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/

Thai Corner

I ate out a lot in Reading long before I started Edible Reading. I remember when this town was a wasteland for diners, and all the places that have come and gone since those days. All the nacky chains when the Oracle first opened: Yellow River Café, Old Orleans, Ma Potter (did anyone ever actually go to Ma Potter?) I remember Bistro Je T’Aime, on Friar Street where Nando’s is now, a joint whose sole purpose seemed to be to put people off French food forever. Lots of restaurants have closed as Reading has slowly, gradually improved on the culinary front – the most recent, Kyklos, only last month. And yet throughout all that time Thai Corner has been quietly, unobtrusively plying its trade on the corner of Friar Street and West Street, at an end of town which was unfashionable ten years ago and is even more unfashionable now.

It feels like Thai Corner has always been there, and back in the day I used to go there an awful lot. It was my go-to place when I wanted something tasty and affordable, because even at the turn of the century I liked to avoid chain restaurants where possible. But I haven’t been there in ages, to the extent where I wouldn’t have been surprised to walk past to find that it was the latest casualty in the constant battle restaurants face to stay afloat. I’ve always taken for granted that it would be around when I next wanted to visit, and if I’m honest I was slightly reluctant to review it in case it had a bad night (because I can’t remember ever having had a bad meal at Thai Corner). Nonetheless I put my nagging worries to one side and headed over on a rainy evening (has there been any other sort, this year?) to visit it “on duty”.

The interior of the restaurant is a great illustration of how to use a compact space really well. They manage to pack a lot of tables in without you ever feeling like you’re on someone else’s lap or subjected to their small talk – mainly by breaking up the room with pillars and partitions. It’s also a very attractive room: all red silk and black framed lights, golden bells, wooden shutters and lighting which manages to be tasteful and flattering while still giving you a fighting chance of seeing what you’re eating. Handsome, comfy furniture, too. I’m sorry to come over all Living Etc., but I was really surprised by what a nice room it was to eat in; they’ve clearly invested in doing it up, and it shows.

First things first: the Thai red wine (Monsoon Valley, a snip at about sixteen quid a bottle) is really tasty, light and fruity. I could see some other quite tempting things on the list (I think I saw Chateau Cissac on there for less than £30, for instance), but a good bottle of easy drinking red at that price was just too good to pass up. We ordered some prawn crackers to keep us going during the decision-making process and those were good too – the proper, thin, fishy Thai sort rather than the fluffy white Chinese ones that are always slightly reminiscent of polystyrene packing chips.

I’ve clearly learned nothing from my last trip to a Thai restaurant, The Warwick, because again we started with the mixed starters, which were served on a handsome traditional-looking golden platter (I’m not sure if the accompanying paper doily was quite so traditional, but never mind). I know it’s a bit of a cliché but it’s a useful way to assess lots of dishes at once. As assessments go, Thai Corner’s selection weren’t particularly inspiring. The spring roll was bland and the pastry was too thick and heavy; it was improved by dipping it in sweet chilli sauce, but then again what isn’t? The chicken satay was only just hot and only just cooked, with no real texture on the outside and no real flavour. Again, the satay sauce wasn’t bad but there wasn’t a lot of it and it didn’t redeem matters. The fish cakes were better – they’re not usually my cup of tea because I’ve always found the spongey-bouncy texture a little off-putting but these tasted good, with hints of lemongrass and spring onion.

The pick of the bunch was the sesame prawn toast: what’s not to like, really, about a triangle of fried bread (a mainstay of the English breakfast) topped with minced prawns and a crispy layer of sesame seeds? It’s one of those dishes people eat all the time at Chinese and Thai restaurants without really thinking about it but when done well it’s a genuine delight. Thai Corner’s prawn toasts were exactly that – the layer of prawn not too thick, tender and meaty rather than pink and springy. With hindsight I should have just ordered lots of those and forgotten all the other starters but that’s hindsight for you, always taunting you with the perfect meals you didn’t have.

TC - Starters
The mains, fortunately, were better – although still a long way from perfect. The prawn Gang Ped (red curry with bamboo shoots and aubergine) was pleasant enough but not very interesting. The prawns were firm and well cooked, the vegetables were all tasty and not soggy, but the sauce let it down. There was no heat there, no real sign of fish sauce and no complexity in the flavour, so all you really got was the sweetness. Poured onto the coconut rice towards the end it was delicious, but almost more like a dessert than a main. The chilli lamb, on the other hand, was fantastic: a generous helping of thin slices of tender lamb in a delicious sauce which had everything the red curry sauce had been missing – heat from the chilli, zing from the lemongrass and a little bit of oomph from the garlic. The green beans in it had just enough crunch, too, to add the contrast the dish needed. It was by far the best thing I ate all night.

TC - Lamb
On the side we had a couple of bowls of that coconut rice plus a serving of pad broccoli. I’m afraid I insisted on this as I remember the dish being simple steamed broccoli served in a thin, almost fragrant oyster sauce which lifted the broccoli just brilliantly. However, my memory must be a bit out of date as the sauce with this broccoli was pale, watery and insipid and didn’t have anything going for it. This dish – less than half a floret and some underwhelming sauce – felt like a bit of an insult at £5.50 (I suppose when you have fish sauce in a lot of the dishes maybe you’ve given vegetarians up as a lost cause).

Service at Thai Corner merits a mention because it gets the balance just right – friendly, helpful, there when you need them and (I’m not sure how they manage this) almost invisible when you don’t. It’s always been that way in my experience but it’s also particularly noteworthy because, on a Wednesday night, the place was almost completely full: it seems my worries that Thai Corner might be closed next time I wandered past were completely unfounded. This is a restaurant that has a lot of experience at managing a full house, and it shows. Looking at the staff serving the other tables they were efficient without being bustling, and busy without ever seeming out of control.

The total bill for two people – starters, mains, rice, a bottle of wine and that slightly tragic broccoli – came to just under sixty pounds, not including a tip. On this occasion we decided to forego dessert as we were just too full – although the Thai Corner desserts have never appealed to me, being a bunch of frozen offerings that are unlikely to have been made on the premises. It’s almost worth ordering the “Funky Pie”, though, just so you can sing your order to the tune of the 1980 Lipps Inc classic “Funky Town” in a busy restaurant (you can have that tip for free, and apologies in advance if those efficient, quiet, polite serving staff throw you out).

I know comparisons are odious, but it’s impossible to review Thai Corner without comparing it to The Warwick, its closest competitor in Reading. Thai Corner wins on many levels – it’s a lovely room, it’s a great use of space, the buzziness makes it a fun place to eat, the service is impossible to fault and the wine list is attractive. And if that’s all restaurants were about, Thai Corner would get as good a mark as there is. But, as so often, it comes down to the food and Thai Corner’s just isn’t quite as good as its rival all the way at the other end of town. The satay is a little too limp, the spring roll a little too heavy, the curry a little too bland. I liked Thai Corner – just like I always have – and it didn’t let me down, even if it didn’t quite blow me away either. Still, I know they won’t mind: more than ten years on, without any fuss or fanfare, they are still one of the best places to go in Reading for an unspecial occasion. They don’t need my custom, which is wonderful to see, and I admire them for doing what they do so well. And, if I’m being honest, a big part of me would be disappointed if they weren’t still around in another ten years.

Thai Corner – 7.0
47 West Street, RG1 1TZ
0118 9595050

http://www.thaicornerreading.co.uk/

The Moderation

One thing restaurant bloggers often get criticised for is their obsession with the new. You especially see this in London, where new restaurants open all the time. It’s partly because some bloggers get invited to soft openings (a phrase which sounds wrong – wrong on paper, wrong in my head) and partly because it’s too difficult not to in a city where there is always a new trend to embrace or a new cuisine to explore. I can understand how seductive that must be, and here in Reading I can’t help but feel a pang of envy. Reading gets a handful of new restaurants every year. Edible Reading publishes a weekly review, and if I only visited places that had just opened I’d run out of material before you’d finished your leftover turkey and broken your first resolution of 2014.

But also, I don’t believe in it. I like to give places a chance to settle down and bed in, to iron out inconsistencies, for the kitchen and the front of house to gel. I wasn’t always like that – I remember going to Brown’s just after it opened and sitting upstairs, with no natural light while the waiter stumbled over his words and my feet and my forgettable food arrived, was eaten and forgotten. It might be brilliant now, but I’ve never gone back.

On paper, this week’s review should be of the Queen’s Head, the revamped pub on Christchurch Green. It used to be called the Nob, was full of students and was skanky, scruffy and the home to a few of my disgraceful Saturday nights a long time ago. It’s just been done up by Spirit House, who also own the Warwick and the Moderation and have realised that students don’t buy food whereas the people in the gorgeous roads around Christchurch Green (I personally daydream about living on New Road) probably will. I went, and I quite enjoyed my meal, but when push came to shove, I couldn’t review it. So instead, I went to its daddy (or perhaps uncle), the Moderation, this week with a couple of friends.

The Moderation also used to be a grim boozer but you wouldn’t know that now. Refurbished, it’s a handsome building from the outside, slightly incongruous so close to the curry houses, kebab joints, little hotels and undertakers of the Caversham Road (not to mention “Papa Gee”, a strange little Italian restaurant I’ve walked past dozens of times without spotting a single diner). Inside, it was buzzing and all sorts of groups were there, from raucous parties to small gatherings of friends to what looked suspiciously like dates. We were lucky to get a table, which on a school night in a location out of town is no mean feat.

The Moderation’s menu is a funny mix of food. Indonesian, Malaysian and Thai food rubs shoulders with classic pub food, pork belly and black pudding juxtaposed with nasi goreng. I like that range, but it raises a bit of a concern too: could it be equally good at both, or was one what they truly loved and the other something they put on to attract a wider range of punters? I resolved to find out, or get uncomfortably full in the attempt.

We began with the time-honoured sharing platter of mixed starters: I know, so unimaginative. We should have picked three different dishes, and if I went again I would, but the variety was too hard to resist (looking back I’m ashamed to remember that when I reviewed the Warwick, the Moderation’s sister pub, I also went for the mixed starters; I think I’ve let you down.)

It was, in fairness, a good choice and also gave a reasonable idea that the kitchen could handle both east and west. The spring rolls were delicately spiced and eminently dippable, subtly different from those at the Warwick but equally good. The salt and pepper squid, though not quite up to the standard of somewhere like London Street Brasserie, was tasty and avoided the worst fate of all, that of rubberiness (though I’d have liked more crispiness). The prawn crackers were inoffensive and probably not worth the sentence I’ve just given them. The chicken satay was, again, better than the Warwick I thought – a skewer of tender flesh and a gorgeous chunky satay sauce to slather over it.

The most interesting of the starters was the kedgeree arancini – balls of smoked haddock risotto breaded and fried with half a hard-boiled quail’s egg pinned to them, a little dab of curried mayonnaise on top. I loved this; sophisticated party food, and cleverer than all the other staples (no doubt next year Jason Donovan will be wandering past with a tray full of them in the ad breaks on I’m A Celebrity).

Starter

The wine list, though not enormous, had enough to keep us occupied. The sauvignon blanc was decently fresh and easy to drink and the chianti was fruity without being inoffensive and peppery without being brutish. The advantage of having dinner in a pub is that if you go out for a meal with someone who likes beer there’s something for them too; I’m told the Black Sheep was very nice, although my friend had it in a shandy, and even I know that means she probably wasn’t qualified to judge.

Initially I tried to order a 125ml glass of wine, but the waiter turned up with what looked suspiciously like 175ml. I was about to quibble when he said “It’s the same price for 125ml, so I brought you a bigger glass. Leave some if you like”. I liked that; I’ve been to places where they would have brought the smaller glass and trousered the cash, so it was nice to be told. Service was like that in general – a tad brusque (they were busy all night, in their defence) but helpful and prompt. Considering how much they had going on, and the size of some of the other tables, I was impressed to get served at all.

For the mains we decided to give both halves of the Moderation’s menu a chance. In the red corner, representing pub food, was a mutton and onion suet pudding with mashed potato and roast root veg. It was nowhere near perfect, but just close enough to it that I could have wept. The jus that came with it was rich, the soft sticky roasted carrots and parsnips were delicious, and the sauce inside the pudding was a cracking jumble of slightly sweet onion and tangy tomato. But the errors were glaring. The mash had big chunks of what felt like uncooked spud lurking in it. The suet pastry didn’t have the slightly soggy, gooey feel I was looking for and, if anything, was more like a pie in pudding’s clothing.

Most unforgivably, the mutton was undercooked and unappealing – bouncy in places, sinewy in others. None of it fell apart under the fork the way it should have done, and most of it resisted a knife in a way it really shouldn’t have. The moment the first chunk twanged under my molars I knew the rest of the meal would be spent prodding and chopping, when a meal dish this should be about scoffing with carefree, reckless abandon. The gulf between what you think you’re getting and what you end up with has rarely felt so cruel, or so huge.

Mutton

The beef rendang, in the blue corner, suggested that I’d have been better off sticking to the eastern half of the menu. This was a bowl of beef in a rich, spicy coconut sauce with enough of a kick to balance out the creaminess but not so much that your lips tingled. On the side was a dome of white rice and a couple of those decent enough prawn crackers which have now taken up an undeserved sentence and a half of this review. All good, you might think, and it almost was, but for one thing: the beef had the same problem as the mutton. The first few mouthfuls were properly boast-to-your-friends-good, but then followed a piece of beef the consistency of jelly that made me swallow quickly to avoid having to come to terms with the texture. Such a shame that such a great dish can be ruined by only a few chunks of beef, but there you have it: if only the kitchen had been a little pickier about the pieces of meat that went in the dish versus what went in the bin (or cooked it for longer, or both).

Rendang

We skipped dessert and dinner for three people, including three drinks each, came to a fairly reasonable £83.

Another reason to envy bloggers who only go to restaurants just after they’ve opened is that it’s easier to review those places because you have no preconceptions. You can compare them to other, similar restaurants but that’s as far as you can go because ultimately, you’ve only visited that restaurant once. I on the other hand have been to the Moderation many times before and always really enjoyed it. And I so wanted them to have a good night the night I visited on duty, because what they do in Reading isn’t quite like any other independent and it’s admirable that they are expanding, albeit slowly, and rolling out a set of attractive pubs across Reading where you can drink nice wine or (I’m told) good beer and eat interesting, inexpensive food.

I want to rate them well for that, and for being brave enough to try something different, and I’d like people to go there and order the nasi goreng, which I happen to know they do really well. But, on another level, I can only review the meal I had on the night I went and, on that basis, it just wasn’t up to scratch. So it gets the rating it gets, and a suggestion from me to approach with caution. I know that might seem a bit harsh, but that’s the way the meat bounces.

The Moderation – 6.6
213 Caversham Road, Reading, RG1 8BB
0118 3750767

http://www.spirit-house.co.uk/moderation/