Feature: pre-theatre dining

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You get a bonus feature this week! This piece first appeared on the Reading Fringe site, although hopefully it’s a useful guide for all pre-theatre dining and not just the Fringe.

Also – to celebrate, and in conjunction with the organisers of the Reading Fringe Festival, I’m delighted to be doing my first ever giveaway. All you need to do is leave a comment on this post to be entered into a prize draw, and the winner will get two tickets to the show of his or her choice courtesy of the Reading Fringe (entries close at midday on Friday 3rd July).

Oh, and if you’re struggling to work out which show to go to, why not check out this definitive pre-Festival guide by AltReading? Right, on with the post…

Pre-theatre dining is an awkward business. You need somewhere where you can be absolutely certain you’ll be out the door in time to make the start of the show, but you don’t want to feel like you’re compromising on having a good meal. (Personally, I also need somewhere which leaves me enough room to sneakily inhale a bag of Minstrels in the interval, but less said about that the better.)

When Zsuzsi from the Reading Fringe asked me to suggest five of the best restaurants to eat at before taking in a show at the Festival I was hugely honoured. Reading is enormously lucky to have such a terrific programme of events this month, and fortunately Fringe-goers are also lucky to have a great range of places to eat at beforehand, from sharing dishes and street food all the way through to proper sit-down meals. Here’s my selection – and in the spirit of the Fringe you won’t find a single large faceless chain in there. I hope you enjoy one of them, and that you enjoy the Fringe!

Pepe Sale

Fish

Pepe Sale has a good track record when it comes to pre-theatre dining: as one of Reading’s longest-established restaurants, right next to the Hexagon, it’s been doing it for yonks. The pasta’s made fresh every day and comes highly recommended (especially if crab ravioli – one of the Seven Culinary Wonders Of Reading – is on the specials menu). The wine list is exclusively Italian with lots of gorgeous, affordable options. It’s very conveniently located for the shows at Penta Hotel, RYND or the Purple Turtle. Because you’re dining early, the almost legendary suckling pig they serve at weekends won’t be ready yet. But there’s always next time for that. (3 Queens Walk, RG1 7QF)

Bhel Puri House

Samosas

Also convenient for shows on Gun Street, Reading’s only vegetarian restaurant specialises in Indian street food and is great if you want a lighter dinner or to share some dishes with friends. It’s all good (and lots of it is very unusual) but if you want to play it safe the chilli paneer is a magnificent plate of sticky, spicy decadence and the Punjabi samosas are hard to beat. In the further reaches of the menu the pani puri (like the big bubbly crisps you’d fight over in a packet of ready salted, only stuffed with potato and lentil curry) are great fun. As a bonus, when it’s warm you can eat in the courtyard by the George Hotel, sip a mango lassi and get ready to take in some culture. (Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF)

Mission Burrito

Mission - tacos

A little chain, and probably the most independent restaurant the Oracle has left, Mission Burrito is so good at what it does that I doubt it’s remotely rattled by the impending arrival of TGI Friday. The slow-cooked ancho chile beef is the thing here, and it’s especially fine in a big pillowy burrito with rice, black beans and their rather good guacamole. A perfect place to get a quick pre-show meal without having to suffer one of Reading’s three branches of Burger King, they also do a distinctly acceptable frozen margarita, if you want to loosen yourself up for one of the more experimental shows on offer. (15A The Riverside, The Oracle, RG1 2AG)

London Street Brasserie

LSB1

If burritos and samosas seem a little, well, informal for you London Street Brasserie is the doyen of early evening upmarket dining in Reading. Their set menu runs until 7pm on Fridays and 6.30pm on Saturdays and the range is excellent – especially if you have vegetarians in your party, as the options are more imaginative than you’ll see elsewhere in Reading. Let them know you’re on a quick turnaround when you book and if you’re lucky they might even seat you outside, in one of Reading’s finest spots for al fresco dining (admittedly, there isn’t much competition). Lots of it is good, but I have a soft spot for their fish and chips. (2-4 London Street, RG1 4PN)

Sapana Home

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It’s all about the momo at Sapana – little Nepalese parcels like gyoza absolutely crammed with chicken, red onion and lemongrass and then pan fried (my favourite), steamed or deep fried depending on how badly behaved you feel. Six pounds gets you a plate of ten with a little dish of thick, piquant dipping sauce. Lots of people order other things as well – the spicy fried fish (a little like sardines) are lovely, as is the dry chicken curry – so if you’re in the sharing mood it can work pretty well. Me? I find it hard to look past the momo. Service is lovely, drink is affordable and the music is, well, Heart FM. But never mind – you’ll be getting your culture elsewhere, won’t you? (8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG)

Bali Lounge

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When has a restaurant changed enough to be a new restaurant? Not necessarily when the chef changes, that’s for sure: chefs come and go all the time, whether it’s a steady throughput of chefs at a chain restaurant or the head chef leaving Forbury’s and being replaced by someone else. Not necessarily when they rebrand the menu, either – a good restaurant probably does this quite often. But when it closes for renovations and emerges from the chrysalis with new branding, a different menu and a different name, perhaps it’s time to look afresh.

The Warwick ceased to be at the start of the year and reopened as Bali Lounge. The exterior was slightly different: no longer described as a pub but as a “Bar. Restaurant. Gallery”, no less. The menu was altered – slimmed down, with more emphasis on Indonesian food. Ever since then, I’ve been wondering: should I go back? Is it a new restaurant? The longer it went on the more I felt my old review of the Warwick might be misleading, and that’s why this week you’re reading this.

Turning up on a weekday evening my first impressions were that the changes, such as they were, were on the subtle side. The interior looked much the same, the only concession being some newer, bigger, nicer looking tables. Curiously, the chairs were still the same and there were still at least three different types, just as there were at The Warwick. I got the impression that the management hadn’t quite wanted to start from scratch.

The menu looked the same – the same faux-chalk comedy font sported by the Warwick and, for that matter, their sister restaurants the Moderation and the Queen’s Head. But on closer inspection there were definitely some changes. There were far less of the Thai specialities and some dishes had made their way across from the menu at the Queen’s Head, like rijsttafel (a sort of Indonesian smorgasbord, if that isn’t adding an unnecessary extra level of Swedish complexity to a dish that already has both Dutch and Indonesian roots). So, was it a new restaurant? I was still none the wiser.

Perhaps the best way to find out was to compare like with like: much as I wanted to start from scratch myself, making a fresh start rather than retracing previous visits, I felt that opening with a mixed starter (the “Bar Platter”, in fact) was still the best way to try a range of Bali Lounge’s food. Besides, with Tampopo sadly closing down and Reading losing its fabulous sharing platter I was hoping to find a replacement here, especially now that the menu extends beyond Thailand.

The presentation would have aggrieved people who want everything to come on a plate, but I didn’t actually mind it turning up in a wooden trug. The chicken satay was the first to go and was a hit, with moist chicken and a rich, savoury (if quite plain) satay sauce. A little basic, perhaps, but still enjoyable – and surely nobody really expects their world to be rocked by chicken satay. The spare ribs, though, were not good. The first one was a grim right angle of gristle where there was almost no meat and what meat there was clung on in a manner best described as Blatteresque. A shame, because the second rib was how ribs are meant to be – tender meat, sliding off with no work at all, at which point I got to appreciate just how sticky and tasty the sauce was. But by then, the damage was done.

It didn’t get better. The crispy squid wasn’t. It was clearly fresh, but it was floppy and tasteless none the less. The only real flavour was the coriander dusted over it – if it had been coated in some seasoning and fried properly it could have been a knockout, but it looked more like fusilli than seafood. The saddest thing was that you got a lot of it – mouthful after mouthful of disappointment and wasted potential. The prawn fritters (or, to be more accurate, whole prawns in batter) were also forgettable – also a bit limp and again in batter with no crunch, salt or kick of any kind. It felt as if the chefs were frightened of using authentic levels of spice for our tender British palates and had erred way too far on the side of caution. Bali Lounge seemed to have managed the trick of turning from a pub to a restaurant and, at the same time, turning restaurant food into pub food.

BaliStart

It didn’t bode well for the main courses, so we waited for them to arrive with rapidly lowering expectations. By the time the dishes turned up they almost met them. The best of the two was actually the vegetarian (hurrah!) dish, the tofu pad Thai. This was still mind-numbingly plain but at least the texture was interesting. There was a decent amount of tofu, soft like cubes of scrambled egg, throughout the noodles. The carrots were cut a little larger than I expected (I have never been to Thailand so forgive me if this is the right way to make a pad Thai) and there were little florets of broccoli and the occasional mange tout in amongst the beansprouts which gave it a nice crunch. Then there was a hugely generous sprinkling of peanuts adding yet more texture.

You’d think that would be enough, wouldn’t you? Apparently not, so we had a wedge of lemon as well, for reasons which escape me: all I can guess is that maybe they’d run out of lime. And, in case that wasn’t enough, a honkingly big pile of naked salad leaves had been dumped on top. Your guess is as good as mine. In the end they got pushed to one side and ignored, like tea drinkers in certain coffee shops. If I was trying to find something positive to say, at least it was healthy. But what it really needed wasn’t a slice of citrus or the contents of the salad crisper – it needed some soy, or some ketjap manis, or something that would have made it taste of something. It was hard to imagine being the sort of person who would eat this dish for fun, thank goodness.

BaliPad

The other main was from the specials board – salmon with thick red curry sauce, courgette and green beans. I ordered this because I had happy memories of pla chuchi in other restaurants and again, wanted to see how it measured up. Well, on the plus side, the kitchen can cook salmon: lovely and firm with a crisp skin just the right side of blackened. A lot of places – Loch Fyne, for instance – get this wrong, so credit where it’s due. But again, the rest just didn’t cut it. The little pile of (unadvertised) shredded vegetables didn’t appear to be pickled or dressed so I am guessing it was the Thai equivalent of a salad garnish. The red curry sauce was one of the duller ones I’ve had, with a bit of acrid heat but no real sweetness; I expected better, based on the satay sauce I’d had earlier. The courgette and green beans were a bit thin on the ground. The rice was there to make up the numbers. If this dish had done the “which Star Wars character are you?” Buzzfeed quiz, it would have come out as Blando Calrissian.

BaliSalmon

The wine was nice but inoffensive; a decent Australian shiraz and a Chilean chardonnay were both less than five pounds a glass. I have run out of words to describe how things taste – which is ironic given that I’ve used so few in this review, but I enjoyed the wine more than the food. The service was also nice but inoffensive – the young lady doing the majority of the serving was very quiet but friendly, food was brought at about the right speed and plates were cleared efficiently. Nice. Inoffensive. They’re not words that are ever going to feature in a mission statement, are they? The bill for two people – two courses each, two glasses of wine each – came to fifty-one pounds. If I was describing the value for money, I guess I’d say it was inoffensive.

With hindsight, I wish I’d gone for the rijsttafel and the beef rendang: reading through the restaurant’s website it’s clear that the management decided to rebrand the place after recent trips to Indonesia, and it suggests that they’re really passionate about the food of those countries. But, in the predominantly Thai food I ordered, it feels like they’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater: I didn’t get much zing or spice when I was expecting my food to be absolutely crammed full of both. My socks remained firmly unknocked-off throughout: it felt like the kind of Asian restaurant I could take my mum to, and much as I love her that’s really not a compliment. The thing is, my predominant feeling in writing this review is one of sadness. So, is it a different restaurant? Yes, I’m afraid so.

Bali Lounge – 6.4

77 Kings Road, RG1 3DD
0118 9566969
http://www.thebalilounge.co.uk/

Q&A

This week, instead of a review, we have a bit of a Q&A session! Thanks to everybody who sent in questions on Twitter and Facebook – I’ve tried to answer most of them. I hope you find something faintly interesting in here and if not, don’t worry. I’ll be back next Friday with another brand-new impartial restaurant review. And a vegetarian main course. Perhaps it will be a good one this time, stranger things have happened…

What is the funniest request, comment or other reader-related event that you’ve experienced since starting the blog? (Ben Briscoe)

Without a doubt, it has to be Café Yolk-gate. This happened back in November 2013 when ER hadn’t been going for very long and, to be honest, really didn’t have many readers. Most of my reviews came out to a ripple of ambivalence, the sound of one hand in two minds about whether to clap or not. And when I went to Café Yolk and thought it was a bit pants I thought there might be some response – it’s very popular on Twitter and it was (and remains) very good at mobilising huge amounts of support on TripAdvisor.

What I couldn’t have expected, though, was Jeff.

Jeff pitched in shortly afterwards to tell me what utter nonsense I was talking. He’d moved to Reading recently and, after extensive research, had stumbled on exactly what he was looking for – Café Yolk! It was his Mecca – second to none on the quality of its breakfasts, sourcing its fantastic sausages from the same people as Selfridges and Liberty’s (the latter being a place which doesn’t actually sell food, although Jeff didn’t seem to know that), the paean of praise went on and on.

I just said that Yolk was very lucky to have such a devoted customer and that they should give Jeff a job. But something about it didn’t add up, so I checked the email address that was attached to the comment. And then I put it into Facebook. Lo and behold, it turned out that Jeff really did know a lot about Café Yolk… mainly because he was working there. As a chef. What are the chances? A few other people also wrote glowing defences of Yolk in the comments and I guess we’ll never know if they too were on the payroll.

Anyway, it sort of went viral on Twitter – maybe not viral, maybe just mildly contagious – and, for the first time ever, I had Actual Readers. So not only is it the funniest reader-related thing to happen to me (although I do have a soft spot for the couple of times when I’ve had conversations with people about Edible Reading speculating on who the mystery author might be), but I also owe Jeff a big debt of thanks. Without his intervention, you might not be reading this now.

Where’s the best curry in Reading? (Martin)

The best Indian restaurant in Reading, that I’ve found, is House Of Flavours. But the best curry I’ve had in Reading is Bhoj’s karahi lamb. Go to Bhoj if you’re a creature of habit, and House Of Flavours if you’re a fan of variety.

Are there any restaurants you’ve reviewed which you have since changed your mind about? (Niall Norbury)

In terms of a 180 degree turn, no. I think you can visit a restaurant on a bad night or a good night but, ultimately, it’s still generally either a bad restaurant or a good restaurant. But one of the vagaries of visiting just the once, writing a review and giving a mark is that over time, restaurants can reveal themselves as better, worse or just different to how you originally saw them.

So for instance, Bhel Puri House is definitely better than I thought it was when I first visited. Each subsequent visit has made me feel a little bit luckier that Reading has it as an option (and even more so now it’s taking advantage of the sunlit courtyard outside the George Hotel, perfect for a summer weekend lunch). Similarly, I wish I hadn’t been quite so hard on Sapana Home – granted, the momo were about the only thing I liked there but repeated visits have made me realise just how corking they are, and I’ve since found another couple of dishes worth ordering.

That also sometimes happens further up the price bracket. A second visit to Ruchetta made me feel like I’d been a little unfortunate when I went there on duty – a lazy weekend lunch there was delicious, particularly the perfectly cooked tuna with caponata.

The converse applies, too. I had a great meal when I went to Sushimania, on a week night. If I’d been on a busy Friday night and got increasingly drunk waiting for some – any – sushi to turn up, as I have a couple of times since, it would have been a very different story. My Kitchen was lovely when I paid it a visit on duty, but a couple of poorly toasted sandwiches, still cold cheese in the middle, have slightly changed my opinion since.

I’ve thought many times about whether I should mention subsequent visits at the end of the review, when I go back. But I’ve decided against it. They’re snapshots, not a definitive chronicle, and the further back in the past the review is, the more caution you need to exercise. Anyway, paying them a visit every year would make me like a Michelin inspector, and I couldn’t be a lot less like one of those.

How do you feel about Marmite – love or hate? (Simon Hoade)

I absolutely adore the stuff. Spread nice and thick on a slice of buttered toast, it’s what makes Sunday mornings a gastronomic highlight of the week regardless of anything I’ve eaten in the previous six days. My favourite bread for this is M&S’ “Super Seeded” bread – an inappropriate name, as I doubt it ever will be.

Has your time doing mandatory vegetarian reviews changed your perceptions at all on restaurant offerings etc.? (Kate Cook)

It absolutely has. It’s depressing how badly thought out (or not thought out at all) vegetarian offerings are on menus. You get one, two at most and they usually revolve around pasta, risotto and cheese. That’s it. What always strikes me is how few of them involve doing intelligent, interesting things with vegetables, when vegetables can be as delicious as any meat. Only a couple of weekends ago I had a big plate of tenderstem broccoli, heaped with intense, nutty romesco sauce and with a huge slow-cooked duck yolk on top of it. Mouthwateringly gorgeous, totally vegetarian but – and this probably goes without saying – not ordered anywhere near Reading. Reading’s restaurants need to get better at this, because vegetarians have just as high standards as the rest of us (even higher, you could argue) and they are badly short changed right now.

The only place I can think of to exempt from criticism is Mya Lacarte, which usually has two top quality vegetarian starters and main courses on the a la carte menu. But apart from that, it must be pretty bleak for vegetarians much of the time. I almost never pick a restaurant for a vegetarian review without checking the menu first and being almost certain what I’m going to order, and it makes me realise how lucky I am the rest of the time that I can rock up and find several things I could gladly eat.

What would you say are good signs and warning signs that help indicate whether a restaurant is good, before you go in? (The Reading Barberettes)

There’s no sure-fire sign, but I like to think in the last couple of years I’ve got better at having a decent idea before I ever go through the front door. So for instance I would say that a website is a good indicator (I still remember The Lobster Room’s website, with its “sweet chilly sauce”), but the truth is many Reading restaurants have appalling websites or decent websites they never update and a limited understanding of how Twitter can help them inform potential customers.

I also think menus are key – some menus just read well. They show that a kitchen knows how to put both flavours and words together (not those really annoying ones that are just lists of ingredients, like Chicken. Asparagus. Morels. Lemon Thyme. Cillit Bang, that sort of thing). Other menus look like a slog, and if the menu looks like a slog the food is likely to be as well. That’s before we get on to the real affectations, like stating the patently obvious (hand-cut chips, pan fried salmon) or Dickensian capitalisation (Hand Cut Chips, Pan Fried Salmon).

You get used to deciphering a menu, but nothing is 100% reliable. Look at Papa Gee: it looks a bit grim from the outside, the website is a horror show and the menu feels as long and meandering as a walking tour of Tuscany. Everything about it should be disastrous, and yet it was one of the nicest meals I’ve had this year – and (to answer a separate question from Alison Swaddle) probably the best pizza in Reading.

Who does the best milkshakes in Reading? (P Curd)

This is a close-run thing. In the red corner, there’s Tutti Frutti. In the blue corner (literally just round the corner from Tutti Frutti), you have Shed. Now, on paper Tutti Frutti should win: they have the best ice cream and the best milk, and part of the battle is your raw materials. But TF’s milkshakes often feel like a way of getting less ice cream for more money – and some of their ice creams, delicious though they are, are just too hard to make a decent milkshake. For me, Shed edges it because they’re just better at making milkshakes: they get that it all has to be blended, they get the proportions right and they get the presentation right (in a milk bottle, provided you aren’t taking it away). Two straws – one for me, and one for me.

Which closed restaurant do you miss the most? (Ben Briscoe)

When I think of all the restaurants Reading has lost over the years, it’s a bit like that bit in the BAFTAs where they play the doleful piano music and you see a black and white montage of recently deceased thespians. It’s a sad old parade – from recent closures like Cappuccina Café with its delicious banh mi, replaced with a(nother) nail bar to old-timers like Platters, which in its time was a smoke wreathed pleather seated retro wonder where you could drink milky coffee from a plastic beaker and eat the best double egg on toast in town. And, of course, the most recent closure – Tampopo, going at the end of this month so the Oracle can realise its insatiable desire for more rent and raise the tone of the neighbourhood by lobbing in another branch of TGI Fridays. Lucky, lucky Reading!

I was tempted to say that my favourite closed restaurant was LSQ2. It had so much going for it – some beautiful dishes that could almost have given fusion cuisine a good name (I still daydream about the sashimi grade tuna on a rich, sticky pool of sesame-infused sauce) and, in its day, the best breakfast in Reading. But it wasn’t quite right: the space was too big, some of the food was inconsistent, the live acoustic music while you were eating the aforementioned breakfast was just a tad bizarre.

So no, the place I miss most – and I’ve rhapsodised about this before – is Chi. Back when it used to occupy the spot opposite TGI Friday it was the perfect example of a restaurant you would go out of your way to visit. Wayne was one of the most charismatic owners you could hope to come across, and he’d created such a brilliant buzzy place that you quite forgot you were on a roundabout next to the sorting office at the less fashionable end of town. And the food! Salty-sweet crispy smoked chicken and salad. Big slabs of pristine cod topped with the most intense black bean sauce you could imagine. Plump firm prawns coated in the lightest batter and glazed with chilli sauce.

That was the heyday – later, he moved to a spot on the parade of shops opposite Bhoj, and after that to the old converted pub next to Central Swimming Pool. And you always sensed that the glory days were past – and it felt a bit sad seeing people traipse in and pick up bags of takeaway, because Chi’s food deserved to be eaten there and then, on porcelain, at a table, with a crisp white napkin on your lap waiting to get spattered. Then one day Chi wasn’t there any more: I heard Wayne packed up and moved back to Wales, taking a little bit of my heart with him. But even at the end, the food – terrific as ever – was always big. It’s just the rooms that got small.

What is the worst thing you have eaten off of? (Andrew Grover)

I’d rather not name names: let’s just say that those Häagen-Dazs adverts back in the 90s have a lot to answer for.

Loch Fyne

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I’m probably as surprised to be writing a review of Loch Fyne this week as you are to be reading one. But it occurred to me recently that, despite it having been here in Reading for as long as I can remember, I’ve almost never visited. I’ve been to the branch in Henley, on the smart side of the market square, and had a light lunch in their sunlit courtyard (before going to the Rewind Festival, as it happens – nothing quite like the poignancy of hearing Johnny Hates Jazz performing “Turn Back The Clock” now Clark Datchler actually wishes he could). And I’ve been to the one in Oxford, a beautiful, big stylish space, the roof a mixture of beams and gleaming shiny pipes. But I always forget about the Reading branch, down by the canal, the wrong side of the Oracle on the edge of the Holybrook estate.

Like the others, it’s beautiful from the outside – a lovely large redbrick building overlooking the Kennet (it used to be a brewery, apparently) with a terrace out the front which many Reading restaurants must envy. But stepping inside it’s a different story: the tables and chairs are starting to look a little tired and the stairwell that runs through the centre of the building makes some of the tables on the ground floor a little dark and stranded. I know this for a fact because, despite many tables being unoccupied on a weekday evening, the waiter decided to plonk us at one of the dark, stranded ones. My fellow diners got to look out on the remains of the daylight on that terrace, or gaze out across the river, whereas I got a view of the disabled toilet. Lovely.

The options were, as you’d expect, mostly fish based (“from the sea” according to the menu, just in case you didn’t know) but with a few meat dishes (“from the land” – I know, it’s pretty educational stuff). In fairness, Loch Fyne’s meat supplier is Donald Russell, the excellent Scottish butcher, but it seemed only right to stick to the fish dishes as that’s what Loch Fyne is famous for. After all, nobody goes to Nando’s and orders the “Prego Steak Roll” – not anyone I’ve ever met, anyway. So if you really don’t like fish, this review won’t be for you I’m afraid – and now you know how vegetarian ER readers feel three weeks in every four.

The first starter was the special – potted Bradan Rost (Loch Fyne’s own trademarked hot smoked salmon) with watercress and granary toast. Now, I think of a potted dish as being spiced and topped with clarified butter, delicious spread on decent bread. This was, sadly, more like mashed, cooked salmon with dill added, popped in a glass jar and then chilled. It was potted, I suppose, in the sense that they’d put it in a pot (in the same sense, in fact, that my main course could have been described as “plated fish”).

The Bradan Rost itself was tasty – rich and smoky with a firm flesh – and I probably would have liked a fillet of it which hadn’t been mucked around with. But when it was mashed and spread on dry bread it was far less appealing. Some butter for the toasted bread would have rescued the situation somewhat, although of course if it had actually been potted salmon this wouldn’t have been a problem. Oh, and the watercress was the final nail in the coffin – a little pile of green in the middle of the plate that looked a little like it had been run over. Vegetarian roadkill – the perfect finishing touch to any dish.

LochPot

The other starter was described as “haggis with scallops”. This was also misleading to an extent verging on cheeky; I counted the grand total of one scallop, cut thinly into three slices (although that did make the coral, which I don’t usually enjoy, surprisingly tasty). Maybe they expect people to be fooled by this sleight of hand: I wasn’t. The kitchen’s knife skills were equally evidenced by the caramelised pear, although I did feel it wouldn’t have been asking too much for them to peel it first. It was pear all right, but it didn’t feel especially caramelised. You needed a similar ability to cut things into very small pieces to make the starter last very long. It was a tasty, pretty little thing (you never go far wrong with haggis), even if the lemon beurre blanc wasn’t really anywhere to be seen, but the whole thing prompted an overwhelming feeling of Is that it? followed shortly after with another of Is that it for eight pounds? It felt like the kind of starter you could only truly enjoy on an expense account.

LochHag

We had a glass of white wine each with the starters: a nice, if unremarkable picpoul de pinet and a zesty South African chardonnay, both of which were decent but not quite as cold as they should be (there was a certain symmetry to that, as my feelings towards the restaurant weren’t as warm as they should have been). By the end of the starters, which came out pretty quickly, we had got most of the way through the glass and had to decide whether to order another. We guessed that the mains wouldn’t take long to arrive so decided against a second glass. I didn’t get a huge amount of satisfaction out of being proved right, but sometimes the only certainty in a restaurant is that disappointment is lurking around the corner.

Of the mains, the first – poached smoked haddock on colcannon mash with a soft poached egg and a wholegrain mustard sauce – jumped out from the menu because it ticked so many of my boxes. I know it doesn’t sound like summer food (although, so far, it hasn’t much felt like summer) but I fancied something comforting and I couldn’t imagine anything better than poached fish and mash. It was pretty – a huge mound of steaming hot mash, a decent sized piece of smoked haddock (undyed, as you can tell from the photo) and a perfectly poached egg oozing sunshine yellow on to the rest of the dish.

It all sounds promising but, yet again, there wasn’t enough to like about the dish. The sauce round the edge had a skin on it, which suggested it had been sitting on the pass for a while, and it was oddly bland; if it hadn’t had mustard seeds speckled throughout it I’d have struggled to tell you what it was supposed to be. It should have been tasty and hearty, but the smooth texture of the mash (even with a few strands – nowhere near enough – of cabbage running through it), the gloopy nondescript sauce and the egg yolk added up to a big bowl of something like wallpaper paste. I polished off the haddock and left a fair amount of the rest. It seemed throughout the meal that Loch Fyne had really good fish, but little idea what to do with it.

LockHad

The second main was from the fish bar. A nice idea, this: you get a piece of fish of your choosing, grilled steamed or fried, with a sauce of your choice and two sides. My fried cod looked promising but again it was underwhelming – lovely thick flakes but no apparent seasoning and a soft, flaccid skin on top (which is the whole point of ordering it fried in the first place). I would describe it as just hot enough – which made it considerably hotter than the samphire which accompanied it. Hot and well cooked, samphire is one of the most beautiful things you can pair with fish. Lukewarm and clumpy, it isn’t. I left a fair amount. Salsa verde tasted better than it looked – beautifully sharp and clearly made with lots of capers but the sludgy colours and coarse texture made it feel more like Boden mushy peas than the green, fresh sauce it should be.

The best of the lot were the twice cooked chips, which were among the best chips I’ve had in Reading (only Forbury and LSB come close, from recollection). Beautifully crisp, rough outsides, lovely fluffy middles; if they’d just served me a portion of those, some bread and butter and some Heinz red sauce I’d have spent a lot less, left a lot happier and given a much higher score. They came in a metal beaker – because that’s how everyone serves chips these days, unless you get a tiny fryer basket – and at the bottom was a pale, unremarkable looking stowaway French fry. It reinforced the fact that this order was probably the only really good choice I made all evening.

LochCod

Aside from a friendly greeting at the door (by the manager, possibly) service was probably best described as apologetic. That was behaviour which made more sense as the evening went on: certainly by the end, there was a fair amount they could have apologised for. Not that I was ever invited to give any feedback which would have prompted an apology – tellingly, when clearing the plates away we were asked if we were finished but never if we’d enjoyed it. Even when the half full plate of wallpaper paste was collected there was no question or comment. Did they think that was normal behaviour from diners? Did they know the food wasn’t up to scratch? Or did they just not care? It was impossible to tell, but none of those explanations reflect well on anybody.

We didn’t have dessert. I felt like Loch Fyne had had quite enough of my money by this point: the total bill for two courses and one glass of wine each was fifty four pounds, excluding tip. The whole experience took just over an hour, and diners were still turning up as I was leaving. I hope they had more fun than I did, although they could have easily managed that playing Scrabble or eating a packet of Quavers instead.

I can never decide whether Loch Fyne is an upmarket chain or not. I saw a fair few date nights taking place during my visit – a few sparkly tops (and one I might even describe as “ritzy”, with all the connotations that word carries) and smart jackets giving the game away. But I couldn’t help wondering, based on the evening, whether they might have been happier in Henley, Oxford or even Wokingham. Perhaps I was a bit jaded – after all, they’d spent the evening gazing into each other’s eyes and I’d spent it looking at the door of the disabled loo. But I think maybe what Loch Fyne really illustrates is that not only are there good chains and bad chains but that, despite the promise of uniformity implicit in a chain restaurant, there are also good branches and bad branches. And Reading, I’m afraid, is saddled with the latter. You might get a better deal if you turn up for the thirteen pound, three course, not hugely exciting set menu. But really, why would you bother? The one thing I’ve learned from Loch Fyne isn’t where fish come from, it’s that – where restaurants are concerned – there are plenty more of them in the sea.

Loch Fyne – 5.9
The Maltings, Bear Wharf, Fobney Street, RG1 6BT
0118 9185850

http://www.lochfyneseafoodandgrill.co.uk/locations/reading

Shed

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I’ve talked about Shed many times since starting this blog. For instance, when I reviewed Artigiano I remember saying “I’d rather go to Shed”, or words to that effect. They won my Sandwich Of The Year award in December for their truly splendid tuna melt (and I’m reliably informed that a number of people stopped by to check out my recommendation). And, returning the favour, proprietor Pete recommended I check out Beijing Noodle House: and I’m delighted that he did, because it turns out that that man knows his mouth watering pork dumplings when he sees them.

And yet I’ve never reviewed Shed. Silly, really. I suppose I’ve always assumed that everyone knows about Shed, that they’re part of Reading’s lunch royalty and require no endorsement from me, but thinking about it this week I realised that was no reason not to go. After all, ER is about celebrating the good places, banging the “use it or lose it” drum. Why should Shed be an exception to that rule?

Besides, Shed are specialists in one of my favourite things of all, and that’s the humble sandwich. I know the world of lunch has diversified, and we’re all supposed to enjoy our bread free salad boxes and our floury tortilla wraps and – please, God no – “quinoa pots”, but I still think there’s a lot to be said for a truly decent sandwich. I was tempted to say that it’s the best thing since sliced bread, but really it’s the logical culmination of sliced bread. A properly excellent sandwich, you could say, is sliced bread v2.0. In my book, a sandwich should be made to order rather than sitting clammy in a fridge waiting to be bought, and not enough places in central Reading offer that nowadays.

That Shed has developed such a devoted following (I still remember seeing the pictures of Pete and Lydia at last year’s Pride Of Reading Awards, with facial expressions which roughly translated as What the hell are we doing here?) is particularly impressive when you consider the location. It’s tucked away behind Friar Street, itself the poor relation of Reading’s retail world, and the uninitiated probably stop at Nando’s before ever walking the extra few steps to discover it.

That’s their loss, because it’s a lovely spot: the building is a barnlike structure that used to be a forge, with a serving and seating area downstairs and a large open space upstairs with beams, mismatched furniture (including the classic Robin Day polyprop chair which takes me right back to secondary school) and a bar for when it turns into Milk in the evenings. The space upstairs is my favourite – it has a certain dishevelled charm to it, and tons of people watching potential if you manage to bag a seat with a good view out of one of the floor to ceiling windows.

The menu offers sandwiches, toasties and salads plus a soup each day and a few specials during the week. It saddens me greatly that I’m very rarely in the centre of Reading on a Friday when Shed does “Saucy Friday”, but it’s well worth trying if you’re more fortunate than I am (and if you are, hold out for the Scotch bonnet chicken with rice and peas, coleslaw and macaroni cheese – a finer hot lunch for six pounds you’ll struggle to find anywhere). Still, visiting on a Saturday is the next best thing – no specials, but the office hordes aren’t around (it gets absolutely packed on weekdays) and the shoppers are elsewhere. In one of our countless Caffe Neros, probably.

Our toasted sandwiches, rationally speaking, didn’t take that long to arrive. It felt like an eternity, but that was probably because I caught the smell of melting cheese wafting up the stairs before they even reached our table (or maybe it was just an olfactory hallucination brought on by the cravings).

First up was “The Top One” – mozzarella, chorizo, jalapenos and sun dried tomatoes. I don’t know whether it got that name because it’s their most popular, their best or just for the prosaic reason that it’s at the top of the menu, but whatever the reason is I really liked it. The jalapenos were generous enough to give some fire but at the same time added a touch of sweetness and the little batons of coarse chorizo were rich and salty. I had it on ciabatta – it costs a little extra but the ciabatta at Shed is a truly wonderful thing, big, deceptively light and so much nicer than the slightly miserly panini you might get in Reading’s chain establishments. The only drawback was that there wasn’t quite enough cheese for my liking (which does raise the question of how much cheese is enough cheese? Based on extensive research, I’d sum my conclusion up as a hell of a lot) which made the sandwich a touch dry in places. I don’t remember seeing Pete or Lydia behind the counter that day, and perhaps that’s why it wasn’t quite as good as usual.

ShedTop

I probably should have ordered something other than the tuna melt to accompany that. Partly for variety’s sake – the menu offers a range of different salads, some with pasta, some with couscous, some just with leaves (it also has a Barkham Blue cheeseboard, with some money from each one sold going to Launchpad) so to pick another sandwich felt a little unimaginative. Partly, too, because I’ve already waxed lyrical about this particular sandwich. But when push came to shove, I couldn’t resist reacquainting myself with it. Was it as good as I remembered?

Well, almost. It looked perfect; just enough tuna, shedloads (pardon the pun) of cheese, the occasional piquant mouthful of thinly sliced raw red onion. The only disappointment was the capers – I’m used to these not being spared at Shed, a carpet of capers scattered throughout the sandwich making every bite a tangy delight, but this time they’d been used sparingly and it just wasn’t the same. Don’t get me wrong: if I’d never had the tuna melt before I’d have been very pleased with it indeed. But I had, and the problem with excellence is that people have a nasty habit of expecting you to keep it up all the time. Again, I wondered if I’d just picked the wrong day to show up.

Both sandwiches came with a little salad – iceberg lettuce, a little lamb’s lettuce and some slices of cucumber and tomato, dressed with a little balsamic vinaigrette. It divided opinion: I finished mine (even though I do think the only place for iceberg lettuce, really, is in a burger) but my companion decided to give it a miss.

On the side we had a cup of tea each, served in a decent sized mug with separate milk, like proper tea should be (I was surprised that my companion didn’t have a coffee, but apparently he doesn’t think it’s one of Shed’s strong points). We were tempted to have a piece of cake, just to give you a comprehensive review, but on this occasion we just weren’t quite tempted enough. Maybe next time I’ll give in and have a bit of the shortbread with lemon curd that nearly tipped me over the edge on this visit (and if there had been some of Shed’s chocolate tiffin the decision would have made itself, but it wasn’t to be).

The whole thing came to just under thirteen pounds, not including service. While I’m on the subject of service, it was friendly and efficient if a little overwhelmed (I think we turned up during a bit of a lunchtime rush). Again, I’m inclined to be forgiving because I know it’s usually absolutely spot on, and it probably only looked a little frayed in comparison to that: I’m sure that the uninitiated, if they’d come here instead of Nando’s, would have found it terrific.

Shed, more than anywhere I can think of, reminds me that there really are two Readings out there. On the one hand, there’s the Reading where Shed is unknown, where at best people say “I’ve always wondered about that place” or “I keep meaning to go there” and, on the other, the Reading where life without Shed is unthinkable. The latter Reading, I think, is the one that I write about and that Alt Reading writes about, the one we all queue up to defend when unimaginative people call it a clone town, usually from the comfort of Costa Coffee or Bill’s (the same people, I find, who complain – equally vociferously – that nothing ever happens here and that Reading is a cultural desert). Well, I’m sad for them – but, more than that, I’m glad I live in this Reading: we don’t need Starbucks, because we have places like Shed and it’s our Costa, our Starbucks, our Caffe Nero and Central Perk all rolled into one. And as long as they keep toasting the ciabattas, melting the cheese, dishing up Saucy Friday and making their milkshakes (can’t believe I nearly forgot to mention the milkshakes!) I’ll keep coming. I have a sneaking feeling I’ll probably see you there, some time.

Shed – 7.9
The Old Forge, 8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT
0118 9561482

http://www.theshedcafe.co.uk/

Al Fassia, Windsor

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This time last year, I did a reader’s survey (those of you who have been reading a while might remember it). One of the questions I asked was about whether you’d like to read more reviews of restaurants outside Reading, and if I remember there was some enthusiasm but not masses. I asked the question again on Twitter this week and again, the response was mixed. Lots of you said you’d rather read reviews of places in or near the town centre, some of you said you were prepared to travel for good food. But “good” is the operative word, and whenever I head out of town only to eat something mediocre I always wonder, as I’m writing the review, who is really that fussed about reading it. Nobody writes postcards, after all, saying Having an indifferent time, you’re lucky you’re not here (and yes, I know nobody writes postcards full stop, these days).

For what it’s worth, I’m generally with the town centre brigade. When I go out for dinner, especially at the weekend, I like to be able to have more than a solitary glass of wine. And that means that if you can’t get there easily, by bus train or taxi, I’m never entirely sure I can be bothered. So restaurants outside Reading only truly draw me in if they have something about them – a menu full of twists and invention, an ethos that jumps off the screen when you look at the website, or because they do food you simply can’t get anywhere else. And that’s why we’re in Windsor this week, because Al Fassia is a Moroccan restaurant and I’ve been looking for one of those for a very long time.

This isn’t the time to bore you all with my second-rate travel writing (it would be like sitting you down and showing you holiday snaps from some time ago), but I bloody love Marrakech. From the bustle of the medina, dodging bikes and mopeds, to the brightly-lit, hyper-real cacophonous madness of the main square, from the strange dusty faux-French boulevards and grand cafes of the new town to the winding, chaotic lanes of the souk, it has to be seen to be believed. I have lots of happy memories of sitting outside Café des Epices drinking lemonade, playing cards and watching the traders trying to sell some of the ugliest woolly hats I’ve ever seen (honestly, in the height of summer). And the food! That exquisite combination of savoury and sweet, meat and fruit and spice, sampled on roof terraces and in merchant houses, candlelit on those long balmy evenings.

I grant you, probably not easy to recreate in a little Windsor restaurant not far from the arts centre, but on the offchance that Al Fassia could, how could I resist trying? So we arrived one weekend evening to put it to the test.

Our first mistake was turning up so early – foolishly, we’d booked an early table to allow for the train trip home. It meant the place was almost empty. The downstairs room was quite sombre and muted, plain tables and chairs, proper cloth napkins and plates with the restaurant’s palm tree logo, the wooden panelling along one wall the only real concession to Morocco. Upstairs – which wasn’t open the night I went – is very different with shuttered windows, rugs on the walls and those beautiful twinkly pierced metal lights (never let it be said that I lack powers of description). Although we got a good look at everything it wasn’t until much later, when the restaurant was almost full, that you realised what a lovely room it was with the warm light diffusing through those shades and all that chatter.

The menu looks longer than it is, because a lot of the dishes – especially the couscous and tagines – are variations on a theme. It also has a good selection for vegetarians entitled “Vegetarian Corner”, which struck me as slightly unfortunate phrasing (although what the salad de crevette was doing on there I have absolutely no idea).

The service throughout was absolutely flawless, and it began when we were deciding what to order. Our waiter, the only person serving the whole room, perked up when I enthused about Marrakech and then we discussed the wine, the different tagines, his recommendations and some of the other businesses his family had back in Morocco. For starters, there was a pitched battle (well, more like a slight falling out, given that I won) over who got to have the bastilla. If you have never had one before I’d urge you to call shotgun on it before you arrive. It’s essentially the Moroccan version of a pasty: filo pastry filled with layers of chicken (or pigeon, though it was chicken in this case) and almonds, sweetened and flavoured with cinnamon and other spices, folded into an octagon and dusted with – yes, you read this right – icing sugar.

As if to congratulate me on my choice the waiter told me just how much work goes into one. He said that it was the single most difficult and time-consuming dish to make – the filo is hand-made on site, the almonds are cooked and skinned by hand and the chicken is slow cooked and shredded before going into the filo to be baked. Worth all that effort? Without a doubt. It was fantastic – buttery, sweet and savoury with the rich stickiness from the chicken and the sugar, all wrapped in the thin, crisp pastry. You have to be able to get your head around that combination of flavours, but if you can it’s unlike anything else you’ll eat this year. I absolutely adored it – oh, and it’s quite a monster so there’s even enough to give someone some of yours as a consolation prize, if they ask you nicely.

FassBastilla

The other starter, the mergas, couldn’t live up to that and it didn’t. Four very generous lamb sausages, on a layer of needless lettuce with some pitta to wrap round it. The sausages – quite a random quartet, all different sizes – were beautifully coarse, meaty without being bouncy or dry, but the heat I associate with good merguez just wasn’t there. It was almost as if they knew they were in Royal Windsor and had decided to be on their best behaviour, and although it would have been suitably unthreatening for anyone in red trousers I wanted something with a lot more punch.

FassMerg

Ironically when I was in Marrakech I eventually grew tired of tagines (having them every night gets a bit much after day three) but in Windsor not having one would have been unthinkable. We took the waiter’s advice – bang on, as it turned out – and tried two chicken tagines. Both featured half a chicken, jointed, cooked until it fell off the leg with next to no encouragement, the breast moist and easy to pull apart. But beyond that they couldn’t have been more different. Tagine djaj aux poichiche was cooked with onions, spices and chickpeas, a rich and savoury affair with a lot more substance to it because of those slightly floury chickpeas. On the other hand, tagine djaj tfaia dialled up the sweetness to eleven, with plump, intense golden raisins and almost translucent ribbons of sweet, caramelised onion. After a few minutes of taking all the meat off the bones we were ready to stir in the couscous and eat in rapt, happy, nostalgic silence. All that for less than twelve quid.

FassTag

To drink we had a bottle of Moroccan sauvignon blanc. Yes really, Moroccan wine! Actually, I recognised this particular wine from my visit to Marrakech so went out of my way to order it – for all I know that meant it was Morocco’s answer to Blossom Hill but fortunately I’m too ignorant to know better. Besides, it was lovely and fresh with a little hint of apple and a large hint of less than twenty pounds (I have a feeling I’m coming across as quite the Philistine today – and to think they say travel broadens the mind).

Following the mighty bastilla and the hefty mains we weren’t sure we could manage dessert. So we were preparing to finish our wine, enjoy the restaurant in the last of the sunshine and ask for the bill, when something unprecedented happened. A freebie. I can only assume that after chatting to the waiter (who, judging by the website photos, might well be the owner) he took a shine to us. Or maybe he does this for everyone, and I’m just deluding myself. Either way, he patted me on the shoulder and told me he was bringing something special over. I feel I need to declare this now, lest you think I’m swayed by the restaurant’s generosity (although let’s face it, I probably am – who doesn’t like free stuff?).

A few minutes later a plate arrived with a large disc of that home-made filo pastry, sprinkled with finely chopped almonds, honey and cinnamon, finished off with three little spheres of vanilla ice cream. It was a lovely dish – just simple enough, just interesting enough, nicely balanced – and a lovely gesture at the end of a very nice meal. But, in the interests of balance, it looks from the menu like it would have cost eleven pounds were I to have ordered it myself, and I’m not sure it was quite worth that.

FassDessert

No Moroccan meal would be complete without mint tea, served in those pretty little glasses, so we duly obliged and ordered some to finish off. As is traditional the waiter served this on a silver tray, with the tea poured from on high (no, I don’t know why they do this. But I like it). Sweet and minty, this had as much energy in it as a cup of coffee, I’m sure – I’d be reluctant to declare it to my dentist, anyway. It felt like the right way to bring things to a close before reluctantly leaving the premises and coming to terms with the fact that we weren’t in hot, exotic Morocco but rather in slightly cooler, slightly more homely Windsor. Dinner for two came to sixty-one pounds, not including service.

I still wonder when I’ll get to go back to Marrakech. And a more unlikely twin town than Windsor you couldn’t find, despite all the tourists nearly getting mown down by traffic, despite the plethora of tradesmen and women keen to part them from their cash, despite all the historic buildings and shops selling almost identical goods which some of us might class, in the nicest possible sense, as tat. I’ll return to Marrakech one day, I hope. But until then, there’s Al Fassia: worth travelling out of town for, worth catching the train to. There may not be tables out on the terrace, there may not be fans on every seat and you might not find yourself misted with cooling water every few minutes, but even so I really do recommend it. Sometimes, a restaurant is the best travel agent there is.

Al Fassia – 8.2
27 St Leonards Road, Windsor, SL4 3BP
01753 855370

http://www.alfassiarestaurant.com/

Cafe Madras

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One thing I’ve not yet acquired, despite writing this blog for nearly two years, is that unshakeable self-belief that many proper restaurant reviewers have. I really do envy them; it must be lovely to be so certain that you’re right about good food and bad food. I’m not even able to fake that, so every time someone visits a restaurant based on a good ER review and likes it, I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet. And when I don’t enjoy somewhere, I always wonder whether it’s just me, whether the off-day was mine rather than the kitchen’s. Eating at Café Madras this week reinforced all of those suspicions: I didn’t enjoy it, but it felt like I could find at least a few reasons why that might have been my fault.

For a start, I over-ordered – three starters and three mains between two seemed like a good idea on a ravenous school night, but by the end of the starters I could already feel a creeping, heavy fullness that left me uncertain about how much headway I would make into the main courses. Also, at least a few of the dishes were similar enough that you could argue that I’d just chosen badly – kush ka fried rice, a dry dish full of onions and spice and little shreds of what looked like lamb felt very similar to the lamb kotthu, another stainless steel bowl of broken up paratha, minced lamb, onions. Both dry (even with the accompanying bowl of yoghurt), both slightly heavy going.

CMMains

When I left disappointed and walked down the hill into town, I felt uneasy that maybe I had let the restaurant down rather than vice versa. After all, the service had been lovely throughout – the man serving me was friendly and interested, suggested dishes from the specials menu and looked after us brilliantly. The room, although basic, was nice enough and had a steady stream of customers, some solo diners, some smaller groups of friends or couples, one large family. At least a few appeared to be repeat visitors.

The site itself, up at the top of Whitley Street, has a complex history. When it opened as Chennai Dosa in 2009 Reading had seen nothing like it. People queued round the block to get in for authentic, inexpensive South Indian food. Then Chennai Dosa moved into the centre and, for reasons I can’t entirely remember, the site rebranded as Café Madras in 2011. Last year it had the dubious honour of being one of Reading’s only restaurants with a zero star hygiene rating from the council – since then it has come under new ownership, turned that rating around and is clearly trying really hard to live up to its original promise.

So, there you go: I’ve outlined lots of reasons why I could pull my punches. And it would be really easy to do that, because nobody enjoys criticising an independent restaurant, especially one where the service is excellent. Especially one, for that matter, in an area like Katesgrove which is crying out for some – any – good neighbourhood restaurants. But it all comes down to the food, and the more I thought about it more I realised that there was something disappointing about nearly everything I ate that night.

So Gobi Manchurian, for example, wasn’t the delicate delight it can be (and is, at other restaurants in Reading) – the batter was thick and heavy, the florets of cauliflower underneath just a little too hard. The oily slick of sauce at the bottom of the bowl made me wonder just how much fat was sloshing around in my stomach. Similarly the special chicken tikka – recommended by the waiter – sizzled attractively and some of it was nice enough, but the inside of a couple of pieces, though certainly not raw, was firm and bouncy in a way that chicken tikka really should not be. Only the masala vada – circular lentil patties, like flattened bhajis – bucked the trend, being crispy, nicely spiced and beautiful with the thickened yoghurt on the side, speckled with nigella seeds. That was the only dish we finished all evening.

CMVada

Even if I hadn’t been approaching full at high speed, I still think the main courses would have disappointed me. I could see that lamb kotthu might have been wonderful warming food if you’d grown up on it, an exotic cousin of the shepherd’s pie, sticky and rich. But it was just a tad too claggy and almost sweet, and the big chewy lumps of paratha felt like harder work than I associate with comfort food. Paneer masala, deliberately chosen as a meat-free main, had a lovely smoky sauce but, again, was a little too oily for me to feel like making significant inroads. We counted around half a dozen not very large cubes of paneer floating in it. By the end it had degenerated into a vegetarian fishing expedition bobbing for cheese, one about as successful as most fishing trips.

The best of the mains was the one I had lowest expectations of – the fried rice was packed with seeds and spices, onion and egg, small subtle strands of lamb (and a little shard of bone, as it happens). It was gorgeous and complex, with a heat that kept on growing and developing. But I didn’t really appreciate it at the time – only a couple of days later when I took my leftover rice to work (the waiter having kindly packed it up for me) and microwaved it in the kitchen did I realise just how good it was, mainly because of the envious remarks from my colleagues who were ploughing through their frigid, miserable supermarket sandwiches. But reheating my memories of the meal didn’t have the same happy consequences: it was still far more misses than hits, even if my aim could have been slightly better.

The meal – three starters, three mains and the grand total of four slightly too smooth, slightly synthetic-tasting mango lassis – came to thirty-four pounds, not including service. A cheap meal, and one that could have been even cheaper, but even at that price a curiously underwhelming one.

One of the big questions I ask myself when reviewing a restaurant – usually at this point in a review, as you may have noticed – is “would I go back?” If Cafe Madras wasn’t so far out of town, or if it was in my neighbourhood, I think I probably would. And I’d find the things on the menu that suited me better, I’d get to know the staff, I’d take their advice, and it could be a restaurant I’d learn to love. If you live in Katesgrove, you may have learned to love it already. But it isn’t any of those things, and the South Indian restaurant that is in the centre – Chennai Dosa – moved there from this spot, for very good reasons. So would I go back? The answer is the most frustrating one of all: nearly, but not quite. I don’t have the unshakeable self-belief to tell you not to go there. But I can’t recommend that you do.

Cafe Madras – 6.4
73-75 Whitley Street, RG2 0EG
0118 9758181

http://cafemadras.co.uk/

Giggling Squid, Henley

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Although most ER reviews are of independent restaurants, I’m not against chains for the sake of it. Not all chains are the same: there are big and small ones, good and bad ones – just as there’s a difference between the silver chain you’d hang a pendant from and the lunking great thing you’d use to secure your bike to the railings.

I was struck by this wandering round Henley on a sunny Bank Holiday Monday, because they have chains just like Reading does, only different ones. So there are shops like Space NK and Joule’s – the next tier up, you could say, places in the same bracket as Jigsaw and LK Bennett. It’s the same with cafés and restaurants, so Henley has a Maison Blanc, a Hotel du Vin, and a CAU. I did briefly consider going to CAU to find out what we had to look forward to when the Reading branch opens this month, but nothing about the décor appealed: the nasty rigid white chairs and sterile banquettes screamed “downmarket Gaucho”.

Besides, I was on my way to a more intriguing phenomenon: Giggling Squid has grown from a single branch in Hove six years ago to a chain of thirteen restaurants (many of them opening in sites which used to belong to other chains – a handful used to be branches of Strada, Henley’s was previously an ill-fated Brasserie Gerard). And there are more on the way – the management wants to make this the first nationwide Thai chain, with plans for somewhere between fifty and eighty sites. It’s funny how, despite the popularity of Thai, Indian and Chinese food they still tend, by and large, to be chain-free zones (unless you count the delights of Ken Hom’s Yellow River Café, one of the Oracle’s first ever tenants way back when). I’ve never understood why that is – was Giggling Squid going to challenge that status quo?

It’s a lovely old building at the bottom of Hart Street and it’s been done up very nicely. On the way there I walked past Henley’s long-serving restaurant, Thai Orchid and it was the picture of an old-fashioned Thai restaurant, all dark wood, ornate panelling and intricate, inlaid, glass-topped dining tables. Giggling Squid couldn’t be more different, with its pale walls, exposed beams and almost Scandinavian bleached bentwood chairs. The front room, where I sat, was more traditional – the big room at the back was much better lit and I’d rather have sat there, but I didn’t have much choice in the matter. Which brings me to the second thing I noticed about it: it was absolutely rammed (I was lucky to get a table at all without a reservation, and quite a few couples who came in after me were turned away).

Giggling Squid bills itself as “Thai Tapas & Thai Restaurant”. The idea of anything other than Spanish food describing itself as tapas makes me feel a little exasperated, but what it essentially means is that at lunchtime, rather than having a traditional a la carte menu the main options are one of six “tapas sets”, each of them a mixture of three different dishes and jasmine rice. You can order lots of tapas separately instead, although I’m not sure why anyone would unless you really disliked the set combinations, or you can have what they describe as “one big dish with rice” or a “two dish meal combi”. This all felt overly complicated for me – did I want one big dish, two middling dishes or four small dishes? was there an option of having eight minuscule dishes? – so we went for a tapas selection each. And some prawn crackers. And some chicken satay (which by my reckoning makes a total of ten small dishes, sort of).

Despite the restaurant being extremely busy everything arrived very quickly indeed. Prawn crackers came in a metal pail and were good but unexceptional. It was a huge portion of crackers and an absurdly tiny ramekin of sweet chilli sauce – I couldn’t help feeling I would have liked less crackers and more dip, but they were pleasant enough and lasted just until the rest of the food turned up.

So, on to the tapas (if I really must call it that) itself: a square plate divided into four with something different on each section. Much as I might have wanted to turn my nose up at the concept I couldn’t fault the food. Shredded duck spring roll was a huge thing, full of dense strands of duck, served on a surprisingly subtle puddle of hoi sin that wasn’t just relentless sweetness. Prawn toasts were much better than I expected, crispy and light with a gorgeous layer of toasted sesame, served with more of the sweet chilli sauce. Salt and pepper squid was not at all chewy and the batter was beautifully light (maybe too light, as it did fall off the squid the moment it was challenged with a fork) served on another puddle of sauce – this time hot chilli with no sweetness. The beef salad was the cousin of the chicken salad I raved about from Art of Siam – soft, tender strips of beef on top of a bowl of salad filled to the brim with hot, sharp, sour sauce. It was agony and ecstasy to eat and would be perfect for anyone with a bit of congestion – the heat would soon clear that up.

WealthySquid

Because of the set combinations we’d gone for (“Two Giggling Squids” and “Wealthy Squid”, I have no idea why they’re called that, so don’t even ask) we had massaman curry two ways. The lamb was gorgeous, slow cooked and reassuringly free of wobble and the chicken was in tender, slender slices. There were nice firm chunks of potato, lots of onion and a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on how you look at it) sprinkling of crispy fried onion on top. The sauce was perhaps a little subtler than I’m used to but still went beautifully with the rest of the rice – and I’ve always thought, and said many times, that the rice and sauce at the end of a Thai main course is the best bit.

2Squids

The chicken satay, ordered as an extra out of curiosity, was probably more food than we needed but again, it was very good: tender, soft chicken, not dried-out fibrous breast meat, easy to slide off the skewers and dunk in a fresh clear dipping sauce or a spiced but fragrant satay sauce that was a lot more than hot Sun-Pat. We finished the lot, although it put paid to any plans I had for dessert – a pity, as I had my eye on the black sesame ice cream. Still, there’s always next time.

The menu, come to think of it, was full of little flashes of personality like that which made it feel a lot less like a chain. That really came across in the wine list in particular which managed that rare trick of getting a slightly irreverent tone without making you want to cringe. Written by the co-owner, it compared the Chardonnay – described as something like “rich and fruity” – to her husband before mentioning the extensive research he had done trying to find some reds that went with spicy food. That sort of thing might make your toes curl, but I found it oddly charming (oh, and we had a couple of glasses of the Chardonnay: if her husband is anything like that she could have done an awful lot worse).

Service was harried but friendly. It felt difficult to get attention right at the start, but given how popular the place was I was impressed by how efficient they were; at the end, when the lunchtime rush was fading out, the waiters were a lot more friendly and interested. We went from sitting down to being out of the door in just over an hour which I think is fair enough on a busy lunchtime, especially when you’re only really having one course. Lunch for two – two tapas sets, prawn crackers, chicken satay and two glasses of wine – came to £40 with a semi-optional 10% service charge on top. The tapas sets were just under £12 each, which I thought was pretty decent value.

The owners of Giggling Squid have talked about Côte as the chain they’d like to emulate and I can see why – it’s a great example of how a chain can get everything right and be consistent without being faceless. And I think Giggling Squid does that too; I liked almost everything I had, it’s a lovely spot, it’s very tastefully done and the service is good. I do wonder, though, whether the reason they haven’t chosen to target Reading is that it already has three well-established Thai restaurants with good reputations – the kind of day-in, day-out consistency that is the brand promise of most chains. I wonder too what Giggling Squid will be like if it hits its targets, has a hundred branches worldwide and takes over all the vacant Stradas, Bella Italias and Café Rouges out there. But that’s all years ahead: in the meantime, it’s worth going so you can say you were there in the early days (or back when it was good, depending on how it all turns out). I might see you there, because the whole experience made me want to go back – partly for that sesame ice cream, but mainly to try the evening menu, which is so packed with tempting-looking fish and seafood dishes that I literally wouldn’t know where to start.

Giggling Squid – 7.7
40 Hart Street, Henley-On-Thames, RG9 2AU
01491 411044

http://www.gigglingsquid.com/branches/henley.html

O Beirão

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Dining at O Beirão is a little like eating out on holiday.

To start with it’s a bit of a trek, up out of town and then down the Basingstoke Road, where it’s all pretty Victorian houses and car dealers. With a location like this you have to want to visit, because there’s no chance of happening upon it. Then there’s the poor website with a few spelling and grammatical errors and, crucially, no mention of the opening hours. Checking this out for information can be misleading and you might turn up, like I did the first time I visited on duty, on a day when they’re not actually open, making the trek seem rather futile (thank goodness for the decent bus service, as there are no runners up to review round here). Then there’s the telly up in the corner of the room showing European football – Portuguese, of course – much like many little tavernas and bars on holiday. Finally, and this is not a good thing, after trekking out of town to visit O Beirão I dashed to the toilet to be greeted by a sign saying “Please do not flush toilet paper. Please put it in the bin”. It was Crete 2002 all over again.

Don’t let these things put you off, however. Inside this little slice of Portugal is really quite nice. Having turned up previously when the shutters are down it would be easy to dismiss it as a rough, out of town restaurant that won’t be around forever, but what’s actually behind the shutters is an adorable room filled with small tables with red gingham tablecloths and terracotta crockery (which includes the wine cups).

The menu is pretty short and hints at a double life. There is a pretty standard selection of lunchtime foods (omelettes, sandwiches, jacket potatoes – presumably to make the best of those car dealers wanting something decent for lunch) along with the authentically Portuguese dishes. Some of the main courses need to be ordered in advance – if only I’d known that I might have gone for one (the arroz de marisco sounds especially good, as does the suckling pig), but turning up on spec meant it wasn’t to be. Besides, they weren’t listed on the website either.

I started with pan fried mushrooms with garlic and onion, and morcela (Portuguese black pudding), both of which turned up in more terracotta pots. The mushrooms were respectable, fresh tasting and decently garlicky, though I would have preferred them more thoroughly cooked – they were a little flaccid, not at the wonderfully sticky stage of truly great fried mushrooms. The morcela – a generous helping – was again very much on the basic side. I’m a huge black pudding fan and I think I was expecting something soft, sweet and crumbly like Spanish morcilla but this wasn’t it – much firmer, much more like a hybrid between black pudding and chorizo. Again, I felt it could have been cooked a little bit better, and it was very hard to separate from the skin.

OShrooms

Both starters were accompanied with a basket of bread and butter and a small tub of shrimp paste (you can thank Google Translate for that nugget, otherwise I wouldn’t have had a clue what it was: Portuguese is not one of my strong points). There were two types of bread – the first, delicious and chewy, resembled sourdough in texture and was great dunked in the mushroom juices. The second was more like corn bread: shorter, sweeter and a little bit odd (especially with the shrimp paste – take my word for it, that’s a combo that shouldn’t be tried). Both starters were four pounds, which, to me, is on the borderline between “very reasonable” and “downright cheap”.

So far, so not bad. For a main course it would have been a crime not to order the frango assado (piri piri chicken), so I did. This is true Portuguese chicken (if you’re ever been to Portugal you’ll know what I mean) with a crispy skin, a lightly spiced kick and with meat pulling away from the bone easily. I asked for it medium and in truth it was a bit under-spiced for me, so I was splashing on a little extra piri piri sauce from the bottle on the table (which I loved and would quite happily have slipped in my pocket to bring home. No! Of course I didn’t!). Of course, it’s not possible to talk about piri piri chicken without mentioning Nando’s, so here goes: the heat was drier and more subtle in O Beirão’s version, and for what it’s worth I preferred it. On the side were an awful lot of fries (nothing special, and almost certainly not made on site but very good at soaking up the juices from the chicken) and a simple salad of lettuce, tomato and cucumber which I barely touched, truth be told. At the end of the meal I really wanted to pick up the chicken and get the last bits of the meat off with my bare hands but decorum got the better of me. I still regret that a little bit.

OFrango

The other main course, bacalhau com natas, sounded intriguing. I love salt cod in all its forms, and I liked the idea of it being served with fried potatoes in a béchamel sauce. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to that promise. It felt a bit like a Portuguese take on fisherman’s pie, but the whole thing was far too creamy and bland: the béchamel drowned everything else out and, ironically for a dish built around salt cod, what it was really crying out for was some salt. Every mouthful just highlighted what a good choice the piri piri chicken had been, and I would have traded the whole lot for just another forkful of salted, crispy skin.

OBacalhau

To finish we shared a slice of toffee biscuit cake. According to the O Beirão website all the desserts are made in house, though this looked a little too perfect for that to be true. This was a bit like tiramisu – layers of strangely firm, soft biscuit and what I think was crème patissiere, all with a toffee sauce on top. As enjoyable as it was the cream layers were slightly synthetic tasting, a little too sweet and thick. Of course we finished it but I would have preferred a pastel de nata to end the meal. That might be a bit of a cliché, but I absolutely love them. Impossible to tell whether O Beirão ever sells them, though (the wonders of that impenetrable website again).

OPud

The wine list here is pretty short (and yes, they do serve Mateus Rosé) and very reasonable. We had a half litre jug (and, as I’ve probably said countless times, I really wish more places would do carafes) of the house red and it cost just eight pounds. I thought it was smashing – juicy, jammy, fruity and great for drinking with spicy food. It’s also nice to see that all the wines on the list at O Beirão are Portuguese and none of them are over twenty pounds (the most expensive are just sixteen quid). They also do two perfectly respectable-looking ports by the glass – one vintage, one tawny – although I didn’t get to try them this time.

Service throughout was polite and friendly, with just the one black-clad waiter looking after the room. He was cheery and chatty although, truth be told, we didn’t need much looking after (it was the sort of quiet Friday night that makes me fear for a restaurant – only three tables of two all evening). The bill, for two and a half courses and a carafe of wine, was a touch under forty-five pounds, excluding service. Pretty hard to argue with that, I think, and although the bacalhau was a bit of a misfire a lot of it was good, all of it was cheap and most of it was both.

If I’m honest I went to O Beirão wanting to like it (once I’d got over the frustration of turning up on a Thursday evening to find the shutters down). Yes, the hours are odd – they’re only open in the evenings Friday to Sunday, although they do lunch every day. Yes, it is a bit of a pain to get there (though the number 6 bus stops right outside). And yes, you can’t flush your loo paper. But it really charmed me, and I think that shows that sometimes it’s not just about the room, or the service, or the food. Sometimes there’s some other indefinable quality, and O Beirão has that. Perhaps it’s that feeling of being elsewhere, a feeling many far more expensive, more polished restaurants throw money at manufacturing without success. For an independent Portuguese restaurant to open in Reading is no mean feat, let alone one in the relative obscurity of the Basingstoke Road. They’ve been there since the end of 2012 and I for one would like to see them stick around, even if it’s just for an alternative to the relentless march of Nando’s. Next time I’ll take some friends, pre-order something that takes a little longer to prepare and order a bottle of Mateus Rosé. Or several. Judge all you like, because I won’t care: I’ll be on holiday, after all.

O Beirão – 7.0
63 Basingstoke Road, RG2 0ER
0118 9759898

http://obeirao.co.uk/

6 of the best: Al fresco dining

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No new review this week I’m afraid, because I’m taking my first week off of 2015. Instead, you get a feature: I’ve had a few people express interest in ER features from time to time, so this is the first of its kind.

I’m very lucky that I get to eat out often and write weekly independent restaurant reviews; I genuinely believe that the only way restaurant reviews can be totally impartial is if the person writing the review is also the person paying the bill. But I’m also painfully aware that eating out is a luxury that not everyone can afford. This week, I’m donating the cost of the meal I would have eaten to Launchpad, Reading’s homeless charity which does excellent, tireless work which is needed more now than ever. ER is free to read and it always will be – but if you felt like donating even the smallest amount of money to Launchpad too, I’d really appreciate it and I’m sure they would too. Normal service will be resumed next week – until then, on with the feature.

Summer is around the corner – the Reading Beer Festival always feels to me like the first sign that it’s on the way – and that always makes me think about the delights of eating outdoors. We all daydream about barbecues, we have our tea and coffee at pavement tables people-watching and relaxing and suddenly a whole different criterion comes into the decision-making process when you’re deciding where to eat. After all, it would be a shame to have lunch or dinner cooped up when it’s glorious outside.

It really frustrates me that good al fresco dining spots in Reading are few and far between. The town seems to be full of blind spots where the sun just doesn’t shine, and many of the plum spots are filled by disappointing chains. Bill’s, for instance, has an absolutely gorgeous space outside which is a magnet for UV rays but the food doesn’t live up to the setting. It’s quite nice for breakfast (eggs sunny side up in more ways than one) but otherwise it just doesn’t do it for me. The Riverside gets lots of sun and many of the venues have decent outdoor seating but it’s hard to be excited by them – the little tables outside Cote always look inviting, but All Bar One, Bella Italia, Pizza Hut and Nando’s aren’t quite so alluring.

So – and I might be jinxing the summer of 2015 by even saying this – the days are long, the shadows are too, it’s short-sleeves weather and you’re ravenous. Where to go?

1. Dolce Vita

It did cross my mind to pick the balcony at Jamie’s Italian, looking out over the throng of Oracle shoppers. But, for food and service, Dolce Vita easily has the egde. It’s as close as you can get to the Oracle view without actually being in the Oracle, tucked away from the hubbub. The balcony area extends out on two sides of the restaurant and the menu is equally sunny with Mediterranean food – and some more leftfield choices with traditional British and even Asian influences – and friendly, charming Greek service. The set menu, which is often on song, offers great value and a surprising range of options. When I sit outside at Dolce Vita I can almost convince myself that I’m on holiday, especially if I’m drinking a pint of Peroni or a fresh, fruity glass of rosé.

Burrata

2. The Plowden Arms

Ideally one would arrive at the Plowden in an open top sports car, passing some of the rolling green hills that the Berkshire/Oxfordshire border has in spades. The generous garden at the Plowden offers a lovely view across the countryside with added waitress service and decent umbrellas, should you be more English rose than suntanned millionaire. The food here ranges from substantial and traditional to delicate and sophisticated (and the kitchen is consistently brilliant at all of it) but everything is fresh, creative and sometimes based on old English recipes, in case you fancy a side order of education. Having your dessert outside by candlelight, the last rays of the sun not long faded, is a pretty magical way to finish an evening.

Lamb

3. Picnic

Picnic has one of the best spots in the centre of town, having taken over the old Jacobs shop eight years ago. The tables outside catch plenty of sunshine (especially early to mid-afternoon) and, provided the wind isn’t blowing a gale, it’s a great place to enjoy lunch and some of Reading’s best people watching. The salads have always been the draw here – leaves and couscous with a weekly range of toppings – and although I’ve found the interior much harder to love since they moved everything around, it can’t be denied that it has freed up the space for the kitchen to add yet more interesting variations on that theme (that said, I still have a soft spot for their roast chicken and pesto). If you scoff at salad, even in summer, there’s also a lot to be said for their cracking Cornish pasties and sausage rolls, from award winning Green’s of Pangbourne. Oh, and the cakes are magnificent: good old-fashioned Victoria sponge and terrific, moist lemon polenta cake are my favourites. All that and a view of Munchee’s opposite (what more could you want?) – no wonder, whenever I bag a table outside, I feel so reluctant to leave.

4. London Street Brasserie

London Street Brasserie has probably the nicest terrace in town, alongside the Kennet. When it catches the sun it really catches the sun, and in summer the menu – always nicely seasonal – really rises to the occasion. There’s nothing quite like making inroads into a crisp bottle of white and enjoying a half pint of prawns, easing off the head and shell before dipping that firm flesh into their peerless garlic mayonnaise (writing about doesn’t even come close: I’m hungry now). I generally find the set menu more reliable than the a la carte here (the fish and chips is another favourite of mine) which makes it perfect for a boozy weekend lunch, although if it’s not quite sunny enough or the afternoon is waning, they also do a nice line in chequered blankets and patio heaters. LSB is a good example of how the summer can change everything – on a winter evening it probably wouldn’t make any of my top fives, but when the sun is out it’s hard to beat.

LSB7

5. Forbury’s

Forbury Square is one of the prettier, quieter outdoor areas in town and Forbury’s really makes the most of it (and in some style, too). Unlike the unluckily positioned Carluccio’s – which always feels like it should be sunny but never is – it is nicely lit and, unlike Cerise, the seating is plentiful and comfortable. If you can manage to stick to their set menu (a challenge that many have failed, me included) then a three course meal can set you back as little as twenty pounds per head – and even less if you’re lucky enough to be there on a weekday lunchtime. Make sure you add some bread, though, as their sourdough is heavenly. Oh, and wear your best sunglasses and pretend you’re on the French Riviera. Air kissing optional.

Venison

6. The Allied Arms

What is ER on about? you’re probably thinking. The Allied Arms is just a pub and it doesn’t do food. I know, I know, but bear with me. I picked this tip up from friends of mine a couple of years ago and it’s a cracker; although the Allied doesn’t do food, they don’t have a problem with you consuming food from elsewhere on the premises. So, on a summer night when the Summer Lightning or the Thatcher’s Gold is flowing, instead of wandering off to a restaurant just get someone to watch your table, pop next door to Pizza Express and then return with your Pollo Ad Astra or American Hot. It’s worth it for that first bite of pizza. It’s worth it for the crispiness of the pepperoni or the salt bomb of anchovy. But, more than anything, it’s worth it for the looks of envy you get from everybody else in the pub who wishes they’d thought of it. Last time I checked, the Allied even kept a pizza cutter behind the bar, although if word gets out they might start charging people to use it.

If you like this and you’d like to read more of this sort of thing then let me know in the comments, and if there are any particular subjects you’d like to read an ER feature on then do say!

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