Restaurant DIY kit review: Côte At Home

I’ve always liked Côte’s food. And I’m a big fan of eating nice meals at home, especially when the wind is howling outside and the garden is relentlessly battered with rain. So this week, I thought I’d see whether it’s possible to appreciate both at the same time.

Côte’s always been arguably my favourite of Reading’s chains and if the last two years had been anything like the two before that, I’ve no doubt that I’d have eaten there a fair few times. Grabbing one of their outside tables on a sunny day for their prix fixe when I couldn’t be arsed to cook, for example, or having a weekend brunch there and enjoying their soft, crumbly boudin noir. And if they’d been on delivery apps, you can bet you’d have read a review of that last year. 

But Côte chose a different path, an interesting one that differs from most other chains – and most other restaurants, come to that. Instead of doing takeaways, in the summer of 2020 Côte launched Côte At Home, offering a subsection of their menu that can be easily heated at home. It makes sense, when you think about it: Côte prepared some of their meals in a central kitchen and finished them in the restaurant as it was, and this model converted what you could see as a pre-pandemic weakness into a distinct advantage after Covid-19 struck. 

My experiences of heat at home restaurant kits, especially this year, usually left me thinking that I’d eaten a glorified ready meal at inflated prices. Côte offers a simplified version at far closer to ready meal prices, so I wanted to see if they made a case for a better heat at home model. And pricing isn’t the only difference between Côte’s model and operators like Dishpatch. They clearly benefit from scale because they deliver every day, with free delivery if you spend over forty pounds. You have to order forty-eight hours in advance, although some items qualify for express delivery, which means they reach you quicker. 

It isn’t difficult to spend forty quid. Everything is crazily affordable – think five pounds for starters, ten to fifteen for mains, and a fiver for dessert – but they also sell a good range of French cheeses, plenty of wine and beer, steak, sausages and confit duck. The latter comes in at an astonishing four pounds fifty a leg, making it miles better value than my meh-fest at Andrew Edmunds. I picked up a three course meal for two, and added a couple of bottles of Meteor to nudge it over the forty pound threshold (it’s a shame they don’t add their Breton cidre to the website: they’re missing a trick there).

Another contrast between my previous restaurant DIY kit experiences and Côte At Home was how user-friendly delivery was. With the others, you pay over ten pounds for delivery and essentially, they reserve the right to turn up at any point during the day. With Côte At Home, if you pay five pounds they’ll make sure it reaches you before noon. So lo and behold, it was with me first thing in very natty packaging. Inside the box there were an impressive four ice packs, and everything was fetchingly branded. A slip inside explained that literally all of the packaging was recyclable, too. Stowing it all away in the fridge I felt properly curious and excited about the meal that lay ahead, even if it’s the hope that kills you. 

This meal gave me an excuse to try out Côte At Home’s bread, which you finish off in the oven. Back in the day – by which I mean 2014 – I thought that Côte’s bread was the best in Reading, and although many bakers, artisan and otherwise, have wafted through town in the last eight years I still think Côte’s beats most restaurants round here, so I wanted to see how the heat at home stuff compares. And the answer was reasonably well – not up there with, say, Geo Café’s sourdough baguette straight out of the oven that morning (not much hits that exalted standard) but far better than the pasty part-baked baguettes you pick up from a supermarket. They throw in some salted French butter: a nice touch, but really we’d bought the bread to pair with our two starters. 

Of the two, as so often, Zoë’s was better. Smoked salmon rillette was properly lovely stuff, a very generous portion in a handsome ceramic pot (“that will be handy for olives”, she said later) with just enough smoked salmon in the mix to give it a wonderfully wintry taste without overpowering matters. It was a model of simplicity – fish, crème fraîche, capers, shallots and herbs – and extremely good value at four pounds fifty. Most of the Côte at home starters are chilled, with a couple you either heat up on the hob or in the oven, but this one struck me as the pick of the bunch.

It was certainly nicer than my chicken liver parfait, also served in one of those pots. And don’t get me wrong, it was earthy, smooth and reasonably indulgent. But it was hidden under a permacrust of clarified butter that was a little too thick and too much like hard work. And fundamentally it just wasn’t the smoked salmon rillette: food envy had set in at that point, and nothing would redeem it. It did make me wish I’d ordered some cornichons to accompany it – a snip at two pounds – or better still, had the foresight to have some in the cupboard. 

But again, to put this in perspective, if I’d been served this dish in a restaurant I’d have been quite happy with it. And in a restaurant it wouldn’t have cost five pounds. With all the restaurant kits I’d ordered so far it felt like the price was inflated for what you got – I’m sure Côte At Home benefit greatly from economies of scale, and having that central kitchen, but it does give you an idea just how cheaply you can deliver this model.

I’d like to say that the main course lived up to that promise, but it didn’t quite. Again, it was impressive value: a beef bourguignon for two people, with potato purée thrown in, set you back fifteen pounds, less than you’d pay for a single portion in a restaurant. But there was some inconsistency, both in how you cooked it and how it tasted. Some of Côte At Home’s dishes, like the potato purée, only come with instructions for microwave cooking and for those of us without a microwave that can be frustrating: you’d think they’ve had figured out alternative instructions by now.

That said, the potato puree – which I had to improvise, decant and heat up in the oven – was really very good. It was rich, silky and buttery: in short, far better than anything I could rustle up at home and streets ahead of anything you can buy in supermarkets. More expensive than an M&S “ultimate mash” (though not by much) but easily worth the money. 

The problem was the bourguignon. In fairness, when I looked at it there in its plastic tray, brown sludge at the bottom and highlighter-pen-pink nuggets of bacon on top, I thought Oh dear, this just looks like a ready meal. And I was partly wrong, because some lovely alchemy happened in the oven and it came out thoroughly looking the part. And the taste was decent – the onions had softened and sweetened beautifully and the sauce, if thinner than I’d have liked, had all the right notes in the right order. 

But a dish like this stands or falls on the star ingredient, and the beef was variable at best. One bit was so tough and fibrous that I gave up trying to cut through it, another was so unpleasantly gristly that I had to abort mid-chew. A dish like this about the right cuts of meat slow-cooked into submission, and there’s no excuse for something this bouncy or unpleasant. “I don’t know what you’re talking about” said Zoë. “All of mine was fine”. So it’s not all bad: if you order this you might get lucky, but don’t be surprised if your other half pulls faces.

We’d gone for a vegetable side of minted peas with baby onions and baby gem lettuce – and again, it only came with instructions for microwave cooking. It reheated just fine on the hob, though, and I liked the dish a lot – the peas still slightly nutty, the mint and garlic butter playing nicely together – but it was a tad annoying that they’d not thought about non microwave users. And the website could do more, I think, to highlight dishes that are microwave only than have a little sentence squirrelled away that says cooking instructions, ready to microwave. But again, a minor irritation in a pleasant, perfectly serviceable meal.

Although Côte At Home sells a tarte aux pommes – which you definitely don’t have to bung in a microwave – and a very tempting lemon posset, along with a cracking selection of cheese including Morbier, Roquefort and one of my very favourites, Saint Marcellin, Zoë and I both found it impossible to stay away from the chocolate mousse. And again, this was close to the restaurant experience at a far lower cost: for three pounds seventy-five you got a dish that would cost you one pound fifty more if you dined in.

And again, it was difficult to distinguish from the mousse I’ve eaten many times over the years at Côte. It was incredibly smooth and glossy, with either very fine bubbles or no bubbles at all, and if I had one criticism it would be that what’s described as a dark chocolate mousse feels about as dark as an episode of The Repair Shop. But looking back at my review of Côte eight years ago I ordered the chocolate mousse for dessert and said almost exactly the same thing. So you can hardly fault them for consistency.

So, with the exception of that unforgivably bouncy meat, Côte At Home was hard to fault. Incredibly generous portions, a routinely high level of quality, a supremely convenient delivery experience and great packaging. And of course you can add cheese, or wine, or confit duck to your order and suddenly it goes from a single meal in to a combination of a brilliant midweek supper and a trip to the deli. So why do I feel like there’s a slight underlying note of being underwhelmed in this week’s review? Do you feel that too?

I’ve been pondering that all week, and I think it comes down to the fact that a restaurant is so much more than its food. Part of they joy of eating in Côte, of what a treat it is, is how convivial it can be – the hubbub, the people watching – and that it can be done on the spur of the moment. It is, as eating out always should be, a bit of a special event. And takeaways can be like that too. I’m sure that at their best – although I’m yet to experience this myself – restaurant DIY kits also feel like a treat. And Côte At Home’s genius is also their biggest drawback: something about it feels unspecial. It really does sit in a new space between ready meals and takeaways, and it’s such a new space that I don’t really know how I feel about it.

And if you need any more evidence that this is an evolving area, you don’t have to look any further than Ocado. Because if you fire up your computer to place an order with Ocado (and if you do, I recommend the M&S “Our Best Ever Steak Pie”: it’s miles better than this week’s bourguignon) you’ll find some dishes from Côte At Home in there. You’ll also find options from Pasta Evangelists, another of the earliest ventures delivering restaurant quality food to your doorstep. And if they don’t appeal, you could just pick up a steak from Hawksmoor. 

The lines are getting blurred, and with that come plusses and minuses; you can get fancier versions of the convenience you’re used to, but the experience of treating yourself might lose some of its magic. Convenience, I’m increasingly starting to think, often has that effect. So I would cautiously say that you should give Côte At Home a try. I’m sure I’ll use them again, if only to enjoy confit duck and potato gratin one midweek evening (with a selection of cheese for later on). But I do worry that we’ll reach a stage, to paraphrase George Orwell, where we’ll look from ready meal to DIY kit, and from DIY kit to ready meal, and from ready meal to DIY kit again, but already it will be impossible to say which is which.

Côte At Home

https://coteathome.co.uk (or via Ocado)

Takeaway review: Biryani Boyzz

A couple of things happened last weekend that got me thinking about the cost of food, and the concept of value for money. 

The first was a visit to Nirvana Spa, where the menu had been ravaged by Storm Shrinkflation. “I’m sure last time I had the halloumi salad there was more halloumi on it” said Zoe, shortly before looking up her picture of the dish from a previous visit and finding that yes, you used to get three bits of chargrilled halloumi whereas now it’s just two. For nine pounds. I would have sympathised more, but I was too busy looking at a single, tiny tranche of pork and chicken terrine, also nine pounds, and thinking “where’s the rest?” My dish, which wasn’t billed as a salad, had more salad on it than Zoë’s, which was.

It’s one matter to reduce portion size and another to increase prices but it takes a rare kind of chutzpah to, as Nirvana has, do both at once. I’d ordered a pizza as a main course, which was nine inches at most and cost all of sixteen pounds: I couldn’t help but compare it to a lunch at Buon Appetito a couple of weeks before. Food is becoming more expensive, and it’s going to become more expensive still. That’s not necessarily a problem, but you at least want to feel that it’s great quality, even if it’s not good value. At Nirvana, it just felt like they were milking a captive audience.

The second experience, at the other end of the spectrum, was this week’s takeaway, from Biryani Boyzz (yes, not one but two Zs). It’s where Punjab Grill used to be, at the top of the Oxford Road before you reach Harput Kebab, and I think it was owned by the same people as Kobeda Palace, Palmyra and Da Village, although I’m not sure if it still is. Biryani seems to be one of Reading’s new trends, with Biryani Boyzz out west and Biryani Mama (which is owned by the same people as Crispy Dosa) just opened last week in the old Ask site on St Mary’s Butts.

Incidentally, because I’m going to be typing the word “Boyzz” numerous times during this review – with gritted teeth I might add – I want to say that I truly hope abusing the letter Z in this manner is a trend that doesn’t catch on. I know Biryani Boyzz is a stone’s throw from the equally woefully named Ladz Barbers, but I think they ought to learn lessons from history: restaurants with gimmicky Zs in their name rarely do well in Reading. When Chennai Dosa changed its name to Chennai Dosa Artisanz, it was the beginning of the end for them, and the coffee shop Artizan on St Mary’s Butts doesn’t seem to have ever opened. In my taxi back from Nirvana I spotted a place on the Wokingham Road called “Milano’z Pizza”: doesn’t the word pizza provide enough Zs already?

Rant over. I’d been tipped off to Biryani Boyzz by one of my readers, who said that it had excellent reviews on Google. So I went had a look, and although the reviews on Deliveroo were less glowing it piqued my interest enough to give it a try. Besides, their eponymous dish, the chicken biryani, was a startling four pounds ninety-nine. Could it really be any cop at that price?

Biryani Boyzz’s – I hated typing that combination of letters, just so you know – menu is a mixture of Indian, Pakistani and Afghan dishes. Chapli kebab is on there, as it would be at Kobeda Palace or Da Village, but you can also order Lahori chane, butter chicken if you want something more mainstream, or paya, a stew made with lamb trotters, if you’re the adventurous kind. 

The main thing that brings the menu together is its affordability. Nothing costs more than a tenner, most of it is far less than that and, of course, that biryani stands out at just under a fiver. I had to try that, so we ordered it along with a selection of starters, a couple of curries and some rice. The whole lot came to forty-five pounds, not including rider tip: not much money for quite a lot of food. 

Fancy a drama-free delivery paragraph? Of course you do. So here it is: I placed my order around twenty-five past seven, I was told it would be about an hour and in reality it was with me in forty-five minutes or so. And the driver took just over five minutes to reach me from the restaurant. There you go: drama-free delivery paragraph ends. It was all perfectly packed and piping hot, just to further reduce the element of drama: if only the situation in Ukraine could de-escalate as rapidly.

We’d chosen three things which broadly classed as starters, and they turned out to be a bit of a motley crew. Chapli kebab, which came in a brown paper bag shiny with grease, was a far cry from the very good ones I’ve had at Da Village or, back in the day, Afghan. It didn’t have that lean, meaty muscularity I’ve always enjoyed, and the texture was a little sodden and pappy, as if it had been padded out with something. There were bits of tomato speckled in it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more. It cost three pounds: after placing the order I wish we’d added a second, but after finishing it I was glad we didn’t.

Chicken 65 was more like it, but I still came away from it liking but not loving the dish. My previous experience of the dish comes from its time on the menu at Clay’s, and I tried to put that rarefied version to the back of my mind while eating this. The flavour of it wasn’t bad, with a good whack of acrid heat but the chicken was in little pellets rather than bigger, more tender pieces and there was something slightly off-putting about that. 

I’d have liked it to feel drier and less glossy – and I know this dish isn’t big on vegetation but I couldn’t help thinking that if, say, Momo 2 Go did a version of this it would have had a flash of green from some curry leaves or some coriander, whereas this was a relentless tidal wave of day-glo terra cotta. We left some of it. “I’m not even sure it was chicken” was Zoë’s verdict: feel the burn.

The last of our starters was Afghan lamb chops, which weren’t bad but weren’t exciting either. Cooked through with no blush, these were old-school chops where you got a postage-stamp sized piece of meat that was largely redeemed by bathing it in raita. To put this in perspective, you got four small chops for seven pounds, so if it wasn’t great it at least wasn’t expensive: presumably at Nirvana Spa they’d have charged you fifteen pounds for that lot. Deliveroo claims this dish is “Popular”. But then so is the Caversham branch of Costa Coffee.

Did things improve with the main courses? Well, yes and no. The yes came in the unlikely form of the butter chicken: it’s not a dish I ever really order but Zoë requested it and it was better than I was expecting. The sauce had a good, smooth sweetness which made the rice more interesting even if, again, there was only limited evidence it had ever seen any vegetables, or even just some herbs. And again, the chicken was in small, homogeneous pieces and lacked the generosity I would associate with the likes of Royal Tandoori or House Of Flavours.

But every rose has its thorn, and the thorn in this case was the chilli paneer. I think maybe I was expecting a dry chilli paneer, like the one you’d get at Bhel Puri House, whereas this was very much soft unfried cubes of paneer in a chilli sauce which took no prisoners and didn’t fuck around. My friend James has an expression for things that people like me think are hot but which wouldn’t make him bat an eyelid: he calls them “white people hot”. There’s no disgrace in that, per se: James classes Gurt Wings’ buffalo sauce as white people hot, although he’s never passed judgment on “The Gurt Locker”, their hottest sauce. I must take him to Kungfu Kitchen some time.

But it’s safe to say that Biryani Boyzz’s chilli paneer isn’t white people hot. It’s just hot. And not one of those clever, layered heats that builds momentum and pace as you work your way through a meal. No, it’s just really hot. Hot as in it makes your eyeballs leak with what might be tears, could be sweat or might just be a disgusting cocktail of both. Hot as in it clears out every sinus in your face while reaming your Eustachian tubes for good measure. 

Zoë said she thought there must be something like lime pickle in it and initially I disagreed, because I rather like lime pickle, but on reflection I thought she might be on to something because lurking under the brooding heat was something that could have been sour citrus. What do I know? If I’d had another couple of forkfuls I might not have been able to taste anything until the following Tuesday. The odd thing is that, in a treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen sort of way I admired Biryani Boyzz for doing something so uncompromising. It wasn’t for me, but there might well be customers out there who would love it. Reading the last few paragraphs, you probably know whether or not you’re one of them.

I’ve saved that five pound biryani til last, just so that this review has a little twist in the tale. You know what? I quite liked it. The chicken was on the bone, which of course it’s meant to be – and although you didn’t get huge amounts of it and it needed a little persuasion to get off the bone it was perfectly nice and the rice had some flavour – more, and better balanced, than the other dishes I’d tried. Did I mention that it was five pounds? And here we return to what I was saying at the start: something either has to be good value or good quality. Nirvana was neither, and Biryani Boyzz was one of them, in places. If Nirvana’s pizza had been something like a tenner, I’d have been quietly pleased, but if Biryani Boyzz’s biryani had been a tenner I’d have been nonplussed.

But cheap food for cheap food’s sake isn’t the holy grail some people like to think it is. Even ignoring that witless Berkshire Live article about how you can’t buy lunch in town for a quid any more (as everybody should), there can be a prevailing view in publications like Vittles that each time you get a dirt cheap meal in a restaurant you’re somehow sticking it to the man and getting one over on capitalism. But food ought to cost money, staff ought to cost money and everything ought to go through the books and be above board. I always worry that when food is cheap what you’re actually doing is just enabling a slightly different, equally unpleasant, flavour of capitalism.

Anyway, rarely have I been gladder that my takeaway reviews don’t come with a rating. Biryani Boyzz’s food is okay, and interesting in places, but I really don’t know where I’d put it if I had to find a place for it on a scale. And I’m not sure I’d order from them again, because I’d either spend more somewhere like Banarasi Kitchen or pay roughly the same amount at Momo 2 Go for very different cuisine. But I may not be Biryani Boyzz’s target market, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They didn’t lose me at that first Z, they didn’t even necessarily lose me at the second, but they probably lost me somewhere after that.

Biryani Boyzz
109 Oxford Road, Reading, RG1 7UD
0118 9573337

Order via: Deliveroo, Uber Eats

Takeaway review: Zyka

I’m easily old enough to remember a time before delivery apps and dark kitchens, before the weird and wonderful world of restaurants running side hustles, diffusion brands or heat at home kits. Back in the Eighties and Nineties, for most people, takeaway meant a curry, a Chinese meal or fish and chips from the local chippy. The closest you got to fusion food was having curry sauce (or in my case, sweet and sour sauce from Woodley’s Hong Kong Garden – still going strong, would you believe) on your chips. They were, in all respects, simpler times.

And in those days, having a good takeaway nearby was like gold dust: if you discovered one close to home, you made the most of it. At the end of the last century I lived in Nottingham for a year, and just round the corner from my house in Sherwood was the most incredible Indian takeaway. The flavour has probably been enhanced with a powerful dusting of nostalgia, memory’s answer to MSG, but the Fridays when we got food from there and sat down in front of something from Blockbuster Video were happy evenings indeed.

I’ve never found anything comparable in Reading. I used to live just around the corner from Kings Chef on the London Road, and I had their Chinese takeaway from time to time but it largely left me unmoved. And back when it was open, I would happily wander over to the now sadly defunct Seaspray to grab fish and chips which were still hot when I got home. But doing restaurant reviews for eight years meant that, until the pandemic hit, I never had much cause to use takeaways. And now the proliferation of delivery services, third parties on bikes and scooters and all that means that there’s probably too much choice. You channel hop meals the way you channel hop TV programmes or, as I remember from my days on Tinder, actual human beings.

Ordering from Zyka, the subject of this week’s review reminded me slightly of the old days. No Deliveroo or Uber Eats for them, so you just have to contact them and tell them what you want. Although you can order online (and they even take Apple Pay), so it’s not quite as basic as getting a leaflet through your door and ringing them up. And why did I choose Zyka? I thought you’d never ask: it’s because it won an award recently.

Not at the British Curry Awards, which were announced this week and gave prizes to the likes of Benares in Berkeley Square and Cheltenham’s brilliant Prithvi (“we’re building back balti” said the Prime Minister in a by all accounts cringeworthy recorded message). And not at the English Curry Awards, which were awarded in October and where winners included Wokingham’s Mumbai, either. Zyka won at the Curry Life Awards, also held October, where they were one of twenty-one restaurants to win “Best Curry Restaurants Of The Year”. With hindsight, there are a lot of different curry awards and a lot of winners: perhaps they should have some kind of unification bout, like they do in the wrestling. 

Anyway, a fair few people have asked for this review, off the back of that award, so I figured it was about time. “They’ve been excellent for many years”, one person told me on Twitter, adding that they’d diversified by opening The Switch, a Tilehurst café which looks, on paper at least, like an attempt to create a West Reading equivalent of Café Yolk. “The menu doesn’t look that inspiring” said a friend of mine. “It’s not a patch on House Of Flavours” was another piece of feedback I heard: I guess if there was universal consensus I’d never need to review anything.

For what it’s worth, I think my friend was right about the menu. It’s pretty generic, with the same dishes you’d find anywhere else. Starters are mainly bhaji, samosas and a few options from the tandoor, and then there’s a tandoori section and largely the same curries offered with either lamb, chicken, seafood or vegetables and paneer. Another section is entitled “House Favourites”, which makes you think this might be where the specialities live, but no: that’s where you find your bhuna, dopiaza, korma, dansak and so on. 

In fairness to Zyka, and I may end up saying this a few times in this review, it may well be very different if you eat in the restaurant. The menu makes a point of saying that they’ve selected the dishes on the takeaway menu to ensure that they travel well – and I understand this might make some dishes unsuitable but I was still a little surprised not to see something off the beaten track on the menu. Because they’ve won an award. 

Anyway, my order for two people – poppadoms, a couple of starters, two mains, a vegetable side and some rice – came to a smidgen over fifty pounds. They charged three pounds for delivery and a nebulous extra quid under “surcharge”, whatever that means. I got a text saying that my meal would be with me in about an hour and then, just like in the old days, we sat back and waited.

He was at the door ten minutes later than predicted, but because I didn’t have the facility to endlessly, pointlessly track his whereabouts I just assumed it was because he’d left a little later than planned rather than because he got lost. And everything was piping hot and in a rather natty branded carrier bag. So far everything had gone like clockwork, and the only thing left was to eat the damned thing.

And that, I’m afraid, is where things didn’t quite come together. I’d chosen one of their curries that wasn’t generic, the murg haryali, chicken with mint and coriander: “a touch of sweetness and spice”, said the menu. I have fond memories of a similar, Kermit-green dish from Bhoj many years ago, aromatic and whiffy with garlic. This, I’m afraid, wasn’t that: it’s true that there was a bit of spice, but mostly there was sweetness – an odd, saccharine, artificial sweetness. You got the mint, but not really the coriander, and the chicken, tikka-tinged, was in big and slightly homogeneous pieces. I didn’t finish it, and it tasted a little – that word again – generic.

Zoë – and how many times have I had to write this in 2021? – ordered better than I did. Still giving carbs a relatively wide berth, she’d picked Zyka’s equivalent of a mixed grill, the Zyka mixed tandoori. This was fundamentally a huge plate of meat, with chicken and lamb tikka, an impressive quarter of a chicken, some prawns (“look, there’s a crustacean” was how Zoë chose to describe this development) and a seekh kebab. All lobster-red, so red it’s unreal, and all suffused with the deeply savoury notes that come from time well spent in a tandoor. 

I had a bit – I enjoyed the chicken, I thought the lamb was on the tough side. “I love the meats. I’d order the meats again” was Zoë’s verdict after this meal, although in fairness she says that after nearly any meal in which meat plays a predominant role (sometimes it’s a little like living with Captain Caveman). She’d chosen bhindi bhaji, thinly sliced okra, to accompany her rhapsody in crimson, and she thought it was decent enough, “but a little bit underseasoned”. The menu had given me the option to have this dish “desi style” for an extra pound, saying this meant the dish was “a slightly spicier and more authentic take”. I didn’t go for that, and maybe I should have, but it’s a bit weird to have to pay extra to make it taste authentic. They do seem to like their surcharges at Zyka.

The two starters, repurposed as side dishes, were fine but again, no more than that. I think it’s pretty hard to fuck up an onion bhaji, so if I say that these were good I’m not sure it’s especially glowing praise. And the samosas were a little unremarkable – full of pellets of minced lamb and peas but without any overwhelming flavour. You got two of them for a fiver, and the following day on the way back from seeing my dentist I picked up two infinitely more enjoyable ones in the legendary Cake & Cream for under two quid. Cake & Cream, as far as I know, has not been nominated for any awards, but I’d give them “Samosa Of The Year” any day of the week. There were also some poppadoms, but they always taste the same in my experience – even a bad one is usually enjoyable, provided it’s not stale.

I don’t want to sound withering about Zyka. What I had wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t great either. And this is the problem with awards: back in 2011 when Petersham Nurseries, a restaurant in a garden centre near Richmond with plain tables and no whistles and bells, won a Michelin star the chef there, Skye Gyngell, said that she wished she could give it back. The expectations of her customers changed, and they wanted to eat at a kind of restaurant she never wanted hers to be. It got too much, and she quit the following year. 

I get that expectation problem, admittedly on a different level, with Zyka. If they hadn’t won an award, maybe the upshot of this review would be “eh, it’s okay”. But because it has, it’s hard not to come away saying “how did they manage that?” I had a much more enjoyable takeaway from Banarasi Kitchen earlier in the year – which is equally well placed to serve West Reading, and much closer to you if you live across town. But the restaurant Zyka really made me miss was Bhoj. I ordered deliveries from Bhoj a few times, back in its golden age when it was still on the Oxford Road, and it never disappointed me.

I’m sure Zyka would have done brilliantly back in the days when I still had a Blockbuster Video card, when it was all leaflets folded into three and putting a call in from your landline (remember landlines?), shouting above the background noise. But the world moves on, and things change. There is so much choice, and it raises the standard: a rising tide, as I often say, lifts all boats. Although perhaps it’s a neighbourhood thing, and maybe if you’re a Tilehurst resident you count your lucky stars to have it just down the road. 

I should close by giving them the benefit of the doubt – maybe you had to be there. Maybe their full, eat-in menu has all the imagination and execution that was missing from my meal this week. And I know a restaurant is so much more than the food, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if their welcome is warm, their service superlative. I’ll make a point of checking them out in person in the New Year, and I look forward to them making me eat my words. But, for now at least, I’d rather eat elsewhere.

Zyka
6 Park Lane, Tilehurst, Reading, RG31 5DL
0118 9427788

https://www.zyka.co.uk
Order via: Direct from the restaurant

Takeaway review: Mama’s Way

Mama’s Way, the minuscule Italian aperitivo bar and delicatessen on Duke Street, has been on my list to review since it opened earlier this year. In the summer I briefly toyed with trying to grab one of the three tall stools outside, looking out on the shell that used to be Panino and sipping an Aperol Spritz, but it never quite happened. Anyway, reviewing it as a takeaway is a far better bet. After all, it can only seat three people outside and three people inside – up at the window, provided they get on famously – and so your best chance of trying their food would be to get on Deliveroo, as I did this week.

It is a shame, because it’s a wonderful spot. There’s something very continental about a venue so tiny – wander through Bologna and you’d find loads of Aladdin’s caves like Mama’s Way, selling cheese, or pasta, or porchetta sandwiches through a hatch. And if we were in pre-Covid times I’d probably have stood at the bar, elbows at the ready, enjoying that feeling of being somewhere else. But it’s 2021, and I imagine many people wouldn’t want to experience eating in at Mama’s Way for the time being, so here I am to try the food out remotely for us all.

It is a real Aladdin’s cave, by the way – all manner of cheeses and charcuterie, biscuits and breadsticks, pandoro hanging from the ceiling in readiness for the festive season, bottles of wine on one side and an attractive array of digestifs behind the counter (they sell multiple brands of Amaro, one of my favourite drinks). They even stock chinotto, that exquisitely bitter soft drink you can’t get anywhere else. And in my limited experience of buying from Mama’s Way over the counter they have an excellent variety of Parmesan, some of it aged for as long as 72 months: it’s doubtless improved more over the last six years than I have. 

Aside from doing food to eat in, and delivery food, and acting as a deli and wine shop they also have an online store, with free delivery if you spend over £29. Confusingly, they also sell “ready meals”, which include some of the same dishes as the Deliveroo options, so if you like something you’ve had as a takeaway you can, with a little foresight, spend half as much to heat it up at home yourself. This all makes sense – at a time like now you need to have as many hustles on the go as you can – but let’s get back to the point and talk about the takeaway.

The menu is relatively streamlined, and I imagine much of it is cooked up in the kitchen somewhere behind the counter. Starters mostly consist of cheese and/or charcuterie in some configuration or other, there are a couple of “build your own” pasta and sauce combinations and, strangely, four different soups. The rest is largely lasagne and pinsa, the Roman equivalent of pizza which is traditionally oval, made with a slightly different flour and has a slightly crunchier texture. Oh, and they also have a huge selection of their wine on Deliveroo, so if you fancy a forty quid bottle of Nebbiolo with your takeaway there’s nothing to stop you living the dream.

Starters tend to hover close to the ten pound mark, the lasagne and cannelloni are closer to twelve pounds and most of the pinse are between twelve and a rather steep seventeen pounds, although in fairness there are lots of interesting ingredients and combinations in that part of the menu, including lardo honey and walnuts, or Parma ham with the splendidly named squacquerone cheese (I’ve had it: it’s fantastic). I was having a takeaway on my own on a chilly night, so I decided to cover as many bases as possible by ordering pinsa, pasta and dessert. They were doing 20% off all food, so my bill came to twenty-five pounds, not including the rider tip.

Speaking of tips to riders, my main one to the guy who delivered my food would be “don’t store a hot pizza vertically”. Honestly, it was so ridiculous that it was more funny than disappointing: I’ve had many seamless delivery experiences this year, so I’m sorry to have to bring this up, but it does strike me as basic stuff and I’m not sure I’d be doing a decent job of this review if I didn’t mention it. Other than that, it was relatively smooth – I placed my order just after seven o’clock, it was en route twenty-five minutes later and it took about seven minutes to get to the house.

The fact that, say, the pizza was lukewarm or that the chilled dessert had been put in the same carrier bag as the hot lasagne is down to the restaurant, but the fact that my pizza had somewhat drifted in transit and that some of it was stuck irretrievably to the inside of the lid of the box is, sadly, down to the driver alone. Anyway, c’est la vie: I know the traditional curse is “may you live in interesting times” but an equally powerful one would be “may you spend far more of the year than you’d personally choose to trying to describe tepid pizzas on a restaurant blog”. Take it from me.

So, the tepid pizza then: it’s a real shame, because Mama’s Way use good ingredients and it does show in the taste. I’d picked a simple ‘nduja pizza and their ‘nduja is great – savoury, acrid crimson nuggets that pack a huge amount of flavour, far more so than boring supermarket ‘nduja. On this evidence I would buy ‘nduja from Mama’s Way, but I’m not sure that, on this showing I’d order a takeaway pinsa from them again. But I could tell, from what I ate, that if it had been hot it would have been formidable. 

The tomato sauce had a genuinely gorgeous fruity depth and the base, which was far thicker than the Neopolitan pizzas that are in vogue right now, was also excellent. Slightly randomly my order had included a couple of squares of bread in a paper bag: I’m not sure why, because they didn’t go with my lasagne and they sure as hell didn’t go with my tiramisu, but as a “look what you could have won” they were another salutary reminder that the raw materials Mama’s Way is using are promising. Eventually I admitted defeat, stuck the oven on and reheated the rest of my pizza. It was lovely, but if I wanted to heat up a pizza at home I’d probably just buy one from a supermarket at half the price.

If the pizza was frustrating, the lasagne was outright bad. It looked the part when I got it out of the bag, but what my picture fails to show is just how little ragu was involved in its construction. Have a look at the picture on Mama’s Way’s website, which suggests you’ll get four sheets of pasta with a generous layer of ragu in between each one. By contrast, what I had was, I think, six or seven layers of lasagne with next to no ragu anywhere to be seen. It was an odd kind of pasta millefeuille, which sounds more like a baddie from Harry Potter than anything you might want to eat.

The best bit of a lasagne is that crispy, cheesy bit right at the top – the corners, all caramelised – but that only works if plenty of cheese has been used and there’s hot ragu underneath. This was just a stodgy wedge of pure pasta, and the burnt bits were almost impossible to saw through. I threw half of it away. The sad thing is that what very little ragu there was tasted decent, with good depth of flavour – properly made, with finely chopped carrot in the mix. But when there’s that little of it on display, the fact that it tasted decent only made matters worse.

Deliveroo described this as a “lasagne Bolognese” (and, incidentally, the picture of this dish on Deliveroo also looks like it involves plenty of ragu). But if anybody served this up in Bologna they’d probably die of shame. The margins on this dish, even with a discount, must have been astronomical.

Just to add to the contrariness, one final twist in the tale – my tiramisu was lovely. Everything was in proportion with the perfect interplay of cream and sponge, booze and coffee, exactly as it should be. But again, it was a little on the small side at five pounds – not unreasonable with twenty per cent off, but I still couldn’t help but think of the giant slab of tiramisu you’d get at Buon Appetito for not much more. I think by that stage I was relieved that something was unequivocally good, even if it wasn’t unequivocally good value.

This meal felt like such a pity, and a proper wasted opportunity. You only have to spend a few minutes inside Mama’s Way to see that they have fantastic ingredients and produce, much of it impossible to get anywhere else in town. But somewhere along the way, something has gone wrong in terms of turning that into a menu that works and makes sense – for delivery, anyway. 

If they ever get larger premises, I would rush to eat there and have one of those pinse fresh from the oven, or just enjoy some of their antipasti with a good bottle of red. With the right site, they could be Reading’s equivalent to Bristol’s cracking Bosco Pizzeria. But would I order takeaway from them again? Probably not: the memory of that brick of lasagne, 10% main course, 90% murder weapon, will cast a long shadow.

Never mind. It hasn’t diminished my enthusiasm for what they sell over the counter, or my respect for them trying to do something different and turn a profit from such a tiny spot. And I’ll be back for some of that ‘nduja, and some squacquerone (for the name alone, if nothing else), and I’m long overdue a bottle of chinotto for that matter. They also sell coppa, probably my favourite charcuterie of all time, and I can even see myself picking up some guanciale to use in my own ragu at some point. It might not be as good as theirs, but you get an awful lot more of it. 

Mama’s Way
10-14 Duke Street, Reading, RG1 4RU
0118 3273802

https://mamasway.co.uk
Order via: Deliveroo, Uber Eats

Takeaway review: Shake Shack

Well hello there! Welcome to this week’s review, where I go back to trying takeaways and search desperately for interesting things to say about Shake Shack.

I know my reviews never start this way. You’ve read enough of them by now, I imagine, to know the structure. I start with a preamble that puts things in context, talks about the place I’m reviewing this week and why I chose it. Is the new joint that’s opened the biggest and best? Why doesn’t anywhere in Reading do good food of this or that cuisine? Is the place I visited a few years ago still any cop? You get the idea.

Then I run you through the menu, and how prices range from bla to bla. If we’re in a restaurant, I’ll tell you what the room (or my table outside) is like, and if it’s a takeaway I tell you what I made of the delivery experience. Then I get out my Big Food Thesaurus, because every restaurant reviewer’s got one, and describe the dishes – spoiler alert, if it’s a takeaway it’s often not quite hot enough – trying to avoid wanky words like “bosky” or ones, like “unctuous”, that people bandy around without understanding what they really mean.

I also throw in some choice remarks from whoever’s eating with me that week. Because the more of somebody in the review who isn’t me the better, am I right? Usually that’s my partner Zoë, who’s much more quotable than I am. But Zoë is joining me for fewer reviews at the moment, because we’re going to a wedding in a couple of weeks and she wants to wear an outfit that, in her own words, “doesn’t come with guy ropes”. So other times a friend of mine comes along, and I might also spend some time describing them; these reviews don’t clock up their massive word count by themselves, you know. 

Anyway, then I tell you what the service was like, how much it costs and whether it was good value, and finally I inelegantly loop back to the preamble and tie it all together with a pretty bow. That’s the formula, and you’ve all flown with me often enough to know that perfectly well. Thanks for choosing my blog today: the emergency exits are here, here and here, and I hope you have a very pleasant onward journey.

My reason for opening the figurative kimono this week is that my takeaway from Shake Shack was so nothingy that it was a challenge to hold all the details in mind, like trying to recall a dream days after you wake up from it. At least with some dreams you actively want to remember them – winning the lottery for instance, being on holiday, or having it off with your favourite film star – but I doubt most people would long to dream about Shake Shack. I think I can understand why some “proper” restaurant reviewers spend the first half of their reviews talking about something that has nothing to do with the restaurant: they’re probably just bored.

Sorry, I should at least tell you something about Shake Shack first. It’s an American chain – yes, another one – that started life twenty years ago as a solitary hot dog stand in New York’s Madison Square Park. Restaurants like to make much of where they’ve come from when their back story is like this, possibly so you won’t pay quite so much attention to where they are now. 

And where Shake Shack is now is a big chain with two hundred and fifty locations worldwide, including ten in the U.K., the majority of them in London. They opened in the U.K. the same week as Five Guys, although Five Guys has spread further and faster, possibly because it’s backed by Charles Dunstone, the billionaire co-founder of Carphone Warehouse. That might explain why Five Guys has been ensconced in Reading for eight years, whereas customers only got to try their rival from late last year, when Shake Shack teamed up with Deliveroo Editions to start selling to the people of Reading from that dark kitchen near Phantom Brewery.

I ordered from them this week out of pure curiosity: just as with Rosa’s Thai, the other London import on Deliveroo Editions, I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. I can be as meh about burgers as the next person, quite possibly more so, but I always got the impression Shake Shack was more highly rated among burger anoraks than Five Guys, the Burger King to Five Guys’ McDonalds (although the burger chain people really want to see come to these shores is the elusive, much-fêted In-N-Out Burger). So I fired up Deliveroo on my phone on Sunday night to see if they offered something that the likes of 7Bone, Honest and Gourmet Burger Kitchen – now available on Deliveroo, surreally, from the kitchen of our local Carluccio’s – didn’t. 

If they did it wasn’t immediately apparent from the menu, which was streamlined and straightforward. You can have a burger, a cheeseburger or a “SmokeShack” burger (with smoked cheese and bacon) either as a single or a double. Their vegetarian option – there’s nothing at all for vegans here – was a fried portobello mushroom stuffed with cheese.  Double burgers come in at around nine pounds and you have to buy fries separately, which pegs the price pretty much at the same level as Five Guys, Honest and 7Bone.

They also did a chicken burger and nuggets, a “flat-top hot dog” (which looked genuinely unpleasant in the photo) and a limited edition selection of Korean-influenced dishes making liberal use of gochujang. Most of the chicken dishes on the menu were described as “chick’n” which did make me wonder if it was in fact, technically, chicken. A bit of research reassured me, but it still seemed like a weird, unnecessary turn of phrase. Anyway, we ordered a couple of burgers, a couple of portions of fries and some nuggets and the whole thing came to forty pounds, not including rider tip.

As is so often the way, everything happened either a little too quickly or not quite quickly enough. Our order was on its way literally twelve minutes after we ordered, and it got to the house in close to ten minutes. It was on the lukewarm side, but I don’t know if that was down to the rider or the packaging. Shake Shack proudly proclaims that all the paper used in their boxes is from sustainable forests: that may be true but it was pretty thin and didn’t look like it offered much in the way of insulation.

Zoë had picked the chicken burger – partly, it turns out, because she was a bit of an expert in this field. It looked pretty decent – a thick fillet with a crunchy coating and meat whiter than American teeth. She’d left the pickles out, owing to her long-standing aversion to vinegar, and replaced them with long crisp slices of raw onion, as a heathen would do. But she seemed to enjoy it, although she thought it needed to be hotter.

“It’s not bad. I’d compare it to the McChicken Sandwich – I used to eat that back in the day, and very good it was too. Then they they replaced it with something called the Chicken Legend in a ‘ciabatta roll’” – she conveyed the inverted commas through the power of disdain alone – “and that was rubbish. It’s dry as fuck, too much roll. It comes with a ‘cool’ mayo and I don’t like the taste of it. Now you have to have a chicken mayo sandwich from the Saver menu.”

“Don’t you have a mini fillet from KFC instead?”

“Not from the one on Broad Street” she said. I wondered if she was referring to the infamous rat incident from a few years back and then I remembered: she knew numerous people who had fallen ill shortly after eating there.

“Do you remember the McChicken Premiere? That one came in fake focaccia bread, and the advert had Dani Behr, dead behind the eyes, desperately pretending to sound excited about a chicken burger.”

“Never heard of it.”

I think Zoë ordered better than I did. I’d chosen the SmokeStack Double, the most expensive burger on their menu, a double patty with cheese, bacon and chopped cherry peppers. The way it had been packaged – part-wrapped but left open – might have been visually appealing, but it meant it was colder than it needed to be, and most of the cherry peppers stayed stuck to the paper when I picked the burger up. The remainder hung around, adding a sweet crunch that jarred with everything else.

Again, if it had been hot it might have been nicer, but I didn’t feel any real difference in quality between this and Burger King, let alone Shake Shack’s more direct competitors. The bacon was nice, the patties were reasonable – cooked well done, even though I hadn’t ticked the box to request that – but I struggled to think of a burger I’d had in Reading that left me as ambivalent as this. 7Bone may be a grease overload, but at least it tastes of something. Honest’s burgers are probably the benchmark. Reading’s street food options, whether it’s Boigers or the sadly-dormant Meat Juice, beat Shake Shack hands down day in, day out. And I couldn’t help but think of plucky little Smash N Grab, out on Cemetery Junction, infinitely more deserving of my money than this, even if their fries need work.

Shake Shack’s fries, by the way, are crinkle cut – that’s their shtick – and they weren’t bad, if a tad lukewarm. They were at least well salted, and I’ve always suspected that crinkle cut chips are just inherently better. Zoe had gone for the gochujang ones, which merely meant that they gave you little plastic pots of bacon and spring onions to sprinkle on top and a tub of gochujang mayo to dip it in. I’m not sure much sustainable paper was involved in all those tubs, and I’m also not sure it was worth the additional one pound fifty. “It’s real bacon though” said Zoë, her expectations low enough by this stage that this came as a pleasant surprise.

Finally, we’d gone for some of the gochujang “chick’n” bites. The menu said that these came with gochujang glaze and another tub of that mayo. I expected from that description that they would indeed be glazed, but actually they were coated and topped with a meagre drizzle of gochujang sauce which only covered three of the ten nuggets. The taste was actually quite pleasant: there’s a wonderful, deep, savoury note to gochujang, with a slight hint of fermentation and funk. But the texture was woeful, the coating soggy and pappy underneath, no crunch to be seen. The whole thing was so woolly and unmemorable that we left a fair few of them, including one weird mutant ubernugget that was as big as three normal ones. Imagine fried chicken you don’t feel like finishing. That used to be a lot more difficult for me to do before I ordered from Shake Shack. 

I found myself thinking of Honest’s recent Thai chicken special, fried chicken thigh honking with fish sauce and a honey sriracha glaze, topped with Thai slaw, ranch dressing and cheese. It’s one of the best things they’ve ever done, and one of the finest burgers I’ve had. I loved it so much I ate it twice – at the start of the month, outside, on Market Square, and again at the end, at home, after trekking into town to click and collect on the final day of the month, because I wanted to eat it one more time before they discontinued it. Compared to that, Shake Shack wasn’t even a parody. It was a travesty.

When I first finished my takeaway from Shake Shack I think I might have been in a salt and additive-induced coma. “It wasn’t that bad” I thought to myself, “except that it wasn’t hot enough. But if you lived north of the river, and they were close to you, it might be worth a delivery.” But now I now think that was the gochujang talking. Because really, Shake Shack feels like a boring, bland way of parting a gastronomic fool and their money. 

So if you live in Caversham, and I know legions of my readers do, don’t order from Shake Shack. Get your burger from the Last Crumb instead. If you’re out east, give Smash N Grab a go. If you’re in town on the right lunchtime, head for Blue Collar. And if you’re near the town centre, go to Bluegrass, or 7Bone, or Honest, or the Lyndhurst, or King’s Grill. Go to Burger King, for that matter. Go literally anywhere else, so that one day Shake Shack’s marketing people and the experts at Deliveroo Editions realise that a town with a vibrant food culture won’t be fobbed off with some mediocre pap just because it has a few restaurants up in London. That kind of bollocks might work in Basingstoke or Bracknell, but it simply won’t wash here.

I’ll leave the last word to Zoë, who summed it up neatly as she ruefully tackled one of those stodgy nuggets. 

“You’d be better off going to Gurt Wings, where you could get three massive strips and a fuckload of tater tots for the same money. That’s the thing, isn’t it? Indies do it better.”

They do. They nearly always do.

Shake Shack

https://deliveroo.co.uk/menu/reading/reading-editions/shake-shack-editions-rea
Order via: Deliveroo only