Jamie’s Italian

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January, so far, has been the Month of Eating Differently here at Edible Reading. It started with me revisiting the A4074 and discovering that not all “Pack” based pubs are the same (thank goodness). Then I went even further out of town to eat top notch sushi in Windsor. For the third review of the year it seems only right that I come back to Reading and, even more, that I tuck into food at one of our ubiquitous chains – just to prove that it isn’t only about the independent out of town places.

I picked Jamie’s because it feels like a restaurant that cares about ingredients more than your average chain; there’s always been a fair amount of focus on fresh seasonal ingredients and interesting flavours at Jamie’s, and as chains go it’s not huge compared to some of its Oracle neighbours (only 37 branches according to their website, compared to 90 Bella Italias and a whopping 430 Pizza Expresses, for example). On top of that I made a promise, a resolution if you like, that I would eat one vegetarian main every month and it seemed like Jamie’s would be one of the better options for that – after all, good Italian recipes with all those fresh ingredients barely need meat at all, right?

I can’t quite remember what Chili’s, the previous restaurant in this space, looked like. All I really recall is the 6 foot plastic chilli suspended from the ceiling, covered in a thick layer of dust. Jamie’s, in comparison, is clean, smart and very contemporary: the middle of the restaurant is all concrete floors and tin chairs but round the edge of the room it’s much more inviting, with red leather banquettes looking out across the other diners. A bit like being on Dragon’s Den but without Evan Davis’ irritating recaps (why does he sum things up mere seconds after they’ve happened? So annoying! But I digress).

It’s still a dry – and increasingly long – January for me so I tucked into an elderflower and pomegranate pressé while picking from the menu. That was when it dawned on me that I was going to have to go through with the vegetarian thing and that some of you, for any of a variety of reasons, have to look at a menu and mentally cross things out every time you go out to eat (for that I can honestly say that I salute you).

To start I had the baked chestnut mushrooms on crispy music bread with smoked mozzarella, thyme and Parmesan, and in an attempt to stick to the vegetarian side of the menu I swapped out the Parmesan for another hard cheese not made with rennet (although I didn’t check whether the mozzarella was suitable for vegetarians so this might have been a waste of time).

It was a surprisingly hard dish to describe – layers of music bread on the bottom with an intricate mosaic of thinly sliced mushrooms on top, dusted with the cheese, the middle section rich with gooey smoked mozzarella. I’d almost sum it up as middle class nachos, except that Jamie’s Italian has already beaten me to it by describing another dish on their menu as “Italian nachos” (crispy fried ravioli, in fact). But that’s what it resembled most – crispy music bread at the sides and the central section soggy with juices from the mushrooms and softened by the melted cheese.

Did I like it? I’m still not sure even now. It was like a book you admire without enjoying it: more interesting than it was tasty. It was probably a less satisfying way to eat mushrooms than the myriad of other options on the menu – stuffed into arancini, heaped on bruschetta, tumbled into fettucine – options which, as I worked my way through this dish, I couldn’t help wishing I’d ordered instead.

Mushroommusic

The caponata bruschetta, on the other hand, was as pretty as it was tasty. The caponata itself was lovely – the rich, smoky aubergines were diced and mixed in with tomatoes and pine nuts with a sprinkling of grated ricotta on top. I love the earthy, slightly sweet flavour of caponata and this was a very good one. The bread it came on was less of a success, being tough and difficult to cut (I ended up tearing it with my knife and fork instead). A bit more olive oil or less time under the grill might have been better. Sitting on top of the dish were a couple of small red chillis, barely cooked with their tops chopped off. I genuinely couldn’t fathom what they were doing there – they looked small enough to be properly explosive and I couldn’t see how they fitted in at all. I wondered if it might be some kind of homage to Chili’s – that was the only decent explanation I could come up with. I didn’t eat them.

Caponatabruschetta

The vegetarian main courses at Jamie’s, according to their website, amount to two – one pasta, and one salad. There are more if you’re prepared to forego the Parmesan, but the menu doesn’t make that clear so you’re relying on the waiter (“we don’t have a vegetarian menu”, he said, “but I can talk you through it”). Pasta in tomato sauce sounded pretty humdrum, and I’d already had mushrooms, so I went for the superfood salad, thinking that anything with the word “super” in the title couldn’t be all bad. Besides, the menu made it sound like it contained so much stuff: avocado; shaved fennel; candied beetroot; broccoli; cheese; pomegranate; seeds; and a “fennel blossom Sicilian harissa”. It just sounded like a party in a bowl, and I was genuinely interested to see what turned up.

What the menu doesn’t tell you is that that description suggests that all the ingredients get equal billing, and they don’t. So I really enjoyed the sweet chunks of candied beets. They were both delicious. I liked the shaved fennel, although it had been very finely shaved indeed and got a little lost. The two smallish spears of broccoli were just dandy. The avocado, served on top, was very nice – flashed under a grill I’d guess, from the lines on top, and ever so slightly warm. Where the stone had been there was a little reservoir with cottage cheese on it, and the smallest blob of harissa, which may have involved fennel blossom in some way but was just generic hot stuff.

But really, this was about the rest of it, including many things the menu neglected to mention. So yes, there were lentils and some pumpkin and sesame seeds in there, and the occasional bit of pomegranate, and lots of mint leaves (because Jamie’s loves putting mint in everything). But there was also a lot of quinoa, along with plenty of what looked like stubby grains of wild rice but, having researched it, may have been black barley. All that amounted to a big stodgy pile of heavy going, with nowhere near enough flavour to elevate it from chore to treat. When I told a vegetarian friend about this dish, she said “personally, if they’d said there was quinoa in it I’d never have ordered it”, which pretty much hits the nail on the head. Really, it was like the contents of one of those square plastic tubs you buy for lunch from M&S in an attempt to pretend to be a better person than you really are; if this was a party in a bowl, it was the kind where you started looking at your watch half an hour in because all the fun people had already left.

Supersalad

The other main was one of the specials – an “amazing ragu of pork with tomatoes, chilli, garlic and loads of herbs tossed through home made casarecce pasta” (I’m quoting from the blackboard here, so the trumpet blowing is Jamie’s and not mine). I was expecting a bowl of pasta with a thick sauce of tomato and pork in roughly equal measure, but what in fact arrived was a bowl of pasta with a lot of shredded pork in it (and I mean a lot: the meat was generous to a fault). All the other ingredients were present as described, but apart from being slightly watery there was no discernible sauce. This was just a meat and carbs dish: none of your five-a-day here. On top of the heap of pork was a spoonful of herby, lemony breadcrumbs which really did lift the dish but it was just one spoonful, and a little more would have given the dish a lot more oomph. As it was, you couldn’t fault it for quantity but overall I’m afraid it bored me and I couldn’t finish it. Nor could I face dessert afterwards, even if their chocolate brownie is, according to the menu at least, “epic” (I can hear the strains of that trumpet again).

Porkragu

Service was decent. The chap serving us was friendly enough and happy to pick out the vegetarian options but had the disconcerting habit of saying thank you after every single item we ordered, something which started to feel robotic very quickly. I wasn’t feeling a lot of love. I also wasn’t feeling the warmth, as there seemed to be a draught coming from the back of the room, whipping round our ankles. When we asked early on if there was a door open in the kitchen we were told that this was just the colder part of the room and that the other tables they had available wouldn’t be much better. On a freezing winter’s day in January I thought this was a very poor show, especially as it got even chillier by the time our mains came (another homage to Chili’s, perhaps?). The total bill for two courses and a soft drink each for two was forty pounds. That felt like reasonable value for the food, even if the experience wasn’t anything to write home about.

After the last two reviews, writing this feels like a bit of a comedown. I know I don’t need to eat out of town to get good food but when the better chains, which to me includes Jamie’s, let me down it can seem like the Oracle doesn’t have a lot to offer (appropriately the best of the Oracle’s restaurants, Cote and Tampopo, are right at the edge: it’s almost as if they’re trying to break away and escape). I feel especially sad for the vegetarians out there, because I think they should be entitled to expect better from a restaurant like this – so for vegetarians looking at a menu this size and seeing such a short list of suitable options I can only say sorry. I haven’t found an amazing place with loads of attractive meat-free choices that you’ll be rushing to visit. Not yet. But it’s only January.

Jamie’s Italian – 6.7
Unit 1, Riverside, The Oracle, RG1 2AG
0118 9070808

http://www.jamieoliver.com/italian/restaurants/reading

Misugo, Windsor

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At the start of the year, AltReading asked me to contribute to a piece about what people wanted to see in Reading in 2015. So I talked about some of the big gaps in Reading’s restaurant landscape – that we need a tapas restaurant, a pizzeria, a town centre pub doing simple, tasty, well-executed food and so on. It wasn’t until later that I realised that my list of gaps itself contained a gap: Reading doesn’t have a good Japanese restaurant. There’s Sushimania, which can be okay (when it’s not too busy – and woe betide you if it is, because a person can get very drunk on their house white waiting for the food to turn up. Take my word for it) and there’s Yo! Sushi. That’s it.

That partly explains why this week’s review is of a restaurant in far-flung Windsor, the furthest from Reading to date. The thing is, I suspect the reason I didn’t put a Japanese restaurant in my original wish list is that, for years, when I’ve wanted Japanese food I’ve got on the train and gone to Misugo instead. It’s a modest little place just opposite Windsor’s Firestation Arts Centre, about a ten minute walk from the station (a walk which takes you right past a very good fishmonger, a few doors down from the restaurant – something which might explain a lot). It’s nothing to look at from the outside, and pretty understated on the inside. Every time I’ve been (and I’ve only ever been at lunchtimes) it’s virtually empty: it’s rare to see more than one other occupied table. It also happens to do fantastic sushi.

Arriving on a Saturday lunchtime without a reservation, I was delighted to see that they had a booking for a big table, even if it meant that I didn’t get my usual seat next to the window. It’s a long thin room split across two levels and it really is very basic – plain wooden tables, plain wooden stools and simple, elegant (if atmospheric) lighting. But that simplicity feels like a bit of a hallmark which carries across into everything else – unobtrusive service and simple, brilliant food.

The menu is one of those big, tempting ones that requires several attempts in a single sitting (I envied the big table which turned up a little after I arrived – eleven fellow diners would give you the opportunity to try a lot of the options), divided into sashimi, sushi, small hot dishes, rice dishes and noodle dishes. They also do a small, if tempting, array of bento boxes if you want someone to make your tricky decisions for you: I didn’t, but the woman at the table behind me had one and it looked nearly enviable.

First to arrive was the sashimi, which was beyond reproach. If you’re used to Yo with its little dishes, a few small slices of salmon trundling round under a plastic dome on the belt, the sashimi at Misugo – in terms of the presentation, the range and the sheer quality – is like going from a standard picture to HD. So the salmon here came as four beautiful thick slices, beautifully marbled, fresh and clean, as soft as mousse. I’m no expert on sashimi, but I don’t think that marbling and that texture happens by accident or luck. The tuna was firm, meaty and distinctly unfishy (as odd as that sounds). If sashimi has never appealed to you then tuna from Misugo is the perfect gateway fish. Finally, the biggest revelation: four sections of mackerel, complete with shimmering skin. I always order the mackerel and it always blows me away, somehow strong and subtle all at once in a way few dishes (and few people, come to think of it) ever manage. We gently transported them onto our tiger-striped plates with chopsticks, dabbed them in soy, added ginger and popped them in our mouths, and then we were transported ourselves.

Sashimi

Sushi was every bit as good. Avocado maki were plump things, tightly rolled, each with a big fat core of ripe buttery avocado. But there was more going on: a hint of what tasted a bit like lime, tucked between the rice and the delicious green flesh. Again, this was a world away from anything you might pluck from a conveyor belt. Soft shell crab maki – the crab still warm as it reached our table – were gorgeous to look at, the crab almost looking as if it was making a break for it. All of a sudden I didn’t envy that table of twelve half so much, because it was difficult enough sharing these between two.

Maki

The waitress asked if we wanted another look at the menu and saying no felt like the worst kind of folly, so we rounded up more options and ordered again. Vegetable gyoza were gorgeous – lighter than they looked, like crispy islands floating on the smallest, subtlest pool of vinegary dressing. More maki – this time grilled tuna with mango – were also delicious, the tuna soft and the mango fresh and firm rather than soft and ripe as the avocado had been. A little drizzle of sauce over them added a deep, fruity note.

Last of all, the only misfire of the whole meal. Chicken yakitori looked the part – thigh meat threaded like a sine wave onto skewers, grilled, brushed with sticky sauce and scattered with sesame seeds. But they needed to be more: more well cooked – the slightly charred bits were a delight, the rest a bit of a chore – and with more of the gloriously smoky sauce. They were the only thing we didn’t finish, although by that stage we were too full to ask for dessert anyway. Anywhere else, it would have been a good dish, but Misugo had set the bar too high by then. I was sad that they played their worst song as the encore, but I’d loved the concert too much to hold it against them.

Being on the wagon in a Japanese restaurant, it turns out, is less of a hardship than you might think. I was tempted to try Calpico, a Japanese yoghurt drink (and if I’d known it tasted just like Yakult, which apparently it does, I definitely would have) but in the end I opted for something which was described as an “aloe vera soft drink” and tasted a bit like orange squash on a gap year. I liked it enough to order a second, at which point the waitress told me with a smile that you could buy it in Sainsburys, even going so far as to check which my local branch was.

Service was perfectly judged – polite, distant when you wanted to be left in peace but there when you needed it. Nobody at Misugo is ever going to make your teeth itch with excessive – or indeed any – mateyness, and they probably won’t ask whether you enjoyed your food either (most likely because they’re rightly confident that you will). But it was restrained and tasteful, just like everything else. Lunch for two – a total of three soft drinks and eight small dishes – came to £47 not including tip, which I thought was excellent. Even as I left I was wondering why I’d left it so long and when I could go back, and envying anyone for whom this restaurant was their neighbourhood restaurant.

Actually, that last bit might not be entirely true. It’s very tempting, when you eat somewhere great that isn’t in your home town, to say “I wish I could pick this up and move it to Reading”, but on reflection I’m happy to keep Misugo exactly where it is. I like Windsor. I like feeling excited about going there when I get on the train (even knowing that I have to change at Slough doesn’t put me off). I like strolling down Peascod Street, past the boutique called “Cognito” (that always tickles me: as an anonymous reviewer I feel I ought to go in at some point), seeing the fishmonger on St Leonards Road and knowing I’m nearly there. And, perhaps most of all, I like the fact that it’s close enough to get to, but just far enough away that I’ll never tire of it: a balance almost as fine as their food.

Misugo – 8.5
83 St Leonards Road, Windsor, SL4 3BZ
01753 833899

http://misugo.co.uk/

The Pack Saddle, Mapledurham

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Ah, the New Year. What a magical time it is! We know what day of the week it is again, chocolate ceases to be a food group and everybody has to go back to work. It’s ages until the council come to empty your bins and the glass recycling looks positively terrifying (it was the guests! The guests drank it all). What better way for me to commemorate this bleak state of affairs than to revisit the scene of 2014’s biggest culinary disappointment?

Well, almost. Amid all those awards at the end of last year I deliberately kept schtum on all the candidates for the wooden spoon, but the numbers don’t lie: my worst meal of 2014 was at the Pack Horse in Mapledurham, an outwardly pretty pub dressing up desperately ordinary food with faffy presentation and making me – and I can’t quite believe I’m typing this – nostalgic for the days when it used to be a Blubecker’s. After reviewing it, many people told me I had gone to the wrong Mapledurham pub: the Pack Saddle – similarly named but slightly closer to town – was the one to visit, they said. I wanted to believe them, but I still got nasty flashbacks as my car pootled down the A4074. Was it rising bile, or the memory of that wobbly shoulder of lamb?

Maybe the reason I didn’t go to the Pack Saddle last year is that I couldn’t find the car park. It was oddly difficult, involving an almost handbrake turn when we nearly missed the massive sign for the entrance (maybe it’s for the best that I’m having a dry January). Getting inside though, the pub was warm and welcoming despite not being all that packed: there was a heavenly smell of wood smoke and a handful of people were sat up in the beautiful panelled bar room. The dining room was down a couple of steps and I can imagine it would feel lovely and buzzy had it been occupied; sadly, the other two tables left shortly after we sat down so we sat alone in the dining room with just a portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, from shortly after the Coronation, gazing down on us. She looked a little disappointed. Perhaps I should have worn my tiara.

I really liked the look of the menu for two reasons. First, it was the right size: long enough that you felt there was plenty of choice but short enough that you could reasonably expect everything to be done well. But secondly, everything was just a little more interesting than it needed to be. Everywhere on the menu there were little flashes that suggested the kitchen knew what it was doing; chicken terrine came with pickled vegetables and Parmesan crispbread, beetroot was paired with goat’s cheese panna cotta, not plain old goat’s cheese. The fish main course was accompanied by a crab cake. The smallest hints of skill – nothing boastful, but enough that you could see them if you were paying attention.

My New Year’s resolution is to order one vegetarian main course every month and I nearly did it at the Pack Saddle. Crispy Parmesan polenta and filo roll stuffed with roasted vegetables sounded delicious and a cut above a lot of the unimaginative mains on menus I’ve seen (and since I made that resolution I’ve looked at a lot), but I was foiled: it was sold out. The alternative was mushroom risotto, but I have a feeling there will be a lot of chances to try that over the months ahead.

Won over by some of those flashes of skill on the menu, I did order a vegetarian starter. Balsamic glazed beetroot salad with goat’s cheese panna cotta was very much a sign of what was to come: beautifully presented in a way that at first sight looked haphazard but was in fact very orderly. What I got was a generous amount of sweet red and earthy golden beetroot, cut into eighths, interspersed with a few creamy dollops of goat’s cheese panna cotta and drizzled with narrow stripes of balsamic glaze. The panna cotta was salty, creamy and, again, earthy. I was expecting to get much more panna cotta and much less beetroot but the balance was perfect and felt like a much more reasonable portion for a starter. A few shards of parmesan crispbread were dotted about the plate which added some welcome crunch. It felt like so much more than the clichéd pairing of goat’s cheese and beetroot – lots of different things to combine, contrast and enjoy.

Beetroot

The chicken terrine was if anything even more pretty and precise: a bit of a theme at the Pack Saddle where the plating has a rather OCD air about it. A cylinder of chicken terrine had been sliced diagonally into two sections and stood on its end (perpendicularity, it turned out, was another quirk of the presentation). With it came little blobs of celeriac purée, more of that Parmesan crispbread and little spirals of pickled carrot, wrapped round a sprig of herb and leaves. This dish was a good illustration of why restaurant blogs can’t rely on photographs alone: from the picture it looks lifeless and prim, but in practice it was bloody delicious. The chicken terrine, beautifully compressed, tender, delicate meat was clean and fresh with a slight note of smoke from the bigger pieces of smoked chicken running through the middle. The pickled carrot, with a hint of lime, had wonderful crunch and the celeriac puree added just enough sweetness. Only the Parmesan crispbread fell a little flat – something lighter like music bread might have done the same job better – but it was a starter I wanted to begin again the moment I finished it.

Terrine

Of course if I’d done that I might have been too full for the main courses and – as it turned out – that would have been a shame. Fillet of sea bream was very good with the perfect balance of soft yielding flesh and super crispy salted skin. It was served, as is traditional these days, on bed of mash but, less traditionally, this was surrounded by a moat of horseradish veloute. I’m not sure I’ve had this combination before but I liked it a lot – the horseradish was mild and mustardy rather than full on hot and the mash was indecently creamy and generous to a fault. Nestled into the side of the mash, like a vertical limpet, was a mini crabcake (that perpendicularity again). This was less successful for me – it was a little plain and lacking the crispy texture promised by those breadcrumbs – but I admired the ambition, even if I wasn’t completely on board with the execution. All in all, the dish was lovely: although with all those potatoes and cream it wasn’t quite the slimline option offered by most fish courses. It also felt, at a smidge under thirteen pounds, like impressive value.

Bream

The other main course, saddle of venison, was wrapped in serrano ham and served – can you guess? – standing on its end. This was the case where the presentation seemed most surreal because it was leaning against a big block of boulangère potatoes as if it was a supporting feature rather than the headline attraction. The rest of the plating, again, was rather OCD with little circles of butternut squash puree alternating with wild mushrooms at worryingly precise intervals (a puddle of jus was confined to the right hand side of the plate). But anyway, that’s a pointless quibble because it was delicious and everything worked, separately and together, from the sweet puree to the pink, tender venison to the slab of potato, salty and softened with stock. The wild mushrooms were particularly welcome (I partly ordered this because so often, the mushrooms aren’t wild but the exaggerations on the menu are).

Venison

Normally at this point I tell you, in scant detail because it’s not really my area, about the wine. Because I’m on the wagon this month I will instead give you the far less thrilling news that the Pack Saddle offers a decent range of soft drinks including Belvoir and Appletiser, plus the overpriced orange squash that is J2O (just me?). The wine list – with its constant reproach of “look what you could have won” – looked interesting, with lots of new world wines, Chapel Down (an excellent English sparkling) and plenty of decent bottles for under twenty quid. I could see things which would have gone perfectly with the bream, and the venison, but then I started to feel a bit sad so I put the list down and enjoyed my elderflower pressé instead, with no gritted teeth whatsoever.

The dessert menu here is fairly traditional but after two interesting and clever courses it felt like the desserts would be more sophisticated than advertised. After all, that seemed to be what they do here: promise low and deliver high. I was tempted by the cheeseboard (the holy trinity of local cheeses – Barkham Blue, Spenwood and Waterloo – all world-beaters, all made in Berkshire) but I wanted to see what they’d do with the more obvious choices, so we went for chocolate brownie and carrot cake.

In most pubs, having chocolate brownie for dessert means getting a microwaved slice of Brakes’ brownie, a squiggle of chocolate sauce and a scoop of bland vanilla ice cream. In truth this wasn’t a million miles away from the brownie here, the one let down of the dishes. The brownie itself was sticky and rich (and home made) and had been cut into three slices and arranged in a zig zag. There was chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream although this time the ice cream was sat in a puddle of crumbs and the brownie had some dollops of cream with blueberries and raspberries nestling in them. Don’t get me wrong: it was tasty enough, and I ate every last scrap. But it didn’t match up to the earlier courses for creativity and excitement.

Brownie

The carrot cake was better, although the plating repeated the motif of little orange circles set out with frightening regularity. This time it was sweet carrot pureé, although I’d have been hard pressed to tell it from the earlier butternut squash purée in a lineup. The vanilla ice cream was pretty anonymous and the icing didn’t stand out, but what saved the dish was the cake itself – moist but not too moist, nicely spiced and with a slightly nutty texture to it. A perfectly nice carrot cake, but I was expecting more after the promise of the first two courses (my family make a better one, put it that way).

Carrot

Service throughout was excellent – something I particularly appreciate on a day like the first Saturday in January, when surely nobody really wants to be at work. The two staff that looked after us were both unerringly friendly and helpful – and also seemed to be genuinely delighted when they got positive feedback on the food. With the bar being busy and the restaurant being almost empty I worried that we’d either get pestered or ignored, but they did a brilliant job of making us feel looked after without being hovered over. The bill, for three courses and two rounds of soft drinks, was a touch under sixty-three pounds excluding service. All of the courses felt like excellent value: the venison, for example, was under sixteen pounds and easily as good as far more expensive venison dishes I’ve had in restaurants with higher opinions of themselves.

So, here’s to 2015. I’m sure it will be a lot like 2014 in lots of respects – good meals, bad meals, pleasant surprises, even wobbly shoulders of lamb – but at least there will be one important difference: driving down the A4074 won’t bring me out in hives any more. I think I might make another trip that way soon, just to be certain.

The Pack Saddle – 8.0
Mapledurham, Reading, RG4 7UD
0118 946 3000

http://www.thepacksaddle.com/

The 2014 Edible Reading Awards

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Hasn’t 2014 been a weird year for Reading? When it started we were all getting over the shock of Jackson’s closing down, and it’s been another year of greetings and partings. Some of the partings have been surprising to say the least: who’d have thought this time last year that we’d say goodbye to Vicar’s, the iconic butcher on West Street? Who could imagine that the last edition of the Reading Post would appear on newsstands? Who could guess that Reading F.C. would sack another manager? (All right, maybe some of the changes were less surprising than others…).

It makes you wonder what 2015 has in store, and what other time-honoured local institutions may be in jeopardy. Will the After Dark still be open this time next year? Will the doughnut kiosk recorded announcement be heard no more? Will Reading Elvis move to Swindon? I can’t imagine anything worse for the town’s morale (or for Reading Elvis – come on, Swindon’s a bit of a hole, right?).

There’s also been a steady succession of restaurant closures: this is the year we said goodbye to Kyklos, Al Tarboush, The Lobster Room, The Eldon Arms, Cappuccina Café, Arepas Caffe and one of Reading’s two branches of Bella Italia. A real mixed bag, that, including a few places that I still really miss (no, not Bella Italia) – and an apt illustration that doing good food isn’t enough to guarantee a restaurant’s survival. It needs to have a USP, to get the rest of the basics right and to find a way of making sure that people know it’s there. A really tricky business, in more ways than one, and I can understand why it must seem like a thankless one too.

Of course that doesn’t stop new establishments taking their place – sometimes literally – and this year we’ve seen plenty of those: My Kitchen, Casa Roma, Chronicles, Coconut, Rynd, Faith Kitchen and Nibsy’s all opened this year. Just this week Artigiano, an on-trend mixture of coffee shop, lunch spot and wine bar, has opened on Broad Street. We’re due to get CAU early next year and there are perennial rumours that Tamp Culture will eventually give up shivering at their coffee cart and take up a more permanent space in town. The sometimes daunting-looking odds, for now at least, don’t discourage people from having a go.

And it’s not all doom and gloom, because there are other signs of a bit of a renaissance in town. The independent retailers – The Tasting House and The Grumpy Goat – that opened late in 2013 seem to be doing rather nicely. Reading now has three supper clubs and the most entrepreneurial, Pop-Up Reading, has done a variety of collaborations, serving its food in cafés and churches. The hyperlocal scene is better than ever, giving Reading folk a much wider range of sources for news, views, reviews and comment – both Alt Reading and rdgnow started this year and do an excellent job – and it will be interesting to see how things change next year with getreading going digital only. There’s even some bloke reviewing roast dinners.

Anyway, like last year ER is taking Christmas off. For me, Christmas is a time to eat lots of food, completely uncritically, without being plagued by those on duty thoughts that always seem to happen when I eat in restaurants. Besides, you really wouldn’t want to read an ER review of my Christmas dinner (and by about halfway through I wouldn’t be in a fit state to write it anyway). But I couldn’t leave you empty handed – and what better way to round off 2014 than with this, the inaugural Edible Reading Awards! So sit back, grab a canapé (not a euphemism – at least I hope not) and read on while I open a bunch of tatty-looking gold envelopes and announce my big winners of the year. Is this microphone on?

SANDWICH OF THE YEAR: Tuna melt, Shed

A lot of the places that could have won this award have put themselves out of the running by closing: I think at one point Reading had enough top quality sandwiches on offer that you could probably have started a blog just reviewing them. So sadly the magnificent banh mi at Cappuccina Café and the superb pulled pork burger (it’s just a sandwich, really) at the Eldon Arms miss out here. But even if they were still going, I would still have opted for the delights of Shed’s tuna melt. I know I’ve not reviewed them yet, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t visited on a number of occasions and of all their sandwiches the tuna melt is my runaway favourite. Partly it’s because of the bread – big pillowy ciabatta which you really don’t get anywhere in town. Partly it’s because of all the little extras in there that elevate it above the same thing elsewhere – generous oozy cheese, slivers of red onion, the crunchy sharp surprise of scattered capers. And partly it’s just because it’s a lovely spot to eat, run by lovely people.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Yum gai yang, Art Of Siam

This was such a difficult category. When looking through the contenders I started to wish that all my favourite restaurants could just join forces and set up the ultimate small plates venue: the wavy lines appeared, like they do in TV dream sequences, and I found myself imagining a single place where you could order the momos from Sapana Home (the only thing there I truly enjoyed), the gorgeous crunchy, hot, spicy Gobi 65 from Chennai Dosa and that earthy, decadent truffle ravioli that nearly – but not quite – made Ruchetta worth the money. In the end, though, the winner was the starter that most took me by surprise: I wasn’t expecting to love a salad of warm grilled chicken and vegetables, served in a hot, sweet, sour, sharp dressing that knocked my socks off. I wasn’t expecting to love a salad full stop, in all honesty, but this tasted like nothing else I’ve eaten this year. People have told me since that they went to Art Of Siam specifically to try it. I can’t say I blame them.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Bhel Puri House

I’m not always right about things first time. When I went to Bhel Puri the first time I quite liked it, quite liked some of the things I’d eaten, quite fancied going back some time. I was quite wrong. Over the months since then I find I keep going back there: it’s a wonderful Technicolor alternative to what, even when it’s done well, can feel like quite a monochrome selection of coffee shops in Reading doing some sandwiches or bagels, some salads and the odd quiche. I always have the chilli paneer – because if I don’t my lunches would all be tinged with regret – and from there I’ve gone on to explore the outer reaches of the menu. I think the service there has got better and friendlier over the year, and every time I walk past I’m delighted to see that it looks pretty busy. Also: vegetarian! Just saying.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Karahi lamb, Bhoj

Honourable mentions have to go to another beautiful way to cook lamb, Kyrenia’s incredible kleftiko – but I feel I’ve enthused about that quite enough quite recently. I also adored Dolce Vita’s saltimbocca – made with veal back then and with chicken more recently – tender meat pounded thin, wrapped in salty prosciutto and bathed in a light, delicious sauce rich with wine and sage (and truffled mash, which could turn even a Fray Bentos into a world-beater). And, although they continue to serve it in a soulless glass box with all the atmosphere of the deserted space station in Gravity, La Courbe’s mixed grill – with that unbelievable tabouleh – is still one of the finest main courses in Reading. But the dish I kept dreaming of was Bhoj’s karahi lamb: chunks of lamb, soft to the point of surrender, in the most intense, sticky, savoury sauce. I was back there only a couple of weeks ago, trying it again. I’d like to pretend I was giving it one last check to make sure it was worthy of the accolade, but in truth that decision was made some time ago.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Dolce Vita

I’m almost sad to have to pick a winner here because every restaurant in Reading that does good service ought to be applauded. But my experience of most places in Reading that get service right is that they’re still very much about star players: Matt and Alex at Mya Lacarte are absolutely flawless, but everyone else doesn’t quite reach that standard. Marco at Pepe Sale could teach everyone how to do this, but again the rest of the staff can feel a little more hit and miss. Ihor at Kyrenia is as kind and welcoming a front of house as you could hope for, but he’s just one man. Dolce Vita win this award because they are a proper team – whichever of them is looking after me I know I’ll feel exactly that: looked after. They also judge how to serve tables so well – there’s no one size fits all here, so they are more friendly, more formal, more raucous depending on whether they know you, what your group is like and what kind of night you want to have. That Dolce Vita is such a friendly, fun, buzzy place to eat is very much down to that.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Peach and amaretto ice cream, Tutti Frutti

I don’t think I’ve had much luck with desserts this year. The hot school dinner style desserts I adore have been thin on the ground and instead I feel I’ve gamely struggled through underwhelming cakes and prissy little parfaits, delicate but underwhelming stuff. Part of the problem is that if I’m full, or I really didn’t rate the first two courses I’m more likely to pass on dessert (and fewer desserts means fewer runners and riders). It wasn’t all disastrous, though. I was very impressed by the pot au chocolat at the Three Tuns – that chilli and cardamom in there elevated it to something quite magnificent – but it still felt like it wasn’t special enough to win. I also loved the honey and rose kulfi at Chennai Dosa (a place which nearly won a few of these awards) for its fragrant yet refreshing cleverness.

Instead, I’m giving this award to Tutti Frutti for very good reason: when I’m eating on duty in town, and I don’t much fancy a dessert, I’ve come to realise that the test I use in my head when I read that little menu in front of me is this one: is anything I order going to be half as good as Tutti Frutti’s peach and amaretto ice cream? Will it be able to match that smooth creaminess, that hint of fruit, those soft soaked amaretti biscuits with that slightly boozy sweetness? If I know for a fact that the answer will be no, I just get the bill instead. And half the time, if I’m reviewing somewhere in town, because that idea’s in my head I wander across to the station and visit Tutti Frutti instead. It’s a wonderful, quiet, Edward Hopper-esque place late at night – just me, my thoughts, a few workers from the station in their reflective jackets, and that glorious ice cream. Try it sometime, if you get the chance.

TWEETER OF THE YEAR: Tamp Culture

I am not a massive coffee fan. If you talk about washed Ethiopian whatnots or the size of your roaster I glaze over very quickly. I think it’s great that Reading has so many coffee places, but I still long for some fantastic tea rooms, and places that know the value of a gorgeous smoky lapsang souchong or a floral, elegant Earl Grey.

That said, I love reading Tamp’s updates in my feed – even if I don’t understand all of them. You get a real picture of life outside the Oracle at their little cart – what they sell, what they do, how they work – and it comes across that they really love what they sell, what they do and how they work. The boys at Tamp both remind me a little of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. They’re what Shaggy would be like if he was less interested in constructing sandwiches the size of Thames Tower and more interested in crema (whatever that is). A lot of restaurants just do not get Twitter at all – to see it used regularly with such infectious enthusiasm is an absolute joy.

I should also mention that I particularly enjoyed Tamp’s massive spat with Workhouse Coffee earlier this year – it was Aeropresses at dawn as they bitched about one another the way only coffee geeks can (“your roaster is too small” “well you bought cakes from Costco and frosted them yourself” etc.). It made me chuckle in the middle of a particularly hectic shopping trip to Regents Street.

An honourable mention has to go to the lovely people at Pop-Up Reading. Stop making me hungry, you two.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Dolce Vita

When I went to Dolce Vita the first time, I thought the service was great, I really enjoyed the food and I thought their menu was too big. They got a good mark from me, but I suspected in the back of my mind that they’d been fortunate and that if I’d picked different dishes they might have been found out.

Well, that shows what I know. Dolce Vita wins this award because I keep going back and they keep not being found out: I really don’t know how they do it. They also win this award because the range of cooking I’ve had there over this year has been quite something. They do pizza, they do pasta, they do very creditable meat and fish dishes. But they also have a regularly changing set menu which – without any fanfare or showing off – is a darned sight more reliable than London Street Brasserie’s just down the way. So I’ve had big rib-sticking comfort dishes – open ravioli packed with rich game, proper lasagne with beef and pork and chicken livers. But I’ve also had much more restrained, yet equally accomplished stuff – cod cheeks with lentils and a beautiful, fresh salsa verde was a stylish, subtle delight. (They also cook squid beautifully, without a hint of batter or breadcrumbs or mayonnaise in sight).

In many ways I think Dolce Vita is the town centre restaurant I’ve spent a long time looking for, and if I want to eat in town but can’t decide where it often gets the nod. I’ve had quick suppers here and long, drawn out dinners, conspiratorial lunches with friends and big loud celebrations with lots of people. The service is brilliant and they even have a bottle of Averna behind the bar for when you want the evening to last just that little bit longer. Of course, it’s not perfect – no restaurant is – but that’s probably for the best, because if I found the perfect restaurant I wouldn’t write a blog anymore and if you did you’d stop reading mine. But for 2014, it’s as close as I’ve got.

Here’s to continuing that search in 2015 – and until then, have a lovely Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Kyrenia

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I’m sorry, but I’ve got a confession to make. I’m burned out. Running on empty. This whole business of going to a restaurant every week takes its toll, you know (I’m not expecting sympathy, don’t worry). And it’s the end of the year – Christmas party season is fast approaching and I’ve got very little left in the tank. So this week, rather than go somewhere that would be a voyage of discovery for all of us, I went somewhere I know well: I’ve been going to Kyrenia, Caversham’s Greek Cypriot restaurant, for as long as I can remember. I love it – and I’m going to spend this review telling you why, because when I visited it on duty it was as terrific as always.

Besides, it’s been a bit of a bad run recently, hasn’t it? So think of this week’s review as a present to me (because I bet you haven’t got me anything, not even a box of Toffifee).

Kyrenia’s dining room hasn’t really changed in all the time I’ve been going, because it doesn’t need to. It’s perfect, simple but smart – no exposed brickwork and bare bulbs here – with clean white tablecloths, crisp cloth napkins and comfortable unfussy chairs. There are black and white photos on the walls and not much else. The greeting is warm and friendly and Ihor, who runs the front of house, is charm personified (in an endearingly apologetic way, truth be told). Kyrenia has a number of different menu options – they do a la carte, it’s two for one on Tuesdays, there’s a smaller set menu some of the week, but the thing to do here is order the meze, especially if it’s your first visit. I can’t stress this strongly enough: for twenty four pounds a head you get an incredible array of courses and variety (that’s your first tip, right there).

The first thing to arrive were the cold meze, a range of familiar friends and a very easy way to be led astray. Houmous was rich and smoky with a touch of garlic, a world away from the contents of a plastic supermarket tub. Taramasalata – something I avoid anywhere else because it’s often too oily and fishy – was light and delicate. Tzatziki was zingy and fresh, just the right side of tart, the flavour softened with cucumber. All of these came with a basket of warm, griddled, slightly charred pitta bread. That alone would be a feast, that alone would be enough but the other cold dishes were equally delicious. Beetroot, apple and walnut salad was fragrant and sweet rather than sharp and astringent, and potato salad was light and simple, just potato, good oil and parsley.

If I’m being critical (and it’s hard, where Kyrenia’s concerned) the tabouleh wasn’t as vibrant – in colour or flavour – as I’ve had elsewhere, and the olives felt like a space filler, but they were minor issues. This was a wonderful range of dishes, and the nature of it means it works equally well if you’re dining a deux or part of a much bigger group (here’s your second tip: I’ve been in those groups and watched people make the classic mistake – overdoing it on pitta bread and filling up ahead of the other courses. Don’t do this, because the best is yet to come).

Meze1

The hot meze only came out when the staff had checked that we were ready – a lovely touch, I thought – and when they did, as always, it became time to reassess how hungry I really was. Meze is about playing the long game, but the problem was that again, everything was too delicious to leave. Some of the classics – halloumi and calamari – were present and correct. The halloumi was unsurprising (halloumi in restaurants is pretty much always the same, everywhere) but still gorgeous, but the calamari was spot on – no hint of rubber, just light batter and fresh squid. They’re classics for a reason, after all.

Most of the other dishes were every bit as good. Lamb meatballs were possibly the pick of the bunch – juicy, coarse and savoury, studded with herbs and onions and a touch of garlic. Loukanika (Greek sausage) was Peperami’s glamorous continental cousin, warm with cinnamon, almost perfumed rather than one-dimensionally spicy. Dolmades had more of that delicious minced lamb folded into them, though there was probably too much leaf and not enough stuffing. The beans in tomato sauce were the only real disappointment – big, bland and filling, they were soon abandoned. Those six dishes may only merit a sentence or so each, but add that to the seven that came before and it starts to become clear: this is a marathon, not a sprint.

Meze2

Of course, I knew from personal experience to keep something in reserve for what came next: although again, only when the staff knew I was ready. The souvlaki – grilled skewers of pork and beef – were pleasant enough (possibly a tad on the dry side), but they weren’t the main attraction here because that was indisputably the kleftiko. I’ve had this dish countless times in Greece on holiday trying to find anyone who can match Kyrenia’s version, and I’ve given up now because what Kyrenia does to lamb is a work of utter genius: the almost godlike kitchen knows how to slow cook it until mere mortals like me struggle to describe how good it is.

It came on a large piece of bone but the merest whisper of effort soon sorted that out, leaving me with an awful lot of the most tender lamb I’ll probably ever eat. It broke into moist, sticky shreds, almost like confit, perfect for smooshing into the juices on the bottom of the plate before eating in nodding, smiling, euphoric silence. Again, because I feel I ought to be critical, the Greek salad it came with was a little underwhelming – but it’s only salad, isn’t it, and a cubes of feta is the perfect partner for a piece of lamb (that’s your third tip, if you’re counting).

Meze3

I also know from personal experience that if you’ve made the rookie mistake of filling up on pitta and tzatziki, Ihor will bag up all your leftover meat in a little foil parcel for you to take home and enjoy the next day. I also know from personal experience that it’s almost as good cold the next day, but take it from me if you go: pace yourself and eat it on the night.

One of the only other disappointing things about Kyrenia is the wine list. Greek wine can be absolutely fantastic, and is much underrated, but Kyrenia only sells a handful of bottles. None the less, the ones they do are lovely – we had a bottle of Naoussa Grande Reserve which was nicely balanced against both the meat and fish in the meal, far too easy to drink on a school night and not at all unreasonable at £23.50.

The last course at Kyrenia, the fruit salad, is really just a palate cleanser. I would be astonished if anyone could eat a “proper” dessert after all those meze so it seems apt that the meal ends with a plate of orange, melon, grapes and strawberry. It worked, though: fresh, bright, sweet and healthy (like Miley Cyrus before it all went so horribly wrong). It didn’t redeem the sins of all that lamb but it helped me fool myself, and very few desserts achieve that.

I’ve mentioned Ihor a few times, but service in general was perfect. All of the staff are so good at what they do, getting all the little touches right. Asking if you’re ready for the next set of courses, finding time to chat, knowing when to offer you extra pitta (although if you’ve read this far, you’ll know to turn that offer down – trust me on this). Again, to be critical I’d say that you should ask to be seated downstairs: sitting upstairs, in a smaller less buzzy room, far from the bar and the kitchen you can sometimes feel a little overlooked. That’s your fourth and final tip – ask for a table downstairs when you book, because they get busy at weekends. Dinner for two – all those dishes and a bottle of wine – came to £71 excluding service. It’s probably the best £71 meal I’ve had all year.

I recommend Kyrenia all the time – to friends and on Twitter – and it was getting to the point where not having reviewed it was looking like a glaring oversight. I went on duty hoping that they had a good night, but I really needn’t have worried because I’m not sure they know how to be anything but brilliant. There’s loads of stuff on the a la carte that I haven’t tried (I’d love to have a go at their stifado, or their monkfish souvlaki) and I know for a fact that their octopus is out of this world, but all of the best evenings I’ve had here have all involved the meze. Unlike most restaurants in Reading, Kyrenia feels like it’s perfect for everything – small intimate evenings, big raucous evenings and everything in between. It’s only a matter of time before I go back – in fact, on the way out I looked in the front door, still shining with that cosy welcoming light, and saw that they’re offering their standard menu on New Year’s Eve. See you there? I’ll be wearing the white carnation and the gold party hat and drinking the Greek red. Yamas (and Merry Christmas!).

Kyrenia – 8.6
6 Prospect Street, Caversham, RG4 8JG
0118 9476444

http://www.kyreniarestaurant.com/

Kei’s

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Apologies to any vegetarians reading this, but there are few things in life more joyous than crispy duck pancakes. There’s something about that combination of flavours and textures – crunchy cucumber, soft duck, the particularly prized crispy bits, all salt and skin and the intense, sweet yet savoury hoi sin – all almost visible through the paper thin translucent pancake, rolled up as tightly as your greed will allow and crammed into a hungry mouth. And yet Chinese has to be one of the most under-represented cuisines in Reading. We have Indian restaurants all over the place, we have Italians coming out of our ears, as it were, but where can you go in this little town to overfill on prawn crackers, starters and crispy duck only to be defeated by the main courses?

Nowhere, as far as I can tell. China Palace doesn’t fit the bill, for me at least: possibly because it’s too authentically Chinese and possibly because it’s just not that good. Furama (I have friends who still call it Futurama, which gets annoying after a while) has never impressed me. Reading’s best Chinese restaurant, Chi, closed ages ago after trying three different venues in town. I still miss Wayne Wong’s charming if haphazard service and his delicious food – prawns coated in light, brittle batter with a sticky, sweet chilli sauce, pristine cod smothered in garlic-laden black bean sauce… (I could go on, but I might cry).

So out into Lower Earley, then, where the mini-precinct at Maiden Place has had something of a makeover. Instead of an off licence called simply “Bargain Booze” there is a spanking new WHSmith and some other shops have morphed into a shiny Sainsbury’s Local. On the edge of the precinct sits Kei’s, a restaurant I tried to review once before but left after I was offered a woefully dark and forgotten corner table, despite booking. I’ve got over this now: six months seems long enough to hold that particular grudge. Besides, people do say it’s the best Chinese restaurant in Reading.

Entering a buzzy restaurant on a cold and drizzly midweek night always lifts the spirits, and stepping into Kei’s was no different. The dining room is quite cleverly laid out with the smaller tables grouped together and the bigger, potentially louder, tables at a slight distance. It was so busy that I didn’t even mind waiting for a suitable table to become free (sitting on the squishy three piece suite in reception felt a bit like being back in 1979: I rather liked it). The waiter offered the a la carte or the “eat as much as you like” (which they do Monday to Thursday). At first I picked the former, feeling a little snooty about the latter, but a quick inspection of the all you can eat menu revealed that it had pretty much all of the dishes I’d been salivating over on the website. Plus – and this was the crucial factor – the food is cooked to order rather than sitting on a buffet; Cosmo this ain’t.

The first dilemma was how many starters to order: I didn’t want to take “eat as much as you like” as a personal challenge, but on the other hand I wanted to try as much as possible. How many would you have picked, between two? Well, if you answered “four” you win a gold star. Of them, the dry spare ribs were the first to go; imagine your favourite spare ribs with nicely spiced meat falling easily off the bone but none of that sticky sauce that winds up all over your fingers and face and you’ll have a pretty good idea what these were like. The salt and pepper five spiced squid was less successful. The squid was nice enough – thin strips, tender rather than bouncy – but they were underseasoned and bland, with nowhere near enough salt and more sugary sweetness than five spice.

The Thai style smoked chicken (the menu at Kei’s seems quite happy to wander from China to Thailand and even onwards to Vietnam – it’s almost as if it’s on a gap year) was rather similar to the squid, just a little darker and much sweeter. There was no discernible smoky taste but there was some nicely mashed garlic and spring onion at the bottom of the heap that balanced the sweetness a little. And finally, one of my favourites, the crispy fried seaweed. I know it’s not seaweed and I bet it has more fat than I’d want to know about but I love the crispy, salty, sweet taste of it and I wasn’t disappointed. I know it’s a staple but I loved it.

keistarter

Only after the plate was taken away did I realise how little variety there was in the starters – largely sweet, crunchy, fried things. Probably not the cleverest idea, but I was starving and I’m afraid I must have been subliminally influenced by the smells wafting from the kitchen; sometimes you order with your belly rather than your head.

Can you guess what came next? Oh yes, the crispy duck. I was surprised this was on the “eat as much as you like menu” but when it turned up I saw how they managed this: perhaps it’s churlish to complain but the duck was a little on the skimpy side, especially compared to the big bamboo steamer of pancakes (I think we counted 12). Have you ever ordered crispy duck and run out of duck before you ran out of pancakes? No, me neither, so Kei’s was very much a first in that respect. What there was, though, was as good as ever – it’s a measure of how good this dish is that it’s impossible to eat it in silence (maybe it was just as well that it didn’t last that long).

keiduck

Having eaten all that, how many main courses would you have ordered between two? This time, gold stars for those of you who guessed “three”. I was concerned that this would be a greedy mistake but actually, all of them felt like scaled down versions of what you’d have got if you ordered from the a la carte.

Sizzling king prawns in black bean sauce, for instance, were tasty – but you got four prawns. Serving this on a sizzling cast iron platter seemed strange when in reality the dish could probably have fitted in a ramekin. I enjoyed it, but the sauce was a bit thin on the ground (as were the black beans: I didn’t count many). Lamb in satay sauce, another sizzling platter, was a bit more generous. The sauce itself was smooth and shiny, with a texture a bit like egg yolk and not particularly peanutty. Ironically, given how shiny it was, it was distinctly lacklustre – and when it started to cool the gelatinous nature made it slightly gloopy, stringy and reminiscent of things I’d rather not describe. That said, the lamb was lovely and tender – I just wished I’d had it in “Vietnamese plum sauce” (whatever that is) instead. Oh, and if you’re looking at the picture below: yes, it’s a solitary giant piece of tenderstem broccoli, yes it’s as random as it looks and no, I have no idea what it’s doing there either.

keimain

The third main, chicken and cashew nuts in yellow bean sauce, had the best flavour and texture but went cold incredibly quickly. I didn’t check the dish when it arrived but I wonder if it was served in a chilled bowl. Maybe I should have tried it before the two sizzling dishes, but either way it shouldn’t have got this cold this quickly. Again, the sauce was tasty but – as with the other two dishes – you didn’t get enough of it to make the rice interesting (the plain steamed rice, also a bit claggy and lukewarm in next to no time, needed all the help it could get).

We had a couple of diet cokes and a colossal 250ml glass of sauvignon blanc, the only white they offer by the glass and the only size glass they serve it in. Often, house wine tastes like it’s punching slightly above its weight – this one tasted very much like a house wine, and 175ml would have been plenty (hark at me, it’s not as if I let any go to waste). Service throughout was pleasant and attentive: staff were friendly, efficient and patient when it took us some time to pick our food.

Having said that all the dishes were on the small side, it’s only fair to say that the quantities I’d ordered worked out well – we were both nicely full without being stuffed which often isn’t the case in a Chinese restaurant. Just as well, though, as I wouldn’t have felt like I’d have been able to go back and ask for more dishes if I’d under-ordered. The all you can eat option is just under twenty pounds per head and our total bill, including a semi-optional service charge of 10%, came to fifty three pounds.

Is Kei’s Reading’s best Chinese restaurant? Yes, it probably is (unless Happy Diner in Caversham turns out to be stellar) but that didn’t make me feel like hopping on a bus to Lower Earley any time soon to pay it a return visit. Instead, it made me wish that Reading had something better that could compete with the delights of Chinatown, or even some of the offerings just down the train tracks in Oxford. If Kei’s was on my doorstep, or if I had a friend visiting who really, really fancied Chinese food then I’d go – it’s a solid, reliable restaurant and those are qualities a lot of people value. But most of all, it made me miss the charismatic chaos of Chi: if you never sat at a table in Chi while someone in a rhinestone jumpsuit who doesn’t look or sound remotely like Elvis serenades you with “Devil In Disguise” you haven’t lived, take it from me. Maybe we’ll see its like again at some point: until then, Kei’s might have to do.

Kei’s – 6.7
Maiden Place Centre, Lower Earley, RG6 3HD
0118 9263133

http://www.keis.co.uk/reading/

Tutu’s Ethiopian Table

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Usually, when I eat at a restaurant I have a pretty good idea whether I’ll enjoy it fairly early on. First impressions are important – the welcome, the service, the room, the menu – but even if they aren’t good, you normally know by the time you taste those first few forkfuls of your starter. Not to say there aren’t still chances to save the day: a knockout main course can redeem all sorts of prior disappointments, although by that stage it’s increasingly unlikely. And if everything else has underwhelmed you up to that point, a dessert (if you order one) is only going to be damage limitation, however magnificent it might be.

Tutu’s Ethiopian Table was a huge puzzler for me, because it didn’t fit that pattern at all. I was undecided from the moment I sat down to the moment I finished, and even afterwards I found myself mulling it over and weighing it up for quite some time. This in itself puts me out of step with most of Reading: Twitter is regularly awash with people raving about Reading’s well-established Ethiopian restaurant, not to mention the string of awards and mentions in the national media (one of my friends, ever the curmudgeon, was the solitary voice of dissent – “good luck with that, it’s just slop” he said when I mentioned that I was planning to pay it a visit).

Perhaps it would be easier to talk about what I liked and didn’t like. So for instance, I liked the room. I wasn’t expecting to, but the section of the Global Café at the front of the building is a lovely, bright, buzzy place, full of people and with lovely old jazz playing in the background. It may be a bit scruffy, but it’s so likeable that it didn’t matter. (I wouldn’t have felt the same, however, if I’d been stuck in the back room – long, windowless and distinctly cold and uninviting.)

I liked the service at the counter, too – no table service which makes sense as Tutu’s is only part of the Global Café which also does coffee, tea and all sorts of interesting alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, some of them Fairtrade. Everyone was friendly, engaging and genuinely funny (“I’m going to blow your mind now,” said one of the bar staff to another customer, “I’ve accidentally dished up your cappuccino in a latte cup and your latte in a cappuccino cup”). I wasn’t so convinced about the unsmiling, functional service from the staff at Tutu’s, who just plonked the plates on the table and left.

The menu gave a choice of seven vegetarian dishes and four meat dishes, with a choice of rice or injera (a thick, flat pancake), or you could opt for a platter – one meat dish and two vegetable dishes – for the same price. We went for platters, partly out of indecision and partly to try as much of the menu as possible. The indecision was strangely appropriate, because if I couldn’t make up my mind about the experience of eating at Tutu’s, it turned out that I couldn’t make up my mind about the food either.

So I liked the doro wot, chicken on the bone in a rich spiced sauce. I liked that an awful lot, in fact. The chicken was so soft, so tender and so well cooked that taking it off the bone was no challenge at all, and once I’d done that I was struck by how much of it there was. The sauce was magnificent too, sticky and delicious with a heat which gradually, subtly developed without ever being too much. By the end of the dish my mouth had a wonderful, warm glow; if I went back to Tutu’s, I think I’d just order this dish, as nothing else I tasted came anywhere close to it.

I didn’t like the keya sega wot – beef in a remarkably similar sauce – anywhere near so much. The beef was everything the chicken wasn’t. It needed a lot more cooking; none of it passed the two forks test and one piece was downright wobbly in a way best not remembered, let alone written about. There also wasn’t much of it – I counted less than half a dozen pieces, none of them huge.

I liked the injera, like a thick flat sourdough crumpet you could tear off and use to eat your food, almost an edible plate (and who among us has never fancied one of those?). It was a bit of a soggy experience, perhaps, but still a fun one – and the slight vinegary note in it worked better with the sauce than I expected. I was less keen on the rice – a little dome of yellow rice with what looked suspiciously like frozen vegetables in it, it didn’t feel like it added an awful lot to proceedings.

Tutu

This, I’m afraid, is where I largely ran out of likes. The vegetable dishes were bland variations on a theme, and it’s hard to be positive about any of them. Fosolia, described as “a dish of subtly flavoured fried green beans and carrots” was a mulch of green beans and what looked like tinned or frozen carrots which tasted of beans, carrots and nothing else (so very subtly flavoured, then). I couldn’t see how this could possibly have been fried, either, because fried food doesn’t normally wind up this damp.

White cabbage and potatoes and collard greens and potatoes were very close relations and again, were basically soggy brassica with cubes of potato. One was apparently cooked with exotic herbs and spices, but it reminded me of my school dinners and trust me, there was nothing exotic about those. The other featured garlic, in theory at least (I could barely tell the two dishes apart). Last of all, the difen misr wot, green lentils in sauce, was impossible to either like or dislike. The lentils had a nice bite but it was just a puddle of brown blandness. Maybe nothing could live up to the sauce which came with that chicken and beef, or perhaps my palate just isn’t developed enough to pick up both ends of the spectrum in Tutu’s food. I’m not sure I could tell which it was by that stage, and worse still I’m not sure I cared.

I’d rather end on a positive, so I will say that my Ubuntu Cola – a fairtrade African version that is never going to appear on a tacky red festive truck outside the Oracle – was very tasty indeed. But then, like much of what I enjoyed in my visit, this had more to do with the Global Café than it did with the restaurant. The whole bill came to around twenty-three pounds, and to my shame I left really, really wanting a big slice of cake somewhere else.

So, did I like Tutu’s Ethiopian Table? I should have, I wanted to, but did I? I don’t know, what do you think?

Tutu’s Ethiopian Table – 5.7
35-39 London Street, RG1 4PS
0118 9583555

http://www.tutus-ethiopian-table.com/

Quattro

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One of the drawbacks of this gig is taking the photographs, especially when I visit a restaurant and find myself sitting in a very empty room trying to take sneaky pictures without the staff noticing (this is more of a problem in some places than others: where the service is poor you could probably get on a table and belt out I Will Survive without anybody batting an eyelid). Empty Room Syndrome happens much more often if I’m dining at quiet times, so Quattro immediately had me feeling hopeful when I rocked up on a Monday night to a bustling dining room.

Why so packed, on a night when a fair few places don’t open at all? Well, Quattro is a popular place. At the time of writing it’s rated fourth on TripAdvisor among Reading restaurants, the highest rated place in Reading that isn’t a café. Customers rave about the food and the service, and many have posted multiple reviews. It’s celebrating its thirtieth birthday this year so I’m pretty sure that, along with Sweeney & Todd, it’s one of Reading’s oldest surviving restaurants. I’m never a big fan of the “so they must be doing something right” cliché, but it’s hard to argue with a restaurant full of customers on one of the deadest nights of the week.

Inside Quattro’s the layout is a little unusual; there are three funny little dining areas (one in each window either side of the entry hall and one in the back), each with room for fifteen or twenty covers, at little square tables a tiny bit elbow to elbow to make the most of the space. The tables are neatly laid out with proper cloth napkins and, even if my neighbours could hear every word I said, it was probably a fair price to price to pay for that buzzy experience. (It also meant I could hear the couple next to me: they weren’t having fun at all.)

So all that set my expectations high, but my first interaction with the waitress dampened them somewhat. I could make out a blackboard with specials, but I couldn’t read it so I asked the waitress what they were. Her reaction was an interesting one. She didn’t know them by heart. She didn’t say she’d forgotten her notes. She didn’t wander over, read them and come back or offer to ask a colleague to explain them. Instead, she took the road less travelled: she just scarpered. There might have been a little bit of traumatised mumbling involved, too. Shortly afterwards a waiter, a slightly older chap, came over and listed them for us, unsmilingly (after all that effort I felt like I should order one of them but they didn’t appeal so I didn’t. Sorry).

The menu was very much on the conventional side – antipasti, pasta, pizza and meat dishes – so conventional as to be barely worth explaining and with nothing on it I hadn’t seen elsewhere. That’s no crime, especially in a good, traditional, well-established restaurant but it does make for a pretty boring paragraph in the review, so apologies for that. The wine list was pretty traditional too, sticking to traditional Italian wines (chianti, pinot grigio, gavi, Barolo, all the greats), although I was pleased to see a decent selection of five half bottles. We had a half bottle of valpolicella for under a tenner and found it very easy to drink: fruity, juicy and not too heavy for a school night.

The starters were decent but unexciting. I liked the polpette rustiche: three beef meatballs with a decent dollop of tomato sauce. If there had been two, I would be packing this review full of all sorts of double entendres (it’s hard to resist as it is) but having three rather than two makes that tricky to put it lightly. They really were tasty – the massive balls (steady on) were coarse, well seasoned and avoided the twin horrors you often risk with a dish like this, of either being disturbingly smooth or chewily bouncy. The handful of salad on the side was, as so often, a not very decorative waste of time and really didn’t go.

Quattro Balls

The fettuccine ai funghi was also competent but not exactly thrilling. Cream, garlic, pasta and mushrooms is a combination it’s hard not to like and so it was here, but it still felt like Italian food on autopilot. I was hoping for wild mushrooms (as you’d get at, for instance, Pepe Sale) but instead got little slices of what might have been button mushrooms. The pasta was very regular, which made me dubious about whether it was made on the premises. It wasn’t a huge portion – which, as a starter it shouldn’t be – but for eight pounds it felt distinctly unspecial.

Quattro Pasta

I had high hopes for the pizza, because one thing Reading lacks is a truly amazing pizzeria along the lines of London’s Franco Manca or Pizza Pilgrims. Having eaten the pizza Parma at Quattros, I can safely say that it’s still lacking one: the base was too thick and doughy, especially considering the menu describes it as “thin crust”. The tomato and mozzarella base was good but the parma ham was underwhelming. For a pizza like this, where the meat goes on after the pizza is cooked, I like the ham to be so thin that it’s delicate and translucent. This was on the bacon end of the meat thickness scale and was on the bright pink end of the ham colour spectrum (if there isn’t a ham colour spectrum I might just invent one. Or just start a band and call it that. I could release picture discs that looked like disappointing pizzas! But I digress) rather than the beautiful dark marbled hue of a truly great roll-it-up-and-eat-it-with-your-bare-hands prosciutto. When a pizza only has a few ingredients I want those ingredients to really sing, but these mumbled like the waitress. Oh, there was rocket too but the dish hasn’t yet been invented that can be redeemed by rocket alone. I managed about half before giving up.

Quattro pizza

The other main was delizia di pollo – chicken supreme with asparagus and taleggio. This was better: the plate was no looker but the flavours made up for that. The big spears of asparagus were perfect, with just enough bite and the chicken was tasty and tender. I expected it to be stuffed with taleggio but instead the plate was covered in molten cheese: I’m not really sure how it got there but I wasn’t complaining. Good accompaniments, too: some properly sautéed potatoes, carrot, broccoli and some roasted peppers. All in all it felt – and looked – like something a friend might serve up at home, and I enjoyed it. Did I sixteen pounds ninety-five enjoy it? Hmm.

Quattro Chicken

After the mains it took a little while for the dessert menu to arrive which meant we just about managed to find room. All of the desserts are cold (which rather reminded me of an old fashioned dessert trolley – you can have anything you fancy, as long as it doesn’t require cooking) but the selection is a little better than the average tiramisu, ice cream, chocolate brownie selection at so many other traditional restaurants. We went for the torta al cioccolato con amaretto: a generous slab of thick, rich, chocolate ganache flavoured with Amaretto on a thin, crisp biscuit base (so big I was glad we shared it, and I’m not normally one to baulk at a challenge in restaurants). It came with a scoop of smooth vanilla ice cream, which I quite liked, and a gigantic puddle of single cream, which I thought was baffling and unnecessary. Still, it’s a minor complaint about a really good, very tasty block of chocolatiness.

Quattro chocolateService was probably the most surprising element of the whole evening: it seemed like I was visiting a completely different venue to the one I’d read so many glowing reports of on TripAdvisor. The (senior?) waiter seemed a little distracted, although he did offer a liqueur on the house at the end of the night. The waitress was doing the majority of the legwork – taking orders, carrying plates etc. with the bare minimum of human interaction but without ever really seeming like she knew what she was doing. At one point, after we’d finished a course, she asked “Was your food fine?” rather than “Did you enjoy your food?” and it felt like a Freudian slip, suggesting that they were aspiring to adequate.

The total bill, for two starters and mains, one dessert and half a bottle of wine was fifty-six pounds, excluding service. I know that’s not a big number but for the quality of the food, the atmosphere of the room and the experience I could have been in any one of Reading’s countless Italian chains. If you put Quattro next to a Jamie’s Italian – which, whether it’s authentic or not, has dishes that are full of interesting flavours and packed with fresh herbs – I would pick Jamie’s ninety-nine times out of a hundred, even though the service and the tone of the menu brings me out in hives (“lovely lamb lollipops”, anyone?).

I’m sure at least a few loyal customers will be reading this up in arms, and all I can say is that I’m sorry. The best restaurants feel like a club that you’re part of, but I didn’t feel like I was that night: perhaps if you’re a regular you have a very different experience. But it’s clear that Quattro’s doesn’t need a glowing review from me to fill its seats; it’s doing that anyway, with food that’s just good enough and service that has enough people going back time and time again. But I just didn’t get it at all I’m afraid. For me, the food was a bit like the wine list; traditional, unsurprising, ever so slightly uninspiring. For everyday dining that’s right on your doorstep maybe that’s all you really want, but to get me across town to Caversham I’d need more. When even the waitress can’t remember the specials, it’s just not special enough.

Quattro – 6.5
14-16 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG
0118 9483070

http://www.quattro-restaurant.co.uk/

Bill’s

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If you’re surprised that I’ve written a review of Bill’s the main thing I can say is this – me too. I had written it off: it’s always struck me as a chain trying its damnedest to convince people that it isn’t one, the rustic reclaimed school chairs and blackboards full of homespun quotes a sleight of hand concealing a respectable-sized chain (over fifty restaurants and growing), backed by Richard Caring, who also owns or has owned parts of Strada, Carluccio’s and Cote. So I was surprised when someone suggested I review the place, but he made some interesting points; it wasn’t a chain when it came to Reading, he said, and it offers something different to other Reading restaurants.

My first instinct was to say thanks but no thanks, but then I thought about it a bit more. I’ve always said that not all independents are good and not all chains are bad, and one of the plusses of writing Edible Reading has been eating at restaurants I’d otherwise never have considered. Why shouldn’t that apply to Bill’s, too? So I found myself sitting in Bill’s on a weekday night, at one of those reclaimed chairs (are they reclaimed, I wonder, or do they have a supplier who makes all these distressed-looking chairs, tables and defeated-looking leather armchairs for them?) reading the menu, not entirely sure what I was doing there.

It is, it has to be said, an attractive space. Bill’s has taken over one of Reading’s loveliest buildings, at the bottom of Chain Street, looking out over the churchyard of Reading Minster. It’s grand and imposing from the outside, but warm and cosy inside (and the outside space, usually packed with people enjoying breakfast and lunch in the summertime, is one of town’s better al fresco spots). It seems a bit churlish to point out that it looks and feels identical to the site in Brighton that I went to long before the expansion, when there were only two branches and they were owned by the titular Bill – after all, most people wouldn’t realise they were eating in a clone. But I did, and it was a little unnerving.

The menu was uninspiring. It felt like a beige selection of dishes with little or no signs of seasonality (starters were mainly salads, which I don’t mind per se but didn’t feel especially autumnal). The mains – drawn up by a focus group, perhaps – were almost calculated to be inoffensive, so there were some burgers for people who like burgers, steak for people who like steak, a couple more salads, a curry for people who like curry, a risotto for people who are plain out of ideas and a duck pie and fish pie for people who like to help restaurants make healthy profits on mashed potato.

Starters were not promising at all. The nicest thing I can say about the calamari is that they were reasonably fresh and you got quite a lot of them (comments that could equally apply to, for example, a bag of apples from M&S). But they didn’t taste of much. It was just a pile of panko coated nothingness, served in the kind of irritating bowl that made it impossible to take them out or cut them with a knife and fork. There was also a big bland lake of something which professed to be garlic and lemon mayonnaise and tasted of neither (in fact, until I read the menu I assumed it was an underachieving tartare sauce, I still think it might be).

Squid

The halloumi, chickpea and couscous salad was, well, OK. It was three slices of nicely grilled halloumi on top of a saucer of couscous which had a few but not quite enough interesting things mixed in; pomegranate seeds, tiny bits of fresh mint and some yoghurt. I wish I’d counted the chickpeas as I am pretty sure they didn’t scrape into double figures and the tomato was easy to count because, despite being mentioned on the menu, that was a big fat (or rather a tiny skinny) zero. It was fine purely because of the salty, squeaky grilled halloumi on top: the rest was just background noise. But how much skill does it really take to grill some halloumi?

By this stage I fully expected the mains to be terrible, but bafflingly they weren’t. Hake with rosti and salsa looked the most potentially interesting thing on the menu and was a genuine delight – a firm square of well-seasoned, well cooked fish with a salty, crispy skin and lovely big flakes, on top of something that wasn’t really crispy enough to be a rosti but was pleasant all the same, a potato cake shot through with parsley and spring onions. The coarse salsa it was served with – sweet halved cherry tomatoes, cubes of avocado, a smattering of capers – added the freshness the dish needed, although it was fridge-cold which jarred with the other components. Really though, it was lovely, and at just under twelve pounds it felt like a decent, sensibly-priced dish (although maybe not a popular one: looking at most of the tables around me all I could make out was brioche bun after brioche bun).

Fish

The menu was so lacking in other choices I fancied that I went for fillet steak, from the specials menu (although I’m not sure what’s so special about a fillet steak when the rest of the year Bill’s does rump, sirloin etc.). That quibble aside, it was spot on: a nice hefty steak, cooked exactly as requested (rare, in this case) – something you should be able to take for granted but so often can’t. And some attention to detail had gone into the accompaniments. The watercress was properly dressed and delicious rather than just token greenery, and the potato gratin – a generous portion in a little cast iron pan – made a pleasant change from frites. Still, a twenty quid dish (or twenty-one if you add garlic butter as I did; I figured in for a penny in for another pound), and as much as I enjoyed it I did find myself thinking about all the other dishes you could buy with that money in Reading.

Steak

The dessert menu also left me cold. It felt like there was very little there I hadn’t seen dozens of times before: crumble, cheesecake, eton mess and brownies (brownies never really feel like dessert in a restaurant to me, just a lazy way to flog you cake instead). Again, I could almost visualise the focus group, round a boardroom table, deciding whether pecan pie was a good choice or just a little too “out there”. So we shared the only dessert on the menu that remotely made me want to order it, mini cinnamon doughnuts with fresh strawberries and chocolate dipping sauce. (Strawberries was only just plural – two, cut into halves.) The chocolate sauce was pleasant enough, smooth and dark, more of it than you could possibly need. But the doughnuts were disappointing. Good fresh doughnuts should be big, warm, fluffy, irregular cloudlike things with a gorgeous sugary shell, but these were heavy and stodgy with an afterthought of icing sugar; they didn’t deliver an ounce of that promise.

Doughnuts

Many of my friends have criticised the service in Bill’s in the past, which meant that I maybe wasn’t quite as disappointed by it as I could have been. My waitress was friendly and pleasant, but the constant calculated upselling (almost as if from a script) got wearing very quickly. No, I didn’t want “nibbles” (and, in fact, I have a real problem with food for adults being called “nibbles” at all). No, I didn’t want any extra sides with my main courses. No, I didn’t want an extra glass of wine. No, I didn’t want coffee and/or tea. At the start it just about felt like she was drawing my attention to things on the menu that I might have missed, by the end I felt like politely explaining that, however it might appear, I did actually know my own mind.

Actually, the wine was quite good: the white was an unusual Brazilian pinot grigio/riesling blend which was off-dry, round and fruity and went well with the fish dishes (even if the first glass was nowhere near cold enough) and the red was rich and juicy although, ironically, a little on the chilled side. Reasonably priced, too – I’ve had the same white at Malmaison where it costs a pound a glass more. The bill for two starters, two mains, a dessert and four glasses of wine came to £75 (which includes a 10% “optional” service charge, about the only thing the waitress didn’t ask me if I wanted). That probably makes the place look more expensive than it was – the starters were around the five pound mark, so it’s the fillet steak’s fault.

It would be easy to turn round and hammer Bill’s for being a faceless, cynical chain. But, as always, the truth is a bit more nuanced and complex. So no, it doesn’t offer something you can’t get anywhere else in Reading. Quite the contrary, in fact: I can think of other places I would sooner go if I wanted green Thai curry, or calamari (although nowhere in Reading does really good calamari, more’s the pity) or burgers, or steak – many of them independent places.

But perhaps that’s missing the point about Bill’s. Its popularity, like it or not (and it is popular – it was packed on a Monday night) is down to the fact that it offers something for everybody, an upmarket version of all you can eat überbuffet Cosmo, if you like. So I can see you might go there with a group of people who don’t have strong opinions about food, or who have very different opinions about food, or people who plain can’t decide what to eat. The food is decent enough, some of it is pretty good value and eating there is never going to class as a gamble. So did my visit change my mind about Bill’s? Kind of, I suppose: before I would have actively refused to go there whereas now, if I was going out with friends and they insisted on eating at Bill’s, I’d tag along. But in the back of my mind, I’d be thinking that it’s on Chain Street for a reason.

Bill’s – 6.4
St Mary’s Church House, Chain Street, RG1 2HX
0118 9391365

http://bills-website.co.uk/restaurants/reading/

The Bull Inn, Sonning

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As regular readers will know, the overwhelming majority of restaurants I review are requested by people who read the blog week in, week out. If there’s one thing that comes out of those requests, it’s that you really want to see reviews of pubs that do food. And that, generally speaking, means leaving Reading and heading out into the countryside. There’s only one problem with that, which is that a lot of pub menus look really uninspired. In fact, once you read enough of them they all start to blur into one. They all do a burger, they all do fish and chips, they all do sausages and mash, they nearly all do confit duck these days. They’re all so similar, in fact, that you start to wonder if they’re all being supplied by the same person, perhaps in a big lorry of some description (surely not).

So I’m afraid I’ve cut a lot of the pubs from my to do list. They might be well worth a visit if they’re your local and you can stagger home afterwards, but I think they have a limited appeal for people those of us who would need to drive out into the sticks to go there. If I’m going to forego the delights of more than a solitary glass of wine I do want to feel like the food is worth it. So what stayed on the list? Pubs that had menus with a little bit more about them. Menus with interesting combinations of ingredients. Menus that weren’t going through the motions and dead behind the eyes. The Bull at Sonning was one of those pubs, so I turned up there on a midweek night to see if my menu spotting skills had let me down.

It really is a beautiful pub, inside and out. It’s your typical ancient timbered pub with enough low beams to require a special stooped walk, lest visitors wake up to find themselves on a trolley at the Royal Berks. It has a warm, inviting fireplace in the front bar, mismatched furniture all over the shop (I don’t think I saw two tables the same) and loads of nooks and crannies, just as an authentic pub should. Eating there a deux, in a little table tucked away, felt beautifully conspiratorial. What is also has, on a cold it-feels-like-winter-even-though-it-was-sunny-only-last-week school night is an absolutely packed bar and dining area (it was impossible to tell how many people were locals and how many had been drawn there by the recent not very extensively reported news about properties in the area – really, the Sonning residents should have worn badges, or red trousers, or both).

I got a sinking feeling when I looked at the Bull’s menu again and started to think I might have made a mistake. It’s a big old menu, broken into two parts: a section of pub classics on the one hand and what they term “chef’s creations” on the other. This felt like an awfully brave, rather clumsy (and slightly silly) way to describe half of your menu. I was also, and this is probably a bit unworthy, put off by the typos: the menu extolls the virtues of eating “seasonably” and includes “noddles”, which made me chuckle (I thought you were meant to use these but not necessarily cook with them). As if those fourteen main course options weren’t quite enough, there was also a handwritten sheet with half a dozen more specials on it. Things were starting to look distinctly iffy.

Well, to deflate the mounting sense of dread nice and quickly, I was worrying unduly: everything I had was fantastic. They may not be able to do a decent job of every single thing on that menu, but they barely made a mistake with anything I ordered (this is why I write restaurant reviews and not mystery novels).

I never order soup, because it inevitably leaves me too full for my main course. But when I saw that The Bull had honey roasted parsnip (probably my second favourite vegetable) soup with chestnut dumplings I was powerless to resist it. I was so glad I had it, too. It came in a miniature casserole filled to the brim with smooth puréed parsnip and nestled on top were two walnut-sized dumplings. On the side was a warm, crusty miniature loaf, in a miniature bread tin, and a small pot of room temperature butter (a detail many places get wrong, and such a bugbear of mine).

This dish was a good example, I think, of why I’d picked The Bull to review. The soup was very good – maybe a little underseasoned (a touch of spice would have gone well here) but beautifully sweet and smooth. But what elevated it were the extra touches – the bread and in particular the dumplings: rich and soft with their own hint of sweetness from the chestnuts. The loaf was slightly chewy (I wondered if it was quite as freshly baked as it appeared) but was more than up to its two main jobs: having butter melted onto it and being dunked into the soup to make sure no mouthful of parsnip got away.

Soup

The other starter was equally appropriate on a cold, miserable day and was every bit as delicious: mulled pear and Barkham Blue tart. Some people will read that and turn their noses up, which is fair enough, so perhaps I’m just speaking to the rest of you now, but by goodness it was gorgeous. Soft, spiced, slightly gritty pear covered in molten creamy blue cheese, the rind the only solidity left, all served on a disc of crispy pastry. Again, there were more cheffy flourishes than the dish needed – pickled walnuts around the outside, sweet caramelised red onions (maybe a few too many) on top and a mulled wine syrup traced around the edge. I could have happily eaten a tart like this the size of a paddling pool. It just had everything: sweetness, saltiness, crispiness, gooeyness.

Tart

Did the mains live up to that standard? Well, to my increasing surprise and delight, yes. Chicken pie, again, is exactly the sort of thing I’d seen and discounted on many pub menus. But here the filling was a slow cooked stew of tender thigh, soft leek and a rich, glossy gravy which was made to be soaked into pastry and devoured with gusto (the pastry, a flaky buttery lid, was perfect for the job). I know some people feel that a dish like this, with a top crust, isn’t technically a pie and I have some sympathy with that view. But it was too delicious for me to care. On the side, a decent but not overwhelming pile of dark, crinkly savoy cabbage simply steamed, buttered and salted: a great ingredient left to speak for itself. The only disappointment was the goose fat roasted potatoes. I’m sure there’s a rule somewhere which says that there’s no such thing as too many roast potatoes but I don’t think it applies when the potatoes are like this: they looked the part but lacked that almost glass-like exterior of a truly great roastie. Instead, they felt chewy and unremarkable, almost as if they’d been reheated. Still, by then I was full and at least, if nothing else, I wasn’t devastated not to be able to finish them.

ChickenPie

The other main was, despite being on their autumn menu, a wintry and comforting delight. There was so much going on on the plate (or slate in this case, as it happens) that it’s difficult to know where to begin describing it. So there was a confit leg of pheasant – delicious and gamey, if a bit difficult to detach from the spiky, spindly bones. There was a breast, filled with stuffing and rolled almost into a ballotine, rich, salty and herby. There was a big pile of red cabbage, full of the flavours of winter, a giant heap of spiced comfort. There was a root vegetable dauphinoise, so imaginative compared to a bog standard potato gratin, with a whack of garlic offsetting the sweetness of carrot and parsnip. And there was celeriac puree. It was described on the menu as “flavour bursting celeriac puree”, which again I found more than a little silly, but the last laugh was on me because it was exactly that – sweet but punchy, a little went a very long way. Bringing it all together was a little jug of something which was described as “mulled wine sauce” on the menu but just tasted like amazing gravy to me. I smiled from beginning to end while eating this dish: if plates of food were people, I’d have married it.

Pheasant

That main, as it happens, was recommended by our waiter – although, having read the description on the menu, I probably still would have ordered it if he’d said “my one tip is to avoid the pheasant, I’m pretty sure it has bits of asbestos in it”. But the service overall was pretty decent considering how full the place was. There were no empty tables when I got there, no empty tables when I left and the bar got buzzier as the evening went on. What were all these people doing in Sonning, a village which never troubles the national press? Your guess is as good as mine.

I’m sorry to confess that I’ve let you down, because I didn’t order dessert; I just didn’t have space (I blame all that soup) and there was nothing light enough that I could have managed it even after a breather. In any case, the dessert menu is probably the most conventional thing about the pub – brownies, sticky toffee puddings and the like – so I’m not sure I missed much, though I imagine they’d have done it well. Maybe with winter coming I’ll have to get into training to make sure I can manage all three courses. So instead, we settled up and left. The bill, excluding tip, came to sixty-two pounds. Apart from the two courses each we had a couple of pleasant, if unremarkable, glasses of red and a couple of drinks in the bar beforehand (the wine is much better value than the cider: a pint of cider is eye-wateringly close to a fiver). The main courses were definitely more at the restaurant than pub end of the price scale – the pie was fifteen pounds and the pheasant was seventeen pounds – but more than worth it, I think.

I can’t help but feel that the Bull has justified my new approach to picking pubs to eat in. It was a bit of a rollercoaster – I was excited before I turned up, distinctly unconvinced when I got there and then thoroughly wowed once the food arrived. The food was far better than I expected and got the balance just right – close enough to standard pub food not to alienate people who want that sort of thing but with just enough personality to interest people who are looking for a little bit more. What can I say? It won me over. If I lived in Sonning I would come here all the time, and as it is I’m wondering how quickly I can get away with going back. Maybe the village’s newest and most famous resident will drop by at some point; if she manages to get the Elgin Marbles returned to Greece I can’t think of anywhere more appropriate to celebrate.

The Bull Inn – 8.1
High Street, Sonning, RG4 6UP
0118 9693901

http://bullinnsonning.co.uk/

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