Takeaway review: Osaka

The sort-of roadmap back to normality was announced last month and you could almost hear, online and among friends, a cautious but relieved exhalation. Pubs and restaurants announced their plans, the days got longer, my parents were both vaccinated, my barber booked me in for a haircut on a date some months away. There were some sunny days, at long last, and when I walked through Forbury Gardens I could see people sitting on the grass, as if you could wish summer into existence by force of will alone.

And yet now we’re in March I see a lot of people looking back; the earth has completed its orbit around the sun, and everybody seems in a reflective mood. So we remember the last time we went to a pub with friends, the last time we hugged our loved ones, the last time we took a train to London or a bus to Kennet Island; someone I follow on Twitter posted recently that it was the anniversary of the date on which he is pretty confident that he contracted Covid-19.

We’ve had a year largely in stasis and it gives all the little historic moments, all those Facebook memories, enormous power. This weekend a year ago I held my last pre-Covid readers’ lunch at the Lyndhurst. Even at the time, it was an event that felt slightly more of a gamble than I might have liked – but we knew so little, back then. In any event the tables were spread out, there was hand sanitiser at every table and everybody had a pretty good idea that this was probably the last big social event they would attend for the foreseeable future. 

I am hugely fortunate: if I had to pick a day to recall over and over across twelve relatively barren months, I couldn’t have chosen a better one. My birthday is in the not too distant future, and it will probably be even more of a non-event than the last one. At least I had some kind of party last year, even if I didn’t understand that at the time.

That delicious lunch at the Lyndhurst, nearly a year ago, was my first encounter with what I’ve since termed the clock of terror: that anxious seven day wait after you do something that involves an element of risk. Seven days of scanning and anxiety: is it a sore throat, or just allergies, or the arrival of the Big Bad? My own personal clock of terror has been reset dozens of times this year, and it never gets much easier. The prospect of a humdrum, quotidian life absent of risk or fear (or, at least, with a lot less risk and fear) can’t arrive soon enough.

The last meal I had on duty before the restaurants closed, a year ago today, was at Osaka, the Japanese restaurant in the Oracle that took over the spot that used to be Café Rouge. I liked a lot of my food, and I loved the way they’d made over a tired and unloved site. When I went, I thought I can fit in one more review on the blog without fully grasping, at the time, just how pointless that would be. I should have known, really: lockdowns aside, when you’re looking at a restaurant hoping it won’t get busy, when you find yourself in a hurry to pay up and leave instead of enjoying a leisurely midweek lunch, you aren’t in the right frame of mind to review it. 

The week of lockdown I wrote a piece about it, but you couldn’t really call it a review. It was more of a diary piece, and it started an enjoyable few months of writing posts on the blog that weren’t just about restaurants, to keep myself occupied and give people something to read. People were very kind about them, and I kept going until just after the first big lockdown came to an end. Then I took a break, then in our third national lockdown I said I’d have a go at reviewing takeaway restaurants, and here we are.

I also said that when I went back to eating in restaurants, Osaka would be the first restaurant I reviewed. But a year has passed and we aren’t quite there yet, so to mark the occasion I thought I would review their takeaway this week instead. And flicking through the menu on a Monday night, I found myself wishing I hadn’t left it so long; I adore sushi and sashimi, and I couldn’t quite believe I haven’t eaten it for a year. I guess the problem is that the list of things we all haven’t done for a year is so long you forget half of what’s on it.

You can only order via Deliveroo, and the range is slimmed down compared to the restaurant menu – a handful of starters, just over half a dozen maki, the same for nigiri and only two types of sashimi. There’s no tempura, no temaki, no platters or bigger selections, either, so the selection is considerably more limited than at Sushimania, Osaka’s closest competitor. The pricing is comparable, but all over the place: some items are more expensive at Osaka, others at Sushimania with little rhyme or reason behind it. 

Osaka also has main courses on its menu, ramen, rice and noodle dishes, all priced around the twelve pound mark. I decided to steer clear of them, partly because I figured sushi and sashimi would travel better – with no danger of going cold – and partly because once I started looking at all that sushi and sashimi I pretty much wanted to eat that and nothing else. Moreover, Deliveroo was running an offer that gave you twenty per cent off provided you spent over twenty pounds: not difficult at the best of times, but easy as pie when you’re scratching a year-old sushi itch. 

Delivery was free of drama and in very good time – I placed my order just after seven o’clock, and about half an hour later the man was at my door with a couple of bags. Plonking them all on a couple of little tables in the living room, I was struck that although sushi was convenient to have delivered, it probably loses out more than most food when you compare it to eating in the restaurant. Japanese food is all about precise arrangement and beautiful presentation, and that’s something you can’t really replicate when you package food for delivery. So instead everything was crammed into black plastic trays with a clear lid – and I did find myself thinking that the black plastic might not be recyclable. 

There felt like an awful lot of packaging, too: I wasn’t sure, for instance, whether a separate plastic sachet of ginger, wasabi and soy sauce with every single item was strictly necessary. It felt odd, too, that they supplied all these condiments but no chopsticks – there was probably a tick box for these when ordering but I wasn’t used to asking for asking for cutlery for a delivery order (for obvious reasons) so I didn’t spot it. Fortunately, it turned out that we had a couple of pairs of in the house: the ones pictured below, which I thought were adorable, were commandeered by my public transport-loving partner in crime.

We kicked off with the one hot dish we’d ordered – crispy chicken karaage – a portion each because we were too peckish to share. I loved this: it’s a reference dish I often order in Japanese restaurants and I think Osaka’s rendition is up there with any I’ve tried (with the possible exception of Gurt Wings’ “JFC” at Blue Collar on Fridays, which is Death Row stuff). 

Good tori karaage is trickier to do than you might think, and many versions either feature breast meat which is a little too dry or thigh which is just a tad too bouncy. Perhaps it’s all in the marinade, but the texture of Osaka’s was bang on, the coating light and crispy with no grease or oiliness at all. I squeezed my lemon over the generous helping of fried chicken, dipped it in the thick mayonnaise, sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds, and ate in rapt contentment. 

One way of offsetting having a whole portion of fried chicken to yourself is to eat something as clean as sashimi, so we each had a portion of salmon sashimi to ourselves, too. You got three expertly cut slabs of fish for your money – just under five pounds – and they really were terrific, marbled, almost buttery things. If only everything that was good for you tasted as marvellous (or contained as few calories as) sashimi, the planet would be a very different place. And even if it wasn’t, I might be a lot slimmer. The sashimi came, as it always does, with a big pile of spiralised mooli, and I wondered, as I always do, who actually eats that bit: slim people, probably.

I’m not generally a fan of nigiri, but I always make an exception for unagi, or grilled eel. There’s something about this especially meaty, muscular fish, strapped with seaweed to a lozenge of sushi rice, that makes for a perfect mouthful. Osaka’s were decent – and pretty good value at four pounds forty – and the eel had plenty of oily flavour, but I would have liked a little more of the savoury sauce on top.

The rest of our dishes were all variations on sushi rolls and, like the rest of the food, they were impeccably done, tasteful and a model of restraint. Avocado maki are another of those reference dishes – done well, there’s nothing quite like that gorgeous creamy avocado hugged by rice, all dabbed in a tiny pool of soy. These were very well assembled – no looseness, no nori not quite meeting in the middle – and the avocado was wonderfully ripe with no browning. 

It seemed a little strange that each maki was made up of several smaller slivers of avocado rather than one big strip, but it made no difference to how enjoyable they were. Spicy tuna maki were also extremely good, with the fiery tuna perched on top of the sushi rice rather than encased by it – these were definitely the punchiest thing I ate, and a dish I’ll make a beeline for when I order again.

Finally, we had ordered an uramaki roll – these are bigger, longer affairs, all of which hover around the twelve pound mark. The selection through Deliveroo was very limited – just the five on offer, as opposed to the twelve on the restaurant menu – and the purist in me ruled out the two featuring crushed tortilla as a fusion bridge too far. Fortunately the one we ended up going for, the green dragon, turned out to be an excellent choice. This had katsu prawn, a baton of avocado and thin strips of cucumber in the middle of the rice with avocado daubed on top, the whole thing then crowned with Japanese mayonnaise (Kewpie, at a guess), a drizzle of dark unagi sauce and, last but not least, a little cluster of tobiko, or fish roe. 

Typing that all out makes it sound incredibly busy, and I was worried approaching it that it would taste too muddled, but it really was a masterful dish. The many flavours and textures could have jostled for supremacy, or tried to shout each other down, but in reality the whole thing was harmonious and superb. I especially liked the fact that the cucumber was so finely cut – so often you get a big watery ingot in the middle of your sushi – and the crunch largely came from the katsu prawn instead, with everything else almost symphonically arranged. 

Again, I imagine this dish is quite a looker in the restaurant but distinctly jolie laide when delivered. Not that that bothered me in the slightest: I’ve taken more than enough pictures of the university’s Lego Building to prove that I have a soft spot for the unconventionally attractive.

Our meal for two, including a 20% discount, came to just under forty-five pounds, not including tip. And although I feared at the start of my meal that I’d still be hungry at the end of it I found myself nicely sated: all those small bits of rice here and there add up, and you find yourself full almost by stealth. Some people will think that’s pricey, and I understand that you could get a lot more food for far less money, but to some extent I feel that runs the risk of missing the point.

I’ve found Osaka’s food far more difficult to sum up than usual: it’s technically very competent, and much of it is delicious, but because it’s so polite and precise, so well done and well behaved, the danger is to damn it with faint praise. It does feel like the menu is less suited to sharing than the likes of Sushimania, and more limited too, so I can see that if you wanted a sushi feast you might spend your money elsewhere. But if you compare individual dishes I’d say that Osaka is better, in terms of its attention to detail and quality of execution (a more interesting comparison might be with Oishi down the Oxford Road which, confusingly, offers delivery both under that name and the nom de plume Taberu Express).

Also, more than with most restaurants, I sense that Osaka offering its menu for delivery involves a number of compromises. Those kind of compromises wouldn’t trouble, say, a burger joint, but for sushi and sashimi it must be frustrating to present your food in a format so far from the ideal. Personally, I’m delighted that they made those compromises so I could spend some of my Monday evening enjoying their immaculate food. Resetting the clock of terror is one thing, but resetting the clock of sushi is a far happier experience. 

For all of the time I’ve spent looking back, I do wonder what the world will be like in March 2022. Perhaps we’ll look back on all our Timehops and Facebook memories and we’ll struggle to remember what it was like to feel and behave the way we once did. Maybe it will be like seeing Bobby coming out of the shower in Dallas, feeling like we’ve had the strangest dream, the kind that fades quicker than we can tell it to somebody or write it down. In any event I’m looking forward to that future, when the restaurants we love are thriving again and the people we love are sitting at our table. When it comes – and it will come – Osaka will be one of the places I go to celebrate.

Osaka
The Oracle, Unit R16, Reading, RG1 2AG
0118 957 3200

https://www.osakarestaurants.co.uk
Order via: Deliveroo

Sen Sushi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The gloves?”

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

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

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

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

Again, I hadn’t noticed that.

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

“You’re right, I’m afraid.”

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

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

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

Sushimania

When Neneh Cherry released her debut album back in 1989 I don’t think she realised quite how much damage she would do to the sushi industry; there’s still a common misconception that sushi equals raw fish, and that puts lots of people off it completely. Perhaps in light of that, the inappropriately named Sushimania has a large koi carp mural on the wall with the words “so much more than just sushi” above it. This, along with the bright red bar and red and black furnishings make the most of what could otherwise be an uninspiring spot, opposite the Hexagon Theatre (surely one of the foremost contenders for Reading’s ugliest building, along with the Civic Centre next to it). It’s taken over from the equally inappropriately named Thai Nine, which used to do all you can eat Thai, and… err… sushi.

In many senses the change isn’t that marked – it still does sushi, the tables and chairs are still the same and the menu is still all you can eat (for £15.80, in fact). But when we arrived, at 8pm on a midweek night, it was clear that Sushimania was still bedding in because, far from the bustling restaurant that used to be there, this was a much emptier venue. Remember Lobster Room? Well, the sinking feeling on being guided to our table was much the same here.

It took a bit of effort, and a little help from a waiter, to understand how the ordering works. There’s a sheet of A4 paper, folded into thirds, printed with the names of all the dishes with spaces to write how many you want of each. There’s also a glossy menu with a similar list, all photographed and funky looking with brief descriptions of the dishes. We picked from the glossy menu but were stumped to find that the menu didn’t tie to the sheet of paper we’d been given. How were we supposed to pick all of our choices when they weren’t all on the order form? How did it work? Well, it turns out there are four different types of dish at Sushimania, and it’s not exactly all you can eat all inclusive after all. Here comes the science bit: you might want to concentrate for the next few paragraphs.

First of all there’s the bog standard all-you-can-eat; order as many times as you like, no more than six dishes on any round. Simple. Then there is the not-quite-all-you-can-eat;  the dish is included in the all-you-can-eat but you have a maximum of three portions in each visit. Fair enough, I suppose. Next there are the all-you-can-eat-but-you-have-to-pay-extra dishes; most of the time this means an extra couple of quid per dish so it’s no biggie, although you won’t know which dishes this is until you look at the order form. The main items here were all the sashimi dishes except salmon, so if you don’t like raw fish you might be pleased to see that Sushimania does charge a premium for it.

Still with me?

Okay, so the final option is for those dishes which aren’t on the all-you-can-eat menu at all. These are full price and appear in the glossy menu, but not on the order form. They have to be ordered by actually speaking to a waiter, something that is otherwise not strictly necessary in Sushimania. This includes a lot of the interesting-looking stuff I’m afraid: many of the more unusual starters like seared salmon and tuna, the bigger sashimi plates and really quite a lot of the main courses. To recap: there are four different types of pricing and working out what your meal is going to cost is the kind of mathematical challenge that makes the numbers game on Countdown look like the two times table.

The good news, though, is that once you’ve navigated your way round the menus and the food begins to arrive, things start looking up.

My first course was a selection of sushi and sashimi, and it’s fair to say that although Sushimania may be more than just sushi, they’ve got the basics right. I love avocado maki (the creaminess of the avocado against salty soy and seaweed is always a favourite – a simple classic) so I was pleased that Sushimania does them very well – plump, well rolled, far tastier than they were at Thai Nine or are at Yo! Sushi just down the road. Spicy tuna maki, with a dollop of piquant orange-red sauce on the top, were also very well done, as were the katsu prawn uramaki and the crispy salmon skin teriyaki hand roll. Sashimi – both tuna and salmon – was also delicious, although the size was on the conservative side, especially when you’re paying a premium for the tuna (not the salmon, although it’s one of the things you can only order three of – remember? honestly, the menu was a minefield).

At this point we were smiling and patting ourselves on the back for making it through the door and navigating the riddles of the menu. The waiting staff were attentive and interested enough to ask what we thought of the food and it was nice to be able to give good feedback and mean it. We each ordered a second glass of the house white (an ugni blanc which was incredibly easy to drink, fresh and light if not particularly complex) and kicked back a little.

On the non-sushi side of things it was more hit and miss. The Japanese starters were generally very good. In particular the tori karaage was terrific; moist chicken thighs fried until the coating was crispy but the meat was still tender inside, a grown up chicken nugget. The chicken gyoza were super light with nice hint of spring onion to them that made them taste clean and fresh. Yakitori chicken skewers were one of my favourites – again, cooked just right, smothered in sticky smoky sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The prawn tempura, though, was adequate rather than great. The batter was too thick and under-fried and they felt like more of a chore than a treat (although I’m afraid I did eat them all – it always feels especially rude to leave something you’ve ordered on an all you can eat menu).Sushi

The Japanese mains were where I really felt let down – especially as most of the mains I fancied weren’t on the all you can eat menu. We only ordered a couple, because we were getting full by then, but even then they were disappointing. The beef yaki soba was a fun-sized portion of noodles with three or four tiny rubbery pieces of beef plonked on top. It was so short on flavour that the one mouthful I had which contained ginger only served to highlight how poor the rest was. The salmon teriyaki was similarly small and underwhelming; normally teriyaki is rich and salty-sweet but this was thin and underseasoned and the fish itself was flabby with slippery skin. It was a shame that these were our last dishes, because it meant that the meal ended on a bit of a low note; I was sorely tempted to order another round of maki but even I’m not quite that greedy.

Instead we decided enough was enough and asked for the bill. Food for two with two glasses of wine each came to £54 including the optional 10% service charge.

When settling up we complimented the waiter again on the food and he seemed genuinely pleased that we’d enjoyed it – which again felt like a change from Thai Nine where the service always had a rather monosyllabic, functional quality to it. When I started writing this review I honestly intended not to take the “old versus the new” angle, but looking back I can see that’s just not possible. And it’s hard not to be delighted that Sushimania is so much better than Thai Nine was. It’s not perfect by any means: I do think they need to sort out their hopelessly convoluted menu, and based on my experience they might want to erase that wording saying “so much more than just sushi” (or improve the non-sushi dishes, which were such a lottery during my visit) but overall there’s an awful lot more to like here than not. Hopefully it won’t be long before people are having to fight to get a table here – at which point I’ll no doubt complain that it was so much better in the good old days.

Sushimania – 7.4
9 Queen’s Walk, RG1 7QF
0333 3320222

http://www.reading.sushimania.co.uk