekend afternoon, to go with a paperback, get a drink, top up your tan and maybe accidentally-on-purpose order some ribs, because it beats yet another humdrum packet of Pipers Crisps. Are they the best bar snack in Reading? Quite possibly.

Park House – 7.3
Whiteknights Campus, University of Reading, RG6 6UA
0118 9875123

https://www.hospitalityuor.co.uk/bars-and-pubs/park-house/

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.

Café review: Raayo

Picture the scene: I found myself in the town centre on Sunday around noon with the afternoon to myself, and I figured it was the perfect time to try one of the many lunchtime options on my to do list. This is, it turns out, something of a growth area. Despite last year being a challenging one for hospitality, there was no shortage of relatively new places for me to explore – Italian café Madoo on Duke Street, Bru at the skanky end of Friar Street, Yaylo where Nibsy’s used to be on Cross Street, Chipstar next to the Alehouse. I used to complain frequently about Reading not having enough places for lunch, but I felt distinctly spoiled for choice.

And actually, wandering round town I discovered new lunch places I’d not even considered or known about. My Warsaw, a Polish street food hole in the wall, has opened on the ground floor of Kings Walk, and Bánh Mì QB, a place selling the Vietnamese sandwich of the gods, looks set to open a few doors down in the not too distant future. 

Meanwhile, over on West Street where Beijing Noodle House used to be, there’s a little Nepalese place called Chillim Kitchen and, right next door, an establishment called Cairo Café that does common or garden panini and wraps but also serves “Egyptian Street Food” and something called the “King Tut Breakfast”. Where had all these places come from? I guess if we had a local media worth speaking of we’d all know about these by now, whereas instead you have to rely on me mooching round at the weekend. Sorry about that.

Anyway, I figured everywhere on my list would be quiet. After all town, or at least my social media echo chamber, was completely swept up in Blue Collar Corner mania: every couple of minutes I saw another Instagram story of someone enjoying our brand new street food Mecca down Hosier Street (“it felt like I was in Ibiza” was Berkshire Live’s verdict. That’s nice). So I just assumed everybody would be there checking out all the bright shiny new things and I would have my pick of the empty cafés. 

It was a great plan, but it didn’t survive its first bruising collision with reality: Madoo was rammed and, out on Broad Street, the handful of stools in Chipstar were all occupied. As so often, Reading’s Twittersphere wasn’t a perfect reflection of town, so back to the drawing board it was. With uncanny timing, the heavens opened and I took shelter outside M&S, half tempted to abort my mission and just review a takeaway this week. And then I remembered Raayo, just down from Hickies and opposite what’s left of the Harris Arcade. 

I’d never been, and in fact I’d been a little waspish about them in my roundup at the end of 2020: at the time they had an underdeveloped website, now I’m not sure they even have a website. But I seemed to remember hearing from Zoë that some people from her work had been there and quite liked it. As I passed, it was as empty as empty could be. That didn’t raise my hopes that I was going to have a fantastic lunch, but it did make me feel for them a bit – I’ve always been drawn to the underdog – so I decided to chance my arm, and my lunch, and in I went.

It’s basically a small, open plan room which makes full use of its floor to ceiling windows looking out on to the pavement. There’s a bar alongside the window, and handsome stools to perch on, but apart from that it’s just a case of going up to the counter and placing your order. From the size I’d imagine much of their business would normally be takeaway, but as there wasn’t a soul in sight it seemed the apposite moment to try it out.

The menu, if I’m honest, looked a tad generic. There was a range of sandwiches and toasties all involving various ingredients kept under the counter, à la Reading institutions Pierre’s and Shed. A couple of sandwiches had interesting-looking components – scamorza in one, pickled fennel in another – but nothing leapt out (and seeing one of my favourite cheeses misspelt on the blackboard as “Parmsean” made my heart go out to them again – that underdog thing, I imagine). But when I asked the owner behind the counter what he recommended he pointed to their special, the pulled pork, and so I went for that.

It took just long enough to arrive, wrapped in foil like a burrito, and I found myself pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Unlike many toasties, especially at chain cafés, it was edible without being hotter than the sun, and the pulled pork was really very good. At its worst, pulled pork is a mulchy, soggy mess and usually the standard-issue barbecue sauce it tends to be paired with makes it a sickly, mulchy, soggy mess. But not so here – the pork wasn’t bone dry (as it is, for instance, at the Nag’s Head) but the balance had been struck nicely. And the barbecue sauce had a properly pleasing heat to it, without masses of sweetness. At four pounds fifty it was very generous and excellent value, and although my photo makes it look like a symphony of beige I hope you’ll take my word for it that it was a find. 

I had misread the menu, which offers plenty of extras you can put in your pulled pork sandwich. I thought they all came as standard, whereas in reality you have to pay for them. If I’d known, I’d be talking right now about the sharpness and crunch of gherkins, and the delightful texture from the crispy shallots. But sadly, I didn’t: although in some respects that might be for the best because this sandwich could stand on its own two feet without the extras. With them, next time, it could be worldbeating. 

But I was quite happy as I was, so I ate my sandwich on my stool, looking out the window at the sights of Friar Street, lost in the moment, pondering some of the great mysteries of life: why are we here? Do I eat so much nice food to distract myself from some gaping spiritual void in my life? And, perhaps most significantly, does anyone actually drink in Wild Lime? There I was, the only living boy in Raayo: behind me I could dimly make out the sound of the owner, AirPods in, chatting to somebody on his phone, vaguely audible above the hum of the fridge. All seemed right with the world, and the rain had even stopped.

I went up to order some coffee and a cookie for afters and I told him how much I’d enjoyed my sandwich. He sounded really proud of it, and he told me his story: he’d opened eighteen months ago, and it had been a really challenging time. People were starting to come back into town at last, and the weekends were surprisingly busy. He told me that he made everything himself, that the pulled pork and the barbecue sauce were both to his recipe and that although it was described as a special it was on the menu every day. I was so glad that my food hadn’t been rubbish, although of course I didn’t put it that way when I was talking to him.

The coffee isn’t great though – if you go, you might find it disappointing. It was below that top tier of Workhouse, C.U.P. and Compound, with a slightly scorched bitter note that needed more sugar to conceal it than I was prepared to put in. But it didn’t matter, because my chocolate and coconut cookie was a chewy treat – part biscuit, part macaroon, all delicious. I was so keen to eat it that I started without taking a picture, which means that the photo below is the only one in nearly nine years of writing this blog of my tiny toothmarks. He had a meal deal going so I got the coffee and a cookie for three pounds thirty – I asked him to charge me full price but he just wouldn’t. In total my sandwich, my cookie, a coffee and a soft drink cost me under a tenner: good luck getting so much stuff at Pret A Manger.

I wish I could give Raayo the kind of score that would send literally a handful of people flocking to it. But this isn’t that kind of review, and Raayo isn’t that kind of place. It’s too shy and unassuming – back to that lack of a social media presence again – and it needs to be slightly bolshier. I worry for it, a little. But then maybe if it was gobbier it would lose some of what made it such a quietly lovely place to have a peaceful, serene lunch when it felt like all the world was somewhere else. But I would recommend you try it if pulled pork is your thing, and I’ll definitely go back to try it again. 

It’s somehow hugely comforting to know that Reading still contains these little surprises, like a small hole in the wall sandwich shop where the owner makes his own pulled pork and it’s thoroughly decent. It’s good to know these places still thrive amid all the Caffe Neros and Costas that so dominate the centre of Reading, like flowers through cracks in the pavement,. And it’s a timely reminder, on an apt weekend, that you should never completely let the next big thing blind you to what’s already here, toiling away, waiting for that lucky break.

Raayo – 7.0
155 Friar Street, Reading, RG1 1HE
0118 3273418

https://www.facebook.com/Raayo155
Delivery via: Deliveroo, Uber Eats

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 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