Bali Lounge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BaliStart

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

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

BaliPad

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

BaliSalmon

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

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

Bali Lounge – 6.4

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

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The Warwick

N.B. The Warwick reopened as Bali Lounge in Jan/Feb 2015 with a slightly different emphasis and a different, shorter menu. I’ve left the review up for posterity, but I’ve reviewed Bali Lounge here.

First the bad news; as much as I wanted to like The Warwick there were a few hurdles to get over.

The decor is pleasing to the eye, with lots of Buddhas (is that the plural of Buddha? Buddhae?) and Ganeshes (likewise) dotted about the place. The lighting is muted (you’ll be able to see that from the photos) with fairy lights strung around the windows and signage which give it a romantic feel. Sadly, though, the furniture is an odd mish-mash of things; they’re all in keeping but the variation from hard wooden rustic style chairs (which, worryingly, all sway slightly when pushed) to fully upholstered dining chairs means that there are definitely good and bad places to sit, which means good and bad tables.

Actually, I suspect they’re all bad tables, just in different ways: we started at a table where you could see what you were eating, but moved because we were sitting on rock hard yet rickety chairs and I don’t think my bum could have coped with two hours of that. We moved to a different kind of bad table; better chairs, but atmospherically lit at best and, because the table was so low, we struggled to fit our legs under the table. Never mind. We’re British, dagnabbit, so we stayed put. You can ask to move tables once and you get away with it, do it twice and you run the risk of having a foam added to your meal where no foam should be.

Another hurdle: I don’t think wine is really the Warwick’s thing. We ordered a bottle of Albarino. The bottle was coated in a fine layer of condensation and the felt cold to the touch but when poured the wine was just not cold enough. This was tricky to explain to the waiting staff who didn’t quite understand what the problem was – not in itself an encouraging sign. A friend of mine reported a similar experience when she ate there recently – which they tried (and failed) to rectify by chucking ice in the wine cooler. Maybe their fridge just isn’t turned up high enough (or low enough, depending on which way you look at it). A second bottle of Albarino felt no colder, so we turned it down and said we’d order a red instead. They were so baffled at why this wasn’t acceptable that I almost felt guilty, even though they were the ones at fault.

The red was a bottle of Fleurie – it was okay at twenty-four quid but not exceptional, and it didn’t have quite the light fruitiness I associate with Fleurie. Even ordering this was plain weird – they brought the bottle over, showed it to us and then wandered off to remove the cork out of sight. When it came back, the waitress poured some into my glass. I kept waiting, expectantly, for her to stop so I could taste it, but she just filled it right to the top and then proceeded to fill the other glass. Again, I felt like I was the one who looked stupid, even though I knew I wasn’t.

Now comes the good news. The food. We went for the Island Spice starter platter which is your usual fare – the ubiquitous fish cakes, satay chicken (out of sight in this photo), a breaded prawn and a spring roll each. Yes, I know it’s poor. I know I should have opted for a more interesting, more authentic dish rather than this greatest hits package and yet I always seem to do this in a Thai restaurant. It’s like the Quality Street of ordering – you know what you’re getting, there’s some variety, and you can always swap the culinary equivalent of the coffee cream (the Thai fish cake, in my case) with somebody else. Besides, it was only £5.50 a head, the same price as most single dishes on the starter menu.

Processed with VSCOcamActually, as it happened, this selection box had no coffee creams in it and my fish cake remained untraded. Normally I find them a bit floppy and tasteless but this one was very fragrant, lightly spiced and spongy rather than bland and flaccid. The prawns were unrealistically huge (split, I think) with a thick coating of breadcrumbs but they were tasty enough, especially once dipped in some sweet chilli sauce. The satay was proper chicken rather than something which had been “chopped and shaped” or (the horror) “formed” and the spring rolls were fabulous – proper fresh tasting shredded vegetables, including red and white cabbage, in a crispy layer of pastry. These in particular were the biggest hit of the selection – and I say that as someone who will often refuse to order a dish without meat in it. In hindsight, the Quality Street analogy maybe sold it a bit short.

The Warwick does a lot of main courses – stir fries, curries, pad thai dishes and house specialities. There’s even a separate regional section, all of which have a three or four chilli rating – the menu rates all its dishes from “a little spicy” to “ouch! my mouth is on fire” or words to that effect, which I found so endearing that it almost made up for the use of Comic Sans. To compensate for the obvious choice of starters, we decided to steer clear of the usual massaman lamb or green thai curry and try something a bit more interesting.

The ped makarm – crispy duck with sweet herbs and a sweet tamarind sauce – was a revelation. I rarely order duck in restaurants, because I’ve never been a fan of pink pan fried duck with that thick layer of wobbly fat on top. But there aren’t many pairs of words more beautiful than “crispy duck”, so I took the plunge. What’s not to like? This came on a little bed of broccoli (tasteless, but I think it was just there to prop up the duck) in a pool of rich, dark tamarind sauce with a few cashews sprinkled on top. And the gamble paid off, because it was magnificent. So many gambles in restaurants don’t – we all have experiences where you stray from your usual thing and are rewarded by a truly middling meal – but there’s something magical about picking something you wouldn’t normally order and having your socks knocked off.

Processed with VSCOcamThe other main dish was sea bass with stir fried garlic, coriander root and oyster sauce (kra tiem prig thai). Again, it was spot on. Two generous sea bass fillets, fried until crispy, skin and all, served with a rich sauce that honked of garlic (I pity the people at the desks next to us at work the following morning, put it that way). The only drawback, which I guess I should have appreciated, is that although you get a reasonable amount of sauce it’s never going to be quite as saucy as a Thai curry. The delicious bit at the end of a Thai meal, where all you’re left with is coconut rice soaked in rich sauce, was not to be a feature in our evening.

Processed with VSCOcamThe side dishes were good but not amazing, but they really weren’t the feature attraction, so it didn’t matter. Coconut rice was nice but unremarkable. The vegetarian pad thai, with cabbage and (yet more) tamarind sauce was better – fine noodles, tasty sauce and delicious cabbage, but it was a bit pricey at seven pounds. The Warwick doesn’t treat vegetarians all that well, I thought: the vegetarian dishes all hover around the seven pound mark (broccoli in oyster sauce for about seven pounds felt especially stiff). The mains we ordered were both £12.50, though there are plenty of dishes that are considerably cheaper than that.

Processed with VSCOcamI’ve said the ambience is a tad romantic, but really this feels like a place to go with friends. They have a number of different set menus for two or more people giving you the opportunity to try loads of different things, and that’s what this kind of food should be about (they also do daily offers ranging from buy one get one free to a free bottle of house wine with some of their set menus). Even with just the two of us, it was one of those meals where you want your dining companion to taste your food, so they can do that nod and point thing where something you’ve picked is really good.

As it was, there was lots of swapping and sharing, though I did have to put my foot down when I offered my companion an extra piece of duck and his fork hovered towards the super crispy shard of duck that I had been saving for the last mouthful (I’m nice but not that nice). And I was right to save it – so salty and crispy but offset by the sweet tamarind sauce. Yes, I know I’m repeating myself but there’s something about constructing the perfect final mouthful when you go out for dinner, and it was so, so good.

We skipped dessert, partly because we had no room and partly because the dessert menu was pub food not Thai food – chocolate brownies, sticky toffee pudding and the like (although possibly preferable to the frozen delights you often get in Thai restaurants – who can forget the dubious pleasures of the “Funky Pie” at Thai Corner?). Instead we finished up the wine, got the bill – £69 for two courses and a bottle of half decent red – paid up and left. If it looks expensive, it probably is – it’s possible to eat a lot cheaper there, and based on what I had you’d probably eat very well.

All in all, The Warwick is a mixed bag. You do feel like you’re eating somewhere that isn’t quite a pub, isn’t quite a restaurant. The furniture isn’t inviting. The service is a bit unpolished – probably partly because they were doing a brisk trade, even on a Wednesday night – but it did feel like a struggle at times. It’s on the edge of town, in a town that has a fair few other Thai restaurants (though not as many as it did before Thai Nine closed down). And yet, and yet… when I think back to that duck dish, it becomes an awfully hard place not to like. Even before I’d left a part of me was wondering what I’d choose next time, and that tells its own story. So I’d say go with friends, order carefully, don’t expect to be too comfortable (or if you are, don’t expect to get a good look at your food) and you should have a very enjoyable meal indeed.

Oh, and probably best to stick to the beer.

The Warwick – 7.2
77 – 79 Kings Road, RG1 3DD
0118 9566969

http://www.aroythai.co.uk/