Bringing the spice of life to West Berkshire
The West Berkshire town of Newbury is notable for a few things. It was the site of two battles in the English Civil War, its neighbours once included a RAF base picketed by anti-nuclear protestors and it’s the headquarters for the UK branch of telecommunications behemoth Vodafone. Despite its surprisingly eventful past, and perhaps because of its current general prosperity, the choice of restaurants in this market town is largely uninspired.
Of the independents, one of the few to catch my eye was Wau. This is not just the only Malaysian restaurant in town, but in all of Berkshire as far as I can tell. Although there are a handful of Cantonese space-fillers on the menu, Wau otherwise sticks to actual Malaysian dishes rather than chickening out and taking the spineless ‘pan-Asian’ route.
Starters and side dishes at Wau
Wau’s take on satay lamb did not impress on our first meeting, with the sweet but otherwise underwhelming skewered meat leaning heavily on the satay sauce which was itself a timidly generic affair. Although the satay sauce was no better on a subsequent meal, the lamb had progressed nicely – dense and lightly chewy with a nutty, almost jerk-like flavour. Wau’s kitchen is clearly capable of refinement and improvement.
Skewered chicken satay tasted similar to the lamb, but had a far less pleasurable mouthfeel. The overly tender texture of this chicken meant it ultimately played second fiddle to the lamb version.
If Wau’s siu mai and har gau hadn’t recently seen the inside of a freezer before making their way to my table, then I’d be very surprised indeed. The skins of both dumpling types were too claggy, while the har gau skins were also lacking in translucency. To my surprise, the tame fillings didn’t have the common tricks of either MSG or pork fat to bulk out their meagre flavour profiles.
Roast pork belly had the benefit for a modestly crunchy bark, but the swine flesh itself was not only bland but also a tad too greasy. This is a poor version of a Cantonese classic.
Chicken wings were doubly dull. The endemic beigeness of the chicken was a poor start. The accompanying belacan paste-based sauce worsened matters as it lacked the nostril-opening punch and pungency that I’d expect from that shrimp-based paste.
Although the accompanying curry sauce was nothing to write home about, it’s still worth ordering the roti canai. The roti was, on multiple occasions, thin, soft and winsomely moreish. Although not as feathery soft and tissue thin as the superlative roti at London’s Roti King, Wau’s roti is still a great example of what weirdo carb dodgers are missing out on.
While gently moreish with a milky centre, the best part of the satay fish balls had to be their mouthfeel from the chewy exterior to the tender interior. The same ol’ satay sauce clung to the curves of these balls reasonably well, but this starter would’ve worked just as well without it in my estimation.
Bok choi was not only a tad too oily, but overcooked and served in an unimpressively watery sauce that was so faint it was hard to tell if it was meant to be soy or oyster sauce.
Main courses at Wau
The chunks of mooing ungulate in the beef rendang were tender, but only modestly moreish with a shallow spicing that tasted mostly – as far as I could tell – of star anise and curry leaf. It was by no means bad, and while good enough as an introduction to the joys of rendang, but it will still leave rendang aficionados wanting.
Laksa arrived in a cauldron’s worth of soup. The tamarind-based broth was reasonably tangy, umami and warming. Although the prawns had little to say for themselves, the hearty and supple ramen-style wheat noodles picked up the slack.
Light yet sinewy and pearlescent chunks of skate arrived in a curry sauce surprisingly reminscient of a curry house bhuna. Dotted with tomatoes and onions, it had a mild heat to it as well as a passing sourness and a touch of sweetness too. I could’ve done without the chunks of pineapple though, which felt like garish intruders. The pleasing fish deserved a more well-rounded curry sauce.
The supple, narrow and moderately thick rice noodles of the char kway teow were a tad too greasy. The prawns were merely so-so and there wasn’t enough of the sweet, umami air-dried Chinese-style sausage. At least the bean sprout filler had been kept to a sensible amount.
Penang-style Hokkien mee paired thin and supple rice vermicelli with hearty, eggy, wheat-based noodles in a soup that was one-dimensionsally hot and sour but still with enough moreishness to be worth slurping. The prawns were once again shrug-inducing, but the pork ribs were not only unexpected but unexpectedly pleasing too. The tender, sinewy meat was adept at soaking up the warmth of the soup – the succulent combination of the two was truly greater than the sum of its parts. Sweet, crunchy shallots felt out of place, while the rich hard-boiled egg and crisp, musky, earthy greens were better accompaniments to the winsome noodles and rib meat-soup double punch. A tad unbalanced in places, but this dish was ultimately a winner.
Desserts and drinks at Wau
Although the fried dough sticks were a tad too oily and didn’t get the balance between crispiness and chewy softness quite right, they were still enjoyable enough as a dessert – which was just as well given the bargain basement quality of the ice cream.
Iced kacang was sadly unavailable across my many visits. I had to be content with the malty refreshment of ice cold Milo or with the sweetened soya bean milk.
Wau’s cooking can be wobbly and uneven, which is all the more disappointing given that there are some distinctly pleasurable dishes on offer here. With some further refinement, this restaurant could be an unequivocal success based on merit alone and not just because it’s the only Malaysian restaurant in Berkshire. Having said that, anyone bringing decent beef rendang, hokkien mee and roti canai to a West Berkshire market town is a hardy soul worthy of praise. Let’s hope Wau is just at the beginning of its story and not the end.
What to order: Beef rendang; roti canai; laksa; fish balls; hokkien mee; probably the satay lamb
What to skip: Probably the fried dough sticks; dumplings; roast pork
Address: 49 Cheap Street, Newbury, Berkshire RG14 5BX
Phone: 01635 528 877
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday, noon-14.30 and 18.00 – 22.30 (last orders 30 minutes before closing). Closed Sunday.
Reservations: probably a good idea on and around weekends.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £20-25 approx.