All photography: David John New
In my list of new Reading restaurants for 2018, I called Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen this year’s most intriguing restaurant opening. Since then, Clay’s have revamped the ugly Chicken Base shop on London Street with warm, inviting colours, developed a menu and prepped for an opening on Monday 18 June. Last week, I got a preview of that menu and, I’m extremely happy to say, my first impressions still stand. Ahead of its opening, the Clay’s team took me through what’s on the menu and eight of the dishes to try, including bar snacks, sharing starters, desserts and, of course, the signature clay pot Biryani.
The couple behind Clay’s (who wish to keep their names private for now; they’re going by Mr and Mrs C) moved to Reading from London two years ago to set up their own restaurant based on their beloved Hyderabad home cuisine. Mr C was a chef at the Taj and Hilton hotel groups in London. Mrs C ran a south Indian-themed catering company. This is their first restaurant venture, but they’re both passionate about bringing authentic Indian food to Reading.
Nowadays, Hyderabad is famous for its tech hub, but it has traditionally been a laid back, food-obsessed city with Persian influences from centuries of Nizam rule. This comes through in the menu at Clay’s, which is innovative and like no other Indian restaurant I’ve tried in Reading. There are a couple of curries on offer, but, frankly, they’re not the stars here. Instead, expect lots of small sharing plates, rich meats, striking flavours and moderate spice levels. Traditional recipes from India’s past sit alongside dishes currently popular on the streets of Hyderabad.
Everything has been chosen carefully and deliberately to fit the owners’ restaurant vision. Plates are gorgeous rustic earthenware, meat is supplied by Jennings of Caversham and they’re partnering with West Berkshire Brewery to stock a specially-branded Hyderabad Ale. Read on to get a sneak peek at the dishes on the menu.
What to order at Clay’s
Mrs C says: I sometimes call these ‘Chicken Pringles’. They’re perfect to eat with a beer, just like a bar snack. Kodi means chicken and it’s very thinly-sliced, coated in a red chilli paste batter and fried with a secret blend of other herbs and spices. The chilli powder we use comes from my hometown. My dad has been picking, drying and grinding it and sending it over to me to cook with for years. We’ve decided to use that in the restaurant as well as it’s darker and deeper red than other varieties.
Explore’s verdict: Before you even look at the menu, ask for this dish while you’re deciding what else to order (unless you don’t eat chicken, of course). It’s like an exciting, light and moist version of pork scratchings. Crunchy, tingly, not heavy, nor too filling, but addictive. This was the first plate to come out at our photoshoot, and once my photographer and I had popped the first one, we couldn’t stop. We got through two plates without us realising. They also go really well with their flavourful mango ale, Home 2.0, which is made by a Lithuanian brewery from mangoes imported from south India.
Mrs C says: An idli is a sort of savoury dumpling made from a dough of fermented black lentils and rice and then steamed. It’s a classic street breakfast dish in Hyderabad. These are mini versions, so you can eat them in one bite. They’re dusted with chia seed spice powder and served with a fresh tomato chutney and a coconut chutney.
Explore’s verdict: This should be your alternative to bhajis, pakoras or other fatty, deep-fried dunkers. The idlis themselves are soft and gentle, but have a peppery taste I wasn’t expecting from a dough bite. They also soak up flavour well, so they just beg to be dunked in one of the homemade chutneys, which are both zesty and fresh. In fact, I kept them on the table to dunk other things in too.
Pattar Ka Gosht Lamb
Mrs C says: There’s a big historical backstory to this dish. Apparently, around 150 years ago, one of the Nawabs of Hyderabad (a Viceroy) demanded kebabs while out hunting. His chef, not having a Tandoor with him, made do and cooked thinly-sliced lamb on a heated stone. The dish was so popular, it was incorporated into the royal kitchen. It’s been something of a lost recipe in India, but has started seeing a revival in Hyderabad lately, especially in the Old City.
We marinate the strips of lamb in ghee, green chilli paste and black stone flower before cooking them on a stone slab over charcoal (look at the photo gallery above for a shot of this). The stone slab itself was marinated in mustard oil and spices for three days before we started cooking with it, to give it a rich flavour.
Explore’s verdict: This is a great sharing starter. The thin strips of lamb are juicy and soft, rich with a deep smoky flavour from the stone slab. Spice is perfectly balanced. It tickles but isn’t one of those overpowering, fiery, flavour-be damned spice levels. Balance out the heat with the accompanying dips, one yoghurt, one coriander. I think this would be my go to order of the starters.
Lalmirch ki Machi
Mrs C says: This is one of two fish starters on our menu. Lal mirch is red chilli pepper and Machi means fish. We use tilapia fillets seared with red chilli powder, dried whole red chillis, star anise and lemon juice.
Explore’s verdict: This is quite a simple dish, but has one of the most complex flavour profiles on the table. The chilis provide a deep heat while you get aromatic scent notes from the star anise and a slightly sour note from the lemon all together. It’s on the small side, but that’s what makes it good to share, tapas style. You get a couple of bites rich in flavour, rather than one dense bowl of never-ending curry.
Update: in early 2019 this item was removed from the menu at Clay’s. It’s been replaced with Andhra Fish Fry, tilapia in peanut spice powder
Mrs C says: No matter which restaurant, of any cuisine, you go into in Hyderabad, this dish will be on the menu. No one really knows where the name comes from, but the story goes that it was number 65 on a menu somewhere and the name stuck. It has Chinese influences, there’s cashew nuts, ginger and soy sauce in it, so possibly that was originally a Chinese restaurant. But it’s a classic Hyderabadi dish now.
Explore’s verdict: This is closer to a chicken stir-fry than a classic Indian curry – the first thing I noted down was ‘drier’, because there’s no gravy. But it’s definitely not a dry dish. Chicken is soft and richly marinated and balanced well with a yoghurt dressing, spring onion and curry leaves. It’s zingy, and fresh, with a fascinating flavour. It reminds me of the aromatic notes of dishes from the west of China, but with a distinctly Indian spice profile in there, which again is tickly, but not too spicy.
Clay Pot Biryiani
Mrs C says: This is our signature dish, and why we named our restaurant Clay’s. My husband makes the best biryani. I put on nearly 10kg after we got married because his home-cooked biryani was so good. We’ve decided to use the traditional clay pot cooking method, which isn’t as popular in India nowadays, but some restaurants have started to use it again. We’re cooking lamb and chicken biryani in the clay pots. We’re also doing seafood and vegetarian ones, but they will be plated.
The lamb or chicken is marinated, then put into the bottom of the clay pot, and topped with part-cooked saffron and plain rice and onions. We seal the pot with roti bread dough. Then we just put the pot on top of the stove, on a high heat for five minutes, then a medium heat for another six minutes. The pot means it cooks quickly so the meat doesn’t dry out and keeps its flavour.
Our clay pots are hand thrown by a family of potters from a village just outside Hyderabad. We went to meet them and had 4,608 pots shipped over for the restaurant, so the customer can take it away with them afterwards.
Explore’s verdict: The chunks of marinated lamb are oh-so-tender, I barely needed to chew. It’s cooked with bone in, so may be fiddly for some, but the payoff is a much more robust meat flavour holding its own well with the chilli, garam masala and yoghurt marinade. The lamb here was probably the spiciest of all the dishes I sampled, but still very manageable and, like the others, it’s a ‘back of the throat’ spice, starting low and rumbling along the more you eat. The rice is vibrant, colourful, soft and pillowy. It’s also rich with that meat flavour. I could easily see myself eating 10kgs worth of this.
Mrs C says: This is the Indian version of a Scotch egg. There’s some debate as to whether the first Scotch egg originated in the kitchen of the Persian Nizam rulers, or in the UK, as Fortnum & Mason claim. Obviously we Hyderabadis chose to believe our own version. The Indian difference is that meat is spiced lamb instead of pork. We’re still perfecting the recipe for the Nargisi Kofta before opening.
Explore’s verdict: This is the one dish that may have competition elsewhere in Reading. The lamb is well-seasoned, with just a slight spiced note. It’s an interesting contrast to the more traditional, sweeter pork, balances well with the egg and is a good size for sharing. But in the version I tried, the meat was too soft, and the crumb coating a touch too thin. It’s lacking the firm bite of the British-style Scotch egg on the menu at The Lyndhurst. Clay’s are still working on this one, and I hope to see a chunkier meat filling coming soon.
Update: This dish is no longer on the menu at Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen.
Mrs C says: Anokhi means unique and this dish is definitely unique. It’s a dessert made with onions. This used to be the celebration dessert for very poor families who couldn’t afford sweet ingredients or rice. Onions were the cheapest to create a sweet flavour so they cooked them down with milk. In winter, there’s another version made with garlic. This is another almost lost recipe in India, but it’s recently returned on a couple of restaurant menus in Hyderabad, and I was excited to see how it would work here.
Explore’s verdict: In one word: surprising. Obviously, a dessert made with onion doesn’t sound especially tempting, and I don’t even like rice pudding, so I was prepared to be underwhelmed. But this is cooling, gentle and creamy. It’s not overly sweet, but a good digestive to offset the rich and spicy notes of the savoury menu. It has the flavour of a rice pudding but without the texture (that’s the bit I hate) and I could happily finish the whole bowl. It’s topped with pistachios and edible flowers for an added crunch. It’s also, obviously, a million miles more interesting a dessert than coconut ice cream served in a shell.
Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen
Address: 45 London Street, Reading RG1 4PS. View website.
Open: 5.30pm – 10.30pm Tuesday – Friday, 12.30 to 3.00pm and 5.30-10.30pm, Saturday-Sunday.
Get there: It’s a two minute walk from The Oracle Car Park, or Reading Buses 5,6, 7 and 21 stop right outside.
Explore Reading was invited to sample a preview of dishes by Clay’s Hyderabadi, before the restaurant opened to the public.
Hello! I'm Claire, the founding editor of Explore Reading. I'm a Reading native and former digital director of Time Out Shanghai. I founded Explore Reading so no one can say, ‘there’s nothing to do in Reading’, again. When not editing Explore Reading, I'm probably drinking a Manhattan.