Thai Table

To read a more recent takeaway review of Thai Table, click here.

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/

Giggling Squid, Henley

Although most ER reviews are of independent restaurants, I’m not against chains for the sake of it. Not all chains are the same: there are big and small ones, good and bad ones – just as there’s a difference between the silver chain you’d hang a pendant from and the lunking great thing you’d use to secure your bike to the railings.

I was struck by this wandering round Henley on a sunny Bank Holiday Monday, because they have chains just like Reading does, only different ones. So there are shops like Space NK and Joule’s – the next tier up, you could say, places in the same bracket as Jigsaw and LK Bennett. It’s the same with cafés and restaurants, so Henley has a Maison Blanc, a Hotel du Vin, and a CAU. I did briefly consider going to CAU to find out what we had to look forward to when the Reading branch opens this month, but nothing about the décor appealed: the nasty rigid white chairs and sterile banquettes screamed “downmarket Gaucho”.

Besides, I was on my way to a more intriguing phenomenon: Giggling Squid has grown from a single branch in Hove six years ago to a chain of thirteen restaurants (many of them opening in sites which used to belong to other chains – a handful used to be branches of Strada, Henley’s was previously an ill-fated Brasserie Gerard). And there are more on the way – the management wants to make this the first nationwide Thai chain, with plans for somewhere between fifty and eighty sites. It’s funny how, despite the popularity of Thai, Indian and Chinese food they still tend, by and large, to be chain-free zones (unless you count the delights of Ken Hom’s Yellow River Café, one of the Oracle’s first ever tenants way back when). I’ve never understood why that is – was Giggling Squid going to challenge that status quo?

It’s a lovely old building at the bottom of Hart Street and it’s been done up very nicely. On the way there I walked past Henley’s long-serving restaurant, Thai Orchid and it was the picture of an old-fashioned Thai restaurant, all dark wood, ornate panelling and intricate, inlaid, glass-topped dining tables. Giggling Squid couldn’t be more different, with its pale walls, exposed beams and almost Scandinavian bleached bentwood chairs. The front room, where I sat, was more traditional – the big room at the back was much better lit and I’d rather have sat there, but I didn’t have much choice in the matter. Which brings me to the second thing I noticed about it: it was absolutely rammed (I was lucky to get a table at all without a reservation, and quite a few couples who came in after me were turned away).

Giggling Squid bills itself as “Thai Tapas & Thai Restaurant”. The idea of anything other than Spanish food describing itself as tapas makes me feel a little exasperated, but what it essentially means is that at lunchtime, rather than having a traditional a la carte menu the main options are one of six “tapas sets”, each of them a mixture of three different dishes and jasmine rice. You can order lots of tapas separately instead, although I’m not sure why anyone would unless you really disliked the set combinations, or you can have what they describe as “one big dish with rice” or a “two dish meal combi”. This all felt overly complicated for me – did I want one big dish, two middling dishes or four small dishes? was there an option of having eight minuscule dishes? – so we went for a tapas selection each. And some prawn crackers. And some chicken satay (which by my reckoning makes a total of ten small dishes, sort of).

Despite the restaurant being extremely busy everything arrived very quickly indeed. Prawn crackers came in a metal pail and were good but unexceptional. It was a huge portion of crackers and an absurdly tiny ramekin of sweet chilli sauce – I couldn’t help feeling I would have liked less crackers and more dip, but they were pleasant enough and lasted just until the rest of the food turned up.

So, on to the tapas (if I really must call it that) itself: a square plate divided into four with something different on each section. Much as I might have wanted to turn my nose up at the concept I couldn’t fault the food. Shredded duck spring roll was a huge thing, full of dense strands of duck, served on a surprisingly subtle puddle of hoi sin that wasn’t just relentless sweetness. Prawn toasts were much better than I expected, crispy and light with a gorgeous layer of toasted sesame, served with more of the sweet chilli sauce. Salt and pepper squid was not at all chewy and the batter was beautifully light (maybe too light, as it did fall off the squid the moment it was challenged with a fork) served on another puddle of sauce – this time hot chilli with no sweetness. The beef salad was the cousin of the chicken salad I raved about from Art of Siam – soft, tender strips of beef on top of a bowl of salad filled to the brim with hot, sharp, sour sauce. It was agony and ecstasy to eat and would be perfect for anyone with a bit of congestion – the heat would soon clear that up.

WealthySquid

Because of the set combinations we’d gone for (“Two Giggling Squids” and “Wealthy Squid”, I have no idea why they’re called that, so don’t even ask) we had massaman curry two ways. The lamb was gorgeous, slow cooked and reassuringly free of wobble and the chicken was in tender, slender slices. There were nice firm chunks of potato, lots of onion and a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on how you look at it) sprinkling of crispy fried onion on top. The sauce was perhaps a little subtler than I’m used to but still went beautifully with the rest of the rice – and I’ve always thought, and said many times, that the rice and sauce at the end of a Thai main course is the best bit.

2Squids

The chicken satay, ordered as an extra out of curiosity, was probably more food than we needed but again, it was very good: tender, soft chicken, not dried-out fibrous breast meat, easy to slide off the skewers and dunk in a fresh clear dipping sauce or a spiced but fragrant satay sauce that was a lot more than hot Sun-Pat. We finished the lot, although it put paid to any plans I had for dessert – a pity, as I had my eye on the black sesame ice cream. Still, there’s always next time.

The menu, come to think of it, was full of little flashes of personality like that which made it feel a lot less like a chain. That really came across in the wine list in particular which managed that rare trick of getting a slightly irreverent tone without making you want to cringe. Written by the co-owner, it compared the Chardonnay – described as something like “rich and fruity” – to her husband before mentioning the extensive research he had done trying to find some reds that went with spicy food. That sort of thing might make your toes curl, but I found it oddly charming (oh, and we had a couple of glasses of the Chardonnay: if her husband is anything like that she could have done an awful lot worse).

Service was harried but friendly. It felt difficult to get attention right at the start, but given how popular the place was I was impressed by how efficient they were; at the end, when the lunchtime rush was fading out, the waiters were a lot more friendly and interested. We went from sitting down to being out of the door in just over an hour which I think is fair enough on a busy lunchtime, especially when you’re only really having one course. Lunch for two – two tapas sets, prawn crackers, chicken satay and two glasses of wine – came to £40 with a semi-optional 10% service charge on top. The tapas sets were just under £12 each, which I thought was pretty decent value.

The owners of Giggling Squid have talked about Côte as the chain they’d like to emulate and I can see why – it’s a great example of how a chain can get everything right and be consistent without being faceless. And I think Giggling Squid does that too; I liked almost everything I had, it’s a lovely spot, it’s very tastefully done and the service is good. I do wonder, though, whether the reason they haven’t chosen to target Reading is that it already has three well-established Thai restaurants with good reputations – the kind of day-in, day-out consistency that is the brand promise of most chains. I wonder too what Giggling Squid will be like if it hits its targets, has a hundred branches worldwide and takes over all the vacant Stradas, Bella Italias and Café Rouges out there. But that’s all years ahead: in the meantime, it’s worth going so you can say you were there in the early days (or back when it was good, depending on how it all turns out). I might see you there, because the whole experience made me want to go back – partly for that sesame ice cream, but mainly to try the evening menu, which is so packed with tempting-looking fish and seafood dishes that I literally wouldn’t know where to start.

Giggling Squid – 7.7
40 Hart Street, Henley-On-Thames, RG9 2AU
01491 411044

http://www.gigglingsquid.com/branches/henley.html

Art of Siam

N.B. Art Of Siam closed in December 2015. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I love eating out, really I do, but sometimes even I get a little jaded. The constant search for new places occasionally takes its toll, and from time to time Reading can feel like Indian after Italian after chain after chain. So for this week’s review I looked at the lovingly prepared, generously suggested list of dining options and I’m sorry to say that I really struggled to pick. The rain was bucketing down on and off and the thought of toddling over to Caversham or venturing out into the Berkshire countryside just didn’t appeal. What to do?

So I chose Art of Siam probably for all the wrong reasons; because it was conveniently central and because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d paid it a visit. I did make myself a promise this time, though: no starter platter, no pad Thai, no dishes that I’ve reviewed before in other places. I’m not always the most imaginative diner in a Thai restaurant, something even I know. This time, I told myself, it’s all going to be different. Besides, I imagine that any Thai restaurant worth its fish sauce will be able to rustle up a those dishes with the chef’s hands Thai’d (I know, I’m sorry) so it probably isn’t the best way to judge the kitchen.

On entering the almost empty restaurant on a rainy mid-week night I had conflicting feelings of comfort and trepidation. The dining room is the same as I remember from my first visit what must be ten years ago – beautiful wood panelling lining the walls, a scattering of Buddhas and a gorgeous wooden lattice covering the ceiling. Even the shuttered windows looking down on King’s Walk are attractive. Only a few things – like the rickety rattan chairs, several of them taped or repaired – make the room look a little tired. Apart from that, the effect is like stepping into a movie set; at once splendid and a tiny bit contrived. The tables are all set with branded Art of Siam plates (and wineglasses), elaborately folded cloth napkins and forks and spoons. It really is a gorgeous place to eat dinner – marred only if you get one of the seats overlooking the somewhat municipal corridor leading to the kitchen.

Service was quick, enthusiastic and a little, well, amateurish. In my quest to order something different for once I wanted plenty of advice only to find that the waitress didn’t really know her way around the menu. When I asked what was in some of the dishes, to help me choose, she suggested that one chicken dish contained onions and peppers, whereas another contained peppers and onions. Further questioning gave the impression that all the dishes were pretty much the same, in levels of vagueness if nothing else. When pressed she confessed that she had been working there for less than a week and so went off to ask the kitchen more about the dishes but even then, the answers didn’t make anything clearer.

Later on, what purported to be our mains turned up – except they bore no relation to what we had actually ordered. We looked at them slightly baffled for a minute or so and the waitress then swooped and carried them off to another table (which was especially galling as they looked delicious). The whole experience was friendly and pleasant but utterly chaotic, which left me thinking that the whole meal was going to be something of a lottery.

My sinking feeling didn’t last long, anyway, because – probably through luck more than judgment – the starters were very good indeed. The more conventional of them, toong tong, were essentially big fat wontons filled with minced chicken and prawn. So far, so conventional, but the filling was absolutely top notch. None of that disturbingly bouncy, gelatinous pinkness I’ve had at many other restaurants – instead, the filling was beautiful, dense and firm. The plum sauce they came with felt like an anonymous sweet dipping sauce, but it still added something to the dish (I was expecting plum sauce as you’d get in Chinese restaurants, probably wrongly, so was a tad disappointed). No starter in a Thai restaurant would be complete without a bit of vegetable sculpture so of course this was also accompanied with a flower made out of carrot. (I’ve never been hungry enough to eat one of these. Not yet, anyway.)

Thai

The standout dish though – not just among the starters but in the whole meal – was yum gai yang, or chicken salad. I’ve never had Thai salad before because, well, it’s salad, but this was in a different league. It was salad in the sense that it wasn’t served with a thick hot sauce, not in the sense of lettuce and tomato and celery. Instead I got slices of warm, freshly grilled chicken dressed with lemongrass, galangal, chilli and lime juice. The bits and bobs of vegetables it came with were merely for texture because it was all about the amazing dressing which was the perfect balance of hot and sour – just the right side of bearable heat and just the right side of enjoyable sharpness.

Maybe it’s just my lack of imagination in Thai restaurants, in fact I’m sure it is, but I’ve not had anything like this before. It was absolutely stunning – a dish I keep thinking about, remembering and wanting to have again, even though it made my lips ever so slightly numb, made my tongue blaze and made me order a cooling glass of milk. It was a funfair ride of a dish – I was shaken at the end but a little bit of me, in the back of my mind, was shouting “Again! Again!”

Thai2

Mains could never live up to that, but to their credit they weren’t far off. Pla chu chi, lightly battered white fish in a red curry sauce, was one of the biggest dishes I’ve been served in a long time. The sauce was a good one, although a little less generous than I’d have liked – especially after such a fiery starter – so not much to tip onto the rice (I’ve long thought the best bit of most Thai meals is that mixture of sauce and rice you end up with towards the end of the meal). In amongst the fish were slices of chilli big enough to kill a small child plus a dollop of coconut milk on top – just in case you hadn’t realised this was a rich and unhealthy dish.

Thai3

Gai phad bai kraprao, despite the long name, was probably the simplest dish I had: chicken stir fried with fresh chilli and Thai basil (and onions and peppers, not that that marked it out from the other chicken dishes on the menu by the sounds of it). Even so it was lovely with everything done just right: thin, tender slivers of chicken, soft sweet onions and a sauce which was more interesting than I was expecting, savoury and salty with a note almost of something like aniseed. Again, it was light on the sauce – I admire them for not drowning their main courses with gloopy sauce but it did leave me feeling my coconut rice (pleasant but unremarkable) was a tad underdressed.

The only real misfire was the other side dish; fried noodles turned out to be wide, flat, almost completely undressed, clumpy noodles which transformed into rubber bands within minutes of being brought to the table. I’m still not convinced that they really were fried, because they felt more like they’d been steamed into a state of abject surrender, but the waitress assured me they were. I pretty much left them, although I had quite enough food so it wasn’t a tragedy (the waitress offered to take them back to the kitchen and get them to re-fry them so I could take them home, which is very sweet but does rather miss the point).

The wine served here is allegedly exactly the same as in Thai Corner which makes me wonder if Monsoon Valley has managed to secure the only shipping containers that make it safely across to the UK. I say allegedly as it wasn’t the smooth easy drinking red I am used to from Monsoon Valley but after a couple of chilli-soaked slices of chicken it hardly mattered. It was just enough to take the edge off without getting silly on a school night. The total bill for two starters, two mains, two side dishes, two glasses of wine (and one absolutely indispensable glass of milk) was forty-three pounds excluding service – a steal for the quality of food and the boundless flavours on offer.

If I didn’t review restaurants, and I’d been going out that rainy midweek night, I’d have gone somewhere tried and tested. I’d have had something I often order and I’m sure I’d have liked it well enough. And some nights that’s what you want, something comfortable and reliable. But I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad that – for all its Italians and Indians and chains – Reading’s restaurants still have the capacity to surprise and that by going somewhere you’d taken for granted and forgotten all about, by taking a chance on something you wouldn’t normally order in a million years, you can still be ambushed by a wonderful meal. I hope you try it some time, if not in Art Of Siam then somewhere else. Either way, make the most of this because heaven knows, you won’t find me recommending the salad very often.

Art of Siam – 7.7
2A/3A The Walk, King Street, RG1 2HG
01189 512600

http://www.artofsiamuk.com/reading/aboutus.php

Tampopo

N.B. Tampopo closed in June 2015. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

If I’m honest, I wasn’t predisposed to like Tampopo. It always felt like another link in the vast chain of chains on the Oracle Riverside, a bookend at the opposite end of the shelf to Wagamama. I found the concept a bit strange: food from throughout East Asia, a range of dishes from – among others – Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia. Can you imagine a pan-European restaurant, serving boeuf bourguignon alongside pizza, paella, fish and chips, moussaka, schnitzel and herring? If you can imagine it, and I can’t, would you really recommend that anybody go to it?

So I turned up ready to be underwhelmed, and was pleasantly surprised from the moment I walked in. Like Wagamama, Tampopo offers the threat of communal eating – long tables which imply that, if the restaurant is busy, you won’t be eating on your own. Unlike Wagamama, they’ve made some effort to make that seem less stark and unpleasant – tables feel more compact, the seating is made up of (surprisingly comfy) stools rather than large benches and the lighting is warmer and more attractive, giving the room a glow. On a Monday night there was no danger of sharing a table with anyone, but even if I’d had to it wouldn’t have felt like the end of the world.

The culinary first impressions were also good. Edamame were considerably more interesting than their counterparts at the other end of the Riverside, dressed in chilli and sesame oil and coarse flakes of salt. The wine that accompanied them was also very good – a viognier was light and peachy and the Gewürztraminer was delicious, fresh with (at the risk of sounding like something out of the Carry On films) a strong hint of banana. They do glasses in 125ml, too – something I wish more restaurants would sign up to.

Regular readers will be unsurprised to hear that I ordered the “Tampopo sharing platter” to start. I’m beginning to feel less ashamed about this habit, rationalising it as an opportunity to try as many different things from the kitchen as possible (that’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it). And I’m unrepentant, because it was an excellent choice – a big black slate arrived at the table with six different items from the starter menu, neatly laid out in a grid, each with an accompanying dip or garnish.

StarterThe least remarkable were the coconut prawns – butterflied, breadcrumbed and served with sweet chilli sauce, they were the stuff of sharing platters everywhere. Everything else, though, was either a pleasant surprise or a very pleasant surprise. The chicken satay, for instance: so often a pedestrian space filler served up with some warm Sun-Pat, but Tampopo’s was a world away from that. The chicken was soft and tender (I wondered whether it might be minced rather than the fibrous fillet you usually get) and the sauce was deep, rich, chunky and much more savoury than satays in so many other places in Reading. The corn fritters made a pleasant change from the usual fishcake – lighter, taster and without the slightly disturbing sponginess fishcakes can have. The gyoza were plump and soft, full of minced pork, subtle and lighter to eat than they looked on the plate.

The last two were things I’ve not tried before. Goi cuon were cold, soft rice paper rolls packed with vegetables, noodles and coriander – fresh and clean, if almost impossible to eat tidily (whatever you think of a traditional spring roll, it’s at least easy to dunk in a dipping sauce). Bulgogi, Korean grilled beef, was also good, with a smoky char to it. It came served on a lettuce leaf which is meant to serve as an impromptu wrap – a great idea, although it did mean that the beef didn’t stay hot for long. That was fine though, because it didn’t stay uneaten for long. The only letdown was the kimchi that came with the beef – an oddly bland pile of cabbage without the eye-watering, intense taste I’m used to. It was the only place where the menu felt like it lacked the courage of its convictions.

I’m not one for listing the price of dishes in brackets in a restaurant review – there are other places you can go for that – but this one is worth emphasising: that selection of starters, for two, was £13.95. Pretty impressive stuff, and it built up a feeling of goodwill that the rest of the meal would have to go some to ruin. Good starters are like that.

Another nice touch came when the waitress – who was excellent all evening, friendly and helpful without being matey or patronising – took our empty slate (and extra napkins, because it’s messy stuff) away.

“Was that okay for you?”

“Yes, it was gorgeous.”

“I’m glad you liked it, it’s one of my favourites. I had it for lunch, actually.”

She was also full of good advice on which mains to order and came across as genuinely passionate about Tampopo’s food. Another waitress, later in the evening, asked what we made of the menu and showed real interest in feedback. She also told me that Tampopo was only a small chain (five branches, three of them in Manchester), and that Reading was the baby of the family, having only been open for three years. So much for my preconceptions about eating in a faceless chain – and in fact, a subsequent look at the website suggests that the owners either have a genuine passion for this kind of food or are phenomenally good at faking it. Either way I was struck that all of the serving staff felt like ambassadors for the restaurant, also a million miles from the experience in most chains.

Could the mains live up to the start? Well, not quite. Com Hué, a Vietnamese rice dish, was the biggest disappointment of the evening. It was almost like a Vietnamese paella – rice with chicken, squid and king prawns, along with coriander, red onion, spring onion and carrot. Bits of it were beautifully cooked – the squid in particular was more tender than I’d expected – but the overall effect was a bit restrained for my liking. I often worry with subtle food that it’s my fault for not having a refined enough palate, but the good Vietnamese food I’ve had has positively sung with flavour, whether it be mint or lemongrass or coriander. This had none of that, and I don’t think it was my fault. All the other dishes tasted of something, but this was food with the mute button on. I didn’t finish it.

Main2Happily, the other main course was streets ahead. Khao Soi, a Thai dish of chicken and yellow noodles in red curry sauce, was delicious. The sauce was creamy and coconutty with decent sized but perfectly soft pieces of chicken, the noodles were small enough to twirl and there were tasty crispy onion pieces on top. I was apprehensive because of the two chillies next to it on the menu but actually the flavour was well balanced with loads going on – a good whack of garlic and ginger with the creamy sauce taking the edge off the heat. This is the sort of curry I want to eat on a cold, wet night (and I probably will soon, Reading summers being what they are). What it reminded me of, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, was curry sauce from my local chip shop when I was a kid, when the chippie was a treat, all this eating out was a lifetime away and Thai food was still a few years from hitting our shores. I’m not even sure I’m saying it tasted like that, but it took me back to that magical time when foreign foods were new and exciting without being intimidating.

Main1The side dish was nothing to write home about. I went for wok fried greens – you have a choice of broccoli or pak choi in oyster or tamarind sauce. My broccoli was some kind of mutant strain that looked so much like pak choi that it’s almost impossible to tell apart from it, except for the presence of a few tiny florets. Even wilted it was almost impossible to eat with chopsticks and not quite worth the bother of doing so. A pity, really, because the tamarind sauce – like so much of the food at Tampopo – was really tasty, sweet and sharp at once.

I’ve always found desserts a bit of an Achilles’ heel in this kind of restaurant so I was amazed not only to find a few things I fancied ordering but to really enjoy them into the bargain. There isn’t much on the menu from the Philippines (just the one main) but they contribute one dessert – churros and chocolate (popular since Spanish colonial times, if you believe the blurb on the menu). These were some of the better churros I’ve had in this country; thin piped doughnuts with a good balance of crispy and chewy. Better still, the chocolate sauce was thick, intense and tasted of real chocolate, as opposed to the watery, synthetic chocolate flavoured sauce so often dished up with churros on the continent. They were perhaps a little over-zealously dusted with icing sugar but that was soon tapped off (nothing stands between me and fried dough, I can tell you).

ChurrosThe other dessert was another weakness of mine which I always order on the very rare occasions when I see it on a menu. Black sesame ice cream was gorgeous – there’s something about the hit of those sesame seeds in such a surprising context that really works. This wasn’t the best example I’ve had (a chunk of ice in the middle of it was disconcerting) but it was close enough for me. The other flavour I tried, cinnamon, was creamier and blander and mainly left me wishing I’d had two scoops of sesame instead.

Dinner for two – edamame, three courses, a side and a couple of glasses of wine – came to fifty-nine pounds, not including tip. Again, it’s worth mentioning what good value Tampopo is. Aside from those starters, which I’ve already enthused about, the most expensive main was £12. Neither of the desserts cost more than £3. The Oracle can be a punishing place for restaurants to make a living, and I was impressed by the balance between cost and quality here – and the service, which was miles better than at most Oracle restaurants I’ve been to (Browns and Pizza Express, I’m looking at you).

If I was summing up Tampopo in three words I think they’d have to be these: better than Wagamama. They occupy very similar spaces but Tampopo avoids everything that gets on my nerves about the latter: unforgiving lighting, unwelcoming furniture, the rote instruction that your dishes will arrive in a random order whether you like it or not (I can’t tell you how much this irks me) and the feeling that you are meant to eat your food quickly, leave and go to the cinema. Tampopo isn’t necessarily a place to settle in for an evening, and still feels like somewhere you’d eat before going on somewhere else, but it manages to make that feel like an experience in itself rather than a transaction. I will definitely be back, and in future when I go to a restaurant I might try leaving my preconceptions at home.

Tampopo – 7.6
The Riverside, Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9575199

http://www.tampopo.co.uk/