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