Wau

One thing I’ve often pondered, writing this blog, is the holy trinity you always have to bear in mind when eating in – and assessing – a restaurant: the food, the service and the room. They all have the power to transform your experience. Take Dolce Vita, for example, which closed last year: some of the food was great, some of it (the pizzas and pasta, in particular) could be distinctly middling. But the service was so brilliant that I found I never really minded – a night there could feel like having friends cook for you, in a home from home, in the same way that some pubs (The Retreat, in my case) feel like having a second living room.

I’ve also thought for a long time that if the food is good enough, you can overlook blips in service. I’ve made no secret of my love of the food at Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen, but it can’t be denied that the service has never attained the same heights, with some churn in staff and some elementary mistakes here and there (no, I haven’t quite finished that mango beer, for example, so please stop trying to take it away). When they first opened, it was easy to pass it off as teething troubles or growing pains, but once a restaurant has been trading longer you expect a little more.

The room I’m not so fussed about – I agree with Marco Marchetti, the dapper and wise waiter at Pepe Sale (who’s now hung up his Larry Grayson-style spectacles and moved to Kent, I’m sorry to say) who once told me “we Italians don’t care about the room”. It’s nice to eat in a beautiful room. It’s nice to look at, say, Coppa Club and think “haven’t they done a great job fitting this out?” but when the service is comically bad and the food is indifferent (as it is at, say, Coppa Club) it really doesn’t redeem things. That might be my age, or the fact that I’m not in London: I’m sure some people are dazzled enough by eating somewhere Instagrammable like Sketch or Bob Bob Ricard, but it’s not for me.

But first and foremost, I’ve always believed that food is what matters. If the food is good enough, everything else is secondary. It stands to reason, doesn’t it? Except that this week the review is of Wau, the Malaysian street food restaurant a stone’s throw from Newbury station, and following my visit there I’m no longer so sure.

I found myself in Newbury one weekday evening with my regular dining companion (and close personal friend) Zoë, and after a couple of drinks in the Catherine Wheel I reckoned Wau was the obvious candidate for an evening meal. I’d been once last year and had a terrific meal, and when I put pictures on Instagram loads of people came out of the woodwork to tell me how great Wau was. You don’t see Malaysian food in many places round Reading (although the Moderation often does a few dishes, including nasi goreng), and it was less than five minutes from the station, and I happened to be in Newbury after all, so I decided to go back on duty and try it out again.

Speaking of the room, Wau’s is pretty unprepossessing. At the front are high tables with high stools, and further back are lower tables with still-ubiquitous Tollix chairs. The bar runs along one side of the room, with the kitchen at the back: not an open kitchen per se, but from some tables you get a pretty good view of what’s going on through the glass door. I think there are more tables round the corner, past the bar, although I wasn’t seated there.

The first problem happened when we arrived and the waiter tried to seat us at one of the precarious-looking high tables nearest the door, for two people. They didn’t feel at all like a relaxing place to eat. Could we sit at one of the bigger, lower tables further back, I asked? He looked at me like I’d asked for his date of birth and his mother’s maiden name, or enquired about whether he’d ever considered letting the love of Jesus into his life. It was a Tuesday evening at 8pm, and only one other table was occupied: they burnt a fair bit of goodwill umming and aahing before reluctantly letting us sit at a table for four.

The menu at Wau looks good, and has been recently updated. It’s divided into “Steamed and Grilled”, small plates costing between four and eight pounds, “Rice and Noodles” and “Curry”, which are larger plates costing between ten and thirteen pounds. I took this to be the dividing line between starters and mains – and the menu definitely encourages you to think that way but, as I was to find out, the reality is a bit more haphazard. But all that was yet to come at the point when we ordered three starters (a combination of greed and hunger), two mains and a couple of side dishes.

“The dishes will all come out when they come out, is that okay?” said the waiter.

It wasn’t, really, and I should have made more of this because it’s a real bugbear of mine and I’ve disliked it ever since Wagamama decided to make it a selling point. That approach feels like it’s geared entirely towards the convenience of the kitchen rather than the experience of customers. How presumptuous, I’ve always thought: we’ll make your food in the order we feel like it, and you’ll take what you’re given. Who’s paying who in this scenario? I often wonder.

“What does that mean exactly?”

“Oh. In this case you’ll probably get the squid first, then the pork belly, then the satay, then the beef rendang and nasi goreng and the other bits” he said. This didn’t really inspire confidence, because it was exactly the sequence in which we’d ordered everything, but never mind. What’s the worst that can happen? I reckoned.

Well, here’s what happened – and I’m sorry if this makes for a dull paragraph, but it’s taken from the time stamps of actual photos taken on my and Zoë’s phones: we sat down just after 8 o’clock. At 8.10 we poured our bottles of Tiger beer and placed our order. At 8.19 the salt and pepper squid (a starter) arrived, followed at 8.20 by my nasi goreng (a main). At 8.21 the pork belly starter and the sambal beans (a side dish) were brought to the table. At 8.24 Zoë’s beef rendang turned up, and at 8.25 our final starter, the satay lamb skewers, materialised. So within fifteen minutes of ordering they had brought almost everything we had ordered, all in the space of five minutes. Quite how it would have all fitted on the table for two they originally tried to fob us off with I have no idea, but it turns out that “the dishes will come out when they come out” actually means “they will all come out at once”.

I got that it was a slow night, but that didn’t seem like much of an excuse for the kitchen staff throwing the kitchen sink at trying to get us out quickly. And that’s when I realised – you can say it’s all about the food, but eating out isn’t about eating food, it’s about having a meal. A nicely paced meal, where you can take your time over what you eat and look forward to what you’ve ordered next without worrying about everything going cold before you get to enjoy it. It was utterly ridiculous, and all I could think was: why aren’t the serving staff a little embarrassed by all this?

I say that we had nearly everything we’d ordered. Zoe ordered roti canai to use to scoop up the rendang. That never arrived, so we asked for it again. It still didn’t arrive, so we asked for it again, again. It reached us ten minutes after the rest, too quick for your main courses to follow your starter but not quick enough for your side dish to follow literally everything else you had ordered. I’ve never known, and I’m choosing my words carefully, a clusterfuck like it.

The saddest thing of all is that the food was, almost without exception, gorgeous. The salt and pepper squid had so much freshness and texture, and was dusted with tons of good stuff. The pork belly – a really generous portion, precisely balanced between the crispy crunch of roasting and the tenderness of the meat under the skin – was a beautiful dish, perfected by dipping it in the sticky, savoury soy sauce. The satay lamb was my least favourite of the three, but even that was cooked beautifully and the satay sauce was as deep and rich as any I could remember. Would that I had got to enjoy those three dishes as a trio, without worrying about my nasi goreng going cold, but it was not to be.

Actually, the nasi goreng was my least favourite dish of the evening and, sorry to say, I don’t think it was anywhere near as good as the one served at the Moderation and the Queen’s Head. At those places you get chicken and prawn, but at Wau you have to choose and my choice, the chicken, was oddly bouncy in texture. Weird plating, too – the sunny side up egg should be on top so it can ooze its yolk into the rice but this – probably a little overcooked – was stuck on the side like an afterthought. I left some of this dish, although that was probably more because it didn’t stay hot enough for long enough, not with so many other things to try. I left the prawn crackers, although I’m told they were a reasonable substitute for the roti which nearly never came.

One of the nicest things we ate was the side dish I’d ordered to come with the nasi goreng (although, in reality, everything came with the nasi goreng). Sambal green beans had a beautiful amount of crunch, having been no more than blanched, and coated in Malaysian shrimp paste, perfectly brick-red and savoury, with just enough heat and lots of complexity: I could easily have eaten more than one plate of these.

I was familiar with the beef rendang, Zoë’s choice, from a previous visit but really it was every bit as delicious as I remembered – so much so that I regretted my nasi goreng from the first forkful to the last. The sauce was glossy and sweet with coconut, but with more than enough edge to save it from being even remotely saccharine, but more importantly the beef had been properly slow-cooked so every piece surrendered into strands. It would almost be worth going to Wau and just ordering this dish, which come to think of it might also be the only way to ensure that you get to eat it at a time of your choosing.

I also really liked the roti, when it eventually came out – lovely and buttery, and just right to wrap around that beef, even if it made for a slightly messy experience. It came with a little dish of dipping sauce which was pleasant enough, but not really needed under the circumstances.

I’ve already talked about the service, but of course the real test of service is how they handle it when matters are less than perfect. So when we were asked how our food had been, we said that it was very nice but that really, we hadn’t wanted it to all come out at once and that if we’d known we would have insisted that it didn’t, or perhaps ordered our starters first and then our mains. It’s fair to say that this rather fell on stony ground. That’s just how people eat in Malaysia, the chap told us – all the food comes at once and everyone pitches in, sharing everything.

It’s fair to say that I wasn’t entirely convinced by this argument, and I said so: I could possibly understand it with a big group of people, but there were two of us. Why did they divide their menu into starters and mains, I asked? He pointed out, again in a manner best described as unapologetic, that they weren’t called starters and mains (which, having looked at the menu, is true: but if you have the small dishes at the start and the bigger items partway through you definitely give that impression). Then, finally, came the non-apology so popular in the post-truth times we live in.

“I’m sorry if you feel that way”, he said. Well, that makes everything better then.

After that a lady came over who I think was the owner or manager, and we had exactly the same conversation, only more pleasantly. She promised that they weren’t trying to rush us or move us along or turn the table. That’s all very well, we said, but if so why bring all the food in the space of five minutes? We were then told again about how people all share food in Malaysia, which was doubtless true but, in Newbury, wouldn’t it make sense to put something on the menu explaining the concept or at least get the waiting staff to clearly explain how it worked? Normally they did, she said, which didn’t explain why the chap who took our order – the same man who had served me on a previous visit – had failed to do so either time (on a previous visit we got our starters, then we had our mains, and everything went as you might expect).

The thing we were at pains to point out, again and again, was that the food had been so good, but the way it had been brought out robbed us of the opportunity to properly enjoy it, and ourselves for that matter. But by this point I was beginning to feel like one of those TripAdvisor reviews in human form, and found myself eagerly wanting the conversation, and the experience, to end. The manageress was also sorry we felt that way, and agreed to take something off the bill. That turned out to be ten per cent, which to me didn’t quite feel like enough, and our meal – with that discount – came to fifty-four pounds, not including tip. That was for three small dishes, two big dishes, two sides and two beers – and we still tipped ten per cent, though with hindsight I don’t really know why.

You could indisputably eat well at Wau – if you happened to be in Newbury, close to the station, and preferably in a hurry. Even then, I would advise you to be unambiguous about what you want to eat and the order in which you want to eat it. But those are a lot of caveats, a lot of hoops to jump through, and I could hardly blame you if you read all this and thought thanks but no thanks.

The real shame of it is that so much of the food was terrific, but the overall experience left a nasty taste that no amount of skill in the kitchen can cancel out; food might be the most important element of any visit to a restaurant, but it turns out that it’s service that transforms it from mere food into a meal. All that makes this almost impossible to rate but, to give you an idea, I reckon the experience at Wau must have easily cost it a mark. I hope they iron those problems out, but I doubt I’ll be back to find out. If you decide it sounds like your sort of thing, you’ll have to let me know.

Wau – 6.8
49 Cheap Street, Newbury, RG14 5BX
01635 528877

http://www.waumalaysian.co.uk/

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Happy Diner

Happy Diner closed, by all accounts, over the summer of 2017. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I’ve always felt that when I go to a Chinese restaurant I am missing something important about how to order. I don’t speak Mandarin so the special menu (or the beautiful back pages of a menu) for real Chinese people to order from are lost on me. Instead it seems like every Chinese restaurant is selling the same dishes and with a few notable exceptions – cue my inevitable mention of sadly-departed Reading institution Chi – the experience is always the same; great starters, more crispy duck than is strictly wise and then adequate mains, all served by incredibly polite staff who somehow make the experience feel a little like I’m eating in a library.

Since I started this blog I don’t think I’ve made any progress with Chinese food at all. And it’s not like I don’t know that Chinese food can be wonderful – I still have vivid food daydreams about a sizzling chicken dish I had in Chinatown, rich with a slick savoury sauce, bubbling in a stone pot also containing seemingly a hundred pungent garlic cloves – but here in the provinces we don’t seem to get anything like that. I know it might be my fault, watching food arrive at other tables and wondering “what have they ordered? Have they picked better than me?” before returning to my prawn toasts, satay, disappointment.

Stepping into Happy Diner on a school night didn’t give me the sense that this review was going to be the one to change all that. If anything, the large, chevron-shaped room felt more like a conference centre than a restaurant. There were the obligatory sofas at the front for folk collecting takeaways, there was a fish tank filled with beautiful shimmering koi and then there was a large, long room with Chinese murals (of varying quality) on the walls. The tables were heavily draped and the chairs were the padded metal-framed ones which always – along with excitable uncles and Come On bloody Eileen – remind me of wedding receptions. And yes, it was like eating in a library: only two or three other tables were occupied, all spread out in that big space. Presumably this was done to give people privacy, but it felt a little isolating to me.

After polishing off the mandatory polystyrene prawn crackers with sweet chilli sauce I was even less convinced this was going to be The One. We started with a couple of dishes that, in retrospect, weren’t the most well-balanced. The “smoke dry spicy chicken happy diner style” resembled Chinese chicken nuggets; slivers of chicken, about the size of whitebait, that had been lightly dusted then fried. It was hard to detect any smokiness and they certainly weren’t dry – the paper doily (yes, a doily! How long is it since you’ve seen one of those?) they were served on was sheer with the amount of oil it had soaked up. So if they weren’t smoky and they weren’t dry, what were they? Mainly sugary: even the finely chopped green chilli on top tasted candied and sweet rather than adding the jolt it so badly needed. Oh, and huge – a pile so gigantic that we left close to half. Even then that meant we ate quite a lot. They were curiously addictive, but in the same way that Percy Pigs are.

HappyStarters

The other starter, salt and chilli squid, was similarly problematic. Done well this is one of the best things in the world, but Happy Diner’s version didn’t quite get there. The squid was nicely soft, the batter was light and again, the pile of squid was massive but, again, blandness was the order of the day. What didn’t help was that the pieces of squid themselves were equally gigantic – so big that I either had to pick up a bit and try to bite it (not the most delicate of operations) or pop a whole piece in and try not to choke or burn my tongue. Smaller, crispier bits of squid would have been lovely, but this was just a big fluffy cloud of frustration. The best bit was the mixture of the little crunchy salty bits of batter and the (hotter this time) chillies. It made me glad my companion had opted for cutlery, because I was never going to scoop up that delicious goodness with my amateurish chopstick skills.

The next course – no surprises here – was the crispy duck. I knew this would be too much food, but I’m biologically programmed not to turn crispy duck down. I had a sinking feeling from the moment it turned up. You know that wonderful moment when the waiter crushes the duck under a spoon and starts to shred it? That beautiful cracking noise as the skin gives way and breaks? This was more of a dull squelch, and at that point I knew that this would be duck but it wouldn’t be crispy. Normally when the crispy duck arrives, I’m like a kid in a sweet shop (I want that bit! No, that bit! Oh, and that bit!) but here it was more of an effort to find pieces that would perfect my pancake. First world problems I know, but the whole thing about crispy duck is that it’s never, ever like this. There was definite eking required, in fact, to stretch this out to six pancakes, and the last one I had was just spring onions, cucumber and hoi sin (in the immortal words of Roy Walker, good but not right). The rest of the trimmings were much the same as in any Chinese restaurant but at the end of the course, instead of scooping up the delicious fragments with our fingers we were left with a sad and flabby pile of skin.

HappyDuck

The main courses arrived similarly swiftly and didn’t lift things; again, it felt like perhaps we’d ordered the wrong things rather than the dishes we picked being actively bad. King prawns in black bean sauce was probably the best (least worst?) of the evening, with plenty of fat prawns in a watery sauce which tasted better than it looked with discernible black bean, a decent hit of garlic and lots of crisp squares of red and green pepper and big pieces of onion. If I’d had it on a Saturday night in front of Take Me Out I’d probably have been satisfied, but somehow here it still felt like it wasn’t quite good enough.

HappyMains

I was hoping the other main would either take me back to my teenage years or show me exactly how a good Chinese restaurant really does sweet and sour chicken. It wasn’t quite the battered balls of my youth (and yes, I know how wrong that sounds) but it wasn’t much of an improvement on that either. The batter the chicken came in was soggy rather than crispy, the sauce was again thin and watery rather than coating the chicken (it wasn’t that indistinct, to be honest, from the stuff we were dipping our prawn crackers in not that long before). The vegetables in the sauce gave me a strong sense of déjà vu, too; crisp squares of red and green pepper and big pieces of onion (did a black cat just walk by?). Oh, and some pineapple, obviously. It made me miss Orient Express, which used to be next to Keegan’s bookshop, which used to be opposite what Shed used to be, and even writing that sentence makes me feel very old indeed and makes me realise how long it is since I’ve had lovely Chinese food in Reading.

On the side we had plain noodles which, not beating about the bush here, tasted a bit odd. Sort of salty but not NaCl salty. I can’t even explain how they were wrong, but they just weren’t good. My fault, perhaps, for not going with the more traditional rice, but I’m just not a fan of plain white rice and it felt like overkill to order egg fried rice as well. We left a lot of the main courses – this is of course traditional in Chinese restaurants, but it would have been nice to feel even a little regret at doing so.

Drinks were a glass of house red wine (described simply as “Italian”) which was decent enough and a couple of bottles of Tsingtao. Service throughout was very polite, friendly, efficient and ever so slightly distant, much as I expected it to be. We were far too full for the dentist-bothering delights of dessert (toffee apple, anybody?) so we munched on the mint imperials that came with the bill – crumbly rather than hard, which made me irrationally happy – instead. The total was fifty-four pounds excluding service. We wished them a Happy New Year as we left and, not for the first time, I felt like a fraud being polite to someone when I hadn’t much enjoyed eating in their restaurant.

So am I any the wiser? Probably not. I still feel like I don’t know what to order, I still don’t have the courage to venture into the more esoteric reaches of the menu (perhaps I’d take more risks if I hadn’t read David Sedaris’ entertaining essay on the perils of eating in China: I’d quote some, but a single sentence of his would show all of this up). Is it my fault that I didn’t like Happy Diner? Quite possibly; you can probably make your own mind up about that. But be that as it may, there’s one question it all comes down to, the main question really when you review a restaurant: would I go back? I stepped out of the door with Mya Lacarte on my right, I strolled down Prospect Street past Kyrenia with its lights glowing, a laughing table of eight in the window and Ihor leaning on the bar and I thought no, I can’t see when I ever would.

Happy Diner – 6.2
3 Prospect Street, RG4 8JB
0118 9483488

http://happydiner-reading.webs.com/