Restaurant review: Thai Corner

If I asked you to rattle off Reading’s longest-running restaurants, the chances are you’d mention London Street Brasserie. The Bina and Quattro too, over in Caversham. I’d expect you to talk about Pepe Sale, that’s a given. You might get bonus points for remembering McDonalds – the Friar Street one has been going since the Eighties – or for saying “of course, until recently there was also the branch of Pizza Hut in the Oracle”. Perhaps you’d bring up cafés like the Gorge or Rafina: the latter, in particular, is one of the last signs of pre-Oracle Reading, and hasn’t changed a huge amount in the intervening years. And, naturally, many of you might namedrop Sweeney & Todd, which has been trading for an incredible forty-four years, longer than some of you have been alive.

But would you remember Thai Corner?

The reason I ask is that often it slips my mind. It’s one of those places that feels like it has been there forever, and will be there forever, but that means it can fade into the background when you’re deciding what to eat, or talking about what Reading used to be like. By my reckoning it’s been open for nearly twenty years; I remember what was there before, an unspecial French place called Bistrot Vino, and I went there once for a Bohemian Night spinoff, but other than that it’s been Thai Corner for, well, forever.

I reviewed it back in 2014, when my blog was a mere six months old, and even then it was an old stager, having celebrated over a decade at the top of West Street. And by the time I reviewed it, it had probably already achieved that feat of fading into the background. Thai food has always been a reliable go to in this country – probably inauthentic, never amazing, rarely terrible – but it’s never had a moment where it was the hot new thing. And so Thai Corner, for those ten years and the eight that followed, has just carried on doing what it did best, whether you noticed or not.

Back before I started this blog it was a proper happy place for me, as frequently visited as the likes of Dolce Vita, and somewhere I could go on date nights or with friends visiting Reading for dinner. I had my staple dishes I always ordered – weeping tiger, sirloin steak with garlic and coriander, or pla chuchi, salmon steak with red curry sauce – and a red wine I always drank, and I never went away less than full or happy. It was a sure thing, in that way people think chains are, and I loved it there.

Anyway, the years moved on, and by the time I reviewed it for the blog I was a lapsed member of the congregation. I liked it just fine, although it didn’t knock my socks off, and my review at the time was full of faint praise in a way which, with hindsight, looks a tad condescending (so unlike me, I know). Haven’t you done well not to be closed yet? it seems to say. 2014 me had forgotten, I think, how much 2004 me liked the place. And 2022 me looked back at that and thought it was high time to go again. 

Besides, I ended my previous review of Thai Corner saying “a big part of me would be disappointed if they weren’t still around in another ten years”. Why wait until 2024, especially when you can’t guarantee any hospitality business will survive until then? So I headed there with Zoë one evening for an early dinner, to see what I made of it.

It remains, as it’s always been, a handsome, grown-up looking room. The furniture is all dark wood, light-coloured pillars break up the space and in the middle is a surprisingly tasteful water feature, with flowers floating in it, which in no way resembles a birdbath. The tiled walls are tasteful, the colour palette is muted and chic. Zoë summed it up better than I could: “it looks like a hotel restaurant”, she said, and it does. We nabbed a table in the window, to make the most of the remaining daylight, but the truth is that this is a room for after dark, for cosiness and conspiracy. It will come into its own in the coming months.

The menu was also largely as I remember it, and if the prices have nudged slightly since I was last at Thai Corner they were still on the reasonable side. Starters were seven or eight pounds, curries and stir-fries start at eleven. As I sat looking out on the room I saw a member of staff coming down from upstairs with a huge plastic sack full of vivid red prawn crackers. 

And looking at the menu had that Proustian effect, as I remembered all the things I’d ordered here over the years, and the people I’d ordered them with. Birthday celebrations, Friday nights out or just evenings when you finished work in the town centre, young and carefree, and wanted somebody else to take care of you. It felt, at the time, like most of my thirties were made up of those evenings. I remembered all those meals with friends no longer in my life, but all connected by the invisible thread of this restaurant.  

It’s a running joke that I have a failure of imagination in Thai restaurants and usually kick off by ordering the mixed starters, something I usually defend by saying that it’s a great way to try as many dishes as possible. Well, why change the habit of a lifetime? I have to say though that the rewards were much greater this time around, with most of the starters having experienced a step-change in my time away. 

Spring rolls had a good greaseless crispness, and it was an interesting choice to have them full of vermicelli noodles rather than the standard issue carrots and beansprouts – still not at the standard of Pho’s (although little is) but not half bad. Chicken skewers had good texture and colour and went nicely with a deep peanut sauce. On previous visits the mixed starters had included Thai fishcakes, which I know aren’t universally loved (“spongy mattress” isn’t a texture to everybody’s taste) but these had been swapped out for crispy squid, and if they weren’t super-tender they still represented a significant upgrade. 

But best of all were the golden prawn toasts – huge, irregular, bronzed specimens, far more prawn than bread, with a tantalising carpet of sesame crunch on top. Next time, I’d be sorely tempted to order some to myself. Eight pounds per head for this little crash course felt like good value, and I imagine in bigger groups it would also present significant horse trading opportunities.

To try and atone for my predictable starter choice we also asked for some larb gai,  minced chicken salad, to come at the same time. The one thing I know about “authentic” Thai food, which I suspect I’ve never tried, is that it’s hot. Really hot. Face-meltingly, agonisingly so: if you go somewhere like Paddington’s The Heron or Hammersmith’s Khun Pakin you’re likely to find yourself eating something that dives into the grey area between pleasure and pain. The only dishes I’ve found in Reading’s Thai restaurants that even approach that are the salads, and Thai Corner’s larb gai is a great example.

It starts innocuously, and you appreciate the clean complexity of it. The freshness of the minced chicken, the healthy whack of lime and what feels like a little funky saltiness – from fish sauce, I imagine.  You notice the slight nutty crunch of the ground rice running through it, too. And you get a tingle of heat, but nothing you can’t manage. And it probably stays that way for a minute or so, and then you realise you’re heading into trouble. A few forkfuls later you can feel the sharp spikes of chilli on the tip of your tongue – not a numbing, benevolent heat like, say, Kungfu Kitchen’s shredded chicken, but a stabbing, vengeful heat. Strategic pauses don’t help it subside, and nor do water or beer. 

And at this point you do one of two things: you abandon it, as Zoë did (“that’s too fucking much” were her exact words) or you press on, knowing that it hurts in a compelling, completely alien way but that you also don’t want it to end. For all I know Thai Corner’s larb gai is also on the mild side, watered down slightly for a Reading clientele. If so, a big part of me hopes I never bump into its evil twin in a dark restaurant somewhere. But it was astonishing, and I’m so glad I ordered it: if you go to Thai Corner, and you feel brave, try it too. As our waitress took away the empty dish I tried to tell her how much I’d enjoyed it, with what little voice I had left. She probably took one look at me and thought I’d ordered it by mistake but was too polite to say.

This is probably a good time to mention what we drank, because the second of the two mocktails (yes, I know) I tried had a beautifully cooling effect in the aftermath of Hurricane Salad. The “Cocolada” was a soothingly tropical mixture of coconut, cream, vanilla and pineapple and it might well have saved my life – and quite aside from that, it tasted exquisite. I also tried a “Sand Island” which was like a classy Lilt (although, to be honest, I quite like good old-fashioned unclassy Lilt) and was also extremely nice. They put some work into these, and for a fiver each they felt like an interesting way to stay off the units.  

Mains came out a little more swiftly than I’d normally choose, but the restaurant was quiet and I didn’t mind the meal being a little rushed. Pla chuchi, that dish I’d ordered so many times all those years ago, was almost exactly as I remembered – a single, crispy piece of salmon which broke apart easily, smothered in a glorious, glossy red curry sauce. I found it hugely comforting that it had barely changed, and in Zoë it found a new convert (“I’m coming here again, and I’m having one of these to myself when I do” she pronounced between mouthfuls). If I’m being critical I’m not sure what the random florets of broccoli were doing there, and with a dish where sauce is king it would have been nice to have a deeper bowl to make it easier to scoop it all up. If they’d brought a spoon to do the scooping that would have been nice, too.

Our second dish was their chilli lamb, which by weird coincidence I also ordered the last time I reviewed Thai Corner. Was it reassuring or unsettling that it too had changed so little? I couldn’t make up my mind, but I’d enjoyed it last time and I really enjoyed it this time too. The sauce had a nice savoury depth, there was plenty of lamb and all of it was tender, the green beans lent texture and firmness. It was, I’d say, a better looking plate of food than its 2014 ancestor, but again it needed a deeper bowl to make the last of that sauce easier to get to. We poured it onto our coconut rice (always my favourite accompaniment to Thai food, though I miss the days when Thai Corner served it in a slightly ersatz coconut shell). 

One thing I would say is that neither of these dishes packed much in the way of heat. That may be because my taste receptors had been brutally battered into submission by what went before, but I don’t think so. And what’s more, the chilli lamb had two chillies next to it on the menu, that larb gai only one, which suggests an even more inconsistent approach to rating than Shirley Ballas (and if you’re watching Strictly this year, you’ll know that’s saying something). 

So yes, if you go expecting authentically spicy Thai food Thai Corner may not be for you, or you may need to make a point of asking them not to hold back. If you did, I’m sure they would do it, because the service from all three wait staff who looked after us was top notch – smiley, pleasant and attentive. Service has always been good there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if at least a few of them had served me before. Although Thai Corner has expanded its dessert menu (the days of the laminated card of frozen delights including the interestingly named “Funky Pie” are a thing of the past) the only dessert I fancied, mango with sticky rice, was off the menu that night. So we paid our bill – ninety-four pounds for two, with a 10% service charge included – and headed out into the evening.

More than usual, I find it difficult assigning an arbitrary mark to this particular restaurant. You can try and rob yourself of your preconceptions, with mixed success, but you can’t wipe out your memories, Eternal Sunshine style. What would I think of Thai Corner if I’d never been? I’m not sure, and all I’m left with is the warm glow of nostalgia, which would push a mark up, and an equal and opposite feeling that I’ve seen it before, which would have the converse effect. I asked Zoë, who doesn’t have my history with the place, and she rather enjoyed it and would like to go back. 

As for me, I find one thing hasn’t changed since 2014: I am happy Thai Corner is still going strong, I am grateful for that part it’s played in my life, if not necessarily my gastronomic education, and I fully hope it will still be trading in another eight years, whether I am reviewing restaurants by then or not. I do wonder, though, whether they ever daydream about dialling down the flavours a little less and letting the almighty wallop of that larb gai spread across the rest of the menu. But what do I know? You don’t trade for the best part of two decades by taking non-stop risks. I can’t help but admire that.

Thai Corner – 7.3
47 West Street, RG1 1TZ
0118 9595050

http://www.thaicornerreading.co.uk

Advertisement

Restaurant review: ThaiGrr!

Regular readers will know that my reviews last year, like much of life in 2021, could best be described using that quintessentially post-pandemic word, “hybrid”. Unlike most years, when I’d traipse to a restaurant fortnightly and write about it, last year was a mixture of all sorts – takeaways, from new restaurants and old favourites, a first (unsuccessful) dabble with restaurant DIY kits and later, as the weather improved, “proper” restaurant reviews. 

Even those were an eclectic bunch. I made a point of revisiting some of the earliest restaurants I’d reviewed, with varying results. Some, like Pepe Sale and London Street Brasserie, held up nicely despite eight intervening years. Others, like Buon Appetito, had been transformed. And then there was Zero Degrees: pants then, pants now. I also reviewed a couple of places outside Reading, making it as far as Bristol and London. By 2021 standards, that was exotic stuff.

Then there were the new places in Reading. I tried to tick off as many as I could but timing, the vicissitudes of life under Covid and my personal approach to risk meant that many were al fresco visits. That made for a lovely time in the sunshine at O Português, a sublime meal at Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen and, towards the end of the year, a game attempt at shivering away outside Gordon Ramsay Street Burger

But it also meant that my first introduction to some of Reading’s most interesting new places was as takeaways – and however good a takeaway is, it can’t match eating in the restaurant. Part of that’s the atmosphere, the hubbub and people watching. But, more prosaically, there’s the basic fact that your food comes straight to your table from the kitchen, arranged on plates by someone who isn’t you, looking all nice.

So some of last year’s big names are still waiting for a “proper”review. I’m yet to eat at Tasty Greek Souvlaki, for instance, and I feel that’s long overdue. I managed to eat at La’De Kitchen once last year, back in early May when you could only sit outside and it wasn’t yet warm enough to comfortably do so, however many blankets they brought out. But I didn’t review it: I was happy just to be there at all. And, for that matter, too cold.

One of the most noteworthy of the Class of ’21 that I haven’t visited in the flesh is ThaiGrr!: I had their takeaway last May and was blown away by it all. They put so much thought into how they packaged for delivery that I wasn’t sure the gap between eating in and having takeaway would be as marked as it was for, say, Greek or Turkish food. But I was educated on this subject by a regular reader of mine who I bump into most weeks at Blue Collar. 

“You need to eat in” he said. “However good you think the fried chicken is at home, it’s miles better in the restaurant.” Given how much I’d liked it from the comfort of my own sofa this was a powerful incentive to pay ThaiGrr a visit, so on a Saturday lunchtime Zoë and I swung by to try it out. It’s in the less fashionable part of town round the back of the Broad Street Mall, on the same strip as Pepe Sale and Bierhaus. I don’t know about you, but it feels to me like the Broad Street Mall has been up and coming for as long as I can recall without ever having upped and came, so to speak. 

Perhaps the people who make these claims feel that the arrival of a Taco Bell, along with (at the other end of the spectrum) an independent cinema justify that assessment. But it still feels to me like there’s much to do. The bandwagon-chasing street food market they tried in 2020 closed without fanfare, and now it’s just another abandoned pound shop in an area well served by pound shops. The contrast will be further heightened from this weekend with the opening of Blue Collar Corner, Glen Dinning’s permanent (and very snazzy) street food site; in a year, he’s done more to lift that area than the Broad Street Mall has managed in far, far longer.

Anyway, that carping aside, the ThaiGrr site is really rather appealing. It manages to strike the right balance between being neutral and being sterile: everything is white and clean, but it isn’t soulless. The blurb on the tables explains that ThaiGrr is modelled on a style of restaurant popular in Thailand, and geared around quick meals, whether that’s a lunch break or a grabbing something pre-theatre. That also explains the model, in that a large part of their menu is ready and pre-cooked behind the counter. 

In that sense it’s similar to Kokoro I suppose – but ThaiGrr offers more of a restaurant experience, because its specials and sides are cooked to order and everything comes on proper crockery rather than in a cardboard tub. Just as ThaiGrr has thought hard about how to offer takeaway, it has a clear idea of what kind of restaurant it wants to be. As I was to discover, that clarity of purpose largely carried through to the food.

It’s an attractive menu, too. Most of the regular dishes come in two sizes, medium and large with a faintly ridiculous one pound price difference between the two, much like Kokoro. None of them costs more than seven pounds fifty. Again, this is structured in such a way as to be a brisk experience compared to eating in most restaurants: although some of the dishes would clearly be classed as starters elsewhere, here they are are billed as sides. The idea is that you order (and eat) them at much the same time as your main course, and although the food is brought to your table, you order at the counter. It feels – that word again – distinctly hybrid.

I was torn between ordering the dishes I’d so loved the first time round and striking out into undiscovered sections of the menu. In the end, we did a bit of both although our selection was strongly influenced by a couple of things: not being able to miss out on that fried chicken for one, and Zoë’s insistence that she wanted the pork belly dish I’d ordered when I popped my ThaiGrr cherry last year. “I’m having that pork”, she said, with a look I knew all too well: there was no way around it. 

Still, no matter. It gave me an incentive to try something different, but looking back all I can see on the menu are other dishes I wish I’d tried. It really is that sort of menu: however carefully you read it the first time, every time you look at it after that you spot at least two more things you would have ordered, on another day. Our order – two mains, three sides and a couple of mineral waters came to thirty-four pounds, which struck me as thoroughly decent value. ThaiGrr doesn’t have an alcohol licence, another pointer that it’s not a place to necessarily linger.

I was told our food would take five to ten minutes, and ten minutes later the dishes started coming to the table, all at once, an embarrassment of riches. The fried chicken was indeed even better than I remembered – six generous pieces of jointed chicken, the skin a brittle, salty delight and the meat underneath beautifully tender. It went nicely with the accompanying sweet chilli sauce, but you were just as well rending it from the bone with your bare hands and properly going for it, Henry VIII-style.

As you can probably tell, despite my understated description, I was a fan. In fact, for my money, this is one of the most joyous things you can order anywhere in Reading right now, and if it even remotely sounds like your kind of thing I think a pilgrimage to ThaiGrr is in order at your earliest convenience. My only regret is that we didn’t order one each: I know that sharing is caring but sometimes, in my book letting someone have a portion to themselves is how you really show love.

The other sides weren’t as good as the fried chicken – but you could apply that description to most of the food I’ve eaten this year, so let’s not hold it against them. The vegetable spring rolls were nicely hefty, greaseless things that managed not to be stodgy and still had a good crunch in a filling that hadn’t been steamed into submission. I don’t seem to be able to talk about spring rolls in a review without mentioning how good they are at Pho, and this week is no exception, but they were still pretty good. They also came with sweet chilli sauce – in fact all the side dishes did – and although I liked it a little variety might have been nice.

Last but not least, the squid wasn’t as impressive as I remembered. But again, that didn’t stop it being better than practically all the squid dishes on offer in Reading (shamefully, my reference for this has always been London chain Busaba’s ‘Thai calamari’, the sole reason I’m sorry they never opened a branch in Reading after all). It was crispy and beautifully cooked, and if it didn’t have the tenderness of truly fresh squid I found that surprisingly easy to forgive. Besides, when dunked in a little sweet chilli sauce those quibbles melted away.

Back in May last year I’d been decidedly smug when I ordered the moo pad prik – the pork belly dish – while Zoë had slummed it with a green Thai curry. This week she got her revenge by picking it, and I was allowed to taste just enough to remember how magical it is. The combination of flavours here was the biggest sign that ThaiGrr was more imaginative and more complex than a lot of Thai restaurants – that blend of heat and citrus, sweetness, sharpness and chilli. The softness of the pork belly, the crunch of the green beans and that sauce, clinging to everything. I did think it wasn’t quite as amazing as that first time, the meat perhaps a tad less tender.

But was that nostalgia talking, or just a coping strategy to fend off food envy? Possibly the latter because my main course was good but not great. I’d chosen the pork pad kra praw, arguably Thailand’s most famous stir fried dish. This was minced pork with holy basil, soy and fish sauce, served with steamed rice and a fried egg, yolk still nicely liquid, on top. I expected great things from this, and perhaps that was the problem – the texture was good, and it had a nicely savoury note from well-judged use of that fish sauce, but I expected a bit more depth, more of a eureka moment. 

When I thought how much the other pork dish had wowed me, I expected something similar from this and it just wasn’t there. Sometimes it’s all about timing: if this had been the first dish I’d ever eaten at ThaiGrr I’d probably have been delighted, but sadly they’d raised the bar too high by then. Next time I might bite the bullet and try their laab gai, which I suspect will have all the complexity and intensity the pad kra praw was missing (and, no doubt, some ferocity too). But then again, there are about half a dozen dishes on my hit list, and only so many chances to eat them. And one misfire in a meal – by which I mean that it was quite nice rather than amazing – is no bad going.

The thing that makes ThaiGrr difficult to sum up, let alone rate, is that nowhere in Reading is quite like it. Fast food, with the exception of street food, tends to have negative connotations, as if you’re prepared to make concessions because you’re in a hurry. And if you’re spending more you tend to want to take longer, make an event of it. I would unhesitatingly suggest ThaiGrr if you wanted to eat very good food in a rush, and it’s hardly priced as special occasion food, but the fact remains that the nature of the restaurant makes it slightly on the functional side.

I suppose what this all amounts to is that ThaiGrr is properly great, but ever so slightly niche. The only real comparisons I can think of, in terms of no-frills restaurants doing quick food that’s better than it needs to be, are places like Mission Burrito, Sapana Home and Bhel Puri House. That’s not exactly bad company to be in, and ThaiGrr easily holds its own among those restaurants. 

Lots of you won’t be bothered by that, and on many occasions I wouldn’t be either. But the food is so enjoyable that it feels a bit incongruous to be out of the door in half an hour or so wondering what to do with the rest of your evening. And that is possibly the only reason this review isn’t an out and out rave. None the less, next time I’m in a rush or I get off the train from work and can’t be bothered to cook, I know exactly where I’m going. And I’m having that fried chicken, all to myself.

ThaiGrr! – 7.9
1D Queens Walk, Broad Street Mall, Reading, RG1 7QF
07379636771

https://thaigrr.co.uk
Delivery via: Deliveroo, Uber Eats

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

Takeaway review: Thai Table

Can you believe it’s two months since I announced that I was going to start reviewing takeaways? January properly dragged – even more than most Januaries, and that’s saying a lot – but the weeks feel like they’ve whipped by since I settled into my regular routine of research, ordering, eating, digesting and writing. As we sit on the cusp of the next phase of whatever this year will turn out to be, I realise I’m running out of time to review takeaways before restaurants (or, at least, those restaurants lucky enough to have sufficient outside space to be vaguely profitable) open again. And after that, you might be off eating in those, or you might still want to read about takeaways. Who knows? The future has never felt harder to predict.

My original plan was to try and check out places that had opened since I stopped writing reviews last March, and places that I’d never had a chance to review because they only did takeaway. And it’s been a real journey of discovery since then – square pizzas from the Shinfield Road, beautiful dal from West Reading, stunning grilled meats from suburban Woodley, not to mention woeful burgers from a hotel that ought to know better. And, because they deserve to be shouted about, I also found time to sample delicious and imaginative food from the pub just round the corner from my house

But I realise there’s one category of takeaway I’ve not managed to cover so far, and that’s places that have always done takeaway but that, for whatever reason, just never occur to people as an option. Under the radar restaurants.

This time last year, when the restaurants had just been told to close, because I really wanted to do something to help, I started a Twitter thread listing local businesses and how they were adapting. It took off, and I was constantly updating it: this business was doing free delivery, that business had moved to call and collect. Things changed on a daily basis as restaurants, cafés, pubs and breweries were forced to adapt and fight for survival. I bet they all look back, reflect on the fact that was a year ago, and feel incredibly tired.

When I did the thread, I got a reply from Thai Table, the Thai restaurant in Caversham just down from the Griffin. They delivered to a wide range of Reading postcodes, they said. Thai Table does takeaway, I thought. Who knew? So I added them to the thread and they very politely thanked me. They’ve only ever written four Tweets, and half of them were either asking me for help or thanking me for it. 

They stuck out like a sore thumb in the thread – everybody else was pivoting here and there, setting up webshops, looking at new ways of doing business. By contrast, the mention of Thai Table wasn’t about innovation, it was just a quiet reminder. We’re still here, it said. Don’t forget about us. So Thai Table crossed my mind last weekend when I was deciding what to eat and review this week. I’d always enjoyed their food when I ate in the restaurant, and I remembered their awfully nice Tweet from a year ago. 

The other thing that occurred to me is that, with takeaways, geography is key. When I reviewed restaurants where I’d eaten in, the chances are you could probably get to them, but with deliveries it all hinges on whether you’re in the catchment area. And so far I’ve covered central Reading, and south east and west, but I hadn’t reviewed anywhere north of the river. So it was high time I got a delivery from Caversham: it felt like the very least I could do for my many avid readers there.

Thai Table’s menu is a classic Thai menu with few surprises and lots of old favourites, and although a handful of dishes are marked as specialities I didn’t see anything on there I haven’t seen on menus elsewhere. There is a star rating for heat where one star means mild, three stars means hot and so on: a fair few have zero stars, and it wasn’t clear whether that meant extra mild or bland. I suspected it wouldn’t be the kind of scorchingly hot authentic Thai food you might get at Oli’s Thai in Oxford, Som Saa in Spitalfields or The Heron in Paddington, but that didn’t bother me – sometimes menus like this are about comfort and familiarity, rather than trailblazing and sinus razing. There’s also a gluten free and vegetarian menu, which I assume means they omit fish sauce for the latter.

Thai Table handles deliveries itself, covering a relatively wide range of RG postcodes, and isn’t on any delivery apps, so you can either order on their website or go fully old school and ring them up. I decided to phone, mainly because my browser told me that their website wasn’t secure, and because their website warned of potentially long waiting times on Friday and Saturday nights I put my call in just after six o’clock. It was clearly a well-oiled machine, and after I had placed my order I was told someone would call me back in a few minutes to take my payment – no doubt freeing up the hotline for the next takeaway order. 

We ordered two mains, two portions of rice and three starters and the whole thing came to just over fifty pounds, which included a delivery charge. Our food would be about fifty minutes, they said, and everything about the process made me feel like I was in safe hands.

It’s no coincidence that every time I’ve ordered direct from the restaurant delivery has worked like a charm, and this was no exception. Around forty minutes after placing my order, there was a ring on the doorbell and a friendly driver handed over my branded carrier bag. Everything was perfectly hot, and everything came in recyclable plastic tubs. Another sign that Thai Table know what they’re doing with this stuff: they had put clingfilm over the tubs before snapping on the lids, just an extra precaution to prevent any disasters. It sounds like a small thing, but I appreciated the thoughtfulness, just as I loved the little slip in my bag detailing, with little infographics, all the extra steps the restaurant had taken to ensure the safety of its employees and its customers.

I reviewed Thai Table back in 2015, but one of its dishes, the massaman beef, made such an impression on me that three years later, when I published a list of Reading’s 10 must-try dishes, it made the cut. I felt it was incumbent on me to try it again, so I made a beeline for it when I placed my order. It was a ridiculously generous portion of beef, wavy-cut chunks of waxy potato and sweet onion in a glossy sauce, so much that it almost spilled over the high sides of my bowl. 

It had stuck in my memory as an indulgent, cossetting dish but actually, if anything, it was more interesting than I remembered. So of course every forkful of fragrant coconut rice soaked in that silky sauce was gorgeous, but the whole thing was shot through with star anise, giving it an extra dimension that stopped it being cloying. I thought it could do with ever so slightly more chilli heat, but it was so luxurious (and faintly soporific) that I couldn’t complain. I’d been concerned that the colossal hunks of beef bobbing in the sauce might be too tough, but every single one passed the two forks test with flying colours. And I’d forgotten how much I love coconut rice, too, right up until the moment when I took the lid off the container and that wonderful aroma rapidly came into focus.

Zoë had stayed traditional with a green chicken curry, and I was allowed a forkful (“but that’s all, I’m not sharing”). It had considerably more punch from the chilli and crunch from the bamboo shoots, and the chicken was tender, but I didn’t feel like I was missing out by sticking with my choice. It was a decent effort, and probably healthier by virtue of containing more veg (the courgettes had the same crenellations as the potato in my curry), but I would have liked it to have a little more richness and oomph. I was graciously permitted to approach the bowl again with my fork to try some of the rice and sauce – for me, always the best bit of eating Thai food – and that was enjoyable enough to make me think I might have judged it harshly.

The problem with takeaways, as I’ve said before, is that it isn’t that practical to eat two separate courses – you’re bound to have one of them past its best, or kept warm when it should have been eaten there and then – so often starters find themselves promoted to side dishes, as happened here. The first of the starters was ribs, which came in a deep, dark sauce without much chilli heat but with a hint of peanut and what felt like braised lettuce swimming around at the bottom. The meat fell cleanly off the bone with three of the ribs, while the fourth was a distinctly more cartilaginous affair. 

“The ribs definitely win the starters”, said Zoë: I, saddled with that slightly gristly fourth one, was less certain. The ribs were definitely better, though, than the fish cakes. I know their slightly squeaky, rubbery texture isn’t for everyone but they really do need to be eaten piping hot for it not to be disconcerting. I like fishcakes, or at least I seem to remember that I always have, but these didn’t really do it for me.

My pick of the starters was probably the Northern Thai sausage, which was a single sausage (homemade, apparently) cut into diagonal slices. It was more fragrant than hot, with a good whack of lemongrass. I enjoyed it, although three starters definitely turned out to be a starter too many, especially with such generous mains. 

But I couldn’t help comparing it to the Thai sausage cooked up by street food traders Porco at the Blue Collar-hosted final of the UK Street Food Awards last year. That – so aromatic, coarse and perfectly spiced – was one of the most magnificent things I’d ever tasted, whereas this was slightly diminished even by its memory. But that’s Blue Collar for you: they excel at gradually making conventional restaurant food suffer by comparison, cuisine by cuisine and dish by dish. It would be easy to hold it against them, if they weren’t so good.

This week’s meal, as much as any takeaway I’ve had, has been truly educational when it comes to the difference between eating in and eating at home. Because if I had eaten this food on duty in a restaurant, in some parallel world where the pandemic never happened, I might have spent my time looking at what was missing. I might have said that the food wasn’t particularly inventive or revolutionary, or that it didn’t bowl me over. I might say, as I’ve said reviewing many Thai restaurants in and around Reading over the last seven years, that it all felt somewhat much of a muchness. 

But here’s the thing: in this world, in March 2021, I found it all really quite lovely. It’s nice, sometimes, to play it safe. It’s fun to enjoy a meal without surprises, good or bad, and to know exactly what you’re getting. In a world where so much has changed, some of it beyond recognition, it can be hugely reassuring to be reminded that not everything has. And on that Saturday night, I felt grateful that Thai Table were there, still doing what they’d always done, working their socks off (and taking all those extra precautions) so I could sit there in my comfies and be transported by the alchemy of coconut, beef and star anise. 

So there you have it – they’re not on Deliveroo or Uber Eats, they’re not gurning away on Instagram Stories, they’re not doing anything but cooking very pleasant food and driving it round to your house. If you live in their catchment area, and you fancy taking a night off juggling what’s in the fridge and the cupboards, checking your best before dates, you could do an awful lot worse than giving them a call. They probably won’t ever see this review, and they may never Tweet again, but I’m strangely delighted that they contacted me a year ago with that simple message: We’re still here. Please don’t forget about us. I’m glad, too, that I didn’t.

Thai Table
8 Church Road, Reading, RG4 7AD
0118 9471500

https://www.thaitable.co.uk
Order via: Direct with the restaurant, online or by phone

Chaiyaphum, Cane End

N.B. Chaiyaphum closed at some point over the last few years. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

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/