Takeaway review – Banarasi Kitchen at the Spread Eagle

In its capacity as The U.K.’s Largest Town™️ Reading has many neighbourhoods and tribes who live in them. Some people are proud Caversham residents, some are firm supporters of Katesgrove, others fly the flag for New Town, or the university area. Just like having a favourite chippy, everyone has their own opinion and could happily argue the merits of living round the corner from Geo Café or Pau Brasil, just down the road from the river or from the Harris Garden.

Personally I’ve always lived either in the centre or on the east side, and I grew up in Woodley so I’ve always been more familiar with that end of town; the west side, out towards Tilehurst, remains a bit of a mystery to me. Despite that I have a huge fondness for west Reading, for its vitality and its charm. There’s always something going on out that way, and if you walk from the Nag’s Head to Double-Barrelled down the Oxford Road you see Reading in all its diverse glory. I get cross about the criticism that part of town gets: a lot of it always feels, to me at least, like poorly disguised bigotry. Something about that mosque really seems to bring out the worst in some people.

And there’s more to west Reading than just the Oxford Road: the Bath Road is grand and sweeping, with beautiful tall houses at its eastern end and the likes of Florida Court, green-roofed, pretty but incongruous, further down. The Tilehurst Road also has a lot going for it, and there are some lovely houses between it and the Oxford Road: Brunswick Hill, for instance, is always a good source of house envy. And off those main roads you can see lots of pretty little whitewashed houses with porches – places like Hollins Walk, or Benyon Court. You could almost describe them as Instagrammable.

And however well you think you know it, west Reading always throws up surprises. The fact that there’s a football ground not far from Double-Barrelled, for example, or the absurdly photogenic Wilder’s Folly a short distance from IKEA. I recently asked on Instagram, after a meditative coffee sitting up on Balmore Rise, what people’s favourite spots in Reading were. Several people mentioned McIlroy Park and its splendid view of the town: I’d never even heard of it before, and now it’s on my to visit list.

I also maintain that West Reading has always been Reading’s most interesting area in terms of food and drink. Something about it encourages people to try new things and take risks: it has Reading’s best beer pub in the shape of the Nag’s Head, and the Castle Tap and the Forester’s Arms are, in happier times, also worth a visit. It can claim to be the birthplace of Reading’s burgeoning coffee scene – the first Workhouse was there, back when C.U.P. and Tamp were just useful Scrabble words.

More to the point, it has consistently played host to a selection of some of Reading’s best restaurants. The wonderful and much-missed Bhoj plied its trade on that run of shops opposite Workhouse, and there was a halcyon age where Workhouse also allowed I Love Paella to operate out of its kitchen on evenings and weekends.

Bhoj and I Love Paella are sadly no more, but Kobeda Palace remains one of the best (and best-value) restaurants in town, and Bhoj has been replaced by Oishi, bringing sushi and sashimi to west Reading. I miss Tuscany, the brilliant Polish pizzeria a tiny bit further down the road, and the Jolly Fryer closer to town. Both were perfect for lining the stomach before a session at the Nag’s, but the other thing about having such a vibrant scene is that there’s always somewhere to take its place: I still haven’t reviewed Palmyra, the Lebanese restaurant which opened on the Oxford Road a while back, for example.

All this brings us neatly to Banarasi Kitchen, an Indian restaurant operating out of the Spread Eagle pub, between the Oxford and Tilehurst Road. They began cooking there last year and the pub joined Instagram to promote its new offering. Gradually I started to hear some noise about the food being worthy of investigation, and when I announced that I was going to start reviewing takeaways several people on Twitter told me I needed to check it out.

Banarasi Kitchen has a famous fan, too: none other than Naomi Lowe, the gluten-free genius behind Nibsy’s, who lives nearby and told me it was well worth a try (she particularly recommended the daal yellow butter fry, “although I bet you won’t have it with chips like I do”). That was all the encouragement I needed, so I fired up my laptop on a dreary Tuesday night, ready to order. But before I did that, I decided to consult a friend of mine who has forgotten more about Indian cuisine than I’ll ever know: I asked Nandana, co-owner of Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen and semi-regular fixture in the Guardian, what she thought of the menu.

“It looks decent.” she said. “I’m interested in the rye ke aloo, mustard-infused potatoes. That’s a very popular dish from west Bengal, close to the border with Bangladesh. I can see a few dishes from southern India too – murg kori gassi from the south-west coast and sea bass moili from Kerala.”

The menu struck me, from my inexpert point of view, as nicely balanced between some specific regional specials and an approachable mixture of more well-known dishes. So if you want to eat a rogan josh, a jalfrezi or a korma you can, and you can add onion bhajis or samosas if you like, but there are also momo and chaat, Punjabi cholay and railway lamb if you want something more off the beaten track. They even do fish and chips, burgers and salads, and a kids’ menu – which if nothing else is helpful if you really fancy a curry but the rest of your household is more conservative. Mains go from ten to thirteen pounds, and most starters are less than seven pounds.

Banarasi Kitchen is on JustEat, Uber Eats and Deliveroo (all under slightly different names) but I wanted the restaurant to take as much of my money as possible, so I phoned the restaurant to place my order directly. My older readers might remember that this used to be the only way it worked when getting takeaway – you rang them up, the line was invariably terrible, the place always sounded packed to the rafters and half the conversation consisted of you repeating yourself, or asking the person on the other end of the phone to. You read out your card details, you hoped they’d taken your address down correctly, you put the phone down and you waited, you waited and then you waited some more.

There was no such problem on this occasion, so I read out my order, gave my address and postcode and listened as the man on the other end of the phone read it back perfectly.

“Do you need my card details?” 

“No, we’ll take payment at the door.” This was another development since I last ordered a conventional takeaway, which must have been, I don’t know, around four years ago.

“How long do you think it will be?”

“Around forty minutes.”

This struck me as reassuring – I live a ten minute drive from the Spread Eagle, and if the ETA had been quicker I might have been concerned. In the event, it was just over an hour before my doorbell rang, during which time I hadn’t been constantly checking my phone to watch an icon of a scooter meandering round Orts Road or, worse still, standing on the bridge over the Oracle for five minutes. My driver may well have got lost, but I didn’t know about it and that suited me fine: it turns out that ignorance is bliss after all.

Sometimes, even when someone is wearing a mask, you can tell they’re smiling, and that’s how it was with the gentleman standing on my doorstep. He was wearing a shirt and tie, which immediately made me take to him, and he asked me how I’d heard about Banarasi Kitchen. I decided to go for the short version – “I’ve seen you on Instagram” – and quickly tapped my PIN in on the card reader before grabbing my food from his insulated bag. The packaging was a mixture of foil-lined bags for the bread, conventional plastic tubs for the curries, rice and chutneys and, randomly, a foil container for one of my starters. I’m pretty sure, though, that everything was recyclable – and, equally importantly, everything was piping hot.

We ordered a couple of starters to eat as sides, because with a takeaway everything comes at once. The lamb samosas were rather good, with a little fire to them, although the decision to use filo pastry instead of something thicker made them feel slightly insubstantial. There were three of them, which might have caused more disagreement if there hadn’t also been three very respectable lamb seekh kebabs. I made do, not that it felt like any sacrifice, with two of these – and they were almost impossibly soft, well spiced and well seasoned. 

The two chutneys that came with the starters were very good indeed – one bright and zingy with bucketloads of mint and coriander, the other sweet with tamarind. I thought I would have liked some raita for the kebabs, but halfway through I found I was more than happy without it. 

I’d picked the murg kori gassi, a Mangalorean chicken curry, after hearing Nandana’s thoughts on the menu and I’m so happy I did. Even on opening it, it didn’t feel like a boring curry made with a generic base sauce – it didn’t look like it had been near a tin of condensed tomato soup, and was a deeper hue with a good helping of curry leaves on top. It was an absolute delight: there was plenty of coconut in there which transformed every forkful of basmati rice and the chicken was both generous and tender. The heat in this dish built perfectly and it reminded me of dishes from Clay’s, in that the sauce was a feature attraction in its own right. The meat was almost secondary: next time I order from Banarasi Kitchen I may well go for the chickpea curry, or something with paneer.

I also couldn’t not order the daal yellow butter fry after hearing such glowing reports from Naomi. Again, it was an excellent decision to defer to someone better informed: this was everything daal should be, earthy and comforting with a good dose of beautifully pungent garlic. 

And although I ate some of the daal with rice, it was even better with bread. We’d ordered a keema naan, which I’m told was rather nice, and a laccha paratha which was probably the only disappointment of the meal – I was hoping for something buttery with plenty of layers, like the excellent example by House Of Flavours, whereas this was a little stodgier and closer to a naan. It did however do a brilliant job when it came to transporting daal from bowl to mouth, and it’s my fault anyway for not ordering chips as I was told to: a rookie mistake on my part.

My final choice, chilli chicken, was a dish I’ve ordered in many Nepalese restaurants, from Sapana Home to Namaste Momo. It’s a beautiful dish when done well, with a hot, sharp and sour sauce which contains, among other things, a little tomato ketchup. Banarasi Kitchen’s version was easily one of the best I’ve had, with a lovely acrid kick that made every mouthful perfectly balanced between pleasure and pain. The chicken was tender, although the pieces were strangely uniform in shape compared to those in the murg kori gassi, and the peppers and onions had the right amount of crunch for contrast. As with the murg kori gassi, every molecule of sauce was swept up and finished off: this just wasn’t food you left if you could possibly help it.

The whole thing made me incredibly happy on an otherwise nondescript evening, and reminded me of the joy that a truly good takeaway can bring – not having to worry about food, or masses of washing up, and just putting yourself in somebody else’s hands for one night. I miss restaurants, but I do also very much like being able to eat delicious food while watching crappy TV, without having to go out in the rain or change out of my comfies. When food is as good as Banarasi Kitchen’s, you don’t feel as if you’ve made any tradeoffs at all.

Our dinner – two starters, three curries, two portions of rice and two breads – came to just under forty-eight pounds, and when I looked at my bill I saw that the restaurant had knocked ten per cent off – impressive value when you think that they don’t charge for delivery. There are all sorts of offers and discount codes and vouchers on the delivery apps, but I would go direct to the restaurant any day of the week. I’m just sorry I didn’t get to leave them a tip, but I’ll make sure I do next time. Hopefully telling everybody how good they are (unless you’re one of those people who already knows) will do my bit to pay it forward.

So there you have it. I’m committed to reviewing a different takeaway every week for the duration of this third lockdown and I’m beginning to realise that it’s a lose-lose situation in some respects. If the meal is bad, you never want to use that restaurant again, and if it’s good you are disappointed that you have to move on to the next one. For those of you anywhere near west Reading I think the emergence of Banarasi Kitchen is extremely good news, and if you haven’t tried them yet I’m looking forward to seeing what you think. When life goes back to normal, I’ll be heading there in the flesh to review it properly. Not only that, but I hear the Spread Eagle has a decent quiz: I suspect I’ll be so glad to be in a pub again that I won’t even mind embarrassing myself by taking part.

Banarasi Kitchen
The Spread Eagle, 117 Norfolk Road, Reading, RG30 2EG
0118 9574507

https://banarasikitchen.com
Order via: Direct through the restaurant, or via Deliveroo, JustEat or Uber Eats

Pan, Wokingham

I was beginning to think I was cursed and that you’d never get a new review. My first attempt involved a Reading restaurant which, it turns out, is closed on Mondays. That fact came to my attention on the Monday night I was due to review it, seconds after I arrived at the pub across the road and met my dining companion for the evening. I’ve been doing this for nearly six years, and you’d think I’d know better.

Attempt number two was no better: I picked a restaurant out of town to visit with my old friend Al, mainly because every time we’d ever been there it had one amazing dish on the menu which was worth the price of admission alone. A destination dish and a destination restaurant all in one, truly the holy grail of restaurant reviewing. But, of course, on the Friday that we went there for lunch that dish – a glorious, massive pie for two, glossy, deep rich sticky beef lying in wait under a golden bubbling suet crust – was nowhere to be seen. I chalked it up to experience and had the fish, but where on earth was I going to review now?

Salvation came in the unlikely form of my friend Richard. We were due to meet up for a midweek dinner in Reading, and a couple of days before he sent me an apologetic WhatsApp. He could only get a babysitter for part of the evening, it said, and would I mind meeting in Wokingham, halfway between Reading and his place in Sunningdale? I sensed the faint knock of opportunity, and that’s why you’re reading a review of Pan today.

I’ve known Richard for many years, and wanted to bring him along on a review for ages. He’s the campest straight man I’ve ever met, a gleeful drinker, outrageously bitchy and downright good fun. He looks ever so slightly like David Gest might have done if he had (a) avoided all that shocking plastic surgery and, more importantly, (b) not died. He was a huge support to me when I joined Team Divorce a few years back, and I’ve always loved my evenings with him when he can swing a babysitter (his high-powered ex-wife is always away on business, pressing the flesh in Milan).

As for Pan, it looked like the most interesting thing to happen to Wokingham in some time – a pan-Asian restaurant opening in the space vacated by the Teak House (a Thai restaurant) offering a constantly changing monthly menu of small plates from different countries. The pictures on Instagram looked tempting, the word of mouth was promising and the menu online – all octopus, monkfish yakitori, slow braised pork and ramen – made me truly impatient to visit. Richard said it looked perfect, although I wondered if that might be because he has a much smaller appetite than me.

The website, and the pictures I’d seen made me think Pan would be a sleek, black, minimalist space, but going in it looked very much like it was still the Teak House, visually at least. There was a small bar and counter, and a small dining room up a little set of stairs with, surreally, a handrail like a banister separating it off (Richard leaned against it for much of our meal: it looked wobbly). The front room must have accommodated about a dozen diners, although there was a bigger room further into the restaurant: on our visit this had been laid out for a very large group which arrived partway through our meal.

“Have you been here before?” asked the front of house (which, on our visit, was very much a one man show) as he handed over our menus.

“No, this is our first time.”

“We’ve been open for six months, what took you so long?” he said with a smile. I liked that cockiness: it felt quite unlike Wokingham, if nothing else. “Our menu is small plates, like tapas, and two dishes per person should be enough.” I must confess I was sceptical about this, but maybe that’s because I’d been planning to try as many things as I could get away with.

“Do you have a wine list?” said Richard, somewhat betraying his priorities. The chap smiled again.

“I am the wine list.”

Again, a little confident but not jarringly so. In any case, we started with a couple of bottles of Kirin while we looked through the menu. It being March, the menu had changed completely from the one on the website (“this month we’re doing south Indian dishes”, our waiter told us). All the dishes were priced between four and eight pounds, and most of them looked tempting, with the possible exception of “chicory salad” which felt like a fig leaf for killjoys. The really noticeable thing on the menu, though, was the general absence of carbs: I had a feeling four dishes wouldn’t be anywhere near enough.

The first dish was a beautiful start – broccoli with chana dahl houmous, a clever fusion. I’m used to dipping stuff in houmous (after I’ve poured a lake of extra virgin olive oil on top of it, naturally) but having it here as the base for a heap of well-cooked purple sprouting broccoli was a very nice touch. The houmous had brilliant spice and flavour, and as a statement of intent this was hard to beat. But even this dish, with hindsight, was a taste of things to come: I expected the bowl to be slightly deeper and when my fork clanked against the bottom I did have an “is that all there is?” moment. It wasn’t to be the last time.

Shortly afterwards the kitchen sent out our next dish, crab wontons. “Too sweet” was Richard’s verdict, and I was pretty sure he wasn’t talking about me. He was right, though: they weren’t unpleasant but they were hotter than the sun and the crabmeat inside did feel too sweet with nothing to balance it out. Possibly the advertised curry butter might have offset this, but it lurked uselessly at the bottom of the plate and it was too difficult to dredge the wontons through it. Worth six pounds fifty? Probably not, and the glass plate felt like it might also have been inherited from the Teak House rather than bought for Pan, because the presentation felt a little fussy and old-fashioned.

I very much liked what came after that, flatiron steak with “kukurmutta ragu” (I Googled it: it’s mushrooms). The mushrooms lent a beautifully savoury note to the whole thing and any reservations I had about the steak were banished by the pink middle and the perfect texture. I wasn’t convinced it needed all that yoghurt, and serving it with paper underneath was a little odd, but even so it was one of my favourite dishes of the evening. Richard wasn’t so impressed, but by then I’d told him I was going to refer to us in the review as “Pan’s people” and he’d given me the first of many withering stares (“Bitch” was his response).

I found it odd that the dishes had been designed for sharing, but none of them came with spoons for us to dish up onto our plates. I asked and the waiter brought some over, but in a way which suggested that they’d never been asked before. “That was very nice, thank you” I said as he came to take our empty plates away. “You sound surprised” he replied, and again I couldn’t quite decide whether that confidence was charming or grating.

I’d been particularly looking forward to the charred carrot dish, mainly because Pan’s Instagram feed had a stunning image of what I imagined was something similar – a huge vibrant jumble of carrots, blackened on the outside, sesame seeds and coriander. I don’t think I was expecting five pieces of carrot, or for three of them to turn out to be unadvertised sweet potato (one of my least favourite things). Despite that I did enjoy them – the menu said they’d come with pearl barley and parsley, but instead they were accompanied by some kind of thickened yoghurt and tiny slivers of crispy fried chilli. It was an interesting dish, and the textures in particular were lovely, but I couldn’t quite shed the feeling that at five pounds, each piece of carrot or sweet potato had cost a quid all by itself.

Finally our last dish turned up, tandoori chicken legs with bhurani raita. I enjoyed this: the flavours were spot on and the chicken was nicely done, although I didn’t necessarily get much garlic in the pleasingly mint-green raita. Richard was less convinced – “this feels more like a dish you could get in lots of other places” – and either way it was a little difficult to justify two hardly colossal chicken legs at just shy of seven pounds.

“That was lovely” I said as the waiter collected more empty plates.

“I know”, he said. Hmm.

Despite having had more than our regulation two dishes per person, we ordered more. If there had been more carbs on the menu – some noodles or rice or anything that might fill you up – maybe I wouldn’t have needed to but as it was I was still distinctly peckish. We also ordered a couple of glasses of orvieto which was pleasingly crisp but far from bone dry. The waiter wasn’t kidding when he said he was the wine list, so he ran us through the choices – all by the glass, three or four whites if I recall. No prices were given, but I checked at the end and these were six pounds each, which didn’t feel unreasonable. Not having a list and picking after a chat with your waiter felt like the sort of thing I ought to enjoy and endorse in theory, but having done it I found it made me feel somewhat uncomfortable: too English by half, perhaps.

Throughout our meal I saw our waiter coming out of the kitchen with multiple plates of the same dishes, dropping one at our table, one at a neighbouring table and so on, and I realised that even if I was still on the hungry side I could see how this model might work beautifully for Pan. And every table in the front room was full of enthusiastic customers, so maybe it was just me who was beginning to find it a parade of not enough food for a little too much money.

I’d really fancied “cod shashlick with satay crumb” on the menu, but the waiter told us it had run out so we ordered the replacement dish, smoked trout with ginger and lime. For me, this just didn’t work – the tastes that accompanied the fish were sharp, fresh and interesting but pairing it with smoked trout felt like a strange choice. I’m far from convinced that smoked trout features heavily in South Indian cuisine: it clashed with everything else going on and the whole thing felt like a dish made with ingredients that were lying around (all very Ready Steady Cook) rather than something carefully put together. I guess, of course, that the thing with smoked trout is that you don’t have to cook it, so again convenient for the kitchen but not necessarily great for diners.

I did enjoy our final dish, a mixture of butter beans and chickpeas topped with a baked egg. Finally, a hint of the carbs I’d been craving! But even here I could see how all the dishes felt like riffs on a theme – the green squiggles matching those on the broccoli, probably the same yoghurt as we’d had on the steak, definitely the same little slices of fried chilli as had come with the carrots. Although I quite enjoyed it, and I’d have loved it if it had been the first dish I tried, by this stage I did feel like I could see the joins, as if I’d spotted the Wizard Of Oz behind the curtain. Pan passed itself off as being imaginative and varied, but a lot of work had been put into managing the experience.

I insisted on a dessert – partly because I was still hungry, and partly because the waiter told me that the chocolate brownie came with a sesame seed creme Anglaise. Normally, I don’t hold with brownies being dessert – and again, what I got differed from what was described on the menu – but this really was lovely: three dense, warm cubes of brownie with a beautifully light custard and plenty of sesame (although I thought it could have stood more).

We’d asked what we could drink with dessert and the waiter said “I’ve got some really good Filipino rum: let me bring it over”. He returned with a bottle and two little glasses full of ice and left us to it, an experience which felt faintly continental. Richard practically inhaled a glass and topped himself up.

“Hurry up and try some! This is fantastic.”

It was: ever so slightly honeyed and with a beautiful note of oak. Richard took a photo of the label, shortly before surreptitiously refreshing his glass. (“There’s no line on the side or anything” he said, with the expertise of a man who used to raid his mother’s drinks cabinet.) I loved it, although I did feel guilty about having more. How much did it cost anyway? There was simply no way of knowing, not until the bill arrived.

When it did, our whole meal – seven small plates, four beers, two glasses of wine and that rum – cost eighty-seven pounds, not including tip, and the rum was just under eight pounds in total. I made sure we tipped generously, mainly because I suspect Richard was literally drinking their profits. We then sallied forth into the Wokingham night in search of a place that could serve Richard more wine, although when we got to the pub Richard also ordered a packet of peanuts and a bag of pork scratchings: that probably tells its own story.

It’s interesting, as small plates restaurants start to jump the shark in London, that we get a swathe of them round these parts like Pan and Bench Rest, which I reviewed last year. Pan shares some of the problems that Bench Rest has: however nice the service is, the interior feels like it’s designed for a very different type of establishment and however nice the food is, the dishes are either too small or too pricey or both. But with Pan those problems were amplified – everything felt like not a lot of food for quite a lot of cash, and the interior and the plating lacked the sophistication the menu aspired to. But on the other hand I love the concept, I ate some really interesting food and combinations and I can see what they’re aiming for. It felt like a work in progress, but I do wonder if Wokingham is forgiving enough to give Pan the time it needs to become the restaurant it wants to be. I hope so: definitely if Pan was in Reading I would be following its evolution and going back to see how things progress.

And Richard? According to his Instagram he was in the gym the next morning at seven am, living the dream. His verdict was less nuanced than mine: will go back for free rum though, he told me on WhatsApp. The language of Shakespeare: I must find out when his babysitter fancies doing some more overtime.

Pan – 6.7
47-49 Peach Street, Wokingham RG40 1XJ
0118 9788893

https://www.panrestaurant.co.uk/