Restaurant review: Crispy Dosa

“Are you sure you don’t want to sit inside?” said the waitress, smiling as she handed us the menu. Like all of the service at Crispy Dosa it was friendly, kind and welcoming: the restaurant was filling up with happy families, all Indian as far as I could see, and she probably didn’t understand why Zoë and I had chosen to sit at a table outside on plastic chairs, opposite the Penta Hotel or in the wind tunnel of Thorn Street.

In other circumstances, I might have acquiesced. The inside of Crispy Dosa, from my cursory glance, looked like a nice space. It had plenty of banquetted booths (I’m not sure whether they were leather or leatherette: leatheresque, perhaps?) each one with a little patch sewn into it saying “CRISPY DOSA ❤️ YOU”. And the restaurant was, for a week night, buzzing: I saw a regular flow of people in and out, customers leaving, some carrying bags to take home and, of course, a steady in and out of delivery drivers.

By contrast, Crispy Dosa’s outside space is slightly unfortunate. On one of the hottest days of the year so far none of the tables caught the sun, and they felt a little like a consequence of necessity: they are, after all, how Crispy Dosa managed to trade for the first few weeks they were open, while they waited for indoor hospitality to be allowed again.

But I am not yet at the stage where I’m ready to eat and drink indoors and, with the exception of a post-vaccination celebratory brunch at Fidget & Bob last month, this was the first time I’d had an al fresco meal this year. So to say those plastic tables and chairs were a welcome sight would be quite an understatement; the waitress probably didn’t understand why we were so excited. So we sat outside, at the very beginning of West Reading, where things begin to get a little bit more lively – I’ve forgotten how much I enjoy people-watching – and for the first time in a long time I held a physical menu in my hand and decided what to order.

I picked Crispy Dosa for my first restaurant review in over a year for a few reasons. One is that I knew they had outside space. Another is that I had a feeling dosas wouldn’t travel well if I’d ordered them as a takeaway dish. But most significantly, on the day I visited them they were Reading’s newest restaurant, having opened at the end of April. They have two other branches, in Hounslow and Greenford, and they opened here with relatively little fanfare – mainly because they missed out on all the publicity that comes with opening over forty different sock puppet restaurants on delivery apps. What can I say? I like an underdog.

Reading has had a bit of a love affair with South Indian food over the last twelve years. First Chennai Dosa opened on Whitley Street in 2009, and proved so popular that people were queuing to get in (they didn’t take cash, which at the time was noteworthy: these days you’d steer clear unless a restaurant accepted cards). Then Chennai Dosa moved to the old Casa site, just over from Reading Library, and Cafe Madras took their place on Whitley Street.

There have been more musical chairs in recent times. Chennai Dosa became “Chennai Dosa Artisanz”, a transformation which mostly seemed to mean that they added a couple of quid to every dish on the menu, and then it closed, leaving that site vacant for nearly three years until Madras Flavours opened there this year, also offering southern Indian food. And Cafe Madras closed too, to be replaced by Vel, another southern Indian restaurant. So the market is clearly there, and the question is whether it’s big enough to support a third restaurant (and, I suppose, whether Crispy Dosa is the third restaurant for the job).

Crispy Dosa is entirely vegetarian, and its menu is a mixture of South Indian dishes (specifically dosa and uthappam, its thicker sibling) and Indo-Chinese dishes you’d find on the menu somewhere like Bhel Puri House. There’s also a selection of curries and noodle dishes, if you want something more conventional. But the centre of the menu is definitely the dosa options which span three sections, “Dosa Corner”, “Special Dosa” and “Chef Recommended Dosa”. I’m not sure what adjective to use out of reasonable, affordable and cheap, but nearly all the dishes cost less than nine pounds and many are significantly less expensive. We ordered a few starters to share, and a main course each, and sat back and waited.

But first, I got to reacquaint myself with mango lassi. I love this drink, and I hadn’t had one in a long time; it’s not something you really add to a JustEat basket. Crispy Dosa’s version was lovely, a bright orange slurp of tropical sweetness, and it took a reassuringly long time to arrive. The wait staff apologised for the delay, something they repeatedly did and didn’t need to: they also came out to tell us our starters were on the way, when there wasn’t any rush.

Our starters were taken from different sections of the menu, a hodgepodge designed to sample a wider range of dishes. The first, the Madras crispy masala potato slice, was the most disappointing. I’ve been spoiled by Bhel Puri House’s bhajia, slices of potato in a crispy batter, beautifully spiced and served with a bright carrot chutney. This dish, by contrast, felt like a bare minimum way to live up to the description on the menu.

It really was just sliced potatoes which had indeed been fried (although not all of them were enormously crispy) with some spice powder dusted on top. They were meant to come with sriracha, but instead we got what tasted suspiciously like ketchup. I guess if you’re South Indian both of those sauces are equally inauthentic, but I expected something a little more than sliced potatoes and tomato sauce. It looks quite nice in the picture, mind you.

The gobi 65 was better. You got a fairly generous helping of small florets of cauliflower, cooked but still with a little nutty firmness, in a spiced batter, along with some decorative fanned-out slices of red onion (Zoë thought they really added something, although she’d happily eat raw red onion for fun: I gave them a miss). But these were pretty good, and more interesting than the sliced potato. Again, I was baffled that it came with ketchup – had they given this to us because they thought it was the kind of thing we’d enjoy, or was it standard issue? It might have benefited from something to dip it in – a whole dish of it got a bit dry – but Heinz? Really?

This was even more of a no-no where my dining companion was concerned. She dislikes almost anything with vinegar in it – I always get a black look when I open a jar of pickles – and has a visceral loathing of tomato ketchup which took me some time to fully grasp. Early in our courtship, down the pub with friends, I placed a bottle of ketchup in front of her on the table and watched in shock as instantly, in a single unthinking reflex action, she picked it up and chucked over her shoulder, clean into the river (if it had been any other establishment they might have barred us, but to my shame we were in the Back Of Beyond: I’m sure they’ve seen worse). I’m allowed ketchup with fish and chips, but I have to take the plate through to the kitchen and rinse it the moment I’m finished: she claims she can smell ketchup at great distances.

Fortunately our third starter came with an assortment of chutneys, which were also handy for starters one and two. Medhu vada are doughnut shaped fritters made from urad dal that are often eaten as breakfast or a snack in South India: I’d never had them before, but enjoyed them a great deal. You got a couple for just over three pounds – they looked a little lonesome on that big steel tray – and they had a nice texture, crispy on the outside, doughy without being too heavy. I expected a little more in terms of spicing and curry leaves, but as a vehicle for the chutneys and sambar I thought they worked nicely.

“It’s the chutney I judge these places by” a friend of mine had said to me earlier in the week. “We haven’t found any good ones in the UK so far.” Although I quite enjoyed Crispy Dosa’s chutneys I suspected they might have left her underwhelmed. The coriander chutney was probably the best of the lot but it didn’t quite have the zing I’d have liked. The coconut one was pleasant, and the sambar, although thin, had a pleasing heat to it. But the red chutney felt a little lacking in oomph, and I didn’t make great inroads into that.

Our main courses arrived while we were tackling the tail end of our starters. I’d forgotten just how huge a dosa looks when it’s plonked in front of you – you need the superwide lens on an iPhone to fit it all in – and how attractive a dish it is. I’d gone for the ghee podi masala dosa, and it was burnished on the outside and glossy with ghee inside, sprinkled with a dry powder made from lentils which gave it a savoury kick (the closest thing I can compare it to – let’s insult two cultures at once, shall we? – was the shrapnel at the bottom of a packet of dry roasted peanuts).

It was terrific finger food, and probably worked better with the chutneys and sambar than the medhu vada had. Only the potato masala let the side down – for me it was too creamy and bland with a strange note of something like condensed milk, and didn’t have enough in the way of spice. I finished my meal feeling full, so I didn’t lose too much sleep over leaving some of it, but portions at Crispy Dosa are so generous that I probably could have skipped the masala completely. Maybe I’ll branch out next time.

Another good candidate for next time was Zoë’s choice, from the “Chef Recommended Dosa” section, otherwise known as the “What Other Things On The Menu Could We Stuff Into A Dosa?” section. I suspect this bit of the menu would give purists conniptions – Szechuan noodles in a dosa doesn’t sound anything but weird – but Zoë’s paneer Manchurian dosa was very good indeed and worked well as a dish. It came rolled and cut into segments, much more like a traditional sandwich, and the paneer in it was firm, tangy and pretty tasty stuff. I wasn’t entirely convinced this dish needed the chutneys, as it managed perfectly well in its own right, a thoroughly enjoyable dish.

“It reminds me of a quesadilla, and I fucking love a quesadilla” said Zoë, handily proving that I wasn’t the only person not averse to a spot of cultural appropriation: arguably the restaurant started it by giving us tomato ketchup, anyway.

If we had had a better idea of portion size, and maybe paced ourselves a little better, we might have saved room for dessert. I have a soft spot for kulfi, it was the perfect evening for it and Crispy Dosa does a pistachio kulfi that I imagine I’d have enjoyed. Another one to notch up for next time, I think. We were probably there about an hour in total – ever so slightly on the brisk side, but understandable for the kind of restaurant Crispy Dosa is – during which time the Oxford Road gradually got louder, crazier and more watchable.

“It’s nice to have another spot that’s perfect for a quick meal before heading to the Nag’s” said Zoë. “This place and ThaiGrr! will come in handy for that.”

“Good point. That’s been a gap in the market since Tuscany and the Jolly Fryer closed down.”

“I know” she smiled. “You should mention that in your review.”

Our dinner for two – three starters, two mango lassis and two dosas – came to just over thirty-five pounds, not including tip. That’s not bad value, and you could easily spend less and come away full. Service was excellent throughout, and I did find myself rooting for them despite the occasional misstep. We were the only table outside, but they worked very hard to make us feel like we hadn’t been forgotten. It’s been such a difficult year for restaurants, and Crispy Dosa has hardly opened at an auspicious time, but it felt like there was a decency and integrity to what they did.

Reviewing restaurants again means putting ratings at the bottom, which means the usual hoo-ha about people thinking my reviews are too harsh, or too generous, or that the mark is too low or too high to match the words. I’m not sure I’ve missed that; the current feedback seems to be that I’m too harsh, though no doubt it will swing around before too long. But I liked Crispy Dosa, perhaps more than I enjoyed the sum total of the dishes. Some were good, some were middling but all were reasonably priced enough that you can explore, make mistakes, revisit.

Perhaps my spectacles are a little rose-tinted by just how wonderful it was to sit outside a restaurant again. But I don’t think so: I think Crispy Dosa is a decent, solid restaurant which adds something to Reading, especially if you live on the west side of town, or especially if you’re vegetarian. I’m glad it’s decided to open here, and that paneer Manchurian has my name on it at some point in the not too distant future. It’s no longer the latest restaurant to open in Reading – that honour passed this week to some burger place on Friar Street – so it will just have to settle for being the latest restaurant I’ve reviewed. Small consolation, I know, but them’s the breaks.

Crispy Dosa – 7.0
60 Oxford Road, Reading, RG1 7LT
0118 3273670

https://www.crispydosarestaurant.co.uk
Delivery via: Direct through the restaurant, JustEat, Deliveroo or Uber Eats

Vegivores

Vegivores was probably the most keenly-anticipated opening of last year, and certainly one of the restaurants I got asked to review most often. Not only that, but it also probably received more buzz online in the last couple of months of 2019 than anywhere else: everywhere I looked, on Twitter and Instagram, I saw people raving about the food, be it brunch or dinner. It’s no-reservations, and I heard frequent reports that it could be difficult to get a table there; the first few months are often incredibly difficult for a new restaurant, but Vegivores clearly got off to a flying start.

The buzz makes perfect sense to me. Vegivores is a proper success story – a journey (so sorry for using that word) from serving street food at Reading’s markets, every Wednesday and Friday in all weathers, to taking on permanent residence in Caversham’s precinct. That they’ve opened their plant-based restaurant next to gammon specialists the Caversham Butcher gives me enormous pleasure, even if I’m not sure whether it’s a happy coincidence or good old-fashioned epic trolling (I always get in trouble for talking about politics or Caversham, so let’s leave it at that).

And then, of course, there’s the meat-free factor: Vegivores is one of Reading’s only entirely meat free restaurants – along with Bhel Puri House and the Global Café – and that’s a sizeable market with very few players in it. It’s entirely a coincidence that I happened to review them in a month when many people are choosing to go vegetarian or vegan, but I’m sure many people doing that would have actively considered a visit to Vegivores.

I can imagine there would be many more natural people to review Vegivores than me. A proper vegetarian or vegan, for a start: I’ve never made a secret of being a meat-loving omnivore, and although I’ve been known to order meat-free starters it’s very rare for me to pick a vegetarian main course. I went through a phase a few years ago of deliberately ordering a vegetarian main course once a month when on duty, and although it definitely exposed the paucity of options for vegetarians and vegans it didn’t leave me itching to make changes to my diet. Nonetheless, I headed over to Caversham on a wet and miserable weekday evening with my other half Zoë to see whether Vegivores would change my mind about plant-based food.

The room was long, thin and nicely done – pretty intimate, with the counter and the open kitchen down one side and the tables along the other. There was plenty of tasteful almost-Scandi bare wood, although the chairs and the wooden banquette weren’t the comfiest. I liked it, even so – it probably had about 30 covers, so I can see it could easily fill up, and even on a truly dismal evening the place was about half-full. It was also nice to have a view of the kitchen, and the pass is under very fetching spotlights which means you can see other people’s food about to to be taken to their tables (and adjust your own order accordingly to have what they’re having).

The evening menu was nicely compact, with a small selection of starters and nibbles (most around the six or seven pound mark) and eight main courses, with an additional special on the night we visited. There was a bit of duplication – a couple of the starters appeared as larger versions in the main courses – but even so I felt like it was a decent range and I easily could have ordered numerous dishes in both sections. If you’re used to being confined to the one token plant-based dish on the menu in restaurants, seeing this might well make you drop to your knees and weep salty tears of gratitude.

The menu doesn’t specifically list items as vegetarian or vegan, and Vegivores’ website doesn’t use either V word, so it wasn’t entirely clear to me whether the yoghurt, mayonnnaise, ice cream and so on were vegan, although I assumed they were. It was a good drinks list, too – wines were all organic, there were some excellent bottled beers and ciders (most either organic or local or both) and a couple of local beers on draft. I had a Santo by Siren Craft – priced at three ninety-five for two thirds of a pint – and Zoë had a bottle of alcohol-free Riedenburger. It didn’t make her feel any happier about being on antibiotics.

Zoë and I both picked starters which could also be ordered as mains, to try and give a better view of the full range of the menu. Mine was the “fishless cakes”, a vegan take on fishcakes with smoked tofu instead of cod or haddock, and some nori to boot. The presentation was attractive, with the three cakes bookended with lemon slices and topped with what was meant to be caper salsa but contained a grand total (I counted: I’m sad like that) of one caper.

As a dish I found it problematic – the taste was pleasant, although the smoke didn’t come through strongly, but the texture let it down. It was so crumbly that it didn’t hold together at all, and that lack of structure meant it didn’t feel like either a fishcake or a potato cake, instead being strangely mealy. I very much liked the dill mayo, which had a sharp taste reminiscent of salad cream, and I would have liked more capers to add acidity.

Zoe’s dish had similar challenges. Tofu skewers came with a ramekin of satay sauce, and although the satay itself was delicious with plenty of depth and complexity the tofu needed more by way of texture, even if it was going to inevitably lack flavour of itself. Interestingly, if you order this as a main course the skewers come covered in the sauce: that might be a better way to serve the starter. Zoë’s favourite bit of the starter was the pickled ginger cabbage which came with it, and I agreed – it suggested the kitchen’s strengths might lie with plants rather than meat substitutes.

I think I would have been disappointed by either of those dishes as a main course, which is why I was so relieved that our main courses, when they arrived, stepped things up considerably.

I had changed my order after seeing the barbecue jackfruit burger up at the pass, and it was a very interesting dish. I’d managed to make it to 2020 without ever eating jackfruit (although I’ve heard it described as the vegan answer to pulled pork many times) and it’s definitely an ingenious substitute. I enjoyed its fibrous texture, married with a slightly-sour barbecue sauce, and it played perfectly against the smashed avocado underneath. But, as with the fishless cake, it didn’t quite hold together as a patty which made for an even messier, sloppier experience than, say, an Honest burger. I liked the creole slaw it came with, dry and mayo-free with a faint hint of something like chipotle, but I wasn’t convinced by the herby potatoes where the texture hinted of being pan-fried without enough oil to properly bring them to life.

Zoë on the other hand adored her main – makhanwala, a vegetable curry with salad, chutney, yoghurt and rice. I only got a forkful but I tended to think she had ordered better than me: it had heat and plenty of depth, the cauliflower was terrific and had a little bite and the decision to use brown rather than white rice made the whole thing substantial, warming and hugely comforting. It was a wonderful thing to eat as the rain lashed the precinct outside and, crucially, it was the only savoury course that didn’t make me slightly miss meat. Zoë also ordered (but didn’t really need) a side order of bread: the four slices felt a little unspecial for £2.50 and I’ll take a lot of convincing that there’s a satisfactory vegan alternative to butter.

The dessert menu was pretty compact, but we both managed to find something on it to order. My melon and prosecco sorbet was a clever idea and beautifully presented with berries, mint and edible flowers, and it tasted fresh and clean. I would have liked the prosecco to come through more, but the real issue was the texture, with big ice crystals in each scoop. I liked it, but I’m not sure I six pounds liked it. Vegivores has a pretty decent selection of dessert wines, so I had my sorbet with a glass of golden passito: it could have been lovely, but it needed to be served chilled. I didn’t mention that at the time because I didn’t think they could have fixed it, and I’d rather have slightly cold dessert wine than no dessert wine at all – in any case, the sorbet was quite cold enough to make up for it.

Zoë was far happier with her brownie with vanilla ice cream. I know there’s some debate about whether brownies belong on a dessert menu (I have a friend who likes to say it’s not a dessert, it’s a cake: it’s a hill he’d gladly die on). That philosophical debate aside, I also thought the brownie was decent but – again – texture was an issue. It tasted good, but was crumblier than a truly great brownie should be. I didn’t know whether the ice cream was vegan or not – that cryptic menu again – but it was possibly a good sign that I couldn’t tell.

Service was excellent all evening – engaged, friendly, interested and clearly passionate about Vegivores. Our server had been working there since it opened in October and she was obviously very proud of what they’d achieved in a short space of time. Our meal for two – three courses and a couple of drinks each – came to seventy-two pounds, not including tip: decent value, overall.

Writing restaurant reviews is a funny thing: the act of mentally digesting your meal can carry on long after you’ve left the place. Sometimes the passage of time makes you appreciate just how good a meal was, sometimes the initial enthusiasm fades away and distance removes enchantment. In the case of Vegivores I thought about it far longer than I normally do, because it involved considering other angles: should I be comparing it with other plant-based food, or with everything I’ve eaten? Did it have to be “good for vegan” or good full stop?

I got assistance from an unlikely source. Vegivores’ co-owner Kevin Farrell was interviewed in November by the excellent Bloody Vegans Podcast (even if you’re not a vegan it’s worth checking out their interview with Tom Bursnall, the owner of Miami Burger: eye-opening doesn’t begin to do it justice) and listening to the interview helped enormously when trying to decide how to approach Vegivores.

In it, Kevin said that not using the V word was a deliberate choice because of the connotations often attached to that word (only last year the Guardian of all places published an article simply entitled “Why do people hate vegans?”). So although everything is suitable for vegans – vegan mayo, vegan yoghurt, vegan ice cream, oat milk as the default in all hot drinks – that explained why the menu didn’t expressly say so. I sort of understand the reasoning, but I still think it wouldn’t do any harm to be clearer.

He also said that he wanted not only to offer an entirely plant-based menu but to show that eating a plant-based diet could be healthy as well as tasty (no doubt with other restaurants like Miami Burger in mind). So, for instance, Vegivores is proud of not deep-frying anything. Again, it makes perfect sense, but it also might explain why my fishless cakes lacked a bit of structure and my herby potatoes were a tad wan.

But the thing that struck home most was Kevin saying that the restaurant gets, and is keen to attract, an omnivore clientele as well – so not just vegans and friends of vegans but presumably people who are considering a vegan lifestyle or simply want to cut down their meat consumption, whether that’s for environmental reasons, health reasons or of course unease about the way animals are treated.

That’s the point where I realised that rating them as a vegan restaurant, rather than a restaurant pure and simple, was missing the point. Patronising, too: I remember many years back when I reviewed Nibsy’s tying myself in knots deciding whether to talk about gluten. I admire Vegivores for wanting to be thought of as a restaurant that happens to be vegan (although they would no doubt use a different term) rather than a vegan restaurant, with the many associations attached to that phrase.

So did Vegivores do enough to convert this omnivore? Not quite, I think. Much of the time they were close on flavour, and I do think it’s impressive to offer a vegan mayonnaise or vegan ice cream which don’t feel like they involve any compromises. But food is also about texture, and that’s where I felt Vegivores fell down somewhat, whether it was crumbly fishcakes, that brownie, or jackfruit that didn’t really hold together. It still felt to me like something was missing and – with the exception of the vegetable curry, probably the most conventional and “authentic” dish we tried – none of it was quite powerful enough to make me feel like constraining my choice by eating there.

You may well disregard this as the preconceptions of an omnivore who is too much of a carnivore to be completely open-minded. Perhaps that’s true, but at least I acknowledge that possibility. Many people whose opinions I respect love Vegivores – Zoë enjoyed her meal far more than I did, for instance – so I may have to accept that this is one occasion where I just don’t quite get it. I love their story, I admire what they’re trying to build but it’s difficult for me to envisage an occasion when Vegivores would be my first choice. Not that it matters: there’s huge integrity to what they’re doing and I’m sure they will do extremely well.

I will say this, though – whether or not I fully appreciated Vegivores, they are one of the most significant restaurants to open in Reading for a very long time. It’s a clear statement of intent to every restaurant – in Caversham and in the rest of Reading – that pays lip service to meat-free food just for the sake of having an item on the menu, or to exploit the vegan pound. Vegivores is coming for those restaurants: if they carry on doing that, Vegivores will take their customers and their business and go from strength to strength. Even though they weren’t quite my cup of tea, they’ll absolutely deserve to.

Vegivores – 7.1
41 Church Street, RG4 8BA
0118 9472181

https://www.wearevegivores.com

Global Café Kitchen

N.B. RISC announced in June 2021 that the Global Café Kitchen would remain closed until 2022 and that when it reopened it would be run by RISC, so this review is defunct. I’ve left it up for posterity.

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/