Global Café Kitchen

Reading’s vegetarians and vegans have never been served terribly well. Back in the day there was Café Iguana, which I still miss (my order was usually a Roma toasted sandwich and their delicious, if whiffy, garlic and herb fries). It was scuzzy but lovable, the service was haphazard and the whole thing was distinctly, well, nineties, but I was very sad when it closed. For a long time after that, the only destination for vegetarians was the brilliant and unsung Bhel Puri House, and plenty of people didn’t even know it existed.

It’s only in the last couple of years that things have started to shift. We’ve seen restaurants raise their game: now there are many places with credible meat-free (or plant-based, or whatever you want to call it this month) options. So now we have Pho where most of the menu can be made vegetarian or vegan, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen which has an excellent vegan selection, and Honest which first introduced an excellent vegetarian fritter and then added a trailblazing vegan burger. I keep meaning to do a round-up of the best places for vegetarians in Reading – another gap in the market – and the main thing that delays it is the growing plethora of options.

In parallel, Reading saw two completely meat-free venues open this year. The first, Miami Burger, offered a vegan take on American fast food and closed its doors last week shortly after announcing a deal to sell its products in Morrisons. A cynic could almost believe that the restaurant was always just a shop window to land that kind of contract (a conspiracy theory hardly helped by Miami Burger rewriting history to describe the Reading restaurant as a “test kitchen”).

Either way I never visited Miami Burger – known to some as “Brexit Burger” because of the political views of its owner, a man who left the Tories for UKIP and once pondered on his blog whether the unemployed should have their votes taken away – and I’m not convinced I’ve missed much. Besides, for five pounds you can get one of Bhel Puri’s amazing vada pav, and that’s more than enough veggie burger for me.

The second meat-free restaurant is a more interesting proposition. Global Café for many years was home to Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen, a much-celebrated Reading establishment which left me baffled when I visited it on duty many years ago. Tutu left this year to take over a site in Palmer Park which used to belong to the Chalkboard Café, and as a result Global Café has taken on a new chef and is offering a regularly changing vegetarian and vegan menu under the moniker Global Café Kitchen.

I was having a drink at Global Café with my mother and my stepfather the fateful night we went to review Lemoni, and looking at their menu I was very tempted to change our plans and eat there instead. It was small (four or five main courses and a couple of starters) and reasonably priced (mains were around a tenner). But most crucially, it all looked worth eating: from a tempura mushroom burger to a vegetarian rendang, from Sri Lankan dahl to a halloumi and tabbouleh salad, I could happily have ordered practically anything on the menu. I wasn’t alone, either; my mother in particular would much rather have eaten at Global Café than Lemoni, so much so that we agreed to come back the following week and give it a whirl, with my stepfather in tow.

The Global Café hasn’t changed in many years, and I suspect you either think it’s one of the last great Reading institutions or an anachronism you haven’t felt the need to visit for a very long time. I veer more towards the former – even though it’s a tad on the scruffy side I’ve always had a soft spot for it. The area at the front, near the bar, gets lots of light from the lovely big windows and if all the tables and chairs don’t match and don’t seem to be designed for eating at or drinking at, it doesn’t necessarily matter. Nor does it matter that there’s a sofa randomly plonked there, with a big metal trunk serving as a table. It’s Global Café: that’s just how it is.

My stepfather found the long trip downstairs to the loos genuinely alarming (“it smells of damp down there”) and was a bit baffled by the different-coloured lights in the wicker lightshades (“you’d think they’d be LED bulbs, wouldn’t you?”) but I wouldn’t describe him as the target market for this kind of place. He was more impressed with the selection of local beers, as was I, but because it was a school night the three of us opted for an alcohol-free Erdinger Blue apiece while we decided what to order. It’s my top tip for anyone who likes the taste of beer and wants to cut down on their alcohol intake – and it cost less than £3 a bottle, considerably cheaper than the crazy prices charged at some of Reading’s pubs.

There were only a handful of starters, but all the mains from our previous visit were still on the menu, along with a couple of specials – a spiced potato and cheese “Bombay burger” and what was described as a “Banana Blossom burger”.

“What’s the banana blossom burger?” I asked the dreadlocked chap behind the bar (no table service, so that’s where you place your order).

“It’s not made from banana, it’s another part of the banana tree. It sort of has the same texture as chicken.”

“Sounds interesting.”

“They’re changing the menu all the time. I’m not even a vegetarian, but I really like the food here.”

“How long have you been running the new menu?”

“About three months, we’re still getting used to it really.”

I wasn’t sure whether this exchange inspired confidence or eroded it – but I liked his honesty and I liked the sound of the banana blossom burger, so I changed my mind about what to eat and ordered it instead.

Our starters arrived reasonably quickly, brought I think by the chef. The menu had three, one of which was soup, so we ordered the other two planning to share them. The best of them was the crispy fried aubergine, cooked with a beautifully light touch and free of all the stodge and mulch I associate with aubergine done badly.

This stuff was better than versions I’ve had of the same dish, berenjanas con miel, in Andalusia and the little tweaks to make the dish vegan only added to the appeal: vegan labneh had a very pleasing touch of coconut, and the miel de cana (vegan honey) was hard to distinguish from any other kind of honey. We all ever so politely made sure we had our fair share before nicely bargaining over the final piece. A really good dish, although at six pounds it felt like it should have been a bigger portion. “I could have eaten one of those on my own” said my mother, echoing my feelings. Still, I guess that’s what happens when you share two starters between three: if you go, order your own.

The other starter was a very different kettle of quinoa. Flatbread with marinated tomatoes, olives and dip sounds like just the thing to graze on while you wait for your food to arrive, but this was a lukewarm warm-up act. The tomatoes – cherry tomatoes halved – were pleasant enough, and the olives, small and pitted, were the kind of thing you could get in any supermarket.

The houmous, though, was worse than anything you could get in a supermarket – I’ve no doubt they made it themselves, but it had no lightness, no evidence of olive oil or garlic or tahini. Calling it a dip was optimistic because it didn’t have the texture for dipping: you’d have had more luck using it to cement a wall. We did our best to scoop it on to the heavy, unremarkable flatbread.

This rogue’s gallery came to four pounds – for the same money you could have a much bigger bowl of the best houmous in Reading just up the road at Bakery House, and they’d throw in piping hot, fresh-from-the-oven pitta bread into the bargain. It felt like the restaurant had bought those little, weird-shaped dishes, and then struggled to decide what to serve in them. The answer, I think, is Not this.

The themes of the starters – glimmers of talent, inconsistency and slightly sharp pricing – followed through to the main courses (which arrived pretty quickly), although these were generally far better. My mother’s choice, the parippu – Sri Lankan dahl – was earthy and creamy with a nicely gradual heat. Her verdict was that it was “a bit monotonous” – although I suspect that, texturally at least, that’s always the way with dahl. The toasted coconut on top helped, but it needed something like toasted seeds for texture and what it really needed was plenty of fresh coriander. The rice was somewhat clumpy – brown rice might have been better – and the flatbread wasn’t required: there wasn’t enough of the dish to be able to use it. If that all sounds like faint praise, it shouldn’t entirely – I enjoyed it, but even at eight pounds it felt like it could have been a little bigger and better.

My stepfather had chosen the rendang – in this case a chickpea curry with aubergines and courgettes. I’m used to rendang being made with long-cooked, sticky strands of beef and having an intensely savoury taste. This dish didn’t have any of that, feeling more like a massaman or a Thai curry with as much sweetness as heat, if not more. Again, I liked it, and again I felt that it was a little keenly priced: eleven pounds for this one. My stepfather seemed to enjoy it, too, and polished it off in short order.

This brings us to the appropriately alliterative banana blossom burger, which I’m delighted to say was an eye opener. It didn’t have the texture of chicken, after all that: it reminded me more of artichoke hearts, and you got a couple of pieces rather than a single patty. But the coating around the banana blossom was very good – salty and savoury, reminiscent of shame-free KFC. The bun was strong enough to stand up to everything in it (so unlike, say, Honest’s buns which always seem to go soggy at the bottom) and the ripe avocado and mango mayo in it finished it off nicely.

This was a revelation to me, and I hope Global Café Kitchen moves it off the specials menu so more people can try it. A chap at the table next to me ordered it and when it arrived at his table I butted in to enthuse to him about how much I’d liked it. “It’s a bit like KFC!” I said, to which he mournfully replied “I’ve never had KFC” (I asked him his verdict as we were leaving: he thought it was too salty, so Christ knows what the poor guy would actually make of KFC).

Also, I really liked Global Café Kitchen’s fries – clearly hand-cut and prepared on the premises – and the sweet tomato sauce and (presumably) vegan mayo they came with were both tasty, too. My stepfather had some “dirty fries” although it wasn’t clear what made them so sinful or indulgent: the “beetroot aioli” mainly seemed to be finely diced beetroot and the sesame seeds felt a bit unnecessary. They were still very good, though, because their fries are very good.

There isn’t much more to say about Global Café Kitchen than that – there was no dessert section, and we’d been fed so quickly and efficiently that there was nothing more to do but to head out. Our whole meal – two starters, three mains, those extra fries and three beers – came to almost bang on fifty pounds, not including service.

Service was really friendly and likeable but had a general air that they were still getting the hang of things. We had to ask for side plates, for instance, and the speed with which our mains came out gave the impression that the restaurant didn’t have masses of customers, so was used to just cooking things and getting them out of the door almost straight away. Three months should be long enough to get those teething troubles under control but, much like everything else about Global Café, I was prepared to overlook some of the less polished aspects.

Reviews like this are the hardest to conclude. A hatchet job writes itself, a rave review also builds to a natural, logical crescendo, a rallying cry of sorts. It’s far more difficult to write the sort of nuanced summary that makes half your readers think the mark at the end is far too harsh and the other half believe that you’ve let a restaurant off the hook. All the same, here goes: much of what I ate at Global Café Kitchen wasn’t perfect, and much of what I liked felt too small or too expensive (or ever so slightly beige) but in terms of imagination and range there is still plenty to celebrate.

They offer a genuine vegan menu (nearly all the dishes are vegan, and they say the rest can be made vegan on request) which offers a wide range of dishes, tries different meat substitutes rather than just doling out the same old tofu and – most crucially – offers real and interesting choices. I could have ordered any of the main courses we tried that night, and a couple we didn’t, without feeling like I was missing meat at all. There’s a lot to be said for that – whether you’re vegetarian or vegan, or know somebody who is that you’d actually like to have dinner with once in a while. Or, for that matter, if you’d just like to do your bit to eat more sensibly and help the planet from time to time. That you can do so without donning a hair shirt is quite an achievement, even if in 2019 it shouldn’t feel that way.

I never made it to Miami Burger – deliberately, I’m afraid – but the one thing I heard about it from my vegan followers was how nice it was just to have somewhere where they could order everything on the menu. Those people should make their way to Global Café and support a kitchen that may not be doing everything right quite yet but definitely has the right idea. And the rest of us? We should consider following suit from time to time, and supporting a Reading institution – one which, it seems to me, has picked up the torch from Café Iguana and is doing its best to carry it forward into an uncertain future.

Global Café Kitchen – 6.9
35-39 London Street, RG1 4PS
0118 9583555

https://www.risc.org.uk/global-cafe/global-cafe-kitchen

Nirvana Spa, Sindlesham

I’ve never reviewed the French Horn in Sonning, for one specific reason. Not the prices, although when starters hover around the twenty pound mark and main courses edge closer to thirty it does get harder and harder to say “hang the expense”, convincingly at least. It’s not the faffiness of the menu, although the French Horn’s Habit of Capitalising Pretty Much Every Word does lend Proceedings a Weirdly Dickensian Feel. It’s not even the fact that the menu seems to have an asparagus with hollandaise sauce on it all year round at twenty quid (is it flying first class from Peru?).

No, the reason I haven’t gone to the French Horn is that I’m reliably informed it has a dress code, and I just don’t do dress codes. It feels like a throwback, and something about getting into my glad rags just really rankles. I mean, I’m the customer aren’t I? And it’s not like I’d turn up in a crop top or a string vest, hot pants or swimming shorts; I’ve eaten at lots of lovely restaurants just the right side of well turned out and never been turned away, but when somewhere pompously announces they have a Dress Code (those Dickensian capital letters again)? Count me out.

What that means is that Nirvana Spa is probably the only place I will ever review which does have a dress code. And when I say dress code, I mean that you eat your lunch or dinner in a lovely white fluffy robe, your towel nonchalantly draped over the back of your chair and – in my case – your trashy paperback perched on the table. And if you go on a warm day, like I did, you get to do all of this outside, beaming at everybody else, similarly attired. This must be a bit like how it feels to be in a cult, or live in California (or both), I’ve always thought.

Sometimes I review restaurants and I’ve had a bad day first. I love writing reviews, but it’s a bit like a job – admittedly a job I adore – and there are times when you go and your heart isn’t one hundred per cent in it. Things are crap at the office, or the car failed its MOT, or you’re out of sorts with a friend, or Britain has voted to leave the EU and you still have to go out, eat with an open mind, take photos and write hundreds of words about what it was like. Hopefully you can’t tell in the words or the rating, if I’ve done it properly.

Nirvana is the other way round, if anything – it’s hard not to be happy when your most difficult decisions that afternoon are whether to read Hello! or OK!, whether to have the honeycomb tiffin or the salted caramel ice cream in the Roman Room, whether to go to the hydrotherapy pool or snooze on the heated terra cotta loungers. How can you have a bad meal under those circumstances?

On the other hand, I went on a long-booked visit the Sunday after the referendum result, when there was a weird atmosphere across the country. That weekend was like waking up hungover with The Fear, not entirely sure what you’d said or done or to whom. To complete the irony, Nirvana’s owner had sent a controversial mail to members only that week “offering them the opportunity to read” an article he’d written about how Brexit was a very good thing (I half expected to arrive to find bunting everywhere). So, a happy place at a sad time: what would lunch be like?

The menu at Nirvana has two options – either all you can eat from the salad bar (which also features a number of hot options) for fourteen quid or the a la carte menu which has starters, sandwiches, salads and main courses. The salad bar is included if you visit as a day guest rather than a member and really, I ought to have eaten from it to give you a representative view. But I’m afraid I was in need of cheering up so I didn’t, although I can tell you from past experience that it’s not half bad (and especially impressive for vegetarians and vegans where it gives a range of choice you’d struggle to match elsewhere).

Instead I stuck to the menu, deciding to kick things off with a selection of artisan (everyone’s favourite ubiquitous, meaningless word) breads for two. I was denied the opportunity of doing this when they turned up at exactly the same time as the starters, but none the less they weren’t half bad, especially at less than two pounds. All warm, some slightly toasted, a good array with the dark malted one, studded with seeds, my particular favourite. Butter was at room temperature (which always helps) and it was nice to have olive oil and balsamic although, as so often, nowhere near enough.

NirvanaBread

The starters were less impressive. We’d both gone for salads and I wonder whether they had decided to prioritise virtue over taste. Smoked chicken salad was presented in a way almost deliberately calculated to underwhelm – a fan of smoked chicken on one side of the plate, your salad on the other. Not mixed at all, and the salad also appeared to be barely dressed at best. What’s a real shame about this is that it had potential to be a lovely starter if done better – the salad was full of firm peas and crunchy beans and would have been beautiful with a bit more dressing and the smoked chicken, although a tad wan and floppy, did set it all off nicely. I seem to recall that the menu at Nirvana specifically says that you can ask for your salad dressing to be left off completely; it’s a pity it doesn’t also give you the option to ask for it be glugged on with abandon.

NirvanaChicken

Similarly, the baked smoked salmon salad was an exercise in restraint. A handful of salad leaves lightly dressed, topped with a thinly sliced radish (singular, I’m guessing) with a few chunks of salmon dotted round the edge. I was expecting a tangible piece of salmon rather than these chilly fragments and considering it was the most expensive starter on the menu (nine quid, since you ask) it felt miserly. It came with a wedge of lemon, just in case you weren’t feeling bitter enough, and a few de-seeded slices of chilli, mixed in as an afterthought. If I’d made this myself with bits from M&S it would have cost half as much and been twice as big. A shame, because what there was was nice, refreshing and light. I was just glad we ordered the bread.

NirvanaSalmon

After all that the main course was a beautiful, delicious surprise. Fillet steak came with a delicious, nutty pearl barley risotto which I adored. I’ve had pearl barley risotto quite a lot in Prague for some reason but it doesn’t seem to crop up on menus here much, a shame because it has much more about it than conventional risotto often does. There was also a solitary carrot – fair enough, I suppose – and two beautifully sweet, shallots which had been cooked into softness. The fillet itself was rare, exactly as requested (I went back to CAU recently and they, a specialist steak restaurant, still seem unable to get this right: Nirvana 1, CAU 0) and although I would have liked it to have a little more flavour, the texture was terrific. Finally, drawing everything together, what the menu described as “oxtail sauce”, rich strands of oxtail strewn on top of the fillet and all over the pearl barley risotto. Sixteen pounds fifty for that lot, and one of the most interesting ways I’ve had fillet steak for a very long time; if this dish had been on the menu at a restaurant near me I’d already be trying to contrive an excuse to go back.

NirvanaBeef

I also wanted to check out the lighter options on the menu, so we ordered a pulled pork wrap. This was just lovely: the thin flour tortilla was rammed full of really good pulled pork (smoky and sweet without being sugary as it so often is) with fresh, crisp, contrasting coleslaw. I liked the fact that it was served warm, too – so different from a cold claggy sandwich. It cost as much as the salmon starter, but felt like considerably better value. It came with a small leafy salad I didn’t much care for with a squiggle of creamy dressing, but perhaps I was just saladed out by that point, if such a verb exists. It might not have looked much in comparison to the fillet steak, but I thoroughly enjoyed it all the same.

NirvanaPork

Nirvana isn’t the place to order a dessert; you’re there all day after all, and saving some room for an afternoon snack is one of the only ways to break up the delirious monotony of being a modern-day lotus eater. So we finished our drinks (a decent glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc for me and a rose cava for my companion), charged the meal to a membership card and ambled off in the direction of an outdoor jacuzzi. Two courses, that bread selection and a couple of drinks came to a smidge under fifty-five pounds. That doesn’t include service at Nirvana, but all the service there is smiley and friendly, on the informal side but none the worse for that. If they were elated or devastated about Brexit, they certainly didn’t give it away.

As I sat in the outdoor jacuzzi, wishing they let you drink bubbly in there, I did briefly wonder about whether you could separate Nirvana’s food from the overall experience of being at a spa for the day. I’m not sure. If you picked the restaurant up and plonked it somewhere else, aside from being perturbed that all your fellow diners were in robes, I think you would like but not love the food. Not just that, but some of the pricing seems strangely generous (that fillet steak main), some arbitrarily expensive (the smoked salmon starter). As so often, I wonder about the wisdom of giving a rating; I love being at Nirvana, I love eating there and yet eating there isn’t quite the point. But then I decided I’d thought about it quite long enough – the world outside appeared to be either taking back control or falling to pieces, depending on who you believe – and before long I would have to leave my hermetically sealed bubble and go back to it. I was glad my phone, with access to constant news, was stowed away in a locker.

Later on I did go to the hydrotherapy pool, by the way. Some of the massage jets weren’t working, and many of the handles you use to cling to the side were broken off. It’s been that way since the start of the year: it’s a shame the owner feels like he has better things to do than fix it.

Nirvana Spa – 7.3
Mole Road, Sindlesham, RG41 5DJ
0118 989 7500

https://nirvanaspa.co.uk/

Himalaya Momo House

A disclaimer before we get started this week: I have form with Himalaya Momo House. I’d never eaten in the restaurant before, but I have friends who live in Caversham Park Village (or CPV, as I’ve come to refer to it) and when I visit them and they’re too frazzled to cook, Himalaya Momo House has become their takeaway of choice. Sometimes they have it delivered, usually we wander through the green spaces of almost-south-Oxfordshire-but-not-quite to pick it up. Every time we have, even though it’s in one of those vaguely purgatorial 60s rows of shops (like Woodley Town Precinct and no doubt countless others) the welcome has always been kind, friendly and warm and the people eating in there seem to be having a lovely time. The food, in my experience, has been thoroughly decent, too.

That ordinarily wouldn’t have been enough to prompt me to review it: after all, it’s a way out of town (albeit on the pleasant and surprisingly quick 23 bus) and Indian restaurants can be found everywhere in Reading. But I heard a number of people on Twitter enthusing about it, and I decided that it wouldn’t be fair to let my happy memories of it as a takeaway cloud its potential as a restaurant. So three of us, including my CPV resident friend Angela, paid it a visit on a weekday night to test it out properly (with a list of recommendations of dishes to order from Angela’s husband Frank, which I treated less as suggestions and more as a non-negotiable shopping list – he was at home with the kids after all, it seemed the least I could do).

The room is basic and tasteful – plain squishy high-backed leather dining chairs, crisp white linen and attractive framed black and white photographs on the walls. There were even a couple of pleasant-looking tables outside in an optimistic attempt to introduce café culture to the area. Even on a weekday night a fair number of tables were occupied and there was a nice buzz to proceedings.

Two of the starters had been suggested by Frank and were variations on a theme. A quarter of Tandoori chicken came plain and unadorned – unless you count the salad (and who does?) and a weird splodge of two sauces that looked a bit like a manky spider’s web. I loved it – simple and unmucked with, although I would have liked some raita with it. It had just the right combination of crunch and tenderness, although it seemed like a small portion: only later did I realise that I was used to sharing an entire tandoori chicken with Frank (and if that sounds gluttonous, let’s just say I’ve seen him polish off an entire Nando’s chicken – extra hot – in one sitting, so I was very much along for the ride).

HimaTandoori

Chicken sekuwa I liked less – cubes of chicken on a skewer dusted in, among other things, chilli flakes. The menu talks about a marinade but I didn’t get any of that, so no depth of flavour and no tenderness that would come from marinating the chicken. It was a little dry, a little tough and, compared to the tandoori chicken, a little surplus to requirements. That said, none of the starters were north of four pounds so nothing was exactly a costly blunder.

HimaSekuwa

Angela is a vegetarian, so she went for the pani puri (described on the menu as “mostly liked by ladies”, a rather unfortunate piece of gender stereotyping if ever there was one). They were almost like bubbly crisps filled with red onion, cubes of potato and – I think – chickpeas, and eating them is both enormous fun and a race against time. You pick one up, fill it with tamarind sauce through the hole in the top and eat it in one go before the whole thing disintegrates, the gastronomic equivalent of disconnecting the wires to the bomb with the timer blinking 00:01 in red. I tried one and liked them an awful lot – far cleaner and tastier than at, for instance, Bhel Puri House, where if you’re not careful with the sauce you end up chugging a whole mango lassi with your mouth on fire.

HimaPani

The mains took ever so slightly longer to turn up than I would have liked, but when they did they were an interesting bunch. We’d tried hard not to just order the bog standard kormas and jalfrezis so stayed on the house specials and Nepalese offerings instead.

The most interesting was the dumpak lamb, which came in a copper pot, topped with a thin chewy layer of naan, speckled with nigella seeds. The meat steams under the bread, and the whole thing was pretty glorious – the lamb tender, the sauce rich and thick. What I had done, entirely by accident, was order something a little like a pie: you can argue that a dish with a lid isn’t really a pie, and I have some sympathy with that argument, but you can’t really argue that accidentally ordering a pie is ever anything less than splendid. The sauce was beautiful mopped up with the plain naan or stirred in with the keema rice, a cracking dish of rice and minced lamb, again impressive value at four pounds.

HimaRice

Sherpa chicken was more divisive. The menu mentions nutmeg, chilli and fresh mint, but I didn’t get any of that. If anything, the sauce was fruity and sweet with something I couldn’t place – pineapple or mango, maybe. I quite liked it, although it wasn’t on a par with the dumpak lamb. My companion who ordered it pronounced it pretty ordinary. The tarka daal on the side was lovely, though – sticky, salty, reduced to something thick and intense (although having eaten their daal lamb in the past, I expected nothing less).

HimaDhalChick

The vegetarian main was the thali, and again I managed to wangle a small taste of something from each of the compartments on the metal prison tray. It was almost enough to stop you missing meat: a vegetable curry with peas, firm chunks of potato, cauliflower, thin sliced green beans and a little heat. Another section contained a lovely spinach dish, not spicy at all but rich with tomato. There was more of that daal, to add a savoury note, a generous helping of naan and a dome of white rice shot through with cardamom. Last of all, a cold dish almost like a paste, again with plenty of tomato in it. I liked the whole lot, probably more than thalis I’ve had at other Nepalese restaurants in Reading (and having been to Dhaulagiri Kitchen, that’s quite a high bar these days). Angela loved it.

HimaThali

The three of us were too full for dessert, so once the mains were cleared away and we’d begun the long, protracted process of digestion we got the bill and settled up. This is where it gets complex, because on weekdays Himalaya Momo House does a deal where you can get a starter, a main and rice or a naan for a tenner – impressive value indeed (although that didn’t apply to the vegetable thali, which seemed a bit mean). What that means is that although the bill for three – including two huge crisp bottles of Mongoose beer and a disappointing lukewarm mango lassi – came to fifty-two pounds it would ordinarily be a little more. All the more reason to pay it a visit on a weekday evening, I’d say.

Service was lovely and friendly, if maybe stretched a little more thin than I was expecting – and all the serving staff were enthusiastic, kind and interested in feedback. As a little postscript, I heard from Angela later that week – she had been back to Himalaya Momo House to pick up some takeaway (that tandoori chicken for Frank, no doubt) and the waiter had remembered her and everything she usually ordered. “When will you come back?” they asked her as she picked up her groaning carrier bag. That’s lovely attention to detail, and I think it’s that kind of place, the sort where you might want to cultivate the status of a regular.

I think it’s obvious that I was charmed by Himalaya Momo House. The challenge is working out how much of that charm would translate to someone who doesn’t live near Caversham Park Village and would have to make a pilgrimage to eat there. Tricky. I loved the place, my other companion wasn’t so sure. “Just another suburban curry house”, she said. I don’t know about that. I think it’s worth a punt if you want to try something new, or go for a nice drive or take that 23 bus. You can report back and tell me I’m wrong. Would I have gone out of my way to eat there? I honestly don’t know, but it does make me glad I have friends who live in the area.

Himalaya Momo House – 7.5

28 Farnham Drive, Caversham Park Village, RG4 6NY
0118 9484818

http://www.himalayamomohouse.co.uk/

Chaiyaphum, Cane End

I have a funny relationship with Thai food, I think. It would never be my first choice when suggesting a meal out with friends but when I go to one I always like it. “Like” is the operative word here, though: I rarely love it. It would probably take a more discerning palate than mine to distinguish between the fishcakes or the pla chu chi I’ve had at all the Thai restaurants around Reading. So instead it comes down to the price and service, arguably the cherry on the cake rather than the cake itself. Sometimes a single dish will stand out, but my meals at Thai restaurants have generally been been solid and respectable – neither stellar nor sad, just somewhere comfortably in the middle.

This all dawned on me, as it happens, when I sat down at Chaiyaphum and started to go through the menu.

The decision to go to an out of town restaurant seems to happen increasingly when I am on a vegetarian week – for those of you new to the blog, my New Year’s resolution last year was to review one vegetarian main course per month – and here I was again, jumping into the car to go and eat tofu (not sarcasm: I was actually looking forward to trying the tofu). Chaiyaphum is up on the A4074 just before the turning for Gallowstree Common, the road towards Oxford which, like hundreds of others across the UK I’m sure, has the nickname “the seven bends of death”. The building itself is an old red brick pub on a crossroads where I can imagine highway robbery used to happen (ironically I once ate at the Pack Horse just down the road, where it was still very much taking place).

Inside, though, you’re under no illusions that you’re in a restaurant not a pub. Goodness, but it’s purple. The walls are purple. The ceiling is purple. We’re talking somewhere between Dairy Milk and Quality Street purple. Properly purple. That makes it sound awful, but actually I rather liked it, and the whole thing is decked out with statues of Buddha, art and artefacts, a picture of the Thai king and queen and, incongruously, a whacking great piano in the bar area. We ate in the room off to the right, a split level affair, with a nice view out onto the garden. A few tables were reserved when we got there, which was encouraging as we were literally the first people to arrive.

I don’t normally talk about background music in a restaurant, but I’m going to make an exception here just to say that Chaiyaphum had managed to get hold of the most surreal easy listening album of all time. I’d never heard hotel lobby soft jazz cover versions of Womaniser, Moves Like Jagger, Sweet Child O’ Mine and The Only Girl In The World before, and I can safely say that if I never do again it might be too soon. It took me right back to the Nineties, when adverts on late night ITV would proudly offer compilation CDs which were “not available in any shops”, usually with good reason.

Anyway, back to the food. The menu was almost identical to every other Thai restaurant menu I’ve read on duty, which made me wonder whether what we get is the anglicised version, watered down just enough to make it seem exotic yet safe. And therein lay the problem for Chaiyaphum, something I was pondering throughout my meal there – because when a restaurant is a little way out of town, especially when you have to drive to get there, being much the same as other local Thai restaurants just isn’t going to be enough. It has to be better, cleverer, more distinctive: otherwise why make the effort?

The starters were a mixture of the safe and the unknown. Starting with the safe, the chicken satay was a pretty good example. I think the meat was thigh rather than breast – always a good thing, in my book – but either way it was juicy and well marinated, tender with (I’d guess) some lemon grass. The satay was also good: deep, rich and earthy, although I always wish there was about twice as much sauce. But, and you can see the trend starting to come through loud and clear, it was good but not great. The sesame chicken toasts were just lovely, and eating them made me slightly sad that Thailand has this and we just get fried bread. It’s probably hard to excite anybody writing about these – I mean, you know exactly what they will look like, what they’ll taste like, how they will be, that exquisite balance of crunch and tenderness. And yet they rarely disappoint: these certainly didn’t, covered with sesame, packed with chicken and then fried to the point of decadent filth. I dipped mine in the small pot of chilli sauce (again, wishing there had been a little more) and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I knew I’d hardly taken a risk.

ChaiyaStarters

The third starter was more of a venture into the unknown, mainly because I find it very hard to turn down soft shell crab when it graces a menu with its presence. It came battered and fried, obscured by a cornucopia of other lovely things – lots of finely chopped garlic, fried onion, spring onion and a fair few slices of red chilli. I liked this dish an awful lot – the crab was delicious, the batter was light and delicate and all the gubbins on top really made every mouthful magnificent. It came with two pools of brown sauce – the menu describes both a pepper sauce and a Thai garlic sauce and I have no idea which this was but it really wasn’t needed and didn’t add an awful lot. At the end, after the crab was demolished (and it didn’t take long) we raced round the plate with our forks making sure not a scrap of the nice bits was left: all that remained were the sauces and the ubiquitous vegetable flower.

Main courses continued the trend. Gai pad himmaparm, recommended by the waitress, was a good example of a Thai chicken stir fry. This one had cashews, a few pieces of halved baby corn and plenty of vegetables – why is there always so much onion? – and was decent if not outstanding. The sauce was rich with chilli and especially garlic (nobody has ever gone wrong by giving me too much garlic) and was tasty but not life-changing. As so often with these things, it came in a flat shallow dish which meant that not only wasn’t there enough sauce but what sauce there was was blessedly difficult to get on to your plate, stirred in with the coconut rice where it belonged.

ChaiyaChicken

I’d been looking forward to the massamun tofu. Ordering it was, to some extent, playing percentages: I figured that one of my favourite things about eating Thai food was that glorious mixture of slightly sticky coconut rice and a sweet, spicy sauce, so if the tofu didn’t work out I would still get to enjoy most of the dish. The tofu itself wasn’t bad – you got lots of it, big hefty pieces, and they had some texture and contrast to them. That said, there was a slightly sour taste to it which seemed odd against the massamun sauce. The sauce itself also didn’t quite work – all sweet, no savoury, not enough punch or spice. Perhaps, because it was a vegetarian dish, there wasn’t any fish sauce in it to add that contrasting note. The potatoes in it, weird corrugated edges and all, were soft and floury and not quite right. Ditto for the slices of carrot, again tinned-vegetable soft. There were a few crisped fried onions on top, but not enough. By the time I got to the rice and sauce stage, ostensibly the highlight, my heart just wasn’t in it.

ChaiyaMassamun

We both had coconut rice – the waitress asked if we wanted one between two and we decided against it, but we should have listened to her as one would have been quite enough. It was – bit of a theme here, isn’t there – pleasant: edible but not incredible.

We’d over ordered on the starters (wilfully if I’m honest, in case the whole tofu thing didn’t work out) so there was no chance of having dessert. We both had a glass of house sauvignon blanc – nice, fresh and easy to drink, if perhaps not quite as cold as I’d have liked – to start, and my companion also had a bottle of Tiger, after being told at extensive length about all the beers that were currently out of stock. I had a diet coke and didn’t hugely feel like I’d missed out.

Service was lovely. There seemed to be two waiting staff on and they were looking after quite a lot of tables, but regardless of how busy they were they were friendly, polite and happy to make recommendations. Beautiful uniforms, too – maybe a funny thing to notice, but there you are. The food took just about the right amount of time to come out, and all the other tables looked happy. I saw families with small children, a couple of chaps enjoying dinner together and, just across from me, a birthday celebration (with the exchange of bags from Fortnum & Mason – fancy!). They all looked like they were having a brilliant time, and I wondered why I wasn’t quite so enamoured.

The total bill, including a ten per cent service charge, was sixty-three pounds. Interestingly that service had been pre-added – perhaps the south Oxfordshire red trouser brigade (there was a very eye-catching example right next to my table, a veritable rhapsody in scarlet: I could barely stop gawping at him) aren’t so keen on tipping the staff. Anyway, it all seemed fair enough to me and the service was one of the high points so I wasn’t bothered, though I can imagine it would rankle with some diners.

As we drove away we were discussing whether Chaiyaphum was good enough to merit a drive out of town. As you can probably tell by now, my answer is not really. It’s by no means a bad restaurant: the food was decent, the service was charming, the room managed to be bling and tasteful at the same time, purple paint and all (I did find I left really wanting an individually wrapped hazelnut in caramel: the power of subliminal advertising). But ultimately, there is no USP for Chaiyaphum unless you live round the corner. It’s stylish, but so is Thai Table. The service is friendly, but it’s just as good at Thai Corner. The food is quite nice, but Thai food seems to be quite nice everywhere, and never better than that. Ultimately, it’s just not enough to get me to leave Reading and head for the Chilterns. Maybe this restaurant is for the red trouser brigade and they see it the other way round: because they can go to Chaiyaphum there’s nothing to make them go into town. Each to their own, and thanks but no thanks. Maybe next time I’ll go to Oli’s Thai in Oxford, which I’m told blows them all out of the water.

Chaiyaphum – 6.8
Reading Road, Cane End, RG4 9HE
0118 9722477

http://chaiyaphum.co.uk/

The Flowing Spring, Playhatch

I’ve noticed The Flowing Spring many times on my travels, but always when I’ve been going somewhere else, usually Henley. It’s on a stretch of road just past Playhatch, in an oddly solitary location as the road slopes up towards Shiplake. I’ve always been struck me by the sign on the side of the pub, underneath the name, saying Fresh, home-made food including gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian, a big block of white with an incongruous, regular font as if it’s been cut out of a Word document, enlarged and stuck on to the building with Blu-Tac.

Well, having done my homework this week I took the next right, pulled into the car park and went inside instead. Why? Well, it turns out that The Flowing Spring is an interesting beast; that sign on the side is a pretty modest summary, but The Flowing Spring takes catering to all kinds of diets very seriously indeed. Apart from all sorts of plaudits for the beer – CAMRA awards, Cask Marques, I’m sure this stuff means more to most of you than it does to me – they were also given an award by PETA last year for being one of the top ten vegan-friendly pubs in the whole of the UK (and yes, if you were a cynic you might find yourself wondering how big a field there was). I haven’t forgotten my resolution to try and eat meat-free mains once a month, and I figured I wouldn’t get a better opportunity to put it to the test.

Charmingly ramshackle doesn’t even begin to do the Flowing Spring justice, an experience that begins when you pull into the car park and realise that it’s at a completely different level to the front of the pub on the main road. The split-level feeling of climbing the stairs to go in is continued by the slightly haphazard nature of the interior. Their website proudly boasts that the whole pub is on a slant, and indeed nothing feels quite like a straight line. There’s a main dining room upstairs, then a sort of L-shaped section downstairs which is more like a traditional pub, open fires and all, and then an area called the “Quirky Corner” into which I did not venture except on my way to the loos (I wasn’t sure I’d be quirky enough).

Initially they sat us in the dining room, all big square tables and handsome conventional furniture, the laminated walls full of copies of the pub’s newsletter and a chalkboard section with enthusiastic quotes on it (“better than the London Street Brasserie” said one, which made me smile). The woman behind the bar also warned us that only one table was unbooked and that there would be a cribbage match going on up there. And I would have stayed up there, but it was absolutely Baltic and I soon realised that cribbage geeks, in their amiable, peg-pushing way, can produce just as many decibels as a crowd watching a much less interesting leisure pursuit with balls and goals. So we moved down to the bar room and had a slightly more laid-back evening – still Baltic, mind, although I did notice that one of the open fires hadn’t been lit.

The menu, like the pub, looks like a big old mess at first. It’s only when I stepped back and had a proper look that I appreciated just how much thought had gone into it. Three of the five starters are not only vegetarian but vegan. They offer two different vegetarian burgers, one of which is vegan, and about half of the mains are either vegetarian or vegan – without a sodding risotto in sight, I might add. Huge sections of the menu can be offered gluten-free, and the menu also assiduously lists potential allergens (I never realised, for instance, that Marmite contains a small amount of gluten: I’ve never felt more sympathy for my friends who have a gluten-free existence). All promising, but I’ve lost count of the number of times a good menu got lost in translation from the kitchen to my table, so I sipped a pint of Aspall’s and listened to the hubbub of the cribbage match getting animated as I waited for the starters to arrive.

Smoked mushrooms in cider batter sounded so perfect that I really wanted to try it. And when it arrived it got so close to really good that I was almost prepared to overlook the flaws. The mushrooms were so smoky that I could nearly forget how small they were, the cider batter so crunchy that I only just remembered that they maybe could have done with being served hotter. The sweet chilli sauce was so thick and tangy that it took my mind off the incongruous bowl of dried coconut flakes on the side which didn’t go, or the undressed salad which was mainly iceberg lettuce. For seven pounds I think I expected slightly more, but on the other hand I was in a lovely pub trying smoked mushrooms, and that doesn’t happen very often.

FlowingMushrooms

My indecision wasn’t helped by the Thai fishcake. It was itself an indecisive thing, with a touch of Thailand but also the powerful influence of Captain Birdseye, a single giant breadcrumbed puck cut in half and served with more of the sweet chilli sauce and more undressed salad (this one with capers and roasted spiced corn, itself an incongruous mix). But here’s the surprise – despite all that it was delicious. It was nicely crumbed, full of fish rather than reliant on claggy spud with a lovely texture. I shared it with my companion, who isn’t a fan of the sponginess of most Thai fishcakes, and we agreed between us that The Flowing Spring had pulled off a rather surprising triumph of fusion cuisine. I even liked the little ribbons of crispy seaweed, also very nice dipped in the chilli sauce, even if they felt like they were on the run from another dish (or possibly even another restaurant).

FlowingFishcake

I watched dishes turning up at other tables – veggie burgers with a big heap of orangey sweet potato fries on the side, home-made chilli served in, of all things, a Yorkshire pudding – and I found myself oddly charmed by the whole experience, if still not quite quirky enough to explore the Quirky Corner. Mains had been ordered at the recommendation of the woman behind the bar. “You want me to narrow it down to two?” she had said, smiling but perplexed, as if I had asked her to solve one of the riddles on “3-2-1” (a show, in fairness, she was far too young to remember). In the end she suggested the “famous” Flowing Spring Kebab – the menu’s words, not mine – and a veggie burger and we went for those. Again, I was impressed that a pub so determined to court vegetarian diners was also prepared to offer a dish to potentially appease their meat-eating companions.

I was warned that the kebab would be big and it certainly was. The menu claimed that it was the Flowing Spring’s take on a doner kebab, which if anything undersold it because instead it was more like a gigantic roast lamb sandwich. So you got lots of thick slices of lamb, none of them pink but none of them the worse for that, sitting on top of some salad in a huge pitta. I loved the lamb – again, I possibly could have stood it being a tad hotter, but it was so good that I didn’t mind, another example of The Flowing Spring charming me into relaxing my critical faculties somewhat. I spent much of the dish wondering if the lamb was better dipped into the fresh, minty raita or the chilli sauce, a thick gloopy jammy pool of redness that looked like it would be sweet but then delivered an acrid, sinus-clearing punch. I also couldn’t decide whether to team it with a pickled chilli, a slice of crinkle-cut gherkin, some salad (which also contained little pieces of diced gherkin, creditable attention to detail) or a torn piece of pitta. Deciding how I liked the dish the best took me very nicely from the first mouthful to the last, by which point I had decided that I rather loved it all.

FlowingLamb

Photography isn’t my strong point at the best of times, but my veggie burger was far more interesting than it looked. The patty was butternut squash, goats cheese and beetroot and had a lot going on compared to the usual “bean burger” veggie alternative. Beetroot and goat’s cheese, that earthy combination of sweet and salt, is a well-worn combo but putting it in a burger, with the squash as a sort of base note that held it all together, was a surprisingly inspired move. It was crumbed and oaty on the outside which gave it a bit of texture, and that worked with the floury bap (no faddy brioche here) and a small smattering of salad. For a nice, simple burger it was spot on – nothing out of this world but a good, tasty veggie main. Even the chips were an excellent example of pub chips – regular shaped (which made me assume they were out of the freezer, though I could be wrong) but crispy on the outside, fluffy in the middle and, unlike so often, they actually tasted of potato. They almost made up for the fact that the nice looking sweet potato fries I’d seen at other tables had run out. Almost. The only other slight downside was the price: just under twelve pounds (the same as the kebab) felt a little on the steep side, but perhaps you’re paying a premium to have all that choice.

FlowingBurger

Dinner for two – two courses each, a pint and a half of cider and a couple of soft drinks – came to fifty pounds not including tip. The service was lovely throughout, from the woman behind the bar who took our orders and recommended dishes to the landlord, who brought out our dishes and seemed to genuinely care whether we liked them. And that was the kind of place The Flowing Spring was, because although it was the first time I had ever been I rather felt that everybody else there had been in on the secret for some time.

By the end of the meal we’d moved tables to be nearer to the fire and you could see all sorts of photos up on the walls of events and gigs, be it jazz concerts, outdoor carnivals or classic car events. And I was struck by how remarkable it was that a pub seemingly in the middle of nowhere could have such a community feel. A little piece of folded card on my table went into more detail about where The Flowing Spring gets its ingredients from, and it was another example of the kind of touches that make you trust a place: meat from a family butcher in Devon, eggs (also for sale behind the bar) from just down the road, mushrooms foraged in the autumn. The Flowing Spring really needed to work on its heating, but I still had a warm glow from somewhere. Maybe it was the fire, maybe my slightly jaded heart thawing. Who can say? As we left, having paid up, we talked to one of the cribbage players, an amiable twinkly cardsharp who was at the bar getting another drink.

“We didn’t drive you into the other room, did we?” he said.

“No, not at all. It was just getting a bit hectic up there.”

“You should give it a try some time! We play every fortnight and we’re always looking for new recruits.”

I might have to learn cribbage, you know. Just in case.

The Flowing Spring – 7.3

Henley Road, Playhatch, RG4 9RB
0118 9699878

http://theflowingspringpub.co.uk/