Chaiyaphum, Cane End

I have a funny relationship with Thai food, I think. It would never be my first choice when suggesting a meal out with friends but when I go to one I always like it. “Like” is the operative word here, though: I rarely love it. It would probably take a more discerning palate than mine to distinguish between the fishcakes or the pla chu chi I’ve had at all the Thai restaurants around Reading. So instead it comes down to the price and service, arguably the cherry on the cake rather than the cake itself. Sometimes a single dish will stand out, but my meals at Thai restaurants have generally been been solid and respectable – neither stellar nor sad, just somewhere comfortably in the middle.

This all dawned on me, as it happens, when I sat down at Chaiyaphum and started to go through the menu.

The decision to go to an out of town restaurant seems to happen increasingly when I am on a vegetarian week – for those of you new to the blog, my New Year’s resolution last year was to review one vegetarian main course per month – and here I was again, jumping into the car to go and eat tofu (not sarcasm: I was actually looking forward to trying the tofu). Chaiyaphum is up on the A4074 just before the turning for Gallowstree Common, the road towards Oxford which, like hundreds of others across the UK I’m sure, has the nickname “the seven bends of death”. The building itself is an old red brick pub on a crossroads where I can imagine highway robbery used to happen (ironically I once ate at the Pack Horse just down the road, where it was still very much taking place).

Inside, though, you’re under no illusions that you’re in a restaurant not a pub. Goodness, but it’s purple. The walls are purple. The ceiling is purple. We’re talking somewhere between Dairy Milk and Quality Street purple. Properly purple. That makes it sound awful, but actually I rather liked it, and the whole thing is decked out with statues of Buddha, art and artefacts, a picture of the Thai king and queen and, incongruously, a whacking great piano in the bar area. We ate in the room off to the right, a split level affair, with a nice view out onto the garden. A few tables were reserved when we got there, which was encouraging as we were literally the first people to arrive.

I don’t normally talk about background music in a restaurant, but I’m going to make an exception here just to say that Chaiyaphum had managed to get hold of the most surreal easy listening album of all time. I’d never heard hotel lobby soft jazz cover versions of Womaniser, Moves Like Jagger, Sweet Child O’ Mine and The Only Girl In The World before, and I can safely say that if I never do again it might be too soon. It took me right back to the Nineties, when adverts on late night ITV would proudly offer compilation CDs which were “not available in any shops”, usually with good reason.

Anyway, back to the food. The menu was almost identical to every other Thai restaurant menu I’ve read on duty, which made me wonder whether what we get is the anglicised version, watered down just enough to make it seem exotic yet safe. And therein lay the problem for Chaiyaphum, something I was pondering throughout my meal there – because when a restaurant is a little way out of town, especially when you have to drive to get there, being much the same as other local Thai restaurants just isn’t going to be enough. It has to be better, cleverer, more distinctive: otherwise why make the effort?

The starters were a mixture of the safe and the unknown. Starting with the safe, the chicken satay was a pretty good example. I think the meat was thigh rather than breast – always a good thing, in my book – but either way it was juicy and well marinated, tender with (I’d guess) some lemon grass. The satay was also good: deep, rich and earthy, although I always wish there was about twice as much sauce. But, and you can see the trend starting to come through loud and clear, it was good but not great. The sesame chicken toasts were just lovely, and eating them made me slightly sad that Thailand has this and we just get fried bread. It’s probably hard to excite anybody writing about these – I mean, you know exactly what they will look like, what they’ll taste like, how they will be, that exquisite balance of crunch and tenderness. And yet they rarely disappoint: these certainly didn’t, covered with sesame, packed with chicken and then fried to the point of decadent filth. I dipped mine in the small pot of chilli sauce (again, wishing there had been a little more) and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I knew I’d hardly taken a risk.

ChaiyaStarters

The third starter was more of a venture into the unknown, mainly because I find it very hard to turn down soft shell crab when it graces a menu with its presence. It came battered and fried, obscured by a cornucopia of other lovely things – lots of finely chopped garlic, fried onion, spring onion and a fair few slices of red chilli. I liked this dish an awful lot – the crab was delicious, the batter was light and delicate and all the gubbins on top really made every mouthful magnificent. It came with two pools of brown sauce – the menu describes both a pepper sauce and a Thai garlic sauce and I have no idea which this was but it really wasn’t needed and didn’t add an awful lot. At the end, after the crab was demolished (and it didn’t take long) we raced round the plate with our forks making sure not a scrap of the nice bits was left: all that remained were the sauces and the ubiquitous vegetable flower.

Main courses continued the trend. Gai pad himmaparm, recommended by the waitress, was a good example of a Thai chicken stir fry. This one had cashews, a few pieces of halved baby corn and plenty of vegetables – why is there always so much onion? – and was decent if not outstanding. The sauce was rich with chilli and especially garlic (nobody has ever gone wrong by giving me too much garlic) and was tasty but not life-changing. As so often with these things, it came in a flat shallow dish which meant that not only wasn’t there enough sauce but what sauce there was was blessedly difficult to get on to your plate, stirred in with the coconut rice where it belonged.

ChaiyaChicken

I’d been looking forward to the massamun tofu. Ordering it was, to some extent, playing percentages: I figured that one of my favourite things about eating Thai food was that glorious mixture of slightly sticky coconut rice and a sweet, spicy sauce, so if the tofu didn’t work out I would still get to enjoy most of the dish. The tofu itself wasn’t bad – you got lots of it, big hefty pieces, and they had some texture and contrast to them. That said, there was a slightly sour taste to it which seemed odd against the massamun sauce. The sauce itself also didn’t quite work – all sweet, no savoury, not enough punch or spice. Perhaps, because it was a vegetarian dish, there wasn’t any fish sauce in it to add that contrasting note. The potatoes in it, weird corrugated edges and all, were soft and floury and not quite right. Ditto for the slices of carrot, again tinned-vegetable soft. There were a few crisped fried onions on top, but not enough. By the time I got to the rice and sauce stage, ostensibly the highlight, my heart just wasn’t in it.

ChaiyaMassamun

We both had coconut rice – the waitress asked if we wanted one between two and we decided against it, but we should have listened to her as one would have been quite enough. It was – bit of a theme here, isn’t there – pleasant: edible but not incredible.

We’d over ordered on the starters (wilfully if I’m honest, in case the whole tofu thing didn’t work out) so there was no chance of having dessert. We both had a glass of house sauvignon blanc – nice, fresh and easy to drink, if perhaps not quite as cold as I’d have liked – to start, and my companion also had a bottle of Tiger, after being told at extensive length about all the beers that were currently out of stock. I had a diet coke and didn’t hugely feel like I’d missed out.

Service was lovely. There seemed to be two waiting staff on and they were looking after quite a lot of tables, but regardless of how busy they were they were friendly, polite and happy to make recommendations. Beautiful uniforms, too – maybe a funny thing to notice, but there you are. The food took just about the right amount of time to come out, and all the other tables looked happy. I saw families with small children, a couple of chaps enjoying dinner together and, just across from me, a birthday celebration (with the exchange of bags from Fortnum & Mason – fancy!). They all looked like they were having a brilliant time, and I wondered why I wasn’t quite so enamoured.

The total bill, including a ten per cent service charge, was sixty-three pounds. Interestingly that service had been pre-added – perhaps the south Oxfordshire red trouser brigade (there was a very eye-catching example right next to my table, a veritable rhapsody in scarlet: I could barely stop gawping at him) aren’t so keen on tipping the staff. Anyway, it all seemed fair enough to me and the service was one of the high points so I wasn’t bothered, though I can imagine it would rankle with some diners.

As we drove away we were discussing whether Chaiyaphum was good enough to merit a drive out of town. As you can probably tell by now, my answer is not really. It’s by no means a bad restaurant: the food was decent, the service was charming, the room managed to be bling and tasteful at the same time, purple paint and all (I did find I left really wanting an individually wrapped hazelnut in caramel: the power of subliminal advertising). But ultimately, there is no USP for Chaiyaphum unless you live round the corner. It’s stylish, but so is Thai Table. The service is friendly, but it’s just as good at Thai Corner. The food is quite nice, but Thai food seems to be quite nice everywhere, and never better than that. Ultimately, it’s just not enough to get me to leave Reading and head for the Chilterns. Maybe this restaurant is for the red trouser brigade and they see it the other way round: because they can go to Chaiyaphum there’s nothing to make them go into town. Each to their own, and thanks but no thanks. Maybe next time I’ll go to Oli’s Thai in Oxford, which I’m told blows them all out of the water.

Chaiyaphum – 6.8
Reading Road, Cane End, RG4 9HE
0118 9722477

http://chaiyaphum.co.uk/

Advertisements

Cosmo

How do I sum up the experience of eating in Cosmo? How can I possibly distil such a complex experience, so many different types of food, into a single review? Well, maybe I should start at the end of the meal. There were four of us round the table (I know: people actually wanted to come with me!), looking at our largely empty plates, feeling a mixture of remorse and queasy fear about how our bodies would cope with what came next. Tim, chosen for this mission because he is one of the biggest gluttons I know, paused for a second and said “I don’t think this place is going to help anybody have a healthy relationship with food.”

There was further silence and the rest of us tried to digest what he had said (trying to digest, it turned out, would be a theme over the next forty-eight hours).

“I don’t really feel like I’ve eaten in a restaurant this evening.” Tim went on. “I just feel like I’ve spent time smashing food into my mouth.”

I looked down at the leftovers on my plate – a solitary Yorkshire pudding stuffed with crispy duck and topped with hoi sin (it was my friend Ben’s idea and it sounded like a brilliant plan at the time) and started to laugh hysterically. It might have been all the sugar in the Chinese food, the sweet white crystals on top of the crispy seaweed, but I felt, in truth, a little delirious.

“Nobody should leave a restaurant feeling this way.” said Ben, possibly the other biggest glutton I’ve ever met and a man who has never, to the best of my knowledge, left a restaurant entirely replete. We all nodded, too full to speak. I can’t remember who got onto this topic, but there was a general consensus that we were all dreading our next visit to the bathroom and then, having said all that and paid up, we waddled out onto Friar Street and into the night.

Alternatively, maybe I should sum up the experience of eating at Cosmo by recounting the conversations on Facebook the next day. I won’t name names, but we had I had to sleep with a hot water bottle on my belly to aid with digestion, along with I still feel ill, not to forget the more evocative my burps taste of MSG and – look away now if you’re easily shocked – I just did something approximating to a poo and it wasn’t pretty. Tim was feeling so grotty that he worked from home, all of us felt icky and found ourselves daydreaming about salad or vegetables – you don’t see many vegetables at Cosmo, you know – and hoping for some time in the future when the meal was a distant memory.

The thing is that if I started to sum up Cosmo that way you might just assume that I went with some greedy pigs, we all ate too much, made ourselves poorly and have nobody but ourselves to blame. So maybe I should start more conventionally at the point where we walked in and were escorted to a Siberian table for four right at the back, close to the emergency exit, far from daylight. You go in past a display of bread and vegetables in little baskets (I can only assume this is a heroic piece of misdirection, or some kind of in-joke) and then you wind up in some kind of windowless all-you-can-eat dungeon.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of Cosmo, may I first express my undying envy before going on to explain: it is indeed a gigantic buffet where you can consume as much food as you like for two hours before your time is up and you are asked to leave. Serving staff constantly circle the room while you are up at the cooking stations, whisking away your old plate so that when you sit down you can almost forget just how much food you have consumed. I bet you’re getting peckish just reading this, right?

All major cuisines are represented, provided your idea of major cuisines is largely Chinese and Indian. There are other things on offer – sushi, pizza (or, as Tim referred to it, “random pizza”, when he stuck a slice of one right next to his crispy duck pancake), a big wodge of unappetising pink gammon you were invited to carve yourself, something described as “beef stew”, I could go on – but the general theme is pan-Asian. The “pan” might be short for “pandemic”.

The experience of eating at Cosmo is very different from a traditional meal where you all sit down at a table, decide what you want and then chat away while someone cooks and brings it to you (it’s very different in the sense that Ryanair, for instance, is very different from British Airways). I would say there were very few moments where all four of us were sitting down at once: instead we were frequently prowling from one cooking station to the other, finding things to stick on our fresh plates, wondering if our choices went with one another, wondering whether it mattered, wondering where Ben got the idea of sticking crispy duck in a Yorkshire pudding like a massive demented vol-au-vent (You haven’t lived until you’ve put sushi, Yorkshire pudding and rogan josh together on the same plate said someone on Twitter – hi Pete! – in the run-up to my visit: all I can say is I still haven’t lived, and I’m fine with that).

When we were talking, most of the conversation revolved around one of three topics, namely “this dish isn’t half as bad as I thought it would be”, “try this, it’s truly atrocious” or, and this one was mainly led by me, “what possessed you to put crispy duck in a Yorkshire pudding?”

When you get to Cosmo you’re a bit like a kid in a sweet shop at first (although who over the age of six wants to have dinner in a sweetshop?). The other way that the experience is different to a normal meal out is that as the evening wears on, the mood gets slightly more deranged. Maybe it’s the cumulative effect of all that sugar, maybe it’s the body’s way of expressing Vitamin C withdrawal symptoms, or maybe it’s my fault because I collated a list of all the things people had recommended and I was insistent that we try them all. It was like an I-Spy book or something, and I directed people with military precision: You, go get some sushi. Tim, check out the prawns with ginger and spring onion. I’ll hit the teppanyaki station. Meet you back here in a couple of minutes. All right, let’s move out! If that doesn’t sound like fun then take it from me, the element of co-ordinated planning and being in it together was probably the most fun thing about the evening (well, that and bonding over our bowel movements the next day).

Finally, let’s talk about the food. Between us we ate so many dishes that it’s difficult to go into forensic detail about everything, but as a general rule I’d say the things I expected to be good were poor and the things I expected to be dreadful weren’t quite as bad as I feared. For instance I had the teppanyaki station recommended to me, so I made sure I had some seared scallops (or, more literally, a scallop cut into thin slices and griddled) and some very thin steak wrapped around enoki mushrooms, also griddled. The scallops were pleasant if basic, the enoki tasted of nothing but oil and the steak, if it tasted of anything, tasted of oily mushrooms. Similarly, I went to the grill station and asked for something off the bone and they recommended the pork. It still had a bone in it and I watched the chef slice it on a board before handing it to me. It was some miraculous cut of pork that was made only of bone, fat and crackling, presumably from a pig which had spent its entire life lying down.

CosmoTeppan

What else? Well, Tim pronounced the samosas and spring rolls as “rubbish” (nothing in them, he said), an adjective he also applied to his lamb rogan josh. I tried a bit of the latter and I tended to agree, the lamb and the sauce felt like they had spent their whole lives apart before being stirred together at the last minute, no depth of flavour in the meat, nothing you couldn’t do yourself with a jar of sauce from Loyd Grossman. The tandoori chicken was apparently dry. The most derision was reserved for the “crab claw”, something made of goodness knows what, a wodge of awful, indeterminate homogenous beige material not dissimilar to a washing up sponge. Tim disliked his so much he insisted that Ben try one and Ben, a man I have never known to turn down food, had a mouthful and abandoned the rest. The sushi was also judged to be pretty grim, claggy and flavourless, soggy seaweed and all.

CosmoBuns

There were some slightly better dishes. The chicken satay was nice enough, although certainly no better than chicken satay I’ve had at dozens of other places in Reading and beyond. The stir fried green beans were thoroughly enjoyable, although that might just have been the novelty value of eating something that was actually green. We all quite liked the char siu and the black pepper chicken, although again not enough to tell people to make a beeline for Cosmo just to eat them. The steamed pork buns divided opinion – some of us liked them, some found them just too sweet. Again, China Palace undoubtedly does them better, and China Palace is itself arguably nothing special. Tim liked the pad Thai, and Ben seemed not to mind the southern fried chicken. The crispy seaweed was lovely, but then I could eat crispy seaweed all day. Also in the Chinese section were some miniature hash browns with spring onion: they were about as out of place as I was.

CosmoPork

Before I went to Cosmo someone very wise on Twitter – hello Dan! – said that he treated the place as an all you can eat duck pancake meal. I think this might be the best way to approach Cosmo: again, it was okay rather than amazing but perhaps the trick is to find a dish that never lets you down and stock up on that. We all started on this dish and a couple of us went back to it later on when the other options ran out of appeal. There was also crispy pork, also for pancakes, and I was a little concerned that the pork and the duck didn’t taste quite as different as they could have done. Still, even if it was a bunch of faintly meaty fluffy strands it hit the spot in a way that most of the other dishes couldn’t.

CosmoDuck

“It’s important not to be snobby about Cosmo.” said Ben towards the end of the meal as he ate his trio of miniature desserts, three little sponge cakes (he was the only person to have any dessert – he wasn’t a big fan of them, though). Maybe he’s right: there’s undoubtedly a place for this kind of restaurant and a market for it, which is why there are queues outside it at the weekend. It’s cheap – all you can eat (which, by the end of my evening, had mutated into “all you can bear”) for fourteen pounds on a week night. I can also see it would be perfect for parents, for big groups, for indecisive people or, and I sometimes forget how many of these there are in every town, not just Reading, people who Just Don’t Like Food That Much.

In my ivory tower, enthusing about the likes of Papa Gee, Perry’s or Pepe Sale it’s easy for me to forget that some people just want to get fuelled up somewhere like Cosmo before going on to one of Reading’s many characterful chain pubs, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. And perhaps that’s the point of Cosmo full stop – it doesn’t serve the best of anything, but if quantity and range are the most important things then Cosmo is the place for you. I’m just glad I don’t ever have to participate again, and if that makes me a snob I suppose I’m just going to have to suck it up. Maybe I should get a t-shirt printed or something.

I didn’t mention the service, because it isn’t really that kind of place, but what there was was pleasant and entirely lacking in the kind of existential despair I would experience if I had to spend more than two hours in Cosmo. I’ve saved the cost of the meal until last, for good reason. Dinner for four, including two glasses of unremarkable wine and a couple of bottomless soft drinks, came to seventy pounds. But more importantly, and this is what makes it the most expensive meal I’ve ever reviewed for the blog, it cost ER readers over a thousand pounds. Yes, people made over a grand’s worth of pledges (not including GiftAid) to Launchpad to enable them to continue doing their incredible work for the homeless and vulnerable in Reading, work which has never been more badly needed than it is today. And if you haven’t donated yet, but you enjoyed reading this review, it’s not too late: just click here.

So, veni, vidi, icky: I went to Cosmo, just like I promised I would, and I had a pretty iffy meal, just like you thought I would. No surprises there, and that might well be why you sponsored me in the first place. But now the after-effects have subsided, when I look at how everybody rallied round and chipped in, and most importantly when I think about what all that money will achieve for our brilliant town, it’s hard to imagine I’ll have a less regrettable meal all year.

Launchpad

Cosmo – 5.0
35-38 Friar Street, RG1 1DX
0118 9595588

http://www.cosmo-restaurants.co.uk/locations/reading/

The Fisherman’s Cottage

N.B. The Fisherman’s Cottage closed in May 2016. It has reopened under new management and until summer 2018 I Love Paella operated out of the kitchen. They left in acrimonious circumstances and as of September 2019 the kitchen is run by an ex-chef of the Lyndhurst. I won’t be reviewing the Fisherman’s Cottage under the present management, but I’ve left this review up for posterity.

The Fisherman’s Cottage really is a lovely pub – so much so, in fact, that one of the biggest dangers of reviewing it as a place to eat was the risk that I’d let its obvious charms as a pub cloud my judgment. The family who own it did a splendid job of doing it up prior to opening last December and the building (Grade 2 listed, apparently) really stands out on the canalside. With the beautiful white front, big conservatory and chi-chi beach huts out the back, it feels like it belongs somewhere swanky by the Thames, not a stone’s throw from Orts Road.

I went, believe it or not, because the blurb on their website really struck a chord with me. They have a little kitchen, it said, and they aim to keep things simple and do things well. They don’t want to be a restaurant or a gastropub, they’re happy being a pub that does some popular classics. I think that’s an admirable goal, and I wanted to see whether they achieved it; so many restaurants feel like they’re trying to do everything at once, or they simply don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. And that’s crucial, especially for new restaurants, because if they don’t get that right, some of them don’t get to grow up at all.

Inside, it’s equally tastefully done and nicely broken up into sections. There’s a lovely snug off to the left and the conservatory (tastefully lit with a very “now” array of suspended bulbs) off to the right, a clever mix of high tables with stools and low tables with chairs, some for drinking and some for eating. Nothing quite matches but everything looks very well put together and nicely judged. The area out the back really is attractive – I feel sad for them that they haven’t had a good enough summer to make the most of it – although the recurring whiff of fag smoke from outside every time the conservatory door was open did put a slight crimp in proceedings.

It’s not as small a menu as you might think, but it does stay very much on safe and familiar ground. There are about ten starters, a few sharing platters and a set of mains which revolve around burgers, fish and chips, gammon and scampi. The previous landlord of the Fisherman’s Cottage flirted with doing Thai food and the new owners have continued that tradition, so there’s also a small selection of Thai mains – red curry, green curry and massaman lamb. The menu isn’t available online and, in truth, there’s nothing about it that would make you desperate to try it. But I still had that blurb in the back of my mind: there’s nothing wrong with doing the classics well.

I nearly didn’t have a starter, because the options – breaded garlic mushrooms, breaded mozzarella sticks, plaice goujons and the like – all felt a tad Iceland. But I relented and ordered the garlic bread and, when it came, I was pleasantly surprised. It was nothing fancy or posh, but was clearly home-made – cheese on toasted baguette with the agricultural honk of shedloads of garlic. There was plenty of it for three pounds, too (just as well, because if you didn’t share it with friends they wouldn’t fancy sitting downwind of you for long).

FishermanGarlicBread

I decided to try both halves of the menu for the main courses. Red Thai chicken curry was enormous – a gigantic bowl of the stuff served with prawn crackers and plain boiled rice. You couldn’t quibble the portion size and there was plenty to enjoy: tender, well-cooked chicken, a sauce with the right mix of heat and sweetness, lovely soft shallots, crunchy strips of carrot and big, crude chunks of courgette. Again it felt like home-made food worth paying money for, but what stopped it going from good to great was the aubergine – so much of it, possibly a whole aubergine in fact, big cubes of watery aubergine with a faint taste of cold tea. By the end, looking ruefully at the makeshift cairn of aubergine left in the bowl, I wished they’d given me a slightly smaller, better balanced dish.

FishermanThai

The fish and chips was surprisingly good. The fish was a good size, big but not daunting. Not only that, but the batter was truly excellent; nicely crisp, lots of crunch and super light, among the best pub fish I can recall eating in Reading. The chips were decent if not stellar (crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside but very regularly shaped – everyone knows the best bit of a bag of chips is the crunchy shrapnel at the end) but when dipped in the peas or a squirt of mayonnaise they were exactly what I wanted. The peas were rather runny – not your gastropub “crushed” pea affair – but nicely minty and fresh tasting. More than anything else I had, this fitted with what I’d read on the website – no showing off, just a straightforward dish done properly.

FishermanFishChips

Service was friendly and enthusiastic – the bar staff were full of recommendations about what was good from the menu and clearly proud of the pub and their food. Drinks very much lived up to the ethos that this is a pub, not a restaurant or a gastropub: lots of ale on tap and a very palatable Orchard Pig cider on draft which I liked a lot. The wine wasn’t so successful – the reds were mid-level supermarket stuff (Wolf Blass, Casillero del Diablo and the like). It was nice enough, and so was the New Zealand sauvignon blanc, but none of it had any element of surprise. I know, I know, it’s a pub: and yet the beautiful, high-quality wineglasses felt like they should be filled with something slightly more special. Dinner for two – one starter, two mains (which were each a tenner) and a couple of drinks each came to just under forty pounds.

As I said at the start, the Fisherman’s Cottage is a cracking pub. I can imagine you’d have a very good time if you wandered down the canal from town one sunny evening and stopped there for a few pints and a chat with friends, especially if they have jazz in the conservatory, or if the weather’s nice and you manage to grab one of those beach huts. And if you happened to be there and you happened to order some food I’m pretty sure you’d have a pleasant meal.

I wouldn’t make a pilgrimage to eat there, but perhaps that misses the point. Because it turns out you can’t divorce the place to eat from the pub: it’s all part of what the owners are trying to do. They said it themselves – the Fisherman’s Cottage isn’t a gastropub, it isn’t a restaurant, it’s just a really good pub that does good honest food. I think New Town’s very fortunate to have it (especially when you consider the main alternative, the disappointing Abbot Cook). So no, the Fisherman’s Cottage isn’t trying to be something it’s not, and it knows exactly what it wants to be when it grows up. In its quiet, only-slightly-ambitious way, I think it succeeds.

The Fisherman’s Cottage – 7.0
Canal Way, Newtown, RG1 3HJ
0118 9560432

http://www.thefishermanscottagereading.co.uk/

Thai Table

One thing I rarely talk about in these reviews is the background music, but with Thai Table I really feel I should make an exception. There are some places where it’s perfectly normal to hear a muzak version of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” – in a lift for example, or in the toilets of a shopping mall (more Broad Street than Oracle). Or, for that matter, in Room 101. But I wasn’t expecting to hear it in Thai Table, a smart Thai restaurant just the other side of Caversham Bridge. I’d like to say that it was an isolated incident, but during my meal the vocals-free mangled hits kept on coming. It was as if Kenny G was in the room with us, and surely nobody wants that. Well, except Mrs G perhaps.

I wasn’t expecting to find myself in Thai Table, truth be told. It’s been on my list for eons but I still find it a little difficult to motivate myself to review Thai food – it’s rarely terrible but rarely stellar, and Reading’s Thai restaurants can feel much of a muchness. But then I happened to walk past it on my way back from Progress Theatre’s excellent production of Merry Wives Of Windsor in Caversham Court Gardens (no, I hadn’t seen that one either) and the view piqued my interest. Gone was the chunky, dark, rustic furniture I remembered and instead the interior looked warm, buzzy and contemporary, all snazzy geometric prints and clean, simple chairs and tables. I made a mental note to move it to the top of my list, although if I’d known about the music things might have been different.

The first thing that struck me about the menu was the front page. It’s not every menu where the proprietor’s little spiel gives you his email address and invites you to contact him, and it’s not every menu that he appears to have signed by hand. Silly, perhaps, but I liked this. It felt touchingly old school. Aside from that the menu looked much like most Thai menus – generally well described with a few interesting chef’s specials but also many of the usual suspects. Some of the items were described as signature dishes, which I also found interestingly old school.

As is traditional, we had some prawn crackers first as we watched dishes turn up at the table next to us and wondered whether ours would look (and smell) as good as that. They were a known quantity as ever, but they came with a little split bowl of sweet chilli sauce and plum sauce. Both were nice but there was so little of either, and the dish was so awkwardly shaped, that it was almost impossible to dip the crackers in; a nice idea slightly gone to waste.

The first starter was the pet pet squid. Sounds strangely Geordie, doesn’t it? Bits of this were very well done. The small curls of squid – fresh, not bouncy – were cooked in one of the best batters I can remember; it was superbly light, crispy and bubbled and it didn’t come away from the flesh the moment you took some cutlery to it. But it wasn’t perfect: it wasn’t seasoned and I didn’t get any of the aromatic Thai herbs it was meant to be cooked with. Instead, there was yet more of the ubiquitous sweet chilli sauce and lots of herbivorous padding – I didn’t eat any of the shredded white cabbage or the curly parsley and I assume nobody eats the carrot “flower” unless ravenous beyond words. Most bafflingly, the menu gave this dish a three chilli rating but there was almost no kick to it at all. But, for all that, you could have far worse starts to a meal than fresh, beautifully battered squid and sweet chilli sauce, so it felt a bit churlish to complain.

ThaiSquid

We also had Changmai sausage, which as you can see from the picture was a sausage. Cut into slices. So far so bad buffet, but it was a really, really interesting dish to taste. The menu says it’s home-made and I’ve certainly not tried one like this – with ginger and spices and (I think) some lemongrass. The texture was coarse, almost crumbly without being dry and the whole thing was like a holiday for the taste buds. I liked it a lot, but again, the rest of the stuff on the plate felt like pointless faff: iceberg lettuce, this time, with thin sticks of fresh ginger. A very promising beginning: I was starting to understand why the owner was prepared to sign the menus.

ThaiSausage

After this we sat with empty starter plates in front of us for some time, and they were only taken away about a minute before the mains arrived, presumably because the serving staff suddenly realised that new plates were on their way.

Beef massaman was described on the menu as a signature dish, so I felt I should give it a try, but in truth I ordered it with some hesitation. One thing I’ve learned from eating out is that some restaurants use the words “slow cooked beef” with almost poetic licence: I still remember beef rendang at the Moderation, with all the texture of a trampoline, or my last meal at Tampopo before it closed where I had to send a beef dish back because it was like trying to eat a branch of Clark’s. But again, Thai Table passed the test: big chunks of perfectly braised beef which broke into delicious shreds.

That alone would have delighted me, but the sauce was just as magnificent: Massaman curry can often be sweet and unsubtle, but this was a world away from that with proper heat and a bit of spice, maybe not as much complexity as I was expecting from the menu but still a big Thai hug of a thing. Even the firm new potatoes and the toasted fragments of cashew worked perfectly. Normally my favourite bit of a Thai meal is pouring the sauce on to the coconut rice and eating it at the end, but this challenged all that because every mouthful was marvellous: I could have eaten it every day for a week.

ThaiMains

Stir fried chicken with black bean sauce sounds a bit prosaic on paper, but in practice it was also superb. Part of that is about the veg rather than the chicken. I loved the barely cooked cauliflower, the florets the perfect shape to capture the sauce. I also liked the sugar snap peas, with similar well-judged crunch. And the black beans themselves, beautifully intense, firm and slightly nutty rather than pulpy mush. And that’s before I get to the sauce – so rich, garlicky and salty (there was some oyster sauce in there too, which probably explains it) that by the end I was tilting the bowl to get the last drops onto my spoon. It wasn’t easy – the bowl was a shallow one in the shape of a banana leaf – but that wasn’t going to stop me trying.

After the main courses our plates were cleared a little quicker, and we waited for someone to bring us the dessert menu. By this point I wasn’t hungry, but I was at least curious about whether the desserts would match that high standard and, crucially, whether they would appear on a menu that wasn’t laminated and didn’t have garish photos on it. No dessert menu was forthcoming. We waited a bit longer. Still no dessert menu. The group at the table next to us, also bored of being neglected, asked for a dessert menu. They got one, but it didn’t jog the memory of the waiting staff about whether anyone else might want to see it. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the onslaught of sax classics playing in the background I’m not sure how I’d have coped. And that was the problem with service for the whole evening: it was never rude, it was never unpleasant but – for most of the time – it was never there. We gave up and settled up instead.

To drink we had a couple of beers (they have Chang and Singha, both of which were good) and a couple of glasses of Thai white wine, Monsoon Valley, which was really lovely – off-dry and almost a little syrupy in the mouth. The wine list actually had a fair few bottles I would have been tempted by on a different night – an Australian shiraz, a German Riesling and a Fleurie among them – most of them under twenty pounds. Our bill came to fifty-six pounds, not including a tip.

A friend recently asked me to recommend a Thai restaurant – she has a friend visiting from France who has specifically asked for Thai food. I told her that if the food’s more important than the room she should go to Art Of Siam, but that if the room is equally important she should head for Thai Corner. I have to say, I’m now tempted to contact her and tell her to pick Thai Table instead. The food was fantastic – the best Thai food I’ve eaten in Reading – and had me revising my list of go-to restaurants in town. The room is cool and contemporary. But here’s the drawback: the service felt like an afterthought, a necessary evil to get the food out and the bill paid but with little thought given to making the customers feel welcome. Is two out of three good enough? Meat Loaf would say so. But he might think differently if Kenny G ever got round to covering any of his songs.

Thai Table – 7.7
8 Church Road, RG4 7AD
0118 9471500

http://www.thaitable.co.uk/

Bali Lounge

Bali Lounge was closed as of January 2018. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

When has a restaurant changed enough to be a new restaurant? Not necessarily when the chef changes, that’s for sure: chefs come and go all the time, whether it’s a steady throughput of chefs at a chain restaurant or the head chef leaving Forbury’s and being replaced by someone else. Not necessarily when they rebrand the menu, either – a good restaurant probably does this quite often. But when it closes for renovations and emerges from the chrysalis with new branding, a different menu and a different name, perhaps it’s time to look afresh.

The Warwick ceased to be at the start of the year and reopened as Bali Lounge. The exterior was slightly different: no longer described as a pub but as a “Bar. Restaurant. Gallery”, no less. The menu was altered – slimmed down, with more emphasis on Indonesian food. Ever since then, I’ve been wondering: should I go back? Is it a new restaurant? The longer it went on the more I felt my old review of the Warwick might be misleading, and that’s why this week you’re reading this.

Turning up on a weekday evening my first impressions were that the changes, such as they were, were on the subtle side. The interior looked much the same, the only concession being some newer, bigger, nicer looking tables. Curiously, the chairs were still the same and there were still at least three different types, just as there were at The Warwick. I got the impression that the management hadn’t quite wanted to start from scratch.

The menu looked the same – the same faux-chalk comedy font sported by the Warwick and, for that matter, their sister restaurants the Moderation and the Queen’s Head. But on closer inspection there were definitely some changes. There were far less of the Thai specialities and some dishes had made their way across from the menu at the Queen’s Head, like rijsttafel (a sort of Indonesian smorgasbord, if that isn’t adding an unnecessary extra level of Swedish complexity to a dish that already has both Dutch and Indonesian roots). So, was it a new restaurant? I was still none the wiser.

Perhaps the best way to find out was to compare like with like: much as I wanted to start from scratch myself, making a fresh start rather than retracing previous visits, I felt that opening with a mixed starter (the “Bar Platter”, in fact) was still the best way to try a range of Bali Lounge’s food. Besides, with Tampopo sadly closing down and Reading losing its fabulous sharing platter I was hoping to find a replacement here, especially now that the menu extends beyond Thailand.

The presentation would have aggrieved people who want everything to come on a plate, but I didn’t actually mind it turning up in a wooden trug. The chicken satay was the first to go and was a hit, with moist chicken and a rich, savoury (if quite plain) satay sauce. A little basic, perhaps, but still enjoyable – and surely nobody really expects their world to be rocked by chicken satay. The spare ribs, though, were not good. The first one was a grim right angle of gristle where there was almost no meat and what meat there was clung on in a manner best described as Blatteresque. A shame, because the second rib was how ribs are meant to be – tender meat, sliding off with no work at all, at which point I got to appreciate just how sticky and tasty the sauce was. But by then, the damage was done.

It didn’t get better. The crispy squid wasn’t. It was clearly fresh, but it was floppy and tasteless none the less. The only real flavour was the coriander dusted over it – if it had been coated in some seasoning and fried properly it could have been a knockout, but it looked more like fusilli than seafood. The saddest thing was that you got a lot of it – mouthful after mouthful of disappointment and wasted potential. The prawn fritters (or, to be more accurate, whole prawns in batter) were also forgettable – also a bit limp and again in batter with no crunch, salt or kick of any kind. It felt as if the chefs were frightened of using authentic levels of spice for our tender British palates and had erred way too far on the side of caution. Bali Lounge seemed to have managed the trick of turning from a pub to a restaurant and, at the same time, turning restaurant food into pub food.

BaliStart

It didn’t bode well for the main courses, so we waited for them to arrive with rapidly lowering expectations. By the time the dishes turned up they almost met them. The best of the two was actually the vegetarian (hurrah!) dish, the tofu pad Thai. This was still mind-numbingly plain but at least the texture was interesting. There was a decent amount of tofu, soft like cubes of scrambled egg, throughout the noodles. The carrots were cut a little larger than I expected (I have never been to Thailand so forgive me if this is the right way to make a pad Thai) and there were little florets of broccoli and the occasional mange tout in amongst the beansprouts which gave it a nice crunch. Then there was a hugely generous sprinkling of peanuts adding yet more texture.

You’d think that would be enough, wouldn’t you? Apparently not, so we had a wedge of lemon as well, for reasons which escape me: all I can guess is that maybe they’d run out of lime. And, in case that wasn’t enough, a honkingly big pile of naked salad leaves had been dumped on top. Your guess is as good as mine. In the end they got pushed to one side and ignored, like tea drinkers in certain coffee shops. If I was trying to find something positive to say, at least it was healthy. But what it really needed wasn’t a slice of citrus or the contents of the salad crisper – it needed some soy, or some ketjap manis, or something that would have made it taste of something. It was hard to imagine being the sort of person who would eat this dish for fun, thank goodness.

BaliPad

The other main was from the specials board – salmon with thick red curry sauce, courgette and green beans. I ordered this because I had happy memories of pla chuchi in other restaurants and again, wanted to see how it measured up. Well, on the plus side, the kitchen can cook salmon: lovely and firm with a crisp skin just the right side of blackened. A lot of places – Loch Fyne, for instance – get this wrong, so credit where it’s due. But again, the rest just didn’t cut it. The little pile of (unadvertised) shredded vegetables didn’t appear to be pickled or dressed so I am guessing it was the Thai equivalent of a salad garnish. The red curry sauce was one of the duller ones I’ve had, with a bit of acrid heat but no real sweetness; I expected better, based on the satay sauce I’d had earlier. The courgette and green beans were a bit thin on the ground. The rice was there to make up the numbers. If this dish had done the “which Star Wars character are you?” Buzzfeed quiz, it would have come out as Blando Calrissian.

BaliSalmon

The wine was nice but inoffensive; a decent Australian shiraz and a Chilean chardonnay were both less than five pounds a glass. I have run out of words to describe how things taste – which is ironic given that I’ve used so few in this review, but I enjoyed the wine more than the food. The service was also nice but inoffensive – the young lady doing the majority of the serving was very quiet but friendly, food was brought at about the right speed and plates were cleared efficiently. Nice. Inoffensive. They’re not words that are ever going to feature in a mission statement, are they? The bill for two people – two courses each, two glasses of wine each – came to fifty-one pounds. If I was describing the value for money, I guess I’d say it was inoffensive.

With hindsight, I wish I’d gone for the rijsttafel and the beef rendang: reading through the restaurant’s website it’s clear that the management decided to rebrand the place after recent trips to Indonesia, and it suggests that they’re really passionate about the food of those countries. But, in the predominantly Thai food I ordered, it feels like they’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater: I didn’t get much zing or spice when I was expecting my food to be absolutely crammed full of both. My socks remained firmly unknocked-off throughout: it felt like the kind of Asian restaurant I could take my mum to, and much as I love her that’s really not a compliment. The thing is, my predominant feeling in writing this review is one of sadness. So, is it a different restaurant? Yes, I’m afraid so.

Bali Lounge – 6.4

77 Kings Road, RG1 3DD
0118 9566969
http://www.thebalilounge.co.uk/