Pub review: Park House

I try my best, doing this restaurant reviewing lark, to visit places I think are likely to be either good or interesting, or ideally both; with a few notable exceptions, I don’t go anywhere where I think I’m definitely going to have a bad meal. And even if I have my reservations, I try to turn up with an open mind, ready to find the positives in my experience, however difficult that is. Sometimes the gods smile on me and I have a run of beautiful meals, one after the other. And that’s brilliant – exceptional meals are easier to write about, and people enjoy reading about them. Conversely, the worst thing is a run of bad meals. A succession of stinkers. That does rather break the soul.

The worst run I can remember started at the end of 2019. It began with a truly awful dinner at TGI Friday, and continued with the grisly spectacle of doner meat nachos at German Doner Kebab. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was going to the Dairy, the university bar and kitchen just down the road from the MERL. I’d always loved drinking there, especially on a hot day, but the food was bloody awful. That made three cruddy meals on the spin and nearly two months without enjoying a meal on duty: it was the kind of vale of tears that makes you seriously think about chucking the whole thing in.

Then at the start of this year, there was a surprising development: the Dairy published a completely new menu on Instagram. And it made all the right noises – beef came from the University’s farm four miles down the road, eggs were from Beechwood Farm (did you know that Beechwood Farm was run by Reading University alumni? I didn’t) and all the bread was supplied by Waring’s. Not only that, but the menu was full of the kind of things you might actually want to eat. Crispy fried chicken and pickled watermelon burger? Brisket and blue cheese ciabatta? Jerk spiced plantain and halloumi skewers? Count me in!

Something was clearly afoot at the University because a week ago Park House, its bar on campus, published a brand new spring menu. Again, it all looked distinctly tempting, and again the provenance was called out, with the beef coming from the University’s farm and name checks for the excellent Nettlebed Creamery and the Cotswolds’ Hobbs House Bakery. (Not everyone was overjoyed, mind you: I really can’t believe you won’t sell cheesy chips any more, said one comment). Park House has always been one of my very favourite places for a pint in the sunshine, but was it possible that it also offered great, affordable food under the radar? Zoë and I ventured out on a sunny spring evening to put it to the test.

It’s truly a gorgeous spot, inside and out, one of those beautiful Victorian redbrick buildings Reading so specialises in (I think I read somewhere that it’s by Alfred Waterhouse, of Reading Town Hall and Foxhill House fame: I can’t find any evidence of that, but it’s definitely in keeping). It used to be the university’s Senior Common Room, and it still has a distinctly clubbable feel inside, all dark panelled walls and solid wood floors. You could imagine trying to have an intellectual conversation in those rooms, put it that way.

And if you failed it would probably be because of the selection of beers. Park House punches well above its weight with a range many Reading pubs would envy: a dozen beers and ciders with a range of cask and keg. And again, there’s a distinctly local feel with Siren Craft, Elusive, Double-Barrelled and Phantom well represented (in fact, the most exotic drinks on the menu are from Cotswold Cider Company, a colossal 39 miles away). It doesn’t surprise me that Park House has made it onto Reading CAMRA’s Ale Trail this year and the things we tried – a couple of pales from Siren and a mild from Elusive – were yet another reminder of how well served we are in these parts for beer.

Having praised the interior, we did end up eating and drinking outside for a couple of reasons. One was that Park House was distinctly crowded: 6 o’clock on a Monday, surprisingly, seems to be peak eating and drinking time. The other, more happily, is that Park House’s outside space is a natural sun trap, and further proof – if any were needed after visiting the Nag’s Head – that there are few car parks you couldn’t improve by turning them into beer gardens. It’s a proper happy place for me, and it’s where I had my first al fresco pint last year after the longest lockdown winter of all time (14th April 2021, since you didn’t ask). So, the scene was set: was Park House going to be a surprise find, or a disappointment of The Dairy 2019 proportions? It was time to find out.

There are separate menus for breakfast and Sunday lunch, but the rest of the time Park House offers a relatively compact lunch and dinner menu – more compact than I thought, because for some reason the “Crafty Grill” section, offering burgers and hot dogs, wasn’t available. I think it’s also a Sundays only thing. So actually you have a nicely streamlined choice in front of you – less than half a dozen starters and eight mains, one of which is just a bigger portion of one of the starters. The use of “starters” and “mains” might give you the misleading idea that you can order them all at the same time to arrive at different times: don’t try this if you go there, because I just got a blank look and a polite request that you order as you go. Still, it beats the Wagamama approach of bringing anything out whenever they feel like it.

I should also add that everything is ultra-reasonably priced: most of the starters hover around the five pound mark and the vast majority of mains are less than a tenner. Laudably, they’re also trying to include calorie counts on their menu, although this seems to be a work in progress and I for one would rather they didn’t bother.

I really wanted to try the rarebit on the starters menu: Highmoor is one of Nettlebed’s finest cheeses and the thought of it bubbling away on Hobbs House sourdough – for a smidge over four pounds, into the bargain – was a delectable one. But sadly it wasn’t available, and although I was disappointed that they’d run out of either bread or cheese I was also pleased to see that they didn’t try and pass off something inferior instead.

The pick of the starters, anyway, were the smoked pork ribs. They were huge, irregular beasts that came away from the bone cleanly, and I loved the decision to give them a dry spice rub rather than slather them in sauce – so you got mustard seed, what I suspect was cumin and even some honey notes in there. They were served with a wonderfully light and clean coleslaw, and even here you could see the attention to detail, with crisp thin batons of apple and scarlet slices of chilli which added more colour than heat. Like the ribs, the coleslaw was better than it needed to be, and that’s always a winning quality.

I loved this dish, and at just under six pounds it was the kind of thing you could order just because you had a cold beer it would go perfectly with, or because the sun was out, or because it was a Monday. If only all bar food was like this. I loved it so much, in fact, that we ordered a second portion to come with our main courses: maybe there were advantages to ordering each course separately, after all.

The smoked cod croquettes were less successful, which was a pity because they leapt off the page as something I had to try. It was just weird that they came without breadcrumbs: the picture of this dish on Park House’s instagram shows the croquettes breaded, but these were lacking a coating and looked weirdly naked, as if they’d been skinned. And that had an impact in a couple of ways – it meant they didn’t have that lovely crunchy shell, but also it meant that when you cut them with a knife they sagged and deflated, like a sad party balloon.

It’s a pity, because the bones of the dish were good, with a nice whack of salt cod and a fresh and tangy tomato salsa (although again, it could have done with more heat from the chilli). Only afterwards did I realise that maybe the croquettes had no breadcrumbs for the same reason that the kitchen couldn’t serve rarebit. I daresay that if you order it, you’ll probably have better luck than I did.

Mains were uneven too but, as with the starters, the best of them showed real imagination. Confit duck salad, Zoë’s choice, was a beauty – partly because of the confit duck, which is never not good, but mostly because of what it was paired with. It could have given salad a good name, because it had so much going on – ribbons of carrot and radish for texture, segments of orange adding bright sweetness and a welcome scattering of edamame. It was all brought together by a fantastic dressing with plenty of aromatic sesame oil in the mix.

What this had in common with many great dishes from far more lauded restaurants was that every forkful could be slightly different from the last, but every bit as delicious. In an ideal world I’d have liked the duck leg to be ever so slightly bigger – so I could have tried more of it – but for less than nine pounds it was hard to fault.

I wish my fish and chips had been equally hard to fault, but it wasn’t to be. The best of it was the fish itself – beautifully cooked, the batter light, lacey and full of delicious crenellations. But the chips, which I’m pretty sure were bought in, were a little variable with a few grey patches that put me off them. There were peas, if you like that sort of thing: I don’t especially, but they were just fine. Tartare sauce was good, but there wasn’t anywhere near enough of it. And for that matter, lovely though the fish was, it was on the slender side for just over ten pounds. I couldn’t help but compare it with the colossal slab of fried leviathan you get at the Lyndhurst for eleven fifty (the Lyndhurst’s chips are miles better, too).

All in all, our meal – three starters, two mains and a pint and a half each – came to just under fifty pounds. It’s worth calling out the price of drinks in particular, too – our beers and ciders came in at around four pounds a pint, a mile away from the rarified prices you’d get in town at the Allied Arms or Blue Collar Corner.

So Park House isn’t the home run it could have been, but it was none too shabby all the same, with bags of potential. If you went there and just ate the ribs followed by the confit duck salad – Zoe’s order, but then she always picks well, present company excepted – you might well come away raving about the quality and the value. And if you went on a day when all their figurative ducks were in a row, the rarebit was on the menu and the croquettes hadn’t been flayed alive, you’d be counting the days until a return visit.

But I easily saw enough to persuade me to recommend it. The thought that had been put into the menu, the little touches in some of the dishes, the fact that they didn’t just knock up a rarebit with second-string ingredients – all of these things couldn’t help but endear me to the place. And it’s still one of the best spots, on a sunny weekend afternoon, to go with a paperback, get a drink, top up your tan and maybe accidentally-on-purpose order some ribs, because it beats yet another humdrum packet of Pipers Crisps. Are they the best bar snack in Reading? Quite possibly.

Park House – 7.3
Whiteknights Campus, University of Reading, RG6 6UA
0118 9875123

https://www.hospitalityuor.co.uk/bars-and-pubs/park-house/

Restaurant review: Tasty Greek Souvlaki

Last year, when I emerged from my cocoon and began reviewing takeaways, my first choice was Tasty Greek Souvlaki on Market Place, the thriving restaurant occupying the site where MumMum used to be. It was the natural choice: it was the first (and arguably the most interesting) new restaurant to open in 2020, and one which had quickly embraced delivery as its best chance to ride out an extremely challenging year in hospitality. So I ordered my first on duty takeaway from them, and very nice it was too (you can read about it here). 

Tasty Greek Souvlaki is essentially a carnivore’s paradise, and the menu largely revolves around different quantities of different dead animals cooked in different ways: do you want them cut into cubes, threaded on a skewer and cooked on charcoal, or would you rather go for something a little more primal like chops? Or is your preference to have them pressed into a magical revolving pillar of constantly grilled elephant leg which is then shaved off in thin slivers and fried until crispy? Would you like it in a pitta or a toasted sandwich, with or without chips?

Some people would treat that series of decisions as one disgusted shudder after another. Those people, to be honest, are unlikely to eat at Tasty Greek Souvlaki, although I’m told the falafel wrap is decent (if not massively Greek). Personally, I found it too difficult to choose for a very different reason: I kind of wanted it all, so when I ordered takeaway I went for their mixed grill platter, which gives you exactly that. It was an embarrassment of carnivorous riches, it was a wonderful way of being transported to the Mediterranean without leaving your sofa. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, a cardboard box absolutely crammed with every which kind of meat.

I loved it, and ever since then the Big Box Of Meat has been a regular fixture at my house – not too often, because I didn’t want to kill the magic, but every few months on a night when we couldn’t face the cooking. It was always hot, it always arrived quickly and it never let you down. And it cost something like twenty-six pounds, which was ridiculously affordable.

But it was bound to be far nicer in the restaurant itself, plucked from the grill, loaded on to a plate and brought to the table without delay, and so I’ve been looking forward to a proper on duty visit to Tasty Greek for a long old time. Last Saturday, Zoë and I turned up just after midday for an overdue reunion with possibly Reading’s finest meat feast.

The restaurant looks fetching inside, and they’ve done a good job with it. I don’t know how big the kitchen was when it used to be MumMum, but it must have been huge because with that taken out and the open kitchen along one wall the place is surprisingly spacious. It doesn’t feel like a place to linger, necessarily – a little like Bakery House – but then it isn’t that kind of restaurant anyway: no starters, mains and desserts here, really, and just a couple of Greek beers in the way of alcohol. But it’s a nice room, with a splash of Hellenic blue on the walls.

I sat outside, though, and I really liked their outside space. It’s all tables for two, and they’ve done that Parisian thing of putting the chairs side by side, looking out on Market Place. I suspect it’s just as popular with people drinking freddos and smoking cigarettes as it is with people having lunch, but having experienced both souvlaki culture and coffee culture in Athens I’d say it’s pretty authentic in that respect. It’s a great spot for people-watching, too: all things being equal, on a sunny day you could almost convince yourself that you’re somewhere else. We slurped on our cappuccino freddos – creamy, bitter, thoroughly Greek – and waited for our food to arrive. 

We ordered the mixed grill, as I’ve already said, but if you don’t want a symphony of grilled meats for two at a bargain price (it’s leapt up to twenty-eight pounds since last year) there are plenty of other ways to consume smaller, more discrete portions of dead animal. Pitas cost about six pounds, skepasti (toasted sandwiches) and merida (platters) are around eleven pounds; when I put it like that, perhaps you can see why the mixed grill looks like a good shout at fourteen quid a head. There are salads too, but if you’re going to a place called Tasty Greek Souvlaki and ordering a salad I’d probably class you as beyond help.

There’s only so much even I can say about a whole plate of grilled flesh, so let’s get straight to that. It was huge – so huge that it barely fitted on the table – and a fair amount of it was sitting on a glorious edible carpet of gyros meat, so however much food you thought you had turned out to be nowhere near the full amount. As we ate and ate, it didn’t feel like we made any inroads. And it can’t be denied that it really looked the part – just look at the picture and, unless you’re vegan or vegetarian, tell me that nothing about it makes you want to dive in.

And one thing I really like about Tasty Greek Souvlaki, when I ordered their takeaway and now, is that nothing is an afterthought. The pitta was beautiful fluffy stuff, perfect for wrapping up meat, chips or both and dipping in the tzatziki or the special sauce (which mainly reminded me of burger sauce). And the chips are really good: when I reviewed their takeaway I said they were good at making you feel like they make their own chips, even though I’m sure they don’t. And they were even better straight out of the kitchen – crispy, golden and flecked with oregano.

And yet, with the meats I wasn’t quite as bowled over as I expected to be. Over the last year or so I’ve become accustomed to ordering takeaway from restaurants where previously I’d have eaten in and mentally dialling down my expectations, knowing it wouldn’t be quite so good, quite so hot, quite so crispy, quite so fresh. With Tasty Greek Souvlaki I was expecting the same phenomenon in reverse, but in reality the gap between delivery and eating in was far, far narrower than I thought it would be. And in some cases that slightly exposed the limitations of the food.

So the souvlaki, for instance, taken straight from the grill without any excuses or mitigation, were a tad bland. The lack of marination showed that little bit more, the pork souvlaki in particular was slightly tough and the tzatziki had to do quite a lot of heavy lifting to make it interesting. The slab of pork belly looked decent, but in reality it lacked crispiness or caramelisation and I found, partly because of the sheer quantity of food, that I didn’t want to finish it. None of those things felt like they’d been especially seasoned, either.

It wasn’t all bad. The kofte, with a little more texture and depth of flavour, I rather liked.  And the village sausage – scored, butterflied, almost-charred on the outside – was very enjoyable: I worried it would be pink inside or homogeneous but it was one of the hits of the meal. The biggest irony is that I’m often suspicious of sausages on restaurant menus because of the mystery meat potential but Tasty Greek’s MVP, the thing it deserves to be famous for, is its gyros, the very epitome of mystery meat.

I said this last time, too, but it bears repeating – Tasty Greek’s gyros, and especially its pork gyros, is for my money far and away the best thing they do. Ribbons and shreds of chicken and pork, by turns tender, golden and brittle, dense with savoury flavour and absolutely unmissable. This was the thing I could eat morning noon and night, this is the reason to come back again and again. Tasty Greek Souvlaki? They should have called it Legendary Greek Gyros.

There was a salad, too, so I should probably mention that. It was undressed and perfectly decent if you like an undressed salad; I suppose it serves as some kind of calorie offsetting for certain diners, and I almost wish I was that kind of person. Our lunch for two came to something like thirty-two pounds, not including service, and the amount of food we got for that money was just about the right side of obscene. Service, by the way, was brilliant: bright and friendly throughout, and you got the clear impression that the restaurant was a very happy ship.

Tasty Greek Souvlaki has undeniably been an enormous success, and nothing I could possibly say in this review will detract from that. In the space of two years it’s gone from plucky newcomer to a genuine Reading institution, the kind of establishment that feels on some level like it’s always been there, like the space it’s in was always waiting to become what it is now, its best self. 

And I do honestly come not to bury it but to praise it. If my meal didn’t quite bowl me over the way I’d have liked it to, that’s also a tribute to just how well their food adapts for takeaway. None the less, it remains the perfect spot for a quick casual dinner over a bottle of Fix with friends, the sort of place you could go pre-gig or pre-theatre if you’re one of those people doing gigs and theatre now. In that niche, it easily holds its own against the likes of Honest and Pho, and it’s more affordable too. And for lunch on a summer’s day, picking up a pork gyros wrap and eating it in the Forbury is hard to beat: trust me, I’ve tried.

I would sound a slight note of caution, though. There’s never room for complacency in Reading’s restaurant scene, because someone is always waiting in the wings to open their doors, take your customers’ money and steal their hearts. The only people hungrier than restaurant-goers, it seems, are restaurateurs. And if you needed the perfect illustration of that, here it is: not long ago La’De Kitchen opened its first express branch on Market Place, literally opposite Tasty Greek Souvlaki. Another master of charcoal, another king of grilling in the centre of Reading. A falafel’s throw away, across the road.

Is this town big enough for the two of them? Let’s hope so. 

Tasty Greek Souvlaki – 7.5
20 Market Place, RG1 2EG
0118 3485768

https://tastygreeksouvlaki.com
Delivery via: Just Eat, Deliveroo, Uber Eats

Restaurant review: ThaiGrr!

Regular readers will know that my reviews last year, like much of life in 2021, could best be described using that quintessentially post-pandemic word, “hybrid”. Unlike most years, when I’d traipse to a restaurant fortnightly and write about it, last year was a mixture of all sorts – takeaways, from new restaurants and old favourites, a first (unsuccessful) dabble with restaurant DIY kits and later, as the weather improved, “proper” restaurant reviews. 

Even those were an eclectic bunch. I made a point of revisiting some of the earliest restaurants I’d reviewed, with varying results. Some, like Pepe Sale and London Street Brasserie, held up nicely despite eight intervening years. Others, like Buon Appetito, had been transformed. And then there was Zero Degrees: pants then, pants now. I also reviewed a couple of places outside Reading, making it as far as Bristol and London. By 2021 standards, that was exotic stuff.

Then there were the new places in Reading. I tried to tick off as many as I could but timing, the vicissitudes of life under Covid and my personal approach to risk meant that many were al fresco visits. That made for a lovely time in the sunshine at O Português, a sublime meal at Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen and, towards the end of the year, a game attempt at shivering away outside Gordon Ramsay Street Burger

But it also meant that my first introduction to some of Reading’s most interesting new places was as takeaways – and however good a takeaway is, it can’t match eating in the restaurant. Part of that’s the atmosphere, the hubbub and people watching. But, more prosaically, there’s the basic fact that your food comes straight to your table from the kitchen, arranged on plates by someone who isn’t you, looking all nice.

So some of last year’s big names are still waiting for a “proper”review. I’m yet to eat at Tasty Greek Souvlaki, for instance, and I feel that’s long overdue. I managed to eat at La’De Kitchen once last year, back in early May when you could only sit outside and it wasn’t yet warm enough to comfortably do so, however many blankets they brought out. But I didn’t review it: I was happy just to be there at all. And, for that matter, too cold.

One of the most noteworthy of the Class of ’21 that I haven’t visited in the flesh is ThaiGrr!: I had their takeaway last May and was blown away by it all. They put so much thought into how they packaged for delivery that I wasn’t sure the gap between eating in and having takeaway would be as marked as it was for, say, Greek or Turkish food. But I was educated on this subject by a regular reader of mine who I bump into most weeks at Blue Collar. 

“You need to eat in” he said. “However good you think the fried chicken is at home, it’s miles better in the restaurant.” Given how much I’d liked it from the comfort of my own sofa this was a powerful incentive to pay ThaiGrr a visit, so on a Saturday lunchtime Zoë and I swung by to try it out. It’s in the less fashionable part of town round the back of the Broad Street Mall, on the same strip as Pepe Sale and Bierhaus. I don’t know about you, but it feels to me like the Broad Street Mall has been up and coming for as long as I can recall without ever having upped and came, so to speak. 

Perhaps the people who make these claims feel that the arrival of a Taco Bell, along with (at the other end of the spectrum) an independent cinema justify that assessment. But it still feels to me like there’s much to do. The bandwagon-chasing street food market they tried in 2020 closed without fanfare, and now it’s just another abandoned pound shop in an area well served by pound shops. The contrast will be further heightened from this weekend with the opening of Blue Collar Corner, Glen Dinning’s permanent (and very snazzy) street food site; in a year, he’s done more to lift that area than the Broad Street Mall has managed in far, far longer.

Anyway, that carping aside, the ThaiGrr site is really rather appealing. It manages to strike the right balance between being neutral and being sterile: everything is white and clean, but it isn’t soulless. The blurb on the tables explains that ThaiGrr is modelled on a style of restaurant popular in Thailand, and geared around quick meals, whether that’s a lunch break or a grabbing something pre-theatre. That also explains the model, in that a large part of their menu is ready and pre-cooked behind the counter. 

In that sense it’s similar to Kokoro I suppose – but ThaiGrr offers more of a restaurant experience, because its specials and sides are cooked to order and everything comes on proper crockery rather than in a cardboard tub. Just as ThaiGrr has thought hard about how to offer takeaway, it has a clear idea of what kind of restaurant it wants to be. As I was to discover, that clarity of purpose largely carried through to the food.

It’s an attractive menu, too. Most of the regular dishes come in two sizes, medium and large with a faintly ridiculous one pound price difference between the two, much like Kokoro. None of them costs more than seven pounds fifty. Again, this is structured in such a way as to be a brisk experience compared to eating in most restaurants: although some of the dishes would clearly be classed as starters elsewhere, here they are are billed as sides. The idea is that you order (and eat) them at much the same time as your main course, and although the food is brought to your table, you order at the counter. It feels – that word again – distinctly hybrid.

I was torn between ordering the dishes I’d so loved the first time round and striking out into undiscovered sections of the menu. In the end, we did a bit of both although our selection was strongly influenced by a couple of things: not being able to miss out on that fried chicken for one, and Zoë’s insistence that she wanted the pork belly dish I’d ordered when I popped my ThaiGrr cherry last year. “I’m having that pork”, she said, with a look I knew all too well: there was no way around it. 

Still, no matter. It gave me an incentive to try something different, but looking back all I can see on the menu are other dishes I wish I’d tried. It really is that sort of menu: however carefully you read it the first time, every time you look at it after that you spot at least two more things you would have ordered, on another day. Our order – two mains, three sides and a couple of mineral waters came to thirty-four pounds, which struck me as thoroughly decent value. ThaiGrr doesn’t have an alcohol licence, another pointer that it’s not a place to necessarily linger.

I was told our food would take five to ten minutes, and ten minutes later the dishes started coming to the table, all at once, an embarrassment of riches. The fried chicken was indeed even better than I remembered – six generous pieces of jointed chicken, the skin a brittle, salty delight and the meat underneath beautifully tender. It went nicely with the accompanying sweet chilli sauce, but you were just as well rending it from the bone with your bare hands and properly going for it, Henry VIII-style.

As you can probably tell, despite my understated description, I was a fan. In fact, for my money, this is one of the most joyous things you can order anywhere in Reading right now, and if it even remotely sounds like your kind of thing I think a pilgrimage to ThaiGrr is in order at your earliest convenience. My only regret is that we didn’t order one each: I know that sharing is caring but sometimes, in my book letting someone have a portion to themselves is how you really show love.

The other sides weren’t as good as the fried chicken – but you could apply that description to most of the food I’ve eaten this year, so let’s not hold it against them. The vegetable spring rolls were nicely hefty, greaseless things that managed not to be stodgy and still had a good crunch in a filling that hadn’t been steamed into submission. I don’t seem to be able to talk about spring rolls in a review without mentioning how good they are at Pho, and this week is no exception, but they were still pretty good. They also came with sweet chilli sauce – in fact all the side dishes did – and although I liked it a little variety might have been nice.

Last but not least, the squid wasn’t as impressive as I remembered. But again, that didn’t stop it being better than practically all the squid dishes on offer in Reading (shamefully, my reference for this has always been London chain Busaba’s ‘Thai calamari’, the sole reason I’m sorry they never opened a branch in Reading after all). It was crispy and beautifully cooked, and if it didn’t have the tenderness of truly fresh squid I found that surprisingly easy to forgive. Besides, when dunked in a little sweet chilli sauce those quibbles melted away.

Back in May last year I’d been decidedly smug when I ordered the moo pad prik – the pork belly dish – while Zoë had slummed it with a green Thai curry. This week she got her revenge by picking it, and I was allowed to taste just enough to remember how magical it is. The combination of flavours here was the biggest sign that ThaiGrr was more imaginative and more complex than a lot of Thai restaurants – that blend of heat and citrus, sweetness, sharpness and chilli. The softness of the pork belly, the crunch of the green beans and that sauce, clinging to everything. I did think it wasn’t quite as amazing as that first time, the meat perhaps a tad less tender.

But was that nostalgia talking, or just a coping strategy to fend off food envy? Possibly the latter because my main course was good but not great. I’d chosen the pork pad kra praw, arguably Thailand’s most famous stir fried dish. This was minced pork with holy basil, soy and fish sauce, served with steamed rice and a fried egg, yolk still nicely liquid, on top. I expected great things from this, and perhaps that was the problem – the texture was good, and it had a nicely savoury note from well-judged use of that fish sauce, but I expected a bit more depth, more of a eureka moment. 

When I thought how much the other pork dish had wowed me, I expected something similar from this and it just wasn’t there. Sometimes it’s all about timing: if this had been the first dish I’d ever eaten at ThaiGrr I’d probably have been delighted, but sadly they’d raised the bar too high by then. Next time I might bite the bullet and try their laab gai, which I suspect will have all the complexity and intensity the pad kra praw was missing (and, no doubt, some ferocity too). But then again, there are about half a dozen dishes on my hit list, and only so many chances to eat them. And one misfire in a meal – by which I mean that it was quite nice rather than amazing – is no bad going.

The thing that makes ThaiGrr difficult to sum up, let alone rate, is that nowhere in Reading is quite like it. Fast food, with the exception of street food, tends to have negative connotations, as if you’re prepared to make concessions because you’re in a hurry. And if you’re spending more you tend to want to take longer, make an event of it. I would unhesitatingly suggest ThaiGrr if you wanted to eat very good food in a rush, and it’s hardly priced as special occasion food, but the fact remains that the nature of the restaurant makes it slightly on the functional side.

I suppose what this all amounts to is that ThaiGrr is properly great, but ever so slightly niche. The only real comparisons I can think of, in terms of no-frills restaurants doing quick food that’s better than it needs to be, are places like Mission Burrito, Sapana Home and Bhel Puri House. That’s not exactly bad company to be in, and ThaiGrr easily holds its own among those restaurants. 

Lots of you won’t be bothered by that, and on many occasions I wouldn’t be either. But the food is so enjoyable that it feels a bit incongruous to be out of the door in half an hour or so wondering what to do with the rest of your evening. And that is possibly the only reason this review isn’t an out and out rave. None the less, next time I’m in a rush or I get off the train from work and can’t be bothered to cook, I know exactly where I’m going. And I’m having that fried chicken, all to myself.

ThaiGrr! – 7.9
1D Queens Walk, Broad Street Mall, Reading, RG1 7QF
07379636771

https://thaigrr.co.uk
Delivery via: Deliveroo, Uber Eats

Restaurant review: Flavour Of Mauritius

Over the last nine months or so, every time I’ve posted my to do list on social media and asked where people would like me to prioritise for a review the answer invariably comes back: Flavour Of Mauritius, please. That’s understandable, I think. First of all, there’s the inevitable air of novelty: Reading is excited about new places at the best of times (it’s a town, after all, that managed to get aerated about Jollibee’s) but the prospect of a Mauritian restaurant is bound to arouse the curiosity of the town’s gastronomic adventurers. What’s Mauritian food like, anyway?

The answer, it turns out, is an intriguing blend, with influences from India, China, Africa and France, resulting in dishes which are a complex cross-pollination of those influences. So some dishes, despite not seeming especially French, have French names – like the bol renversé or upside down bowl, which is far more Sino-Mauritian in character. But biryani is commonplace in Mauritian cuisine too. 

“I stayed in Mauritius for a few nights en route to Réunion once” my well-travelled friend Mike told me on FaceTime over the weekend. “I think I remember eating a lot of Creole food.” Creole food, it turns out, is another speciality of Mauritian cuisine, including dishes like vendaye (fish with onions and mustard) and rougaille. To my shame, before I did my research and wrote this review I thought the latter was just something you might use to treat male pattern baldness.

There’s another reason why Flavour Of Mauritius has been so interesting to Reading folk. We all love a good back story, and Flavour Of Mauritius definitely has one. Husband and wife team Yogeetha and Mark Faulkner had been catering Mauritian food for some time, always with the dream of opening a restaurant one day. And then, when lockdown struck in 2020, and their events were being cancelled left right and centre, they put their talents to good use offering food to hospital workers at the NHS, the police, the fire service, you name it. All told, they delivered over three thousand meals.

Off the back of that, they took the plunge later that year and signed a lease to take over part of the old Standard Tandoori site on the Caversham Road. Standard closed early last year and finally, Flavour Of Mauritius opened over the summer. So – a cuisine not represented anywhere else in Reading, a husband and wife team and the realisation of a long-held ambition: no wonder I get asked to review it so often. 

Arriving at their site around one o’clock on Saturday, I was disconcerted to find the place empty. Not just empty, but sort of closed-looking: no lights on, no music, no signs of anybody there. We loitered for a few minutes, and then a staff member came out from the kitchen and it was as if someone had put a coin in the meter: on came the lights, the music started and suddenly an empty room was a restaurant again.

They’ve done a nice job doing it up, I think. The walls are covered with bright colourful images, some of the brickwork has been painted too and the bar does look a little like a beach bar. They’ve converted part of the front to a kiosk, with a straw roof, selling Mauritian delicacies. I imagine at night, when the place is fuller, it could have a lovely atmosphere. 

All that said the front of the restaurant, with light from the windows, felt like a better place to sit: I’m not sure I’d have wanted to be at the back where things seemed a little dingier. A couple more tables were taken during our lunch but truthfully, it was on the quiet side throughout and I was painfully aware that I might not be judging the ambience at its absolute best.

The menu was wide enough to offer choice but sensibly, didn’t feel overwhelming. Many of the starters are fritter-based (confusingly called gateau on the menu) although there are a few samosas and other bits and bobs: I was disappointed to see that the spicy chicken livers on the menu online hadn’t made it across to the hard copy. Mains are a real mixture of curries, biryani, fried rice, noodles, stir fry and a couple of Mauritian specialities. Nothing is expensive – few of the starters creep past a fiver and only a few mains cost more than a tenner.

Service was friendly and helpful, and the wait staff talked us through some of the dishes – recommending some fritters and explaining the difference between the plethora of rice dishes on offer. We started with a crisp cold beer – looking at something resembling a beach bar will do that to you – and I was delighted that they stocked Phoenix, Mauritius’ very own lager which has been made on the island since the Sixties. It was everything you want from that first beer, that almost-holiday feeling in a bottle. Would I be able to tell it apart from Peroni in a blind tasting? Probably not. Did I find it immeasurably cheering that they stocked it instead of Peroni? Absolutely.

I’ve just remembered that I should also mention the wine list, mainly because it’s surprisingly good. Most of it is thirty pounds and under with some whites that I imagine would pair very well with many of the dishes. It was especially welcome to see a few whites by New Zealand producer Greywacke, at sensible prices. The wine list was definitely better than it needed to be, and I’ll make inroads into it next time I go.

Our starters took a little while to come out, which I found a hugely reassuring sign. These felt like they were made there and then, not fished out of a freezer. We’d started with a selection of fritters, and they turned out to be an excellent choice. I’d seen lots of good reviews online of the cabbage fritters (gateau le choux, don’t you know) and they were completely justified – delicious, greaseless, crispy morsels like the bhaji’s slightly more well-to-do cousin. 

And the chickpea fritters, the gateau piment were also very enjoyable, a crunchier, more rugged variation on falafel. They’d been recommended to me on Twitter, and I’m glad I took the advice. Both sets of fritters went nicely with a fresh mint chutney, with a little hot sauce in a dish on the side to give things edge. Each dish cost less than three pounds, which is a steal any way you want to look at it.

I wasn’t quite so wowed by the third of our starters. We’d hoped to try the lamb samosas, but they were out of them (again, a reassuring sign) so we went for the fish pasties. These were little things filled with minced fish which felt a little too close to Shippams for my liking, and although a dab of that hot sauce improved matters I did feel it was probably concealing rather than augmenting the taste of the dish. This dish cost a smidge over four pounds: if you go to Flavour Of Mauritius, order more fritters instead. 

There was a nice sociable pause between courses, enough to grab some more Phoenix, and I found myself looking forward to what came next. And, in the main, it lived up to the promise. Let’s start with the best dish first, the Mauritian fried noodles. We’d chosen these with chicken, but they ended up coming to the table with both chicken and egg (and no, I don’t know which came first). 

Either way, it was an excellent dish – generous, rich, glossy and absolutely delicious. Everything was just right, and the sauce which coated every strand of every noodle was the star player: sweetly smoky, with more of ketjap manis than soy about it. It dialled up the contrast on everything else, making the chicken more tender, the ribbons of still-firm carrot bright and harmoniously sweet. You might think here he goes, enthusing about chow mein again, and if you do I’d say that (a) I don’t care and (b) at seven pounds fifty you’d be a fool not to order this.

The lamb stir fry was also excellent, with a plethora of veg. The lamb was the headline act here, though, rich and earthy and properly tasting of lamb, not some pale imitation. What I liked a lot about this dish was that I approached it expecting the sauce to be broadly similar to that in the noodle dish, and nothing could have been further from the truth: it still had that lustrous silkiness, true, but there was a good punch to it. If anything, the dish was on the drier side, which meant that there wasn’t enough for the rice to do: I imagine if you order one of their curries, you won’t have that problem.

The only duff note was the vendaye. This dish is served cold (you know, like revenge) but I found it extremely challenging. It was slightly tough pieces of fried fish, some containing a few more bones than I’d have liked, with almost-raw onion, coriander and a spice mix involving industrial quantities of mustard seed. The whole thing was dry in more ways than one. It needed a little moisture, some oil to make it less of a slog. “It’s not for me” said Zoë, almost immediately annexing the rest of the stir fried lamb.

But also, it almost felt dusty on the palate, and the mustard was overpowering. If you can’t get enough of mustard and raw onion, I can confidently say that all your Christmasses have come at once and you really should hightail it to Flavour Of Mauritius at your earliest opportunity. But this, to me, was what my friend Ivor likes to refer to as “advanced”. I fully expect that it’s nothing if not authentic, and I’m glad I can say I’ve tried it, but I’m equally glad I won’t have to try it again. It was also, weirdly, one of the most expensive dishes on the menu. Flavour Of Mauritius has octopus vendaye on the menu too, and I’m glad I didn’t mar my many happy octopus memories by ordering it.

Although service had been pretty attentive during the first part of our meal, it died away after we’d finished our mains. Despite there only being three tables, our finished dishes sat in front of us for quite some time. And that’s a real shame, because if they’d been whisked away I suspect we’d have ordered dessert – the dessert menu was full of interesting things – but the longer you wait the longer your mind has to register that your stomach is actually full. 

By this point a chap who I imagine was the co-owner was doing the rounds and again, he was likeable, chatty and personable. If he’s running the front of house there and you were in the restaurant on a Friday or Saturday night, I can imagine the experience would be completely different: I can see myself going back, further down the line, to put that theory to the test. But as it was we got the bill, settled up and headed off to Phantom for some liquid dessert in the shape of a chocolate dipped pineapple imperial stout which rather knocked my socks off. Our meal came to sixty-two pounds, which includes an optional fifteen per cent tip: I saw some people on TripAdvisor bitching about that, but that’s TripAdvisor for you.

The place Flavour Of Mauritius reminds me most of in Reading is probably O Portugues: authentic, charming and a little rough around the edges. I think in both restaurants you could have a fantastic meal or a distinctly less fantastic one, because each menu contains pitfalls. In one, you could end up with that dusty vendaye, in the other there’s always a risk of a bowl of minuscule snails. And that’s where both places, where all restaurants, to be honest, could use someone like Kungfu Kitchen’s Jo, Geo Café’s Keti or Nandana at Clay’s – a great communicator who knows that food is all about stories, and that you need to bring an unfamiliar cuisine to life to win hearts, minds and stomachs. 

It may be that on another night, Flavour Of Mauritius does that, but it was missing during my visit. But none the less, Flavour Of Mauritius has plenty of heart and I think it deserves support. Even if you just go for the fritters, some fried noodles and an ice cold Phoenix on your first visit, you could do a lot worse. And maybe you can explore the rest of the menu from there: I imagine it contains many pleasant surprises. They have a great back story, like I said. But now they need to do a little more to tell all those other stories.

Flavour Of Mauritius – 7.4
143-145 Caversham Road, Reading, RG1 8AU
0118 4375694

https://www.flavourofmauritius.co.uk
Delivery via: Deliveroo, Uber Eats

Restaurant DIY kit review: Côte At Home

I’ve always liked Côte’s food. And I’m a big fan of eating nice meals at home, especially when the wind is howling outside and the garden is relentlessly battered with rain. So this week, I thought I’d see whether it’s possible to appreciate both at the same time.

Côte’s always been arguably my favourite of Reading’s chains and if the last two years had been anything like the two before that, I’ve no doubt that I’d have eaten there a fair few times. Grabbing one of their outside tables on a sunny day for their prix fixe when I couldn’t be arsed to cook, for example, or having a weekend brunch there and enjoying their soft, crumbly boudin noir. And if they’d been on delivery apps, you can bet you’d have read a review of that last year. 

But Côte chose a different path, an interesting one that differs from most other chains – and most other restaurants, come to that. Instead of doing takeaways, in the summer of 2020 Côte launched Côte At Home, offering a subsection of their menu that can be easily heated at home. It makes sense, when you think about it: Côte prepared some of their meals in a central kitchen and finished them in the restaurant as it was, and this model converted what you could see as a pre-pandemic weakness into a distinct advantage after Covid-19 struck. 

My experiences of heat at home restaurant kits, especially this year, usually left me thinking that I’d eaten a glorified ready meal at inflated prices. Côte offers a simplified version at far closer to ready meal prices, so I wanted to see if they made a case for a better heat at home model. And pricing isn’t the only difference between Côte’s model and operators like Dishpatch. They clearly benefit from scale because they deliver every day, with free delivery if you spend over forty pounds. You have to order forty-eight hours in advance, although some items qualify for express delivery, which means they reach you quicker. 

It isn’t difficult to spend forty quid. Everything is crazily affordable – think five pounds for starters, ten to fifteen for mains, and a fiver for dessert – but they also sell a good range of French cheeses, plenty of wine and beer, steak, sausages and confit duck. The latter comes in at an astonishing four pounds fifty a leg, making it miles better value than my meh-fest at Andrew Edmunds. I picked up a three course meal for two, and added a couple of bottles of Meteor to nudge it over the forty pound threshold (it’s a shame they don’t add their Breton cidre to the website: they’re missing a trick there).

Another contrast between my previous restaurant DIY kit experiences and Côte At Home was how user-friendly delivery was. With the others, you pay over ten pounds for delivery and essentially, they reserve the right to turn up at any point during the day. With Côte At Home, if you pay five pounds they’ll make sure it reaches you before noon. So lo and behold, it was with me first thing in very natty packaging. Inside the box there were an impressive four ice packs, and everything was fetchingly branded. A slip inside explained that literally all of the packaging was recyclable, too. Stowing it all away in the fridge I felt properly curious and excited about the meal that lay ahead, even if it’s the hope that kills you. 

This meal gave me an excuse to try out Côte At Home’s bread, which you finish off in the oven. Back in the day – by which I mean 2014 – I thought that Côte’s bread was the best in Reading, and although many bakers, artisan and otherwise, have wafted through town in the last eight years I still think Côte’s beats most restaurants round here, so I wanted to see how the heat at home stuff compares. And the answer was reasonably well – not up there with, say, Geo Café’s sourdough baguette straight out of the oven that morning (not much hits that exalted standard) but far better than the pasty part-baked baguettes you pick up from a supermarket. They throw in some salted French butter: a nice touch, but really we’d bought the bread to pair with our two starters. 

Of the two, as so often, Zoë’s was better. Smoked salmon rillette was properly lovely stuff, a very generous portion in a handsome ceramic pot (“that will be handy for olives”, she said later) with just enough smoked salmon in the mix to give it a wonderfully wintry taste without overpowering matters. It was a model of simplicity – fish, crème fraîche, capers, shallots and herbs – and extremely good value at four pounds fifty. Most of the Côte at home starters are chilled, with a couple you either heat up on the hob or in the oven, but this one struck me as the pick of the bunch.

It was certainly nicer than my chicken liver parfait, also served in one of those pots. And don’t get me wrong, it was earthy, smooth and reasonably indulgent. But it was hidden under a permacrust of clarified butter that was a little too thick and too much like hard work. And fundamentally it just wasn’t the smoked salmon rillette: food envy had set in at that point, and nothing would redeem it. It did make me wish I’d ordered some cornichons to accompany it – a snip at two pounds – or better still, had the foresight to have some in the cupboard. 

But again, to put this in perspective, if I’d been served this dish in a restaurant I’d have been quite happy with it. And in a restaurant it wouldn’t have cost five pounds. With all the restaurant kits I’d ordered so far it felt like the price was inflated for what you got – I’m sure Côte At Home benefit greatly from economies of scale, and having that central kitchen, but it does give you an idea just how cheaply you can deliver this model.

I’d like to say that the main course lived up to that promise, but it didn’t quite. Again, it was impressive value: a beef bourguignon for two people, with potato purée thrown in, set you back fifteen pounds, less than you’d pay for a single portion in a restaurant. But there was some inconsistency, both in how you cooked it and how it tasted. Some of Côte At Home’s dishes, like the potato purée, only come with instructions for microwave cooking and for those of us without a microwave that can be frustrating: you’d think they’ve had figured out alternative instructions by now.

That said, the potato puree – which I had to improvise, decant and heat up in the oven – was really very good. It was rich, silky and buttery: in short, far better than anything I could rustle up at home and streets ahead of anything you can buy in supermarkets. More expensive than an M&S “ultimate mash” (though not by much) but easily worth the money. 

The problem was the bourguignon. In fairness, when I looked at it there in its plastic tray, brown sludge at the bottom and highlighter-pen-pink nuggets of bacon on top, I thought Oh dear, this just looks like a ready meal. And I was partly wrong, because some lovely alchemy happened in the oven and it came out thoroughly looking the part. And the taste was decent – the onions had softened and sweetened beautifully and the sauce, if thinner than I’d have liked, had all the right notes in the right order. 

But a dish like this stands or falls on the star ingredient, and the beef was variable at best. One bit was so tough and fibrous that I gave up trying to cut through it, another was so unpleasantly gristly that I had to abort mid-chew. A dish like this about the right cuts of meat slow-cooked into submission, and there’s no excuse for something this bouncy or unpleasant. “I don’t know what you’re talking about” said Zoë. “All of mine was fine”. So it’s not all bad: if you order this you might get lucky, but don’t be surprised if your other half pulls faces.

We’d gone for a vegetable side of minted peas with baby onions and baby gem lettuce – and again, it only came with instructions for microwave cooking. It reheated just fine on the hob, though, and I liked the dish a lot – the peas still slightly nutty, the mint and garlic butter playing nicely together – but it was a tad annoying that they’d not thought about non microwave users. And the website could do more, I think, to highlight dishes that are microwave only than have a little sentence squirrelled away that says cooking instructions, ready to microwave. But again, a minor irritation in a pleasant, perfectly serviceable meal.

Although Côte At Home sells a tarte aux pommes – which you definitely don’t have to bung in a microwave – and a very tempting lemon posset, along with a cracking selection of cheese including Morbier, Roquefort and one of my very favourites, Saint Marcellin, Zoë and I both found it impossible to stay away from the chocolate mousse. And again, this was close to the restaurant experience at a far lower cost: for three pounds seventy-five you got a dish that would cost you one pound fifty more if you dined in.

And again, it was difficult to distinguish from the mousse I’ve eaten many times over the years at Côte. It was incredibly smooth and glossy, with either very fine bubbles or no bubbles at all, and if I had one criticism it would be that what’s described as a dark chocolate mousse feels about as dark as an episode of The Repair Shop. But looking back at my review of Côte eight years ago I ordered the chocolate mousse for dessert and said almost exactly the same thing. So you can hardly fault them for consistency.

So, with the exception of that unforgivably bouncy meat, Côte At Home was hard to fault. Incredibly generous portions, a routinely high level of quality, a supremely convenient delivery experience and great packaging. And of course you can add cheese, or wine, or confit duck to your order and suddenly it goes from a single meal in to a combination of a brilliant midweek supper and a trip to the deli. So why do I feel like there’s a slight underlying note of being underwhelmed in this week’s review? Do you feel that too?

I’ve been pondering that all week, and I think it comes down to the fact that a restaurant is so much more than its food. Part of they joy of eating in Côte, of what a treat it is, is how convivial it can be – the hubbub, the people watching – and that it can be done on the spur of the moment. It is, as eating out always should be, a bit of a special event. And takeaways can be like that too. I’m sure that at their best – although I’m yet to experience this myself – restaurant DIY kits also feel like a treat. And Côte At Home’s genius is also their biggest drawback: something about it feels unspecial. It really does sit in a new space between ready meals and takeaways, and it’s such a new space that I don’t really know how I feel about it.

And if you need any more evidence that this is an evolving area, you don’t have to look any further than Ocado. Because if you fire up your computer to place an order with Ocado (and if you do, I recommend the M&S “Our Best Ever Steak Pie”: it’s miles better than this week’s bourguignon) you’ll find some dishes from Côte At Home in there. You’ll also find options from Pasta Evangelists, another of the earliest ventures delivering restaurant quality food to your doorstep. And if they don’t appeal, you could just pick up a steak from Hawksmoor. 

The lines are getting blurred, and with that come plusses and minuses; you can get fancier versions of the convenience you’re used to, but the experience of treating yourself might lose some of its magic. Convenience, I’m increasingly starting to think, often has that effect. So I would cautiously say that you should give Côte At Home a try. I’m sure I’ll use them again, if only to enjoy confit duck and potato gratin one midweek evening (with a selection of cheese for later on). But I do worry that we’ll reach a stage, to paraphrase George Orwell, where we’ll look from ready meal to DIY kit, and from DIY kit to ready meal, and from ready meal to DIY kit again, but already it will be impossible to say which is which.

Côte At Home

https://coteathome.co.uk (or via Ocado)