Oishi

I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten somewhere quite as apologetic as Oishi, the new Japanese restaurant on the Oxford Road. I turned up on a Wednesday evening to find the place completely empty; I asked the waitress whether it was okay to have a table for two, and she mumbled something about how most people come in to get takeaway, or phone up for delivery. That didn’t feel like either a yes or no, but then she smiled, said “yes, sit anywhere” and gestured around her. It’s a Spartan room, but tasteful and nicely kitted out, and I took a table in the window, reasoning that if people walked past at least they’d know somebody was eating there and maybe they’d come in too.

There was further confusion when the menus were handed out. There’s no way of getting round this: they were takeaway menus, proudly advising that you could have free delivery within a three mile radius if you spent fifteen pounds (which, incidentally, is pretty reasonable). Not just takeaway menus, but takeaway menus for Oishi’s branch in Brentford: the telephone number had been scrubbed out and a Reading number written underneath it in scratchy blue biro. On the plus side, at least we weren’t in Brentford.

“Would you like a drink?” said the waitress.

“Do you have a drinks list?”

There was a pause, long enough for me to realise that there was no more a drinks list than there was a menu.

“We don’t serve alcohol.”

Well, I’ve had more promising starts to a meal out, I said to myself.

Anyway, that’s getting ahead of ourselves. First, the context: I’d wanted to visit Oishi ever since it opened in August. Reading has long needed a Japanese restaurant that could rival the likes of Misugo in Windsor or Kyoto Kitchen in Winchester, both of which are terrific. I’m also a fan of Oxford’s Taberu, and when they announced that they were opening a second branch down the Oxford Road I thought my prayers had been answered.

At first things went well: Taberu did the place up (previously the first home of sadly departed and much mourned Indian restaurant Bhoj – there was a lot of burnt orange to paint over) and began serving takeaway with the promise that they’d open as a proper eat-in restaurant later on. Then, somewhere along the line, it all went awry: opening as a full restaurant never happened, then Taberu closed completely and then, after much speculation, it reopened as Oishi. Oh well, at least they didn’t have to redecorate.

I especially wanted to try Oishi because I recently ordered food from Sen Sushi, Reading’s other Japanese restaurant at the opposite end of the 17 bus route, and I’d been so disappointed. Having sushi delivered on a Friday night felt like a massive treat, but what turned up was mediocre: oddly wan salmon sashimi, sinewy, badly-cut tuna sashimi, yakitori chicken skewers with a bonus knot of gristle. I wanted to support small independent businesses, but this wasn’t as good as Yo! Sushi.

My dining companion this week was my friend Jerry. Now, Jerry is a very dangerous man to go out with on a school night. He likes a drink, but he’s retired and consequently he never, ever has to get up for work the next day: many’s the time I’ve forgotten this fact and meandered home from Jerry’s flat of an evening, rather too much wine to the good, only to face a painful awakening the following morning (and a message from Jerry, fresh as a daisy, saying what a lovely evening it was). More significantly, and uniquely among people who have accompanied me on reviews, Jerry doesn’t actually read the blog, so I can say what I like about him without fear of reprisal: believe me, the temptation to claim that he sports a mohawk is considerable.

Not only that, but Jerry told me in the run up to our meal that he’d never had Japanese food before. Looking through the menu, I found myself wondering what the least intimidating dishes might be for a newcomer. The usual suspects are all present and correct – a small selection of sashimi, some sushi (maki, uramaki and hand rolls), some hot starters and a range of hot main courses – rice dishes, noodle dishes and ramen, mostly. In the end I decided to go for a sort of greatest hits: I could try and pretend this was to fully test the range of the menu, or to give Jerry the best possible introduction to Japanese food, but by now you’ve probably figured out that it was more to do with greed and hunger.

“Have you really never eaten Japanese food?”

“No, I haven’t! The closest I’ve ever got is Wagamama.”

Jerry’s education began with the classics. I have a real weakness for soft shell crab, so I ordered some soft shell crab uramaki (“I was going to put in a request for those!” he said excitedly) and they were one of the first dishes to turn up. The presentation was endearingly amateurish – I’m used to slightly more precision and focus on clean lines – but they looked good, coated in bright orange tobiko (fish roe, the wonderful stuff that pops under your teeth), plonked on a board with a small pile of ginger in one corner and a dab of wasabi in the other. They were nicely rolled with no gaps or ragged edges, and the addition of a little cucumber added a nice textural crunch. If I had a criticism it was about size (don’t let anybody ever tell you it’s not important) – I’m used to having the same dish at Misugo where it feels like a sea monster is trying to escape from the rice, whereas these were somewhat diddy by comparison. At eight pounds it was the single most expensive dish we had, and probably not quite worth that.

I also ordered tempura prawns, mainly to ease the culture shock for Jerry: most people have eaten something like this at some point in their lives, after all. They never amaze and they rarely disappoint, but actually I was quietly impressed by Oishi’s rendition. Often menus claim that it’s tempura batter but what you get is stodgy, or greasy, or you take one bite and the rest of the batter falls off. These were very nicely done indeed – light, delicate and lacking in oil. They came with a pretty anonymous dipping sauce.

“It’s all very clean-tasting, isn’t it?” said Jerry. By Jove, I thought, he’s got it.

Sashimi came next: a big test for me, especially after such an iffy experience at Sen Sushi. Oishi has a limited sashimi selection – no sea bass or mackerel here – so again I opted for the reference dishes, in this case tuna and salmon. The slices were beautifully marbled, nicely sized and well-cut, with beautiful colour to them, but again the presentation was a tad haphazard. There was no daikon and the fish was fanned out on what looked like seaweed, which slightly affected the flavour of the pieces at the bottom.

That was a pity, because otherwise the sashimi was quite beautiful. I know some people are funny about raw fish, but for me there’s something magical about salmon sashimi in particular – the almost glossy texture, the way it manages to be both oily and pure all at once. The tuna was just as good – firm, meaty and expertly cut, everything as it should be. I dipped mine lightly in soy sauce and rhapsodised, while Jerry – showing a leaning toward the ascetic that was news to me – ate his au naturel. Oh, and there were two random and completely pointless slices of lemon: if you need these, you probably shouldn’t be eating sashimi, and I imagine they’d give purists conniptions.

By this point, I was starting to feel like things might turn out rather nicely, although I was also increasingly aware that this might have been the longest I’d ever been in Jerry’s company without imbibing alcohol of some description. Not that it seemed to deter him in the slightest as he launched into a long and very entertaining story about going to a wedding in North Devon only to meet the village character, a lady of advanced years who had booted out her husband because of his failure to perform, exhausted the limited pool of locals via Tinder and ended up working in a massage parlour because she’d said, he told me, “I might as well get paid for it”. Where did he find these people? I wondered.

Jerry concluded his tale just as our – presumably slightly aghast – waitress turned up with the next dish, duck gyoza with a little dish of hoi sin for dipping. Now, these are a stable at the likes of Yo! Sushi and Wagamama, and Oishi’s were fairly similar to the gyoza you can get at those places, but even then there were little differences – some finely chopped cucumber, or possibly spring onion, in the filling just adding another dimension. Nice work.

Finally, what I suppose you’d class as our main courses arrived. I’d given Jerry first choice, after talking him through the options, and he’d gone for chicken katsu curry. “It’s sort of breadcrumbed chicken breast and rice and a curry sauce, but it’s not a really hot spicy sauce.” I said. “It’s kind of mild and creamy, you know, like a chip shop curry sauce.” I think that latter reference is what sealed it, and when it was placed in front of Jerry I realised I had inadvertently described it perfectly. It was indeed some rice, some breaded chicken and some curry sauce, all separate, practically deconstructed you could say. I used to have a friend called Fiona who had to eat every component of her meal separately – first the potatoes, then the veg, then the meat, never crossing the gastronomic streams (well, it takes all sorts). All I can say is that Fiona would have loved Oishi’s chicken katsu curry, although I wasn’t so sure about the self-assembly aspect myself.

None the less, as before, Oishi may not have got the presentation right but the content was very good indeed. The chicken was just right – a brilliant juxtaposition of crispy and tender – and although the breadcrumbs mightn’t have been panko it was far too tasty for me to care. The sauce was sweetly mild but a very long way from inoffensive, and the rice was, well, rice. I personally would have poured the sauce over the rice and chicken and had at it, but Jerry ended up dipping the chicken and forkfuls of the rice into the sauce like some kind of exotic fondue; I found it far too endearing to correct him. Oh, there was also some salad but I don’t think Jerry touched it. I kind of found that endearing too.

My main course was teriyaki chicken, and I so enjoyed it. It was a very generous portion of chicken thigh in a bowl, on top of a bed of plain rice and at first I had reservations because it looked perfectly sticky but I thought everything underneath would be dry. How wrong I was: all the teriyaki sauce had percolated through the grains of rice, leaving a glorious sweet reservoir at the bottom that simply made everything delicious. Not only that, but the dish had plenty of other stuff going on – the crunch of beansprouts, carrots and red onion, every mouthful perfect in contrasts of flavour and texture. And the chicken, although I might have liked it absolutely piping hot, was beautifully cooked. This dish was on the menu at six pounds fifty and I couldn’t believe what superb value it was – a feeling that was only marginally dented by being charged seven pounds fifty for it when the bill arrived.

Service was truly lovely thoughout – the lady who served us was so friendly and polite (after the baffled and diffident start) that it truly saddened me that there were no other customers eating in the night that we went. There was a regular stream of deliveries going out the door, and a couple turned up to pick some food up towards the end of our visit, but even so it felt forlorn to be the only people sitting there enjoying such good food. “We did have some tables in before you arrived”, the waitress told us and I fervently hoped that was the case.

Everything we ate that night, along with a Diet Coke (for Jerry: what do you take me for?) and a pomegranate green tea (for me: that’s what you should take me for) came to fifty pounds, not including tip. None of the dishes we had cost more than eight pounds and many – the katsu, the teriyaki chicken, both sets of sashimi – felt like impressive value. We left with warm – if sober – goodbyes and an steadfast conviction that we’d be back before long, which is exactly how you want to feel at the end of a trip to a restaurant.

“Wasn’t it lovely?” said Jerry, clearly a convert to Japanese food.

“It really was. Now shall we have a debrief at the Nag’s?”

“Absolutely!”

Independent restaurants, in my experience, rarely get everything right on day one, week one, or month one. Very few spring forth fully-formed and fully-realised in the way that, say, Bakery House or Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen did. They make mistakes, they learn, they correct. Early adopters are helping with the beta testing, and it’s a high wire for small restaurants: do you open before you’re totally prepared, or do you wait until everything is perfect? Taberu waited until it was ready for eat in customers which never came, and then it closed. Oishi has done it the other way round: it’s serving customers without necessarily being confident about how to do it.

And this is where we come in. Because when places like Oishi open, what they really need is customers. Not just any punters, but customers who are prepared to overlook the glitches, the lack of booze, the slightly scruffy presentation and the rather apologetic approach. But look at what you get in return: beautifully cut, delicious sashimi. Tender chicken thighs in sweet sticky sauce with the freshness of finely cut carrots. Spot on katsu curry. But more than that, you get the knowledge that you’re doing your bit, helping that restaurant to grow and evolve, to serve a community and improve a town. I think that’s a pretty good deal: but I would, because I like to think that I’m that kind of customer. I reckon some of you might be, too.


Oishi – 8.0

314 Oxford Road, RG30 1AD
0118 9599991

https://www.oishi-reading.co.uk/

Advertisements

Soju

One question I’m often asked is: why are your reviews so bloody long?

Well, it’s a reasonable observation. When I wrote a piece for Claire Slobodian, editrix of Explore Reading and the town’s Queen Of All Media, she gave me a word count of 800 words and expressed some scepticism about whether I’d be able to stick to it. “You normally haven’t even got round to talking about the food in one of your reviews by then” she said. A fair cop, I suppose: there’s always something to be said first about the context. There’s scene-setting to do, not to mention introducing the person you’re going to dinner with. And if all else fails, I can always get on my well-worn soapbox and pontificate about Reading (although not Caversham: heaven knows I’ve learned that lesson). The first eight hundred words fly by – to write, anyway, if not necessarily to read.

The problem is that, this week, that’s harder to do than usual. After all, Soju isn’t Reading’s only Korean restaurant. It’s not even the first: Gooi Nara up on Whitley Street opened before Soju (and I had a lovely time when I went there). It’s not necessarily that unique within the gastronomic Bond villain lair that is Atlantis Village – or whatever it’s called at the time of writing – because small chain Pho opened just across the way offering Vietnamese food (and I had an okay time when I went there). So where’s the angle? There probably isn’t one, but on the other hand Soju is a genuinely independent restaurant in a prime central spot in town, and it’s traded for a while without coming a cropper. That has to be worth a visit, I thought.

I went with Zoë, who started out as a Twitter acquaintance before becoming a very good friend. Was there an angle there? Well, no: Zoë knows even more about beer than my beer friend Tim does, so really I should have taken her to Bierhaus. But neither of us really fancied schnitzel and knuckles, so we turned up to Soju on a weekday evening not knowing quite what to expect and ready to take our chances. “I’ve gone for lunch a few times and they catered a work event for me recently, will that do?” said Zoë. Probably not, I decided. So there you go – no real angle, limited preamble. Maybe I’d just have to talk about the food the way proper restaurant reviewers do.

The room, not to put too fine a point on it, was a big black box. Not in a sleek sophisticated way, but in a way that suggested it was only a lick of paint away from being a big white box. Despite the sturdy tables, each with a barbecue hot plate in the middle, and the decent-looking chairs, it felt more like a canteen than a restaurant: no soft furnishings, nothing on the walls, no whistles and bells. You could see the pass and the kitchen beyond but that back wall looked messy and cluttered.

Despite that, it was packed when we turned up at about eight o’clock. The majority of the tables were occupied, with a long table for over a dozen people right next to us, a big family function with several generations dipping in to hot pots and barbecued meats. Nearly all the other diners were either Korean or Chinese, as far as I could tell. Our table had a gadget on it with a button you pressed when you were ready to order, which I assume worked although I was never entirely sure one way or the other.

The menu was divided up into starters and mains with separate sections for hot pot and Korean barbecue. We fancied trying a bit of everything, so when our waitress came over we ordered a couple of appetisers, then some barbecue and finally a couple of rice dishes. We started drinking a Hite – Korean lager, which I found pleasant and crisp, if a tad featureless – and waited for the food to arrive.

“This isn’t bad. It tastes like a Radler, or a little like a white beer like Hoegaarden” said Zoë. I nodded sagely as if I knew what she was talking about, even though all I remember about Hoegaarden is that they used to serve it in Bar Casa, where Chennai Dosa is now, and that every time I drank it I woke up the next morning feeling like I’d been trepanned with a rusty corkscrew.

The first dish to arrive knocked it out of the park so comprehensively that I wondered whether anything would be able to match it. Dak-gang jeong, or fried chicken, was properly magnificent – tender chicken (thigh, I think), in a glorious batter and coated in a hot, sour, sticky, punchy sauce and scattered with sesame seeds. We picked away at it with our metal chopsticks, quite unable to believe our luck. First there was silence, then there were big grins and then came the superlatives.

“That might be the best fried chicken I’ve ever had – better than any Cantonese stuff” said Zoë. Coming from someone who, like me, ate at Woodley’s Hong Kong Garden a lot as a child, this compliment carried no little weight, but I think she was probably right.

“I even prefer it to KFC” I said, which was also quite the compliment (don’t judge). But not only that, it was finer than the boneless chilli chicken at Namaste Kitchen, or the tori kara age at Misugo. Better still, it improved as the meal went on and the pieces we hadn’t yet got round to cooled slightly. The remaining sauce on the plate was greedily used as a dip with anything else that came to hand. The following day, Zoë and I exchanged messages admitting that we were both daydreaming about the chicken, and it was nice to know it wasn’t just me.

The kimchee pancake was less exciting. I’d expected good things based on other reviews I’d seen but it was just stodgy and carby, with barely a hint of kimchee at all. That might have been because I ate it after the chicken by which point my taste buds had been slightly numbed, but I still expected more. It was pleasant enough, though, dipped in the sweet soy that they brought with it.

This was the point in the meal where things started to go wrong in terms of timing. I had deliberately ordered in such a way to suggest that we’d like the starters first, then the barbecue and then the mains, but in no time at all literally everything else we had ordered was brought to our table, with no rhyme or reason. This was odd in plenty of ways – firstly because it meant that there was an awful lot of food sitting in front of you with no structure, but secondly because there was no room to switch on the hot plate, which made me wonder why they’d brought the barbecued meat at all (not that we were given any advice on how to start up the barbecue or where to put the glass cover, for that matter).

Fortunately, the food was really quite something. Oh-jing-uh bok-geum, or squid in spicy sauce, was a beautiful dish, if hard to describe. The squid was tender, but what made it was the sauce, rich with garlic and chilli and also something which might have been fish sauce. It was savoury without any hint of sweetness, and somehow more interesting than any Indian, Thai or even Vietnamese dishes I’d had. And it had some heat, but it was the kind of clever heat you didn’t mind. My only frustration was that serving the dish up spread out on a low flat plate meant that it went cold quicker than I’d have liked, and that it was difficult to get all the sauce off and mix it with the plain white rice. I waxed lyrical to Zoë that rice and sauce was always the best bit of dishes like this, even though I always say that.

The chicken dolsot bibimbap, served in a hot stone bowl, was almost as good. It’s one of those dishes you assemble when it turns up, stirring the bright orange egg yolk in and letting it continue to cook in the bowl. I wasn’t sure there was enough heat in the bowl – I did manage to burn my thumb on it like the klutz I am, but there was no sizzle and none of the beautiful crispy scraped bits of rice towards the end that I associate with this dish. I probably would have liked a bit more chicken in it, too, but even so it was a gorgeous, understated thing. The hot sauce it came with added pungency and punch (and was also good with the kimchee pancake dipped in it) but the really impressive thing was how subtly it all came together, the egg binding it without being cloying and the ribbons of courgette studded through it cooling things down beautifully without being bland.

“This beer goes so well with all this” said Zoë, “You start out thinking it’s too bland but it cleans the palate so well between mouthfuls.” She was right, so we ordered another bottle each and asked the waitress ever so nicely if she’d turn our hot plate on after clearing our empty dishes away. Not the biggest issue in the world, but odd that a restaurant which gives you a whizzy gadget to summon a member of staff to your table didn’t show quite as much sophistication about when the food arrives.

We’d only gone for one Korean barbecue dish, the pyeon gal-bi, boneless short rib marinated in sweet soy sauce. This came in long sections with some mushrooms and what I imagine was sweet potato, along with some tongs to turn it on the grill and some scissors – on the blunt side, as it turned out – to cut it into long strips. We also ordered some ssam, essentially lettuce leaves to wrap the beef in before eating, along with some very thick batons of cucumber and carrot and some cloves of garlic, which we immediately lobbed on the hot plate. I wasn’t convinced by the ssam – a lot of it was stuff I didn’t want, and at five pounds fifty it felt like a bit much for what was fundamentally a naked salad.

On the grill, of course, the magic took effect and things were a very different matter. The beef was sweet and soft, there was a reasonable amount of it and it was properly delicious wrapped in the lettuce leaves and dipped eagerly in the barbecue sauce and seasoned sesame oil.

“It would be good to come back with a big group of people and properly attack the barbecue menu” I said, mindful of how much fun the long table next to us seemed to be having.

“Definitely” said Zoë, and I could already see that, like me, she was mentally assembling a guest list.

There was no dessert menu that I could see, and I was slightly too full and not quite persuasive enough to talk Zoë into my preferred dessert option, namely more fried chicken. So we finished our beers and settled up, replete and happy with our choices. Dinner came to sixty-four pounds, not including tip, which I thought pretty reasonable considering how very enjoyable the meal had been. We did tip, of course, because things have to be exceptionally bad before I do that, but service was probably best described as pleasantly distant.

Sitting at the table, waiting for our bill to arrive, we compared notes on the rating and I was pleased to see that we really weren’t very far apart: Zoë, by contrast, was positively relieved. The problem with having no real angle for this review is that the rating might take a lot of you by surprise but, really, I liked Soju an awful lot. It’s far from perfect – our food should have been staggered better, some of the pricing is a little erratic and some of the plating could be better done. And it’s in Atlantis Village, for goodness sake, which is right up there with the Oracle in terms of being the bad guys (how Dolce Vita has survived in that cut throat hotbed of capitalism I’ll never know).

But all that aside, Soju was busy and bustling, it’s properly truly independent and somehow resolutely uncommercial, despite the snazzy website and the attempt to impose sophistication mainly through the liberal application of black paint (the Rolling Stones principle, as it were). And I had a fantastic night, and ate a few dishes unlike anything else I’d had in Reading. And the fried chicken. And the fried chicken. So no clever angle this week, just a surprisingly good meal somewhere I’d like to go again. Maybe I did finally manage to just talk about the food, the way proper reviewers do. Also, did I mention the fried chicken?

Soju – 8.1
9-11 Kings Walk, RG1 2HG
0118 3348162

https://www.thesoju.co.uk/

Namaste Kitchen

At the end of April 2018 one of Namaste Kitchen’s owners (who ran the front of house) and the chef left the business by mutual consent. The pub has already revised the menu, so some of the items I ordered below are not available. Moreover, there’s been an increase in prices across the board. I’ve left this review up for posterity, but it no longer accurately reflects the experience you’d have at Namaste Kitchen. I’ll consider re-reviewing the restaurant in due course.

I was at a wedding a couple of weeks ago: it’s the season for them, don’t you know. As the evening started to turn sharp and cold I was under a blanket, under a marquee, sipping my amaretto and Coke – don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it – and chatting to my fellow guests when one of them recommended that I try out Namaste Kitchen, the Nepalese restaurant operating out of the Hook and Tackle in Katesgrove. Funny that, I told him, I happen to be having dinner there next week: this visit was already planned by then.

“It’s really good, we went there the other week. What did we like?” he said, asking his partner across the table.

“The momos.” came the reply.

“Is there anything else I should definitely order?”

“All of it.” Helpful, I thought, although it did suggest you couldn’t go far wrong. Swings and roundabouts.

“And is it busy there?”

“It’s always full of Nepalese people but no, there’s usually plenty of room. I think lots of people don’t know it’s there.”

Just my kind of restaurant, the holy grail: somewhere independent, brilliant but unknown. Somewhere, much like Reading, deserving of wider recognition. By the end of the conversation, I was thoroughly looking forward to my visit and pleased with the odd coincidences which seem to abound in Reading. So many coincidences, in fact: I hopped in my taxi having had a chat with a stranger about a mutual acquaintance (“you know Matt? Do you get a word in edgeways?”), received a recommendation to check out local eleven-piece country band The Rumpo Kidz – how can you not like a band named after Sid James’ character in Carry On Cowboy? – and been advised that I really ought to attend the next Sunday Assembly.

I went to Namaste Kitchen with Mike, my oldest friend and one of the only people from school I still speak to. We’ve been friends for over thirty years, since the good old days growing up on the same suburban Woodley street, and nowadays he isn’t in the country often as he spends most of his summers running coach tours across Europe. He jumped at the chance of coming out on duty with me, and I figured if nothing else we could catch up on all the people from school I had seen at the wedding (was it that chap that bullied us or was it his older brother? The mind plays tricks). The timing was perfect: I figured it was in the stars.

The Hook and Tackle is a pub you could easily describe as having a chequered history. My pub expert friend reliably informed me that it opened in December 2015 and then closed in July last year. It reopened a month later, closed again in October and finally reopened this January: basically, it’s more open and shut than the case against Oscar Pistorius. It’s a handsome looking pub from the outside, a fetching shade of something rather Farrow & Ball, looking a tad incongruous at the bottom of Katesgrove, a stone’s throw from the IDR.

Inside, it was rather a game of two halves. On one side (the left as we went in), it looked more like a conventional dining room with high-backed chairs and menus at every table. On the right, it was more like a pub with round tables ringed with low tub chairs. A long bar connected the two. I knew that the dining room would be more conducive to eating but it was largely empty and much darker, so Mike and I grabbed a pint and sat in the window, enjoying the last of the summer sunshine. Besides, I figured my photos would come out better.

I half expected to order at the bar, so I was delighted when someone came to take our order. The menu was a big and slightly confusing one – some things were described as appetisers, some as starters and some were just listed without comment. I figured it was best to just order a whole bunch of small plates and share, so that’s what we did (and what I’d recommend, unless you think you’re intrepid enough to eat a number of small plates on your own, in which case you have my blessing – and a certain degree of admiration). There were a couple of set menu options for people who get especially territorial about food, although in my experience places like Namaste Kitchen aren’t necessarily for them.

Our waiter was lovely and charming from start to finish, and we got a pretty good idea that we’d be well looked after right from the beginning. I asked him if there was anything he’d particularly recommend and he smiled and said “all of it”, but this wasn’t a slack-jawed response of indifference from somebody who knew nothing about the food, more the beatific confidence of a person who absolutely knows that all the dishes are terrific (of course, I didn’t fully realise that until later, so let’s not jump the gun). I got some useful advice from him when we couldn’t decide which of two dishes to order, and he asked what experience I had of Nepalese food.

“I’ve been to Sapana, but I can see dishes on your menu that aren’t at Sapana. Are you quite different?”

“We are better than Sapana.” That smile again.

I didn’t have to wait long to realise that he wasn’t pulling my leg. From this point onwards, the meal was like a fireworks display – little dish after little dish came out, there were culinary explosions, we oohed and aahed and just as the last flickering lights died away, another dish took its place. First up, probably the most basic and complex dishes we were to eat. Aloo jeera looked pretty prosaic – cubes of potato scattered with cumin – but the taste was extraordinary, the potatoes rich with ghee, with all the taste of perfectly fried potatoes but with a softer, subtler texture. We grabbed cocktail sticks and speared and smiled, speared and smiled.

Next to it, the boneless chilli chicken was simply magnificent. Tender chicken came smothered in a hot, sour, complex sauce which, momentarily, rendered both of us speechless. It wasn’t crunchy, but it was coated – difficult to describe but impossible not to enjoy. We both knew better than to eat the chillies in the dish, lurking disguised as narrow green beans, but we fought over the onion, cooked until sweet and soft and just as worth devouring as the chicken. At this stage it crossed my mind that I, and they, might have peaked too soon. It turns out that I was worrying needlessly.

More was to come. Chicken bara was, according to the menu, a shallow fried patty made of ground black lentils stuffed with chicken. What came was almost like a fluffy savoury crepe, or a big flat veggie burger, or a huge round falafel or, most likely, something which completely defeats my powers of description but which I adored. I wasn’t sure it was stuffed with chicken except in the metaphorical sense that there was plenty of it: spiced, salty, minced chicken all over the top of it. It almost had the texture of a tortilla (to further mix culinary metaphors) and it was phenomenal with or without the relatively mild spiced dip served with it. “That was the biggest surprise of the meal for me” Mike said later, and I couldn’t but agree.

Paneer pakora was, by those standards, pretty straightforward – firm, subtle cubes of cheese covered in spiced batter and fried. But even here, when things are simple, the execution was superb. The whole thing was light, not heavy and leaden. The coating stuck to the cheese and the whole thing was beautifully matched with a sharper, spicier dipping sauce. My reference dish for paneer has long been Bhel Puri House’s chilli paneer, and – this is high praise – I almost liked this as much.

We ordered another couple of drinks – Cobra for Mike, Sharp’s Orchard for me (I’ve not had it before, but we can safely add it to the long list of Fizzy Cold Ciders I Like Which Are Not Strongbow) and then the momo arrived. The options here are steamed or fried rather than pan fried (I’ve since discovered that you can have them pan fried – or kothey – and very good they are too – ER), and the fried mutton momo that turned up looked gorgeous – golden, irregular, piping hot. The rough texture on the outside made me wonder if they’d been dusted with something, and cutting one open it was full of tender strands of mutton with a brilliant, deep flavour. I think it came with the same dipping sauce as the paneer, although I couldn’t say for certain. What I do know is that by the end of all this I was dabbing my nose in a distinctly undignified manner.

Every time the waiter took some plates away and asked how the food was, Mike and I overflowed with superlatives. He always asked if we meant it as if surprised and I think that must have been a reflex rather than an affectation, because he knew the food was good. I think maybe he was surprised that we knew it was good, too. Perhaps most of their clientele is from Reading’s Nepalese community: if so, they really are in on quite an impressive secret. After our last plate was cleared, we got to talking about the other dishes on the menu – unsurprisingly, because Mike and I had been planning our respective return visits to Namaste Kitchen since about halfway through our first set of dishes.

“I was very tempted to have the pangra (gizzard)” I said, “But last time I had it at Sapana Home it was really bouncy and not very unpleasant.”

“Ours isn’t like that. I’ll bring you out a small plate, and you can see what I mean.”

I am absolutely convinced that he had no idea we were there to review the place, and that he would have done the same for anyone. I’m also absolutely convinced that Namaste Kitchen doesn’t really know what a small plate is, because we got a hefty portion of gizzards – again, coated in something delicious, savoury and impossible to pinpoint and cooked until they became a chewy delight. And I use the word chewy after some consideration – they weren’t falling-apart tender, and they weren’t bouncily tough, but they had just enough texture and fight without having too much. They were almost like the chicken equivalent of pork scratchings and Mike and I, who thought we had eaten to a standstill, somehow found room for every last one.

“Each one tastes slightly different” said Mike, in raptures. “It’s like every mouthful has a different pocket of flavour.”

Mike can be a man of few words, but Namaste Kitchen brought out the poet in him. Actually, it brought out something even more dangerous: the restaurant reviewer.

The pangra was on the house, but the rest of our meal – five dishes, three and a half pints – came to just under forty pounds, not including tip. The most expensive dish we had, the chilli chicken, was seven pounds. All this took place in a pub many people don’t know about, a three minute walk from Reading’s branch of Wagamama where you can eat far less food for much more money without ever once shaking your head, gasping or feeling a milligram of civic pride.

At the risk of repetition, restaurants like Namaste Kitchen are why I do this. Places that should be full every night, doing something interesting and different, adding something to the cultural fabric of this town. I always hope that the next restaurant I go into will turn out to be the next Papa Gee, the next I Love Paella, the next Perry’s. For the rest of this year, I will be hoping to discover the next Namaste Kitchen, and it will make the comedown after a dispiriting meal even bigger knowing that I could have been sitting in the window of the Hook and Tackle reacquainting myself with that chicken bara.

Put it this way – I’ve been going to Sapana Home for years. I’ve eaten their momo many times. They won my Restaurant Of The Year for 2016, and right now all I can think to say to Sapana Home is: you’re no Namaste Kitchen. So I hope enough of you go there that the Hook And Tackle isn’t under new ownership again this year, because Reading would be a poorer place if you couldn’t eat this food.

I would end it there, but here’s a short postscript, because I did something I never, ever do. Two days later, after a few drinks in the Allied, I summoned my friend Tim and we headed to the edge of the Oracle, under the IDR and crossed the border into Katesgrove. I told myself I wanted to show off my new find to Tim, but I think I knew in the back of my mind that I just wanted to check that my senses hadn’t deceived me. I needed to be sure that it wasn’t a mirage. So we went, we sat in the dining room and we ordered almost everything I’d eaten the first time I went there.

You can all relax: it wasn’t a mirage.

Namaste Kitchen – 8.4
16 Katesgrove Lane, RG1 2ND
0118 9594617

https://www.facebook.com/Namastekitchenhookntacklereading/

I Love Paella at The Horn

I Love Paella moved from The Horn to The Fisherman’s Cottage in November 2016, and left the Fisherman’s Cottage in July 2018. I’ve left this review up for posterity.

My restaurant of the year last year wasn’t a gorgeous old country pub, or a sleek brasserie or some Michelin starred faff factory. No, it was one man and his paella pan, operating out of the Oxford Road branch of Workhouse Coffee weekends and some nights, offering a small but perfectly formed range of dishes – empanada, tortilla, salads, seafood paella – in a little, informal space. You could take your own bottle, you could sit up at the high central bar gassing with your friends, you could order bits and bobs until you were replete and when you went up to settle the bill it was always a fraction of what you expected to pay. I loved it, and when I gave it my award I said “It’s a proper success story, and I sense that there’s still more to come.”

Well, it wouldn’t be the first time that a rave review from me looked like something of a kiss of death, and so it came to pass that early in the New Year I started getting reports that people tried to go to I Love Paella to find the windows ominously unlit. I myself trekked down the Oxford Road to take a friend there for the first time only to have my worst suspicions confirmed. No sign of life, the shutters down. Soon after, I Love Paella announced that it was leaving Workhouse Coffee with further announcements to follow. I know it’s not all about me, honestly I do, but I couldn’t help thinking The curse of Edible Reading strikes again.

Fast forward to March, and it turned out that my fears were unfounded. In a surprising announcement, I Love Paella confirmed that it would be taking up residence in The Horn, the Castle Street pub which had previously never really featured on my to do list of Reading’s nightspots. Photos appeared on Twitter of a spick and span new kitchen and huge new paella pans, menus began to appear online and a launch date was announced.

I went shortly after it opened but I played it safe, ordering the things I would have ordered in the old premises. I had a lovely meal – although everything came out very slowly – but I knew that it was too soon and that I had to give them time to settle in. So I’ve been watching all the plaudits on Twitter, biding my time and finally, nearly two months on, I made my way there to try the place out properly. I felt a bit nervous, to be honest: would my favourite restaurant be all grown up in its new home, or would it have overextended itself?

I’m a restaurant reviewer, not a pub reviewer, so I’ll leave the detailed descriptions of The Horn to others. Friends who have been have always expressed vague suspicion, but all I can say is that I thought it looked like quite a nice boozer. The room on the left is lighter, with tall tables and stools and windows all along one wall. On the right is a more traditional room with a couple of biggish tables, and up a step is a smaller room with a few little tables. I wouldn’t have had a problem eating at any of them, although the table I initially sat at did have that disconcertingly sticky varnish I always fear could remove multiple layers of skin in one go. I’ve been told before that it’s a pub for sports fans, and there were a couple of screens showing a possibly (though how would I know?) crucial match between some overpaid men in red and overpaid men in blue, but on a Wednesday night it was largely empty.

The menu is much wider than the one ILP used to offer at Workhouse Coffee and I was determined to order lots of the new dishes to see whether they were truly taking advantage of the improved kitchen facilities. This meant passing up the empanadas, although never without regret, and – particularly disappointing, this – the grilled goat’s cheese with tomato jam from the peerless Caversham Jam Lady (her lemon curd rocks my world, since you asked). So the starters I chose had a double burden to bear: they had to be good, and they had to be better than my happy memories of meals from 2015. Could they pull it off?

In a word, yes. Chicken bravas was the most vanilla of them but still thoroughly successful. Beautiful cubes of fried potato came topped with a piquant bravas sauce and a healthy dollop of pungent aioli, the whole thing pimped with crisp shards of chicken thigh (the menu says there’s rosemary in there, but if there was I didn’t taste it). A lovely, starchy, spicy start to the meal – although if I had one criticism I thought it could have done with a little more bravas sauce. There was still a pitched battle over the last few pieces of chicken, though, and nothing was left.

ILPBravas

If the chicken bravas was good, the other two starters were great. Croquetas are exactly the sort of thing I always wanted to see ILP doing and these were as good as any I’ve had in Spain or indeed anywhere else in the UK. Beautifully presented – I know people have a bit of a beef with food on slate but it’s never bothered me – these were two gorgeous crunchy shells full of a perfect béchamel with Roquefort (always very popular in Spain for some reason). Some blue cheese dishes never really get started, others beat you over the head with salt, but this managed to steer the perfect course between those two extremes. I wish I’d ordered a whole portion to myself. I’ve had sidra and cabrales in Madrid, experienced that perfect contrast between crisp fresh apple and stinky, agricultural cheese, and I never thought I’d have an equally joyous experience on a street corner in central Reading with a perfect croqueta and a bottle of Bulmers. Life can be full of wonderful, random surprises.

ILPCroquetas

Last but not least, an innovative starter that combined two of my very favourite things, and a dish so popular that the bar staff had to check after I ordered it that they weren’t sold out. Salt cod churros sounded so fantastic on paper that I simply had to know what a fusion of those two things would look and taste like. The answer is that they look a bit like churros but taste like the best fish fingers in Christendom. I have a huge soft spot for salt cod and again, there was lots in these – no excessive padding out with pointless potato – but also little green spikes of chive in the mix. There was more of the aioli, but somehow it tasted a little different with the churros. Almost like tartare sauce, although I think that was probably a culinary trick of the light.

ILPChurros

You order and pay at the bar, and our dishes were brought out one after another in a way that was very well paced. I’m sure it helps that I think we were the only customers eating in the pub that night, so I can’t guarantee how they will manage in the busier times they deserve, but it does mean I get to say lots of nice things about the service which was a pleasure from start to finish. The bar staff were lovely and friendly, they chatted as they brought things out, they took compliments back to the kitchen (pretty much every time we finished a dish, to be honest) and they seemed almost to glow with pride at the food being served up in their pub. Quite right, too.

I couldn’t very well go to I Love Paella without sampling the eponymous dish, so a pan of chicken paella was the last thing brought out, resting on a wooden board on the table. It’s quite a daunting prospect, even between two people – a sea of rich, dark, glossy rice with chicken thighs poking up from the surface. It looked terrific, and it tasted even better: the stock had reduced perfectly, coating the ever so slightly nutty plump grains of rice, the whole thing lip-smackingly savoury and salty. The chicken, as in the bravas, was crisp where it needed to be and tender everywhere else, and broke easily into strands to mix with the rest.

ILPPaella

But there was more to it than met the eye, because it was also studded with cannellini beans, flat green beans, peppers and onion, making every forkful a fresh epiphany. Towards the end, you could scrape the metal spoon along the base of the paella pan liberating the best bits of all, caramelised, almost crunchy rice. My companion ate less than half. I, being both greedy and in raptures, ate more than half but even so there was a little left. Not quite enough to take with us, although the bar staff went to great pains to remind me that they could package up anything I couldn’t quite eat. Next time I might just go on my own, pig out and still have loads for the next day to make my colleagues green with envy as they make do with our subpar canteen (if that makes me sound like a bad person – and it probably does – all I can say is that you haven’t tried this paella; you can tell me off once you have, if you still want to).

I didn’t have dessert: the only options were brownie and cheesecake, and I was too full for either. Normally that wouldn’t bother me in the slightest (they’re pretty basic offerings) but the menu specifically says they are homemade, so if you do have a sweet tooth I wouldn’t rule them out and I imagine they’d be good. Personally, if I’d had more room I’d have been tempted to have some manchego, but that’s possibly just me. The whole thing, including those two very welcome bottles of Bulmers, came to just over forty-two pounds.

I was so disappointed when I Love Paella closed, and I remember saying so to them on Twitter. They told me not to worry and said that they had big plans. I should have believed them; that will teach me for doubting. I said I was nervous about reviewing I Love Paella, and that’s true. If it had been disappointing or inconsistent I’d have been writing this review constructively but critically, with a very heavy heart.

I’d particularly have been dreading this bit at the end, where I have to tie it all up. So it’s with a mixture of joy and relief that I get to say this: go. Go to the Horn, whenever you can, and eat this food. And if you’re worried about the Horn not being your kind of place, get people to go with you. Let’s make it our kind of place, stage a pitch invasion if you like, because a pub that does food of this quality in this location should be our kind of place (and if it really bothers you, I reckon I Love Paella might be one of the only good reasons to use Deliveroo – if you happen to have the right postcode). Personally I’ll be back at the Horn, pretty soon. In fact, I’ll even sit through Everpool playing London Irish or whoever they are, if that’s what it takes to enjoy dishes like this.

I Love Paella at The Horn – 8.4

2 Castle Street, RG1 2LS
0118 9574794

http://ilovepaella.co.uk/

Sanpa, Wokingham

It’s funny, Wokingham is less than ten minutes away from Reading by train but in all the time I’ve been writing ER I’ve only ever been there twice. My last foray out, to try relative newcomer Jessy’s, wasn’t an unqualified success but there was something about the town that I really liked and I figured it was about time I gave it another shot. Arriving on a beautiful sunny day, with spring in the air (and my step, for that matter) it seemed like things were looking up. There was a market going on in the pretty square with stalls offering fresh bread and, erm, bird seed. A beautiful retro van was selling crepes, and there was some kind of craft fair going on in the town hall. Even the masonic hall was open for the day, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Since I’ve never really been the kind for secret handshakes, I wandered up to Sanpa instead. It’s a tapas place I’ve had recommended by a couple of people and it’s on Peach Street, which sounds attractive but in reality is quite a busy road made up of unappealing Sixties concrete offices and shops. But that said, Sanpa was definitely the nicest thing on the street, with some barrels and stools out front and a crowd of people loitering in the doorway. I was worried that maybe I should have made a reservation, but I was soon shown to a table for two (and so was the crowd, who hadn’t reserved either).

The interior is basically two rooms, one at the front and one at the back separated by a deli section in the middle. The décor is simple and basic, although none the worse for that, and blackboards on the wall give details of some of the new dishes on the menu (and mentioned churros, which automatically gave me a reason to consider coming back). Much of the downstairs was full when I got there, and it was only later on when I wandered up the stairs in search of the bathrooms that I realised they also had a perfectly pleasant third room up there; it was also filling up by the time I left. If Sanpa was a well-kept secret, there were certainly quite a few people in the know.

Although on Friday and Saturday night Sanpa does a set menu, the rest of the time it’s largely tapas. That suited me fine, because I ruddy love tapas. What’s not to like about ordering lots of different things to try, going out on a limb and getting lucky with a dish you maybe wouldn’t risk if you knew you had to commit to a massive plateful? Also, on past experience, there’s often that wonderful moment at the end where your food has largely gone but you get to dip bread in the brick-red oily remains of the dishes – juices and spice and garlic and tomato. Heaven. As it turned out, the menu at Sanpa had a lot of things on it which make me happy and put me in a holiday frame of mind. So naturally I ordered them.

A good example of that was chorizo in cider. Normally it comes as thick discs of chorizo, browned on the heat in a pool of that brick-red sauce, but this was something altogether different: four whole short, stubby sausages, soaked through with the cider (and honey, according to the menu, although I couldn’t taste it), lightly charred on the outside. The texture was a revelation – all crumble, no bounce – and the taste was even better: salty; piquant; juicy and sweet all at once. It was the first dish to arrive but it was so good that I didn’t finish the last of the chorizo until close to the end of the meal. I was saving it in case it turned out to be the best dish I had (it wasn’t).

SanpaChorizo

The cured platter of was a much simpler affair. Some thin slices of chorizo, some cured ham and five manchego wedges, fanned out on top like a “ta-dah!”. The chorizo didn’t look much (to be honest, I wasn’t really sure I fancied it when it arrived) but it tasted so much better than that, rich and smoky with pimento, melting in the mouth because it was so thin. The cured ham was exactly how I like it, with a nicely dry, almost leathery texture, not greasy or shiny and floppy. I ate it the way one should eat good jamon, curled up into a little rosette, and it was spot on – earthy, moreish, with an almost caramel note. The manchego was, for me, the letdown; I prefer mine to be almost crunchy with salt crystals, crumbly and brittle, but this was a touch too smooth and creamy. Still good, don’t get me wrong, but it was more like the sort of manchego I accidentally buy from the airport on the way home than the sort I enjoy when I go to Spain.

SanpaPlatter

The true highlight of my lunch was the gambas al ajillo. The menu talks about peeled prawns and “mildly infused garlic and dry chilli oil” but that pedestrian description doesn’t do the dish justice at all. I know my writing should speak for itself but, just this once, look at that picture. Lots and lots of firm, juicy prawns in a rich, oily sauce, rich with parsley, just enough chilli to taste without being overpowering or mouth-tingling and with sliver after sliver of beautiful, beautiful garlic, shedloads of the stuff, cooked to be soft but not squidgy. It was profoundly good: I love garlic so very much and being able to scoop up several translucent slices of garlic and load them onto my fork before spearing a prawn made every mouthful of this dish a wondrous, wordless delight. Less than seven pounds, and easily one of my dishes of the year so far.

SanpaPrawns

Well, it could only be downhill from there I’m afraid. Next up were the patatas bravas – a staple that, really, I’m not sure we needed. The potatoes were perfectly decent cubes, nicely fried and served with a dollop of spicy tomato sauce. All perfectly decent, but it missed the mark in comparison to the other dishes. It probably never stood a chance in this company, but it wasn’t as rich as the chorizo or as fabulous as the prawns so it felt a little bit sad, and something of an also-ran. I wish I’d tried the tortilla instead.

SanpaPatatas

Finally, the random item picked off the menu at the last minute was tigres (not tigers: that would be illegal). The menu, bafflingly, says “If you have ever been to Spain, you’ve most likely tasted ‘Tigres’”: I have and I’d never heard of them, but maybe that’s just me. They were billed as stuffed and breaded mussels, a description that didn’t really give me any idea what to expect. In the event, they were four mussel shells filled with chopped mussels in a herby, creamy sauce which tasted, to me, like béchamel, all topped with breadcrumbs. To put it another way, it was like a potato croquette with mussel in. Served in a mussel shell. That you scoop out with a teaspoon. If that description appeals to you then you’d enjoy these; I quite liked them, but my companion took one look and decided to leave me to it. The flavour was nicely creamy and I enjoyed the crunch of the crumb, but they were a bit on the rich side and we’d over-ordered, so they didn’t quite get finished.

SanpaTigres

The finale, as I predicted at the start, involved taking chunks of toasted bread, ripping them open to expose the fluffy insides and dunking them in the sauces from the chorizo and the prawns. I chased every last sliver of garlic round the dish until it was loaded onto the bread and greedily eaten. I rolled my eyes in pleasure at those last pieces of bread soaked with the intense sauce from the chorizo. It’s exactly how this kind of meal should end, even if it meant I had no room for churros for dessert. No matter, there’s always next time.

We drank a glass of the house red wine each, a juicy rioja that worked nicely with pretty much everything. It was a struggle not to keep going and see off the rest of a bottle. I was a little sad, though, to see no sherry on the menu: if I had I’d have been tempted to order one at the start as an aperitif. The total bill, excluding service, was just shy of forty quid. Service throughout was lovely, not over the top, just friendly and welcoming. When I was settling the bill at the end, at the counter, the owner (I think) was asking if I’d been before and whether we’d enjoyed our meal, generally being downright charming. I must confess, I was quite taken with the whole place.

Things went downhill after that. I couldn’t find many shops I liked the look of, and the market was very small. The craft fair, in the beautifully over-the-top town hall, was mostly stuff at the twee end of the spectrum. The heavens opened and I was caught, sans umbrella, unsure about what to do. I considered going for a drink but the independent coffee place didn’t grab me (not being a coffee drinker and all), and I certainly wasn’t going to set foot in “The Grape Escape”, an establishment which seems to be applying the sincerest form of flattery to Reading’s Tasting House. Even the lovely Italian delicatessen which used to sell ‘nduja had rebranded as “The Slaughterhouse”, and seemed a bit more butch and a lot less lovely. It was as if Sanpa was all of the sunshine in Wokingham and once we’d walked out the door the clouds gathered and it was time to go. So we trudged in the rain back to the train station and decided we’d seen enough of Wokingham. But we talked about those prawns all the way home, and I figure Sanpa alone might be enough to get me back there before too long.

Sanpa – 8.0
6 Peach Street, Wokingham, RG40 1XG
0118 9893999

https://www.facebook.com/Sanpa.Store/