It’s fair to say Café Madras, although initially popular, did go downhill a bit before the end of its tenure. Items were repeatedly not on the menu and often you didn’t get the meals that were ordered due to either menu overload, staffing or language problems. It was very cheap though and I remember having a real table-creaker there once, costing just £24 for the four of us.
I once ate something so spicy and hot I was forced by my fellow diners to stop as I went unusually quiet, turned a funny colour and the sweat on my bald pate had reached ‘Airplane‘ proportions. Who would have thought a dish called pepper chicken could be so hot?
The historic southern gateway to the town, Whitley Street itself needs a real clean up. Reading Borough Council need to engage the traders a bit more and maybe use some enforcement along this strip as the dangerous double parking, the presence of huge traders bins blocking access and the incredibly uneven pavement looks as if it is hosting some sort of litter festival at times. However, it does have a great Korean restaurant and a brilliant kebab shop with various other very good food outlets and of course nearby in Mount Pleasant is the most attractive and happiest café bar in Reading, the wonderful Pau Brasil.
Vel is advertised as a South Indian kitchen and bar and I was intrigued by the restaurant’s makeover as there is certainly a kitchen but I am not sure it has all the credentials of a bar. There is a small wooden counter area at the back that has just three high stools that looks like the sort of bar that men of a certain age install in their back garden sheds, otherwise there is mainly restaurant chairs and tables. There is draught lager available and I had a Kingfisher on the night which was a bit ‘pipey’. I would prefer restaurants just kept a good selection of bottles as keeping draft lines going is not a straightforward process.
There seems to be far more space now and there really are a lot of tables evenly spread out on some classy flooring. There is an open view kitchen behind glass which takes up a lot of the second room here and it is very well done indeed – the huge windows give a really nice dolls-house view from outside too. It was a shame to see the colourful street mural go but the refurbishment does look grand.
The dosa (spelt thosai on this menu), which resembles a pancake or even a crêpe, has an amazing semi-crisp consistency which is light to eat and flavoursome. This dish comes with a yoghurt raita, two other piquant curry and herb sauces and a sambar in a black pot (curry vegetable stew). It has a tasty middle filling of spicy potato which has a bit of luxurious slow burner after-heat. Unusually, the menu does give the option of adding toppings or a rice or vada (savoury doughnut) for extra money but it seems to be a fairly accomplished dish without.
The vegetarian rava dosa with green chillies and coriander was excellent – tasting fresh and light but with a lovely mule kick of searing heat. I could see the mixed meat starters I ordered being lovingly set ablaze by the chefs – this piece of kitchen theatre lit up the room as the flames seemed to lick the very kitchen ceiling.
The large portion of lamb chop, tandoori chicken and sheekh kebab for two was so well marinaded and cooked the tasty meat just fell off the bones and the kebab was dense and intensely meaty. Again, everything was so well spiced – just right with a great balance of heat and flavour. The meat sat on the sweetest of semi-soft and then crisp fried onions with lemon, which I would have enjoyed even on its own. The food is very well presented here with no prison trays or table tennis bats – they use a combination of skillets, bowls, plates and slates. The music was atmospheric and not too intrusive, more Indian folky than Bhangra.
Vel is brand new and I think the menu, the prices and the service could do with some tweaking. I think the menu is too big and confusing and £7 or so is a little expensive for recognised starters like chilli ghobi (cauliflower) and simple dosas which could be described as street food.
I went along on opening night and ate for free and had a lovely spicy vegetable dosa with all the trimmings including biryani rice and vada and so it is slightly disconcerting to see these trimmings as extras on the menu.
The host and waiters at the Namaste Restaurant at the Hook & Tackle down the road are always on hand to explain any part of their menu and this would be a good idea here too.
There was a ‘cash only’ sign on the door when I visited Vel last week so I hope all is ok. I really hope this place thrives as the cooks are very good indeed. The exotic subtlety and variety of south Indian food is delivered so well here and the range of vegetarian options is impressive. These three fellows I saw cooking with such focus and gusto behind the kitchen glass really know their onions and their spices.
Matthew Farrall, the author of this article, died on 20 April 2018.
We are grateful to his family for allowing us to continue to display his work online.