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

Takeaway review: Wingstop

One thing that always strikes me about Reading is that many of the people who proudly call it home weren’t born here. Whether you came here for university and never left, settled here for a job, ended up here because you found love or – like me – wound up in Reading because your parents moved here for one of those reasons back in the Eighties, Reading is full of countless stories about people who made a life here, on purpose or accidentally. Frequently it’s the latter – you always think that one day you’ll go somewhere else, but something about the place gets its hooks into you and somehow, magically, one day you realise that it’s your place. It’s where you belong.

Our independent restaurateurs and entrepreneurs are great examples of that. They all have a story to tell, whether it’s Blue Collar’s Glen Dinning coming here from nearby Didcot, just down the road, Nandana and Sharat of Clay’s settling here after living in India and London or Geo Café’s redoubtable Keti, who moved to the U.K. from Georgia and somehow found herself living, of all places, in Reading. Imagine a Reading in a parallel universe where all those people made different decisions and took their considerable talents elsewhere. Actually, don’t: it doesn’t bear thinking about.

I saw this too, back when I organised readers’ lunches, before the pandemic. ER readers are a fascinating bunch – and I’m not just saying this because they turn up to my lunches – and many of them have moved to Reading, sometimes fairly recently, and are finding their way, looking for their place in things. Reading has so much going on (it did, anyway, before the pandemic, and no doubt will again) and yet it’s not always obvious or easy to find. You have to put the work in. But it rewards the investment: a great and growing food scene, plenty of culture and theatre, history, architecture, wonderful pubs and plenty of breweries. We Reading folk are a lucky bunch.

For me, that mixture of our history and all those who positively choose to live here, roll their sleeves up and make it a better place is what makes Reading so special. It’s something that people who live to run the town down will never comprehend. They sneer about the mosque, or flytipping, or any of a hundred other petty niggles and they don’t see the town for what it really is: a well-educated, pro-Remain, anti-Tory, polyglot, highly skilled place full of possibility. Not perfect – nowhere is – but with plenty of character, and always wanting to be better.

There was a time, a while back, when Reading was especially attractive to a different kind of settler. We were first in the queue for all sorts of interesting businesses, drawn in by our proximity to London and our highly qualified workforce, even before Crossrail was a thing. I still remember Reading getting the first Bill’s outside West Sussex, and how exciting that was. Actually, my memory even goes back as far as our first Pret, and our first Carluccio’s: believe it or not, people were excited about those, too. 

But then we were in line for all sorts of other exciting restaurants – Honest Burgers and Pho chose to have some of their first branches outside the capital in RG1. It looked for a while as if Byron and Busaba would open here, too, and even London’s high-end Peruvian restaurant Ceviche, surreally, was touted for an outpost in Reading. We never got the Wahaca many people so badly wanted (or the branch of Le Pain Quotidien I quite fancied), but we got a Malmaison as a consolation prize. There was a period where Reading went from “it’s all just chains” to “we get the best chains”. With rents pricing many independents out of the town centre, it seemed as much as we could hope for.

I don’t know when this changed – at some point since 2016, when things started their slow dive into the slough of despond – but somewhere along the way we became the first in line for a very different kind of restaurant. We’re no longer a logical extension of London, more the landing ground for American chain restaurants. Five Guys in the Oracle was the harbinger for all that, but in the last few years the rate of change has accelerated. We got a Taco Bell, we got a Chick-Fil-A, we are getting a Wendy’s later this year. And for the latter two, Reading’s is (or was) the very first branch to open in the country. Are we Reading folk really a lucky bunch? Is this going to Make Reading Great Again? 

Anyway, Chick-Fil-A rightly closed in short order after boycotts and protests about their antediluvian approach to LGBT issues, and last month another chicken chain, Wingstop, opened in its place, that weird upstairs location at the front of the Oracle that also played host to vegan junk food restaurant Miami Burger. Wingstop is another huge American chain expanding into the U.K., and – guess what? – Reading’s is the first branch outside London. There have been queues outside since it opened (of customers, rather than protestors) and so I decided to order some on a miserable Monday night, partly out of morbid curiosity and partly because both Zoë and I have a long-standing love of fried chicken in pretty much all its forms.

Wingstop is only on Deliveroo, and their menu is pretty limited. Chicken comes three different ways – wings, “boneless” and tenders. The middle one is the most misleading – “boneless” implies boneless wings, and indeed the Wingstop website refers to them as boneless wings, and I was taken in by that. But the small print on Deliveroo, which I only read after the fact, points out that they are “100% all-white breast meat, 0% bones and 110% flavour”. So that’s nice. 

Effectively they mean that they’re nuggets, which are inherently boneless. But rather than be honest about that, Wingstop has chosen to commit the grammatical crime of converting the word “boneless” from an adjective to a noun. If I hadn’t been fooled I’d have ordered wings, even though they aren’t especially my bag, but there you have it. The real choice, such as it is, is what particular flavour you want one hundred and ten per cent of: Wingstop’s chicken comes in ten different flavours, from their original coating and their signature lemon and pepper all the way through to Mango Habanero or Brazilian Citrus Pepper. 

It wasn’t clear from Deliveroo whether these were a coating or that they were covered in sauce, although the Wingstop website suggests that six of them are “wet” and four of them are “dry”. I can see why they didn’t include this on Deliveroo: “wet and boneless” describes some people I’ve met over the years but hardly summons up images of anything I’d want to order from a restaurant. Anyway, you get two flavours with an order of nuggets or wings and one with chicken tenders, irrespective of how many you order.

We ordered some nuggets, some tenders and some fries and our order came to thirty-three pounds, not including rider tip. If that sounds like a lot, in fairness we did get a lot of nuggets and tenders, and two portions of loaded fries: on the other hand, if we’d given in to the temptation to get some churros for dessert we could have spent even more.

I suspect that many of you have an idea by now of the way this is going, even without a rating of the bottom of this for you to scroll down to. But you know far better than I did when I placed my order: I always try to go in with an open mind, and the prospect of a chain restaurant only doing a limited number of things did rather raise the hope that they might do them well. And, as I said before, I do have a real weakness for fried chicken – and that even includes KFC, or did until last year when I decided I’d rather try and support more independent businesses. 

Everything was quick and unfussy, which always makes this paragraph a short one. We ordered at ten past seven, the rider was on his way twenty-five minutes later and within another five minutes he was at the front door. He had two orders for Wingstop in his insulated bag, so bear in mind that if you live further out of town your rider might well make another stop before getting to you. I don’t know who was getting the other order but whoever they were, as it turned out, they have my sympathy.

Everything was in cardboard packaging which I imagine was recyclable, apart from the dips which were in little plastic tubs, and everything was hot. And now, because I can put it off no longer, let’s talk about how it tasted, and how little it tasted of.

The bonelesses (let’s call them nuggets from now on, or things will just get silly) were dull, dry little pellets of chicken with nothing much going for them. We had a dozen, which very quickly felt like too many, half in their original seasoning and half in “Louisiana rub”, which sounds like a skin condition you might pick up in New Orleans. The latter was meant to be dry, but they were coated in some kind of random hot sauce, for no discernible reason. They tasted mainly of acrid, slightly vinegary heat which did its best to conceal the lack of flavour underneath.

The original seasoning was probably the best of the bunch, but even then it was surprisingly bland: it tasted much the way that Colonel Sanders’ unique blend of herbs and spices would taste after going through the wash half a dozen times. It brought to mind really good fried chicken, but only in the sense that you’d eat it and then think “this is nothing like really good fried chicken”. We dipped the nuggets in a blue cheese dip which had a faint, unwelcome whiff of acetone and a ranch dressing which answered the question “what would mayonnaise without a personality taste like?”

We’d ordered the tenders in lemon and pepper, which is supposedly Wing Stop’s trademark coating (not especially fun fact: the UK master franchise is called Lemon Pepper Holdings). They tasted, to me at least, like something you might buy from a supermarket and crisp up on a baking tray in the oven, on autopilot, daydreaming about eating something better. And that’s the worst thing, because I suspect they were nutritionally far worse for you than that. I really resent wasted empty calories at the best of times, but this just felt like a waste in every sense.

And this really was salty, so salty that you could almost feel your oesophagus starting to wrinkle like a slug under the onslaught of sodium chloride. Everything was so greasy, too. With both the nuggets and the tenders it didn’t feel like the restaurant had properly shaken them off before putting them in the box, to the extent where there was a grim slick of oil on the paper lining the bottom, and the pieces closest to it were actually soggy rather than crispy.

I haven’t mentioned the chips, so to give credit where it’s due: these were outstanding. Only kidding! They were cruddy as well. I’d chosen the “buffalo ranch” fries, which were dusted with a hot red powder which tasted as if it might be made from depleted uranium, more of that screechingly sharp hot sauce and, just for fun, the ranch dressing I’d felt so ambivalent about. Again, they were crudely salty, as if getting them to taste of salt constituted making them taste of something. The cheese fries were allegedly “smothered with aged cheddar cheese”. Looking at the picture, I would say “smothered” is poetic licence and that mature cheddar cheese doesn’t melt like that or take on that weirdly synthetic, plastic sheen.

I didn’t like Wingstop much. Can you tell? Aside from the ten gimmicky flavours, the crimes against grammar and the slightly disingenuous menu, I think the most damning thing about it is that whatever it was aiming to be, it failed. Truly it was neither one thing nor the other. If you decide, one night, that you have a real hankering after lemon and pepper chicken, you’d be better off with Nando’s. If you wanted salty, crinkly-edged pieces of fried chicken, Wingstop is nowhere near as good as even the most ordinary KFC. It almost made me wish I’d tried Chick-Fil-A: they might have been rampantly homophobic but I can’t imagine their food was duller than Wingstop’s.

And that’s just talking about the chains. The joy of Reading is that we don’t have to settle for chain restaurants. Bluegrass BBQ does reasonably good fried chicken, and on the occasions where the Lyndhurst has it on the menu theirs is superb. Even Kungfu Kitchen has dabbled with fried chicken in the past and yes, theirs was also miles better than Wingstop. But I’ve saved the best til last. If you get yourself to Blue Collar on a Friday lunchtime, shortly after this review comes out in fact, you can join the queue for Gurt Wings and get the best fried chicken in Reading. 

They’re here every week and if wings are your thing they absolutely have you covered. They also do beautiful chicken tenders and, at the moment, cups full of soy marinated crispy Japanese popcorn chicken thigh. They make all their own sauces, and their buffalo and blue cheese will make you weep with gratitude (although my personal favourite is the habanero syrup). Four tenders and a shedload of deeply addictive tater tots will set you back nine pounds. For much the same price you can have three iffy tenders from Wingstop and a portion of underwhelming fries.

Gurt Wings are based in Swindon and most of their beat is markets and pubs in Wiltshire and Bristol. But best of all, and bringing us full circle, they always spend Fridays in Reading. And that’s because Glen Dinning, that chap from Didcot I mentioned at the start of this review, decided to set up the best street food market for miles around here in Reading – and that decision, years later, brought us Gurt Wings. See? All is not lost. You just have to remember that for every Wingstop, there’s an equal and opposite Gurt Wings, gravitating towards this town just like all of us. Maybe Reading’s still got it, after all.

Wingstop
24a The Oracle, Reading, RG1 2AH
0118 3212699

https://www.wingstop.co.uk
Order via: Deliveroo only

Takeaway review: ThaiGrr!

One of the many things I’ve missed about reviewing restaurants over the past fourteen months is getting to try new places soon after they’ve opened. It’s fun to be one of the first people to check out a restaurant, and I know that at least a few readers wait to see whether I’ve enjoyed somewhere before deciding whether to pay it a visit – which is a huge compliment, and very much appreciated. But with one thing or another, I wasn’t able to do any of that last year. 

Maybe I should have started reviewing takeaways sooner, rather than waiting until 2021. As it was, I didn’t get to try the food at Tasty Greek Souvlaki or Banarasi Kitchen until many months after they opened their doors: it also meant I had to sit on the sidelines and watch while people told me how good it was. It was another thing to envy, along with all the people I knew who managed to fit in a foreign holiday last year, or a UK holiday (which, by the way, isn’t a staycation: that’s a hill I’m willing to die on), and even all the people who ate in restaurants and drank in pubs over the summer, free of the fear I couldn’t escape.

That makes this week’s review one I’ve particularly looked forward to. ThaiGrr! – yes, with an exclamation mark like Westward Ho!, although I’ll leave it out from this point onwards or this review might sound like I’m on amphetamines – opened last month at the Oxford Road end of Queens Walk. It’s the first of no doubt many new openings as part of the overall regeneration of the Broad Street Mall, although definitely not the last: I’ve heard interesting rumours, for instance, about a Greek restaurant opening there this summer. 

I was on a photographic mooch around West Reading a couple of weeks ago, checking out Rise Bakehouse and Cult Antiques and Coffee, the new café on Tilehurst Road. Because I was in that general area, I took a detour past ThaiGrr to have a look. It had gamely stuck a couple of tables outside, braving the wind tunnel that is Queens Walk. But the inside looked a little like a slightly bigger Kokoro, an unfussy place where you grab and go, or eat inside but with no whistles and bells. The menu felt geared towards that kind of eating, too – or takeaway – with a few starters and a reasonably compact list of mains all served with rice.

ThaiGrr has almost no footprint online, having seemingly sprung up from nowhere. Their website doesn’t tell you anything about their story, and all I could find from Googling was a company set up last year from an anonymous address in North London, and three directors with no previous positions. So it would appear, from a cursory glance at least, to be that rare thing – a completely independent restaurant appearing out of nowhere.

When I looked at the menu on ThaiGrr’s website I felt a little underwhelmed, mainly because I saw sweet and sour chicken and beef in oyster sauce very close to the top. That felt a lot like playing it safe. But when I had a closer look on Deliveroo I realised that wasn’t representative at all: the balance leant much more towards Thai dishes, with a specials section which could only be ordered after 2.30pm. Main courses, with rice included, ranged from just under ten pounds to twelve pounds, which made me think this would probably be a one-pot, Kokoro-style arrangement. 

There were also half a dozen sides or starters, clocking in between four and seven pounds. It was genuinely difficult to narrow it down so we ended up ordering two mains and three sides, hedging our bets, reasoning that something was bound to be relatively disappointing. That, as it turned out, was a mistake – albeit one with happy consequences. Our order came to just shy of forty pounds, not including rider tip.

As so often with meals from the centre of town, everything happened like clockwork. We placed our order around quarter past seven, the driver was en route twenty minutes or so later and he took less than ten minutes to get to my front door. He pulled up in his car and took the paper bag out of his insulated bag, which he hadn’t bothered to zip up. Fortunately everything was pretty much still hot, although I was glad I didn’t live further out because it mightn’t have stayed that way for long.

ThaiGrr’s packaging felt like they had really thought through what would survive delivery best. Everything came in cardboard tubs with plastic lids and the majority of the dishes had also been cling-wrapped for extra insulation. I was most impressed with the curries: the curry and jasmine rice were packaged separately within a single tub with the former in a cling-wrapped plastic container. So it wasn’t a Kokoro-type model after all: another mistake on my part. Dished up in a bowl it was a good portion size – generous but not gigantic. You wouldn’t leave any, but you didn’t have to spend fifteen pounds buying a curry and rice on the side either.

That’s quite enough talking about packaging for one week, because I’d much rather enthuse about how beautiful my dinner was. Nothing I ate was less than very good, and much of it was if anything better than that. My main, moo pad prik, was fantastic: plenty of pork belly, the perfect balance of flesh and fat, in a superb sauce that zinged with kaffir lime and with punchy heat and just enough sweetness. 

This was lip-tingling stuff, and it made me realise just how often Thai food in Reading restaurants has next to no chilli heat at all. The menu gave this dish a rating of one chilli, but if anything it felt closer to two to me (although that said, my tolerance for chilli has got a lot higher since I discovered Clay’s and Kungfu Kitchen). The sauce coated rather than drenched the jasmin rice, but if anything that slight stickiness made it even more addictive. When I order from ThaiGrr again – and on this showing it’s going to be pretty soon – I’ll struggle not to pick this again. Looking at the restaurant’s Instagram feed, I see that this dish started out as a special and was promoted to the main menu: it’s hard not to love a restaurant that does that sort of thing.

My other half Zoë had gone for the green chicken curry (“I have a lot of benchmarks for this dish”, she told me) and I got to try a little of it, although it was difficult to tear myself away from my dish to do so. I liked it, although I’m not sure green curry would ever be close to the top of my list to order. The chicken was tender and well done and the sauce had just enough heat and funk to it: “it’s quite heavy on the fish sauce”, Zoë said. This had a two chilli rating for heat on the menu, but for my money it was milder than my dish.

Many of the hotter dishes – spicy minced pork with basil leaves, or crispy chicken salad with rice – are in the specials section of the menu, and I fully expect to wind up posting pictures of these on my Instagram in the coming weeks. It’s dangerous to know that something so tasty and so affordable is a mere half an hour away on any given evening, especially when you just can’t face cooking.

We’d gone for three side dishes (the menu, very much with delivery in mind, doesn’t call them starters) and again, these ran the wonderful gamut between rather good and excellent. The weakest was the chicken satay, but even this was a very creditable dish (even if my attempts to dish out the sauce from its little plastic tub make the end product look like a dirty protest). I would have liked the chicken to look more like it had made contact with a grill, but the taste and texture were difficult to fault and the sauce itself had a very pleasing nutty depth. Four skewers for six pounds felt like good value, too.

I was more taken with the crispy squid. The texture was spot on – no bounce or rubberiness that would have given away a lack of freshness – it had retained that crispiness in transit, and it was joyous dipped in sweet chilli sauce. Again, I wasn’t sure that it was especially spicy but I was happy overlooking that because I was enjoying myself so much. For my money, this was some of the best salt and pepper squid I’ve had in Reading, and I’ve tried it pretty much anywhere that sells it, from Pho to Kungfu Kitchen. It felt like a reasonable portion for seven pounds, although you might, as I did, slightly wish you had it all to yourself.

Last but very much not least, we had also ordered ThaiGrr’s fried chicken, apparently their house speciality. This also cost seven pounds and was a ridiculously generous tub with six pieces of jointed chicken, bone in, with huge shards of crispy skin and tender meat underneath. The whole thing was liberally studded with fried garlic and I absolutely loved it, but really, they could just sell the skin in a tub and they’d make pretty decent money out of me. If none of that makes you feel peckish – assuming that fried chicken is your cup of tea, of course – then just have a look at the picture below. Maybe it will succeed where I’ve failed. 

The bones were literally the only thing from our entire order that ended up in the food recycling bin (thanks again, Reading Borough Council). I believe that classifies this particular meal as, to use Zoë’s immortal words, “a proper gut bash”. Honestly, you should hear the things she says that she won’t allow me to include in these reviews (they invariably involve some Anglo-Saxon and a wonderful, if expletive, turn of phrase).

I don’t know which is better about ThaiGrr, that they delighted me (which they very much did) or that they surprised me. The latter is possibly the rarer experience: I looked at ThaiGrr’s premises, and their menu, and I expected an experience a lot like Kokoro.  That’s no bad thing, I should add: I like Kokoro very much. But what I got instead is what ThaiGrr looked like it might be but which I also thought was too good to be true – a proper little independent restaurant that keeps changing its menu, adding specials and experimenting. 

ThaiGrr is also the first new restaurant I’ve seen in this pandemic era that has obviously thought hard about gearing its menu for delivery. The food is better than you’d expect from such a no-frills place, but it’s also better than it needs to be. It will be interesting to see what kind of restaurant they become, when eating in is allowed again from next week, just as it will be interesting to see what becomes of the Broad Street Mall.

The area around there will change, too, with the advent of Blue Collar Corner in the summer. Perhaps the centre of gravity in Reading will begin to change and finally shift away from the Oracle, with its sometimes slightly soulless chains. But all that is for the future: for now, ThaiGrr is pretty brave to have opened first, currently in the middle of nowhere, but it’s a gamble that pays off.

I think ThaiGrr’s is probably the best-executed Thai food I’ve had in Reading. Thai food is always a cuisine I’ve enjoyed, but often struggled to love. I think it shows, too: some of my reviews of Thai restaurants over the years are among the most pedestrian I’ve ever written. ThaiGrr could well change my feelings about Thai food – and I’ll definitely give them a chance to, because I was planning my second order before I’d even finished eating the first. I even found, by the end of proceedings, that I liked the name more than I thought I would. So hats off to ThaiGrr! for being one of my best discoveries of the year so far. I left the exclamation mark in this time. I reckon they’ve earned it. 

ThaiGrr!
1D Queens Walk, Broad Street Mall, Reading, RG1 7QF
07999 941665

http://www.thaigrr.co.uk/
Order via: Deliveroo only