Sample the unfamiliar flavours and gigantic portions at 805 Restaurant & Grill, Reading’s only West African fine dining restaurant.
I’ve been meaning to review 805 Restaurant and Grill for a long time. Since I moved to west Reading, I’ve been trundling past its unremarkable doorway tucked away from Oxford Road by the 24-hour Tesco, usually with a stack of shopping bags in tow. Many times over the last year or so, I’ve peered past its industrial frontage, through to the gleaming white napkins and shiny wine glasses and wondered what somewhere so smart was doing sandwiched in between a Curves Gym and a Papa John’s.
It made my to-do list when I first started reviewing Reading restaurants, but I always kept putting it off. I’d tell myself it was because there was somewhere newer worth looking at first. But, the real reason? Well, 805 is African fine dining, and, I don’t know about you, but my experiences with African food are a definite blind spot.
Apart from eating at Tutu’s Ethiopian Table, I know next to nothing about African food. At least, that was until I met a friend of mine who is from Zimbabwe. He’s cooked for me, told me about dishes from home and also introduced me to the Nigerian classic Jollof rice.
So, knowing 805 couldn’t languish on the to-do list much longer in case it shuttered before I got there (not impossible, given recent restaurant turnover), I roped my friend in one Friday night to see if he could be my sherpa through the unfamiliar menu.
805 was first launched on the Old Kent Road in 2001 by a husband and wife looking to introduce a new kind of African dining to London. It then spread to Hendon, Abuja in Nigeria and now, Reading. At first, I kept thinking of 805 Restaurant as a broadly ‘African restaurant’. On its social media it just calls itself ‘African fine dining’ and the first page of its menu gives vague continental mentions to African flavours.
But it was only when we looked through the menu in detail that it really clicked that 805 is, in fact, predominantly West African and mainly Nigerian food. “I mean, I know Jollof” my friend said scanning the dishes, “but most of these names are just as alien to me as they are to you.” So, there went my sherpa.
Fortunately, the ‘fine dining’ element is still true. Inside, the restaurant is gorgeous. Far from the warehouse vibe I had expected, the high-ceilinged room is warm and inviting, filled with light-wood tables, curved chairs and stylish low-hanging bamboo lampshades. The walls are covered in a soft, feathered wallpaper and stunning five-foot high canvases of African women painted in strong jewel tones. A bumping soundtrack of R&B and Afrobeats adds to the atmosphere. It almost has the vibe of a hip co-working space.
The other diners were mainly bustling Nigerian families. My friend and I appeared to be the only non-Nigerian diners that night, and I got the sense that’s not a rarity as the menu didn’t make things easy to navigate.
Lots of dishes are listed with only their traditional name and no description. Take, for instance, the nkowbi, which I hovered over ordering for a starter, and which turns out to be boiled cow’s foot. I skipped that one. I asked the waitress for a bit of a guide, but she was new and kept popping back to check with the kitchen. So in the end, we decided to just go with our gut.
The grill section is probably the easiest to comprehend, with lists of barbecued meat and fish. I zoned in on that and happened to chose the most popular dish on the menu, the Monika tilapia – roasted fish served with plantain.
But the most interesting dishes sit in the ‘traditional staples’ section. It’s full of dishes such as pounded yam, amala or ogbono (nope, me neither). Although it’s not made clear on the menu, picking your main is a complex, multiple choice Tetris where you select a carb from the top, a vegetable base for your soup from the middle and a protein from the bottom. Like Nigerian food ‘Countdown’.
This concept seemed to be where Nigerian and Zimbabwean food crossed over as my friend explained how it worked with the tone of a kindly maths teacher, while I blinked at the menu as if it was an exam. ”So, from this list I’ll choose the garri first, then I’m gonna pick the egusi in my soup, as I’ve heard that’s good. And I’ll go with chicken, as we’re having a beef starter”. The process gave you a lot of variety to put together your perfect flavour combo. But I was still at somewhat of a loss to imagine what would actually come out of the kitchen.
The drinks list is much easier to navigate with a good selection of wine around the £20 mark and Nigerian export Guinness (maltier, apparently) as well as Star Beer, which I picked. It’s a decent, if plodding, Heineken-like Nigerian lager which proved a crisp accompaniment to the food.
While we sipped our Star Beer and waited for the food to arrive, I noticed a lot of the other families leaving with doggy bags, not a particularly common site in Reading. By the time our orders arrived, I understood why. The dishes at 805 are some of the largest plates of food I’ve encountered.
Our starter was suya, slow-barbecued spicy beef strips, a Nigerian street-food favourite. On top of the large, rustic earthenware plate sat a mound of long, thinly cut, blackened beef strips mixed with softly-charred onions, raw onion slices and tomato.
At first the portion didn’t look intimidating, but once we’d picked up the accompanying toothpicks topped in fancy paper hats, and set to, I realised it was like a never-ending jenga tower of beef slices. For the second time I was glad I hadn’t opted for the nkwobi as well.
Each slice had a richly seasoned smoky flavour, packed with lots of strong black pepper and the notable sting of a scotch bonnet chilli. It was very spicy, with a powerful tang which caught at the back of the throat.
Or it was for me at least. My dining companion chuckled as I coughed and reached for a water and said “no, I’d say this is just medium spicy, although Nigerian cooking usually is a lot spicier than southern African food”. The flavour was excellent, but the only let down was that the beef was on the slightly chewy side, instead of the melt in the mouth I’d expect from slow-barbecued meat.
After we’d stabbed our way through as much of the suya as we could muster, we sat back and waited for a waitress to clear the plate, but none came. Around us, the two servers busied themselves with re-laying tables and dealing with delivery drivers. But oddly, despite that slowness it never felt rude, simply laid back. Once our mains appeared 15 minutes later, our dish was whisked away, as if that’s just how these things are meant to happen.
If the starter was large, the mains were stomach-quaking. The Monika tilapia was a hand span-wide, near foot-long fish, with a crunchy, blackened skin. Tilapia is a sometimes bland or muddy fish, but here it shone, smothered in another chilli marinade and roasted perfectly. Sparky red flecks dotted the skin and sizzled gently on the tongue, although it never quite hit the spice levels of the Suya. The white meat was soft and juicy and I didn’t find myself having to navigate around bones, apart from flipping it over to avoid the spine.
On the side was a big pile of softly grilled plantains, My friend eyed them excitedly and pinched a couple from my plate, but I’ve always found plantains an oddly confusing flavour: part sweet, part savoury, often squishy. These didn’t do much to change my mind.
My friend’s egusi was listed as a soup but looked a lot more like a stew. The large bowl was piled high with a thick, moist mound of spinach, pumpkin leaves and the egusi, which are ground fried melon seeds. Hidden in the midst of that stew were two giant chicken legs, that wouldn’t look out of place in ‘Jurassic Park’.
The garri was three big balls of dough, made from mashed cassava. You typically rip at the dough, dunk it in the stew and eat it all together with your hands. The waitress offered my friend a water bowl for this, but he declined: “I’m going to try and be tidy and do it with my fork. This place feels too fancy for eating with hands”.
When I nibbled a corner of the garri and noted it just seemed like dough to me, my friend said, “yeah it is pretty bland, but that’s why it works. It’s just a blend of good clean carbs to mop up the high protein soup”. Proving he was both the only person I know to describe carbs as ‘clean’ and the best person to bring along for the review. The dish names might have been unfamiliar, but he recognised the flavours.
For him, the egusi soup was rich in flavour, with a perfect combination of greens, melon seeds and chicken – a bowl of goodness. To me, it felt wholesome but missing a certain oomph, like a bowl of comfort food.
Finally, I couldn’t finish a West African meal without trying the famous jollof rice – which Nigeria and Ghana fight over claiming, so I ordered a side portion to share. I say side, but imagine a side bowl of rice, at say, Nando’s. Now expand that by four and you’ll get close to the portion I received. My friend and I looked at all the other food on the table, grinned and exhaled slowly to each other, not knowing if we could really fit this all in.
But after tasting the first spoonful, I got all the fuss. The rice was soft but not sticky, cooked in a rich tomato stew with lots more scotch bonnet. It had a deep, slightly sweet flavour, with notes of spice and smoke and tender little pieces of almost honeyed tomato infused through the whole dish. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t finish it. But I made sure to get it to take home and enjoyed it possibly even more the next day.
So would I return to 805 Restaurant & Grill? I can see myself stopping in again for that beautifully barbecued fish or a plate of jollof rice, but I may still need more convincing on the egusi.
And if 805 would like to reach more non-Nigerian diners, its menu needs to have a clearer guide through the unfamiliar dishes, or have the front of house team ready to help you out, much like Clay’s Kitchen do with Hyderabadi food. Generally, the service could also do with being more on point. It was never bad or unfriendly, but didn’t feel attentive, and getting the bill took three attempts, which is out of fit with the fine dining atmosphere.
But overall, I enjoyed my trip to 805. It’s a fitting addition to Oxford Road’s international, independent and intriguing restaurant scene and it felt like a welcoming and comfortable place to introduce me to West Africa’s unfamiliar but soothing flavours.
As my friend and I walked back up the Oxford Road, clutching our bags of leftovers, I spotted a new, more casual West African restaurant, Mama Sika. While it would usually fall into my blindspot, this time I made a mental note to check it out so I can put my new-found tastes for egusi and garri to good use in a place where you probably would eat with your hands. But I’ll probably order half the amount of food, or come prepared for lots to takeaway.
805 Restaurant & Grill
Dinner for two: £54
Address: Cholsey House, 2 Moulsford Mews, Oxford Road, Reading, RG30 1AP
Open: 12pm-midnight Monday-Saturday, 1pm-midnight Sunday.
Get there: Take Reading Buses 15, 16 or 17 to the West Village stop, or it’s a five minute walk from Reading West train station.