Piwnica Pub


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I’d put off visiting Piwnica Pub for something like six months and there were two reasons for this; the one I told myself and the real reason. In my mind, I’d decided that it was a winter restaurant. A cellar restaurant serving rib-sticking Polish cuisine, tucked away just off the London Road, felt like somewhere for the colder months when you can see your breath in the air and you want big platefuls of hot comfort food, dumplings and stews and all that jazz.

That was how I justified the delay, but perhaps more significantly I struggled to persuade anybody to go with me. Polish food, it turns out, doesn’t have a great reputation outside the Polish community, despite the amazing delicatessen on St Mary’s Butts full of interesting bread which also sells about five different kinds of herring (and, to me at least, that’s a good thing: I bloody love herring). One friend, who occasionally accompanies me on reviews, told me that he’d been to Piwnica already. He emphatically wasn’t a fan. “I ordered a starter, some kind of pork spread, and when it turned up it was literally just lard.” he told me.

“What did it taste like?”

He gave me the Charles died years ago look from “Four Weddings And A Funeral” and I realised, too late, what a stupid question I’d just asked.

“How would I know?”

So I had mixed feelings as I turned off the road and found my way down the stairs. But in the back of my mind I was still thinking that this had the potential to be another of those breakout finds Reading has scattered around, doing a roaring trade under the radar. Besides, the TripAdvisor reviews were glowing – and none of them mentioned lard, either.

First impressions were positive yet bemused. I have a soft spot for all subterranean restaurants, I have a soft spot for the lovably scruffy and Piwnica ticked both boxes simultaneously. The décor was endearingly amateurish – brown paint on the walls was intended to replicate the appearance of beams, grey paint tried to conjure up stonework – and although it looked unconvincing I rather liked it anyway. The tables had little doilies in the middle. There was a piano in one corner and some kind of exposed filament lamps on the side tables. It was cosy and snug. Only one table was occupied when I got there at half seven, although the restaurant was doing pretty well on a midweek night by the time I left.

The menu is big (and frustratingly their website has been taken down for construction, so I wish I’d taken some pictures). Starters tend to be around the six pound mark and mains around ten to twelve, and as you’d expect there’s a general emphasis on meat in general and pork in particular. The first language on there is Polish with an English translation, the first (but not the last) indication that I wasn’t entirely in the target market. Ordering was made simpler, if more frustrating, by the fact that on the day I visited they had a fault with the oven which meant several things I would have chosen just weren’t options. So you won’t be reading about the stuffed mushrooms or the baked trout – and although it’s possible that I’d have enjoyed my meal more if they’d been available, somehow I doubt it.

So what did we have instead? Well, for starters pierogi and Polish sausage. I wanted to try the pierogi because I’d heard good things and they felt like distant relatives of things I’ve always liked, like tortellini, momo and gyoza. I couldn’t decide between pierogi filled with cheese and potato or with pork, so the waitress kindly let me try some of both. The first thing to say – and this was a theme throughout the meal – is that the portion was huge: ten gigantic dumplings, arranged around a pile of coleslaw, slathered in butter and topped with little cubes of something which could have been ham or might have been diced sausage.

It’s never a good sign when the coleslaw is your favourite thing about any dish, and I’m afraid that was the case here. The dumplings themselves were heavy – thick dough like stodgy pasta – and the fillings were unsettlingly featureless. I didn’t mind the potato and cheese, although it was more culinary beigeness than recognisably either, but the pork had been shredded to the point where it was almost smooth and had a slight taste of offal. Partway through I was already weighing up how much of it I could leave without giving offence, which is a calculation nobody should have to make in a restaurant. I mean, it’s bad enough doing it when you’re round a friend’s house.


The sausage starter had been recommended by the waitress when the stuffed mushrooms had turned out to be unavailable (it’s difficult to imagine how this approximates to the next best thing). When the board arrived I realised that Polish sausage is very similar to the sales people in my office – incredibly smooth, very pink and unappealingly homogenous. The sausages had at least been diagonally scored before being shown a pan, then served with some fried onions, but still it was much like eating a couple of massive slightly rubbery frankfurters i.e. not something I would choose to do. The ten year old me would have loved this – but then the ten year old me loved He-Man and I doubt I’d get such a rush out of watching it now. I gamely stuck them in the sliced bread and made mini hot dogs but, as with the pierogi, I only ate as much as I had to.


The waitress saw that we’d both left roughly half and asked if we wanted to take our leftovers home. We both feigned slight fullness and said we were saving ourselves for our main courses, and in truth I felt like a bit of a fraud. Worse still, we were fully prepared to use the same excuse later in the evening, saying that we’d left lots of the main courses because we’d filled up on the starters. I think when you eat food you’re not familiar with, you’re far more likely to adopt the “it’s not you, it’s me” position and so it proved here. The table next to us was experiencing no such problem, enthusing about the dishes and raising a hue and cry when they hadn’t received a little jug of mushroom sauce to serve with their main course (actually their mains looked pretty nice, although when ours arrived I decided that they must have been a mirage).

I didn’t have to wait long for the mains because they came to the table split seconds after our starters were taken away. And no, I didn’t like them any more than the starters. Pork goulash with Polish gnocchi felt more like a struggle than a treat: the cubes of pork were decent enough, although the sauce – glossy tomato with little slices of mushroom – didn’t taste like any goulash I’ve ever eaten and had more than an air of Chicken Tonight about it. The gnocchi were gigantic, and resembled nothing so much as huge, undercooked oven chips. I think I’d have preferred undercooked oven chips, though again this might be my fault for expecting smaller, subtler pillows of potato based on my experience of more Western European establishments. There was also some finely grated carrot, some beetroot which appeared to have been minced, and some sauerkraut. I actually very much enjoyed the sauerkraut, but as with the coleslaw it really shouldn’t have been the star of the show. Again, the dish was – to use a technical term – mahoosive, and again I left as much of it as I thought I could.


When I couldn’t order the trout the waitress recommended chicken Kiev and, faced with the prospect of ribs and knuckles I quite liked the idea of taking the easy option and going for something made with chicken fillets (again, something that the ten year old me would have considered haute cuisine). Despite being, basically, a chicken breast filled with garlicky cheese and coated in breadcrumbs it was hard to enjoy this. It came with the same accompaniments as the goulash, but also with sub-school dinner mashed potato – lumpy and dry, lacking in seasoning or even a knob of butter (the saviour of many a forlorn vegetable). The Kievs – and actually there were two, in keeping with the monumental portions elsewhere – could have been rather nice but they were spoiled somewhat by being served in a puddle of mushroom sauce which took away any of the crispy fun of the breadcrumbs. This was the sauce they specifically asked for at the next table, but I’m not sure why – it had a peculiar vinegary taste for reasons I tried not to get to the bottom of. I left almost a whole Kiev (the logic being that if I ate at least some of the second one it couldn’t be wrapped up to take home) and pushed the veg around to make it look like I’d eaten more than I did. It felt like a sad tactic for a grown-up paying customer to resort to.


The drinks weren’t bad. We had a Polish beer (poured from a bottle at the bar and brought to the table, so I don’t know what it was but I’d guess it’s Zywiec) and a rather large glass of white wine which was fine for the cheap end of the wine scale (Google says it’s five pounds a bottle in Tesco). If I’d stayed longer I might have had a bison grass vodka with apple juice (a snip at three pounds) but that would have involved eating more food and I’m afraid no power on earth was going to get me to do that. And as if I don’t feel enough like I’m happy slapping a meerkat, the waitress was lovely, friendly, enthusiastic and anything but dour. It wasn’t her, you see, it was me. Dinner, with a ten percent tip included, came to forty-six pounds fifty. At the table next to me, as we left, they’d moved on to the desserts with a shot of Krupnik. They were having a significantly better evening than me and, pulling my winter coat on, I found myself envying both their evening and the fact that they saw something in the food which I simply couldn’t.

More than anywhere I’ve ever reviewed, I left Piwnica Pub with a clear feeling that it just wasn’t for me. In more ways than one – partly that it wasn’t my cup of tea (such a quintessentially English way to describe a Polish restaurant) but also that I just wasn’t in the target market. This has been an an especially difficult review to write, because I’m quite happy to come across as ignorant (I cheerfully admit that I am, never having eaten Polish food before this visit) but I really don’t want to sound patronising. So I hope it’s acceptable to put it this way: I really wanted to like Piwnica Pub, and I left thoroughly sad that I didn’t. In lots of ways I think it’s admirable, and I’m glad that Reading has a place like it. But now I know that it exists and I know what it’s like, I think I’ll leave it to others to actually go there.

Piwnica Pub – 4.7
81 London Road, RG1 5BY
0118 9011055


The Crown, Playhatch


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This week’s review is sort of me returning a favour. The enigmatic Roast Dinners Around Reading (worth a read if you’re not a regular already: his weekly reviews are probably the highlight of my Mondays – well, that and Only Connect) recently visited one of my top recommendations, The Bull at Sonning, and was a big fan. So it seemed fitting that I try out the Crown, which has occupied his top spot for as long as I can remember. The last time I went there was long before it had a makeover and repositioned itself doing classic pub food with a South African twist, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. And yes, the website talks about freshly prepared, quality ingredients but, well, don’t they all?

First things first, I have to mention the building itself. Pulling up onto the gravel driveway in the dark doesn’t do the outside justice (though there’s lots of smart seating outside which looks like it could be gorgeous in summer – if we ever get one again) so the first impression you really get is when you walk through the door. The welcome – quick and friendly – was nice enough but the interior is stunning; there are lots of big rooms broken up only by lots of beams, some of which could be perilous after a couple of pints if you’re over five feet eight. The dining area is in a rough L shape, with a large barn section at the end literally crowned with, erm, a crown, all wrought iron and grandeur.

As is de rigueur these days, the furniture is shabby chic and mismatched (I lost count of the number of different dining chairs in the barn area – one large table only had a couple which matched at all) and the paint is the very regulation Farrow and Ball. The interior’s been done by the same people who styled Henley’s Bull On Bell Street and it’s every bit as tasteful: I felt like I should have been there in my gilet and Hunter wellies. Having dinner with friends called Pippa and Tarquin, probably.

The menu’s an interesting one which covers lots of bases without feeling overextended. There’s some kind of South African connection (though I’m not clear exactly what) so there are a few South African touches (Boerewors, bobotie, the dubious delights of “monkey gland sauce”) but they’re well integrated. There’s hearty stuff, slightly more sophisticated stuff and a couple of vegetarian dishes (and several salads) – enough range, in fact, to make Brits feel safe without feeling completely staid. It’s a nice balance.

Although the starter menu was full of temptation (more so than the mains, I thought) boneless ribs stood out as something I rarely see and, in truth, an invention I think the world has long been waiting for. I don’t mind ribs, but it’s impossible to eat them with any dignity and there’s always that moment of trepidation when you take the first bite – will it come away neatly and easily, or will you be left gnawing away and embarrassing yourself, your dining companions and, most likely, people at the next table? That’s before we get to the mess – there’s always mess, and there’s always more mess than you think there will be (which reminds me, must buy more wet wipes).

I was delighted when they turned up, because they just looked pretty. Presentation seems to be a strong point at the Crown – it was attractive enough that you wanted to eat it but not so aesthetically precious that you felt like you were ruining it. What I soon realised is that boneless ribs don’t resemble ribs at all – durr, the clue’s in the name – so if anything they were like small slices of belly pork and none the worse for that. I really liked them – tender, tasty, no bounce, artfully drizzled with glaze. On top was a heap of red cabbage which was packed with cloves. I liked it, because I like cloves, but it was only just the right side of the line between really good mulled wine and overpowering Yule-themed Yankee Candle. Oh, and the salad was not only pretty but edible, with little cubes of tomato and some attractive shoots on top. Not only was it edible, but I actually ate it, and you can’t say that very often. Good work all round, I feel.


The other starter, hot smoked salmon was even better; a great big cylinder of it, all salty and smoky, was served with some sliced bread which had been generously oiled, garlicked (I think I may have just verbed a noun: sorry about that) and chargrilled, a little pile of salad, four little dollops of herbed crème fraîche and best of all, some slices of preserved lemons. It might sound busy in theory but it wasn’t in practice – and it was much prettier than my terrible photo would have you believe.

To be honest, the crème fraîche got rather lost against the salmon – I think it had dill in, but there might have been some parsley – so it needed the tangy, vinegary lemons to lend some zip and oomph to proceedings. Adding a bit of that lemon to a forkful of the salmon was a bit like putting Worcestershire sauce on your baked beans – once you’ve done it once it’s hard to imagine the dish without it. A cracking start: generous, just a little bit cleverer than it needed to be and with so many flavour combinations that it never got boring.


For mains it seemed absolutely right to have a South African special. The Bobotie (which I later discovered is pronounced beau booty, although I, mistakenly but enthusiastically, said it as bobot-yeah! instead) didn’t grab me on the menu but I am glad I threw caution to the wind and tried it. Out came a wee cast iron dish filled with minced meat (beef, I think, although it could have been lamb, or both) mixed with spices, sultanas, flaked almonds plus tiny pieces of ref pepper. On top of all that was something which looked like cheese but was in fact a layer of whisked egg which gets baked when the whole thing goes in the oven, sort of like a savoury custard.

It was so good – like nothing I’ve eaten before, intensely flavoured, sweet and rich with lots of complexity and a little heat. Really lovely stuff. Eating it, I found myself wondering if it was close to what mincemeat might have been a couple of hundred years ago (Google says yes, incidentally). It didn’t really need accompaniments – I would have been delighted with this on its own – but it came with some anyway – some very plain (allegedly saffron) rice and a prettily pleated poppadum. Just in case there wasn’t enough flavour there was a small pot of some of the spiciest mango chutney I’ve ever eaten and some fresh tomato salsa that, a bit like the herbed crème fraîche in the salmon starter, didn’t stand up to the rest of the dish.


I promised myself at the start of the year that I’d order one vegetarian main course every month, and with the exception of the month where I spent half of it on holiday I’ve kept that promise. This was likely to be my last meat-free main of the year, and I realised it was time to confront the ever-present on menus, the vegetarian main course you really can’t escape. Yes, just as Mario inevitably has to face the end of level baddie, there was no chance of me getting to the end of the year without ordering the mushroom risotto. So I did.

Unfortunately it was probably the only duffer of the evening. Again, it looked good on paper; wild mushrooms, lemon thyme and truffle oil were all namechecked, but what turned up needed to be half as big and twice as interesting. The mushrooms were wild – no trades descriptions issues there – but there was so much rice that they were drowned out. So much cream, too, with no seasoning to bring the flavour out in anything. There was enough truffle oil that you smelled it when it arrived at the table but after that nothing, a bit like those strangely flavourless herbal teas that you get. No lemon thyme either that I could see, just some rocket. Finally – and this didn’t bother me but I imagine it would many bona fide vegetarians – I’m pretty sure there was parmesan on top. In many ways, this was a fitting final vegetarian main course of 2015 because it highlighted how frustrating and difficult it must be: if a place like the Crown, which got so many things right, still couldn’t deliver a good mushroom risotto, what hope was there for everywhere else?


There was no chance of dessert after such big main courses and, to be honest, the dessert menu plays it far safer than the other two courses (cheesecake, Eton mess, banoffee pie, you know the drill by now) so I didn’t feel like I was missing out. Drinks were nice enough – a glass of South African red which was pleasant and everyday, but not wildly exciting and a bottle of Fever Tree bitter lemon which was very nice, albeit a little small. Dinner for two – two courses and a drink each – came to just under fifty pounds, not including service.

Speaking of service, it deserves more of a mention: I think at various points in the evening we were looked after by three or four different people and they were uniformly excellent, just informal enough to be engaging but never over-familiar. The young lady who took our money at the end was a particularly good ambassador, enthusing about the restaurant and talking about some of her favourite dishes (including the bobotie – no surprise there – and the steak). It was pretty busy, too – despite being a week night quite a lot of tables were occupied which is pretty good going for a location out of town. I think I heard a couple of South African accents, also a positive sign.

Despite the South African influences The Crown feels archetypally English in a Richard Curtis sort of way; the interior is beautiful, the staff are all lovely and much of the food is really good looking. I half expected it to be more style than substance (like Love Actually – that’s two hours of my life I’ll never have again) so it’s lovely to be able to report that there’s more depth to it than that; the food (with one exception, sadly – probably not one for vegetarians) was both tasty and interesting. Perhaps it reflects the growing competition in the area between Reading and Henley where there are plenty of options, but if anything, The Crown was better than I expected it to be: better food, better presentation, a better dining room and better service. You know what, I think that Roast Dinners bloke might be on to something. Extra gravy, anyone?

The Crown, Playhatch – 7.7

The Crown, Playhatch, RG4 9QN
0118 9472872




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Pardon the pun, but eating out is often about your gut reaction, and some of the oddest meals I’ve had while reviewing have been ones where my head tells me one thing and my gut tells me another.

Usually, that happens in fancy, precise, pristine places: my head admires the artful arrangement of ingredients on the plate and the provenance (which always, however well-intentioned, has a whiff of name-dropping about it) on the menu, but my gut tells me this is food for people who love to tell people where they’ve eaten, rather than food for people who love to eat. Lazeez, a newish Pakistani restaurant down the Wokingham Road, is that unusual beast, the same phenomenon in reverse. I can see lots of reasons why I would dislike my meal there, so how come I didn’t?

I went partly because despite being three months old it had nearly no digital footprint whatsoever – no reviews, nothing on TripAdvisor, although I’ve been told by one reader that it was easily as good as House Of Flavours. But also, I was also intrigued by the notion of a Pakistani restaurant, as I don’t think Reading has any others which specifically identify themselves as such. In a rare piece of research not involving Wikipedia, I even asked a colleague at work, currently planning his wedding in Islamabad, what Pakistani food is like. “Pretty much the same as Indian”, he said.

It’s an interesting place to open a restaurant, two doors down from Miah’s Garden Of Gulab, which either demonstrates huge confidence or a fundamental lack of market research (even now, having eaten there, I can’t decide which it is). But it’s quite a nice room, a big square with booths and banquettes round the edge and tables in the middle. One interior wall has rather tasteful brick-effect tiles, another has very attractive lattice-work with lighting panels behind it which, disconcertingly, change colour on a regular basis. I can imagine on another, busier, night it could all be a bit much, but on a quiet weekday night (and it was quiet – we were the only table there) I rather liked it while at the same time knowing I shouldn’t. It was a disconnected feeling I had to get used to.

Certainly the menu was compact by the standards of Indian restaurants I’ve been to: no poppadoms on offer, a smallish selection of starters, a similarly manageable range of mains (grilled, chicken, lamb or vegetarian) and a handful of specials, including lamb trotters – maybe another time, eh? – and the only seafood main on the entire menu. Two other things jumped out from the menu. One is that the restaurant doesn’t have an alcohol licence, which I suppose will rule it out for some people but didn’t bother me. The other, more significantly, is how inexpensive everything is: most mains hover around the six pound mark, the costliest starter is four pounds.

So, cheap and nasty or cheap and cheerful? The starters were the first evidence. Shami kebab, which I ordered as a change from the usual sheekh kebab, sounded interesting – a mixture of finely minced lamb and ground dal. I liked it more in theory than in practice – two round pucks which had a vague flavour of lamb but none of the texture that goes with it, and a heat which went from “meh” to “my word” by the end of the dish. If anything they were more like spicy rissoles, which sounds more like a euphemism for a medical complaint than something you’d clamour to pick off a menu.


Chicken tikka was a more traditional choice and was better, if not perfect. I was a bit surprised by how neatly cylindrical it all was, cut into equal sized chunks by someone very good at cutting things into small chunks (a trick which was to be repeated with the main courses). It was quite tasty, if a little bit lacking in the tenderness of the best examples I’ve had in Reading. I couldn’t decide how I felt about it, torn between “this is only four pounds!” and “well, it’s only four pounds”. Both starters came with a perfectly decent selection of perfectly decent raita, mango chutney and something a bit like a hot chilli mint sauce.


No sooner had the starters left than the mains, two sizzling karahi dishes on little wooden stands, were whisked to the table. This is one of my pet hates in any restaurant, and more than anything it made me wonder if Lazeez quite got how restaurants are meant to work. I understand it must be dull standing around in a kitchen when the room out front only has two customers in it, but that’s no excuse to curtail what’s meant to be a pleasant, leisurely evening for those two customers. Still, I could hardly send them away and again, I found myself thinking that given the price perhaps I was the one with the wrong expectations.

Karahi chicken was pleasant. Chunks of chicken and, I think, some little shreds of chicken were in there and I spotted a few little batons of ginger on top. The sauce was red, a little spiced but pretty unremarkable. The whole thing was a little well-mannered for me, as if someone had fitted a normal dish with a silencer. It was also ever so slightly on the small side and the pieces of chicken were also a tad diddy, especially if you’re used to the massive pieces in many Indian restaurants where you have to cut them in half or risk somebody having to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre. Still, at the risk of repeating myself, it was six quid.

The star of the night was the bhindi gosht – lamb curry with okra. The okra was what made it – sticky rather than slimy, still firm and really quite delicious with the gently spiced sauce and the sweet shreds of onion. This managed to be subtle rather than bland, in contrast to the karahi chicken which got that balance wrong. But again the pieces of lamb, though tender and soft, were small and few and far between. Both dishes, the karahi chicken and the bhindi gosht, were shiny with oil to the extent where I had slight misgivings.


Rice was rice, no surprises there. There wasn’t enough sauce to need it all. More of a clanger was the aloo paratha. I love paratha; I know it’s unhealthy but there’s something about those buttery layers of bread that makes me come over all unnecessary, and the idea of such a thing stuffed with potato really appealed to me. Unfortunately, what came out was a stodgy, oily thing, the shape of a frisbee, full of cubes of potato and peas as you’d find in the middle of a samosa. Arg and Lydia from The Only Way Is Essex are switching on the Broad Street Mall lights this weekend, but even those two combined are not quite as dense as that paratha was. We abandoned half.

On a more positive note, possibly due to the lack of an alcohol licence, Lazeez doesn’t just do glasses of mango lassi. Oh no. They do a jug of the stuff. For seven pounds. It’s not every day you can go into a restaurant and say “and I’ll have a carafe of the mango lassi” and they deserve some credit for that alone (it was very nice too, to the extent where I wish I’d skipped the shami kebab and had a jug to myself). I should also say that service was lovely, if a tad eccentric. Obviously there are no real excuses for a meal which took – no word of a lie – forty minutes from start to finish, but the waiter was very friendly and genuinely interested in us, what we thought of the food and the Indian restaurants around town. Dinner for two came to thirty-two pounds, not including tip. We didn’t have dessert, mainly because my stomach felt more oiled up than a Chippendale.

Sometimes the act of writing a review is the final thing that crystallises my view of a restaurant. You’d think that would happen here, and yet despite all that’s gone before I feel a certain warmth towards Lazeez. Yes, there were lots of mistakes – the timing, the execution of some of the dishes, their oiliness – and yet it feels like Lazeez is a chrysalis from which a good restaurant might at some point emerge. I even wondered whether I was really in the target market for Lazeez or whether it’s aimed towards the Pakistani community in Reading (it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me; on my way home I wandered into Home Taste across the road and asked if I could look at a menu. “Not unless you’re learning Chinese” grinned the man behind the counter).

Crucially, what might keep Lazeez going is that it fills a gap in the market; it’s cheaper than most of its competitors and it’s an easier, more casual place to grab dinner (especially before going out drinking, or if you’re with teetotallers) than Miah’s. Put it this way, given a choice between the two I’d still go to Lazeez nine times out of ten, even though ten times out of ten my head would probably tell me that Miah’s is a “better restaurant”. But that’s how it goes: the gut wants what the gut wants, after all.

Lazeez – 6.7
146a Wokingham Road, RG6 1JL
0118 9668802


Brebis, Newbury


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Let’s cut to the chase: Brebis is really, really good and you should go there.

It’s nice to have that out of the way. On with the review!

Brebis appeared on my radar a little while ago, though I can’t quite remember how. When I checked out the website, it looked like the real deal – a little unfussy French restaurant that just happened to be slap bang in the middle of Newbury. Now, I haven’t been to Newbury before on duty but after last week’s lukewarm review of a town centre bistro I decided to go double or quits and troll out to West Berkshire, an area I’ve previously rather neglected on the blog.

In my defence it’s been a long time since I’ve been to Newbury (years, I’d say) and I didn’t have fond memories of it; I remembered it, unfairly I’m sure, as a lacklustre market town with little to offer that Reading didn’t have. Well, I was plain wrong (and you can take that to the bank). I had a lovely excursion there of a weekend – it has a decent market (I very much enjoyed the fresh bread I bought), an irascible butcher (sausages for my dinner the following night) and a truly magnificent wine and beer shop that had a selection of gin (Japanese? Colombian? Welsh?) that knocked my socks off. I returned with groaning bags. But, more to the point, it also has an outstanding French restaurant that dished up one of the best meals I’ve had this year.

Brebis is in a pedestrianised bit of Newbury – it’s in an old house but, regrettably, with an unlovely view of the side of the Kennet Centre (think Broad Street Mall, not Oracle). Not terribly scenic but no matter, as the inside is a different affair. The walls are white with the occasional blackboard, the floor is stripped back to boards, the lampshades are all industrial without being faddy and the generously sized tables are smart rustic, with comfy chairs and really good quality linen napkins. Even the cutlery was reminiscent of Parisian restaurants I have known and loved (and there have been a few). So far so chic.

The greeting at the door was incredibly welcoming. We got in without a reservation and were shown to a table in the window and given a brief explanation of the menu (all on chalkboards, because Brebis is trialling the restaurant equivalent of the paperless office). This involved a good nosey around and some really tricky choices. During the day Brebis offers a prix fixe menu, offering a choice of two courses for just under twenty pounds or three for twenty-three. Only a couple of options for each course, and nothing I could see for vegetarians, but there was also a much bigger a la carte menu which repeated some of the prix fixe options. Starters on the a la carte were about eight pounds and mains around eighteen, and a suggested wine pairing was listed with every course, something I didn’t fully appreciate until later.

Fortunately for us, all of the dishes we fancied from the a la carte were also on the prix fixe, so I felt especially pleased as we made our choices, sipped our wine and looked out the window at the passers by (enjoying the “I’m inside having a lovely lunch and you’re not” feeling). They even played Edith Piaf on the Bose sound dock by the door. Really, it was almost too perfect. And before we even got to the starters there was an amuse bouche of beetroot crème fraîche on a wafer thin crouton, with a nasturtium petal on top. It was as tasty as it was pretty, the slightly sweet crouton combining beautifully with the crème fraîche. I’m never sure about edible flowers – they make me feel a bit like Ermintrude from The Magic Roundabout – but they definitely didn’t detract.


The first real glimmers of greatness came with the arrival of the starters, because it was around then that I started to think that everything was going to be quite a lot more than all right. Duck liver and foie gras parfait came with a decent wodge of home made baguette and courgette chutney. Goodness, it was marvellous stuff: rich, smooth and earthy, cool enough to keep its shape but easily spread on the gorgeous bread. And the bread! Crusty and chewy but with that spongey middle, a texture that the French take for granted in their Government-regulated ninety-five cent loaves but which you can’t find here for love nor money. The courgette chutney was spiced with a slight hint of curry which made it seem almost mango-flavoured, and although I liked it felt a bit unnecessary. But that’s by the by: I order foie gras and chicken liver parfait quite often, and I nearly didn’t order it here because I wondered if it would be a good test of the kitchen, but this was one of my starters of the year. Even the little touches – a few little flakes of salt on top of the parfait – were right on the money.


The other starter was also top-notch: a hefty helping of jambon de bayonne with a pile of celeriac remoulade in the middle. Really, the ingredients did all the work: the ham was terrific, every bit as savoury, coarse-textured and intense as its Italian or Spanish cousins. The celeriac remoulade, everyone’s favourite upmarket coleslaw, was an elegant balance of creamy and crunchy. And one final touch – the tiniest dabs of truffle oil, glistening on the ham. I’ve never had this with charcuterie before, and I’d normally be sceptical, but used sparingly it topped the dish off without overpowering it. A simple, perfect classic.


When the mains arrived I wasn’t sure which of us had picked better. I’m running out of superlatives already, but butter poached hake with purple potatoes and roast lemon purée was flawless. The chunky piece of hake was cooked through but beautifully moist from being poached (I daren’t think what butter poaching entails, although I have a vague idea: fortunately all meals I eat when reviewing are calorie free). Under that was a disc of crushed potatoes, some purple and some white, all very buttery and just the right texture – yielding but not super soft. On the side was a smear of lemon purée, rich and creamy with a hint of sharpness which was simply beautiful with the fish. I can’t remember when I have eaten something so delicate and harmonious this year, let alone on a set menu. Sometimes on a set menu you can get quite prosaic dishes, but this both looked and tasted dazzling, colour and flavour completely in step.


The other main was definitely more the stuff of a prix fixe. Confit duck is beginning to get a bit done to death (partly, I suspect, because pubs and restaurants appreciate that it’s quite an easy thing to churn out) but by this stage I was more relaxed because I had a feeling Brebis might do a definitive version. And they pretty much did. The duck was just magnificent – lots of tender meat underneath, parted from the bone with no effort at all, but more importantly on top the crispy, salty skin breaking into delicious shards. The pomme purée it was served on was a fantastic mash, firm rather than gloopy, with thyme and little strands of bacon running through it. The jus was tasty, although I’d personally have liked a little more of it. Finally the only misfire possibly of the whole meal – some distinctly odd batons of beetroot which, for me, just didn’t go. Personally, I’d rather have had something hot and cooked rather than cold and crunchy, though of course, I still ate it.


The set menu has a fantastic wine offer – a half litre carafe for the bargain price of nine quid – but instead we went for a bottle of Lirac, a soft, fairly light Rhone Valley red that was a bit of a compromise solution given the two main courses. Even so it was cracking, eminently drinkable and decent value at just over thirty pounds. The wine list at Brebis is all French and everything except the very top end is available by the glass (with the cheapest 125ml wine by the glass at around three quid). I didn’t realise that, or that the way glasses are priced means that it’s just as economical to drink glasses as it is to order a bottle. Still, it’s a lesson learned for next time and there are worse things in life than having a gorgeous red with lunch.

After two excellent courses it would have been a crime not to have dessert. But then we couldn’t decide between the cheeseboard (yes, another cheeseboard) and the dessert menu. So in the end we had a cheeseboard to share followed by dessert. Yes, I know: this is bad and wrong and I certainly wouldn’t expect you to behave so terribly, but I rarely get to eat this well on duty so I went for it.

The holy trinity of local cheeses – Wigmore, Spenwood and Barkham Blue – were all present and correct, along with Woolsery (a Dorset hard goat’s cheese) and, because Brebis is French, after all, some Roquefort. Again, simplicity was key – no overcomplicating apple, celery or walnuts, just good cheeses, a pyramid of slices of the beautiful baguette from before, more courgette chutney and some room temperature butter. I scored it, I’m afraid, as France 1, Berkshire 0: Barkham Blue is one of my favourite cheeses but I think on this occasion the Roquefort just had the edge, being riper, softer and saltier. The cheeses were served cool but not chilled and the Wigmore was ripe enough to making a break for it across the plate. It all went terribly well with a glass of Muscat de Rivesaltes – red, unusually, rather than white, lightly chilled, with a beautiful raisiny flavour, a great foil for the saltier cheeses. All that for eight pounds fifty: miles better, and miles better value, than any other cheeseboard I’ve had this year.


The desserts are, thankfully, quite small and chilled (I think a sticky toffee pudding or anything with custard would have killed me at this stage). Green apple bavarois (I had to Google it before ordering, to my shame and even then it wasn’t quite what I was expecting) was a lot easier to eat than it was to pronounce: it was a big quenelle of something halfway between a fool and a mousse. The apple was quite a light, refreshing flavour, which saved it from heaviness. Big chunks of honeycomb added some texture and there was a zigzag of blackberry gel underneath (which wasn’t really needed, if I’m honest, but it did look nice). Delicious, simple, clever: bit of a theme emerging, isn’t there?


Iced nougat parfait was a lovely way to finish. A small slice of the parfait, with a honeyed taste to it, studded through with fruit and nuts – cold, fresh and clean but with just the right sweetness and texture. Again, there was lots of the blackberry gel on this one – and it was beautifully plated, such a simple, pretty dish – but it felt like it was more of a match with than with the bavarois. In truth it meant the two desserts we ordered were pretty similar and, in honesty, the bavarois was probably a better choice. But the worst of the two desserts here was still better than most desserts I’ve eaten this year, and it cost just over five pounds. We managed to squeeze in a glass of sticky, fragrant Cadillac with the dessert; by this point it seemed pointless to deny anything, being slightly squiffy with happiness.


Service was a one man job, namely one man doing a brilliant job. He was charming, chatty and enthusiastic throughout, knew his way round the dishes and the wines, brimmed with passion and was delighted to get good feedback. He was just as charming at the other tables and showed a real interest in his customer (some of our fellow diners were celebrating their anniversary: one of them definitely deserves some brownie points for the choice of venue). There was no superfluous topping up of wine glasses – a real bugbear of mine at the high end – everything was laid back and unfussily spectacular.

Our total bill, for three courses each, a cheeseboard to share, a bottle of wine and two glasses of dessert wine each (it sounds even worse when I put it like that) was just short of one hundred and twenty pounds, not including service. You could, in fairness, spend a lot less: if you didn’t get as carried away as I did, came here on the prix fixe and shared the set wine you could have a meal for two for about half that price. But I have no regrets: this has been one of my meals of the year, and it justifies all those times in 2015 when I’ve drizzled away money on mediocre food, underwhelming wine, indifferent service. Also, did I mention the Edith Piaf?

Normally I don’t talk about the ratings in my reviews, but this time I have to make an exception because, as you’ve probably already seen, this one breaks new ground. When I look at all the places I’ve given good ratings to over the last two years, fantastic though they are there’s always been something missing. The furniture’s a little uncomfortable, the wine selection is a bit uninspiring, the service just a tad too rushed. Or there’s one course that drops the baton, leaving me thinking If only… But Brebis literally didn’t put a foot wrong, and that puts it in another class. By the end of the starter I was wondering who I could take next time. By the end of the main course I was wondering how many visits I could feasibly make to Newbury before the end of the year. By the end of dessert I was wondering why this place wasn’t full and how they would feel about being dismantled brick by brick and forcibly relocated to Reading. Until that happens I urge you to jump on a train and go there. Take someone you either really like or really want to impress, or both. I might be at the next table; my next visit is already in the calendar.

Brebis – 9.1
16 Bartholemew Street, Newbury, RG14 5LW
01635 40527


Valpy Street


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Let’s start with the elephant (well, lobster) in the room: it would somehow be wrong of me to write a review of Valpy Street without at least a passing nod to its most (in)famous previous incarnation. Those hallowed halls were the location where I ate the worst meal I’ve reviewed so far and, I think, an indication of how far the spot had fallen since its earlier success – still discussed fondly by many Reading residents – as Chronicles. Indeed, the new owner is in fact the old owner; fed up of seeing the site go through one sad iteration after another he decided to come back and reinvigorate the handsome basement rooms (the story goes that the last straw was an application to turn the premises into a lapdancing club).

It looks so nice now that I didn’t even suffer any flashbacks. The upstairs – a grotty sandwich bar back when this was Valentino’s – is now a little bar area looking out onto the street. But really, it’s all about the downstairs: there’s something about a cellar restaurant, especially with winter on the way, that feels somehow snug and exclusive and they’ve made a really good job of doing it up (Farrow and Ball paint: check, exposed brickwork: check, tongue and groove panels: check). The furniture is attractive, the tables are a decent size and there are some nice booths along one side which adds to that feeling of cosy seclusion.

I’ve heard good things in the months since Valpy Street opened, so I was surprised to trot down the stairs on a week night to see it pretty empty, with only a few tables occupied. The menu had lots to tempt, with an interesting range of starters hovering around the seven pound mark and more conventional bistro-style main courses (lamb shank, duck breast, two types of steak) generally weighing in around fifteen pounds. Reading it, I realised that this is the kind of restaurant Reading is missing, because we don’t really have any mid-range independent bistros. You either go for much more informal, cheaper dining, you move up a price bracket to LSB or Forbury’s, or you opt for a chain. Please let this be good, I thought to myself.

Would my prayers be answered? The starters gave me my first clues. Pan fried scallops came with peas and onion, crispy chorizo and beurre noisette, a pretty classic combination. Normally they also come with soft herbs (no, I’ve no idea what that means) but I was with my coriander-phobic companion so we missed all the herbs out to ensure there was no meltdown. The scallops – three medium ones – were pretty decent, cooked in the browned butter and nicely textured so they were lightly caramelised on the outside but still yielding within. The peas and onions and chorizo reminded me a bit of petit pois a la francaise, but without the indulgent cream which always makes me feel so guilty about ordering it. They worked quite well, especially the touch of salt and warmth from the chorizo which lifted the dish pleasantly. Not the prettiest dish to look at (it all looked a bit plonked on the plate) but a good start.


The other starter was one of the most intriguing things on offer – tempura soft shell crab with an Asian influenced salad of shredded cabbage, carrot and mooli. It was the only time that the menu wandered away from its firmly European sensibilities, but it sounded so good on paper that I had to try it. Broadly speaking, it was a success. The salad was full of crunch and zest with an awful lot going on, especially with a gradually growing heat from the deep green shreds of chilli. I liked the presentation, with the toasted sesame seeds dotted round the edge of the plate.

If anything, the salad upstaged the crab sitting on top of it. I’ve always loved soft shell crab – possibly the only member of the animal kingdom that might have caused Charles Darwin the occasional moment of doubt – and this was pleasant but the batter wasn’t quite tempura, lacking the crisp lightness I was hoping for. It was also dinky almost to the point where you felt like you weren’t so much eating it as bullying it. All good, then, but possibly a touch on the nouvelle side.


You couldn’t say that about the gigantic piece of onglet which turned up when the mains arrived. I’d ordered it rare (the waitress suggested rare or medium rare) and rare it came. My mistake, to be honest: onglet can be a tad chewy and it definitely needed a bit longer. To her credit, the waitress came back to check on the food and quickly twigged that I wasn’t happy – so she sent it back for a little more time under the grill which improved matters considerably. The salad it came with was delicious, just dressed rocket and thinly sliced red onion: not something I would normally choose but which really went perfectly with the steak. The chips were thick and wedgelike, but sadly not terribly crispy.

When ordering the waitress asked what sauce I wanted (blue cheese, red wine or peppercorn) and so I also had a little copper saucepan of peppercorn sauce. This was really lovely but I didn’t find out until the bill arrived that I’d been charged nearly three quid for the privilege. Now, I don’t mind paying extra for a sauce but I definitely felt like this was a little sneaky – there was no mention of the sauce on the printed menu (there is on the website, curiously) and the waitress didn’t say that there would be a charge, so I felt a little hoodwinked. Overall it pushed the cost of the dish over the twenty pound mark, and therein lies the real problem: onglet is a cheap cut, and for that money I could have had better meat from CAU – a little less of it, maybe, but better quality and cheaper.


Herb crusted hake was less successful. It was a pleasant – if not massive – piece of fish and the herby breadcrumbs on top of it were lovely, although I was surprised to find skin on the bottom of the fillet. But everything else didn’t quite work. It came with “bacon lardons” (are there any other kind?), little halved new potatoes, cabbage and leek and all of them were decent if inoffensive. But the herb broth, which I was hoping would bring the whole thing together, was largely a flavourless stock. More than anything else I ate that night, or anything I’ve eaten for a while, it felt like home cooking rather than restaurant cooking. If I’d eaten it at a friend’s house I’d have said nice things, but for just shy of fifteen pounds it wasn’t something I’d rave about when eating out.


I can’t quite remember why we ventured onto desserts after eating so much steak, but venture on we did. Tarte tatin is one of those French classics that’s difficult enough to make at home that I’d never bother (that’s what restaurants are for). Truth be told when it arrived I wondered if the chef had ever seen one before, let alone cooked one. It was the oddest looking tarte tatin I have ever seen; eight or nine thin slivers (not slithers, for the record: why do so many restaurant reviewers get this wrong?) of unpeeled apple on a pastry base with a caramelised coating and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. If anything, my photo makes it look more generous with the apple than was actually the case. To my shame, I still ate it all because – as everyone knows – pastry plus sugar equals tasty. But it was an amateurish kind of tasty.


Valpy Street’s website says that the menu is “locally sourced where possible” – that may be true in general, but the fact that nothing local turned up on the cheeseboard made me wonder if those words were there because they thought it was what diners want to read. Having got that whinge out of the way, it was an interesting selection none the less: on paper, at least. In reality, it was perhaps slightly less so. Saint Maure de Touraine was a pretty likeable goat’s cheese, but the tommette de savoie was mild verging on apologetic, a quality it shared with the Fearn Abbey, a Scottish brie-like cheese. What the board was crying out for was some contrast – a salty, crystalline cheddar or Comte that could exfoliate the roof of your mouth – but no such luck.

Last but not least, there was Blue Monday, made by that chap out of Blur with the floppy hair. I’m more of a Graham Coxon fan myself, but to give credit where it’s due the cheese was spectacular – intense, savoury and delicious. I’m glad I ate it last, but even having it last it highlighted how bland all that came before had been. All the cheeses were maybe not as close to room temperature as they should have been (nor, now I come to think of it, was the dining room), but at least they weren’t fridge-cold. The accompaniments smacked slightly of overkill. There were a lot of crackers but no variety, so they were all sweet which didn’t really work with most of the cheeses. You also got a huge ramekin of onion chutney – far more than you could possibly eat – some celery which I suspect is left by almost everybody and some grapes. This was definitely a case where less would have been more, although I would have liked the advertised quince jelly which was nowhere to be seen.


This is all sounding rather glum, isn’t it? Perhaps I should lighten the mood by saying that service – the incident with the peppercorn sauce aside – was properly delightful from start to finish. Both waitresses were bright, personable, knowledgeable and full of opinions about the dishes. And if it didn’t always come off that felt more the kitchen’s fault than theirs. As I said, I was also impressed that they swooped in and sorted the problem with my onglet – some serving staff would ignore those vibes (the way you can never get attention when you want to pay up and scarper, for instance) but they could clearly tell I wasn’t happy and managed the situation perfectly.

Another positive: the wine list isn’t bad at all, with nothing over forty quid and plenty of interesting choices available by the glass. We tried a selection, including a really good, heady Malbec and a cracking Pic St Loup, a Languedoc red. Viognier, always a favourite of mine, was also extremely drinkable as was the cheapest white on the menu, a bright Spanish number from Extramadura. I would have had a glass of dessert wine with the tarte tatin, but they’d run out of one and the other was priced pretty aggressively for only 50ml. The LBV we ordered to accompany the cheese was nice but not surprising – maybe it would have tasted better paired with more interesting cheeses. The total bill came to ninety-one pounds, excluding tip, for three courses, two glasses of wine each plus that port. An odd experience: nothing on the menu was particularly expensive, and yet somehow that still felt a little steep.

Reading really needs a restaurant like Valpy Street. An affordable, mid-market independent bistro is very much one of the places that’s always been missing from town. And, frustratingly, they’ve got many things right – the room is lovely, the menu looks brilliant on paper and the service is spot on. The menu has some bright ideas to draw daytime trade in, too, with lunchtime “pots” for six quid and a selection of upmarket sandwiches. But the evening menu – despite some moments of promise – didn’t set my world on fire. But all is not lost, because the management has proved they can do this. The menu has already changed substantially since launch, to the owner’s credit, and he didn’t even officially launch the restaurant until it had already been open for a month (a very soft launch indeed, in fact). It feels like he’s playing the long game, and on that basis I wouldn’t rule out Valpy Street rethinking some of the menu and pricing and fulfilling that obvious promise. It’s a tougher market out there than it’s ever been: Reading’s dining scene has changed significantly since Chronicles closed in 2008 and the competition has got better. I just hope Valpy Street can do likewise.

Valpy Street – 6.8
17-19 Valpy Street, RG1 1AR
0118 3271331


The Bell, Waltham St Lawrence


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Well, summer’s well and truly over. You can speculate about the exact time of death – when the kids went back to school, when festive toot started appearing in the shops (prosecco flavoured crisps, M&S? Really?), that awful moment when you realised the central heating needed to go on – but those are details. The formal funeral happens tomorrow night when the clocks go back, and that’s that: it’s gone until next year and now we all need to come to terms with wearing extra layers, fishing the gloves out of the chest of drawers, deciding who’s getting what this Christmas and wondering whether this is the year you stop bothering with sending cards.

I’ve found it especially difficult because I’m not long back from holiday. So it seems like only yesterday that I was sitting outside until midnight, eating grilled meats and salad, drinking that first glass of rosé as soon after midday as socially acceptable and reading novels by the pool. To return to a nip in the air felt especially cruel. And it’s not just me – I bumped into a colleague this week who’s just back from a holiday in Dubai, thirty-three degrees every day without fail, and I couldn’t help feeling even her tan looked a tad jaundiced. “It’s not my winter coat I’ve got on” she told me, “it’s my autumn coat” (in denial, I suspect – it looked like a winter coat to me).

So this week I’ve been trying to find the consolations of autumn. I’m not talking about seasonal eating – I should care about that more than I do, but ultimately despite knowing all the reasons I shouldn’t buy Peruvian asparagus I still reckon it’s better than nothing – but the move into autumn does allow you to enjoy food that, a few months ago, would have been unthinkable. Slow-cooked stews and casseroles, steaming bowls of soup, big piles of mash and golden-domed pies. And the drinks, too; I know that Pimm’s is a wonderful thing but the months ahead mean we can glug red wine, or port, or mulled wine (proper stuff, not that shortcut in a bottle).

That’s what led me to Waltham St. Lawrence on a weekday night, because I’d heard good things about The Bell. Someone suggested I review it with a certain trepidation, because they didn’t want the secret to get out – and that’s a good enough incentive for me. So I made the short drive down the A4, turning right just past Hare Hatch, and parking in the village I got out of the car to be greeted by the beautiful aroma of woodsmoke.

It’s a lovely place. The pub is right opposite the church – as it should be in a picture perfect English village, if only to give people two different routes to enlightenment – and it’s beautifully, charmingly ramshackle (much as you would be if you’d been standing for seven hundred years). Inside it’s all beams and dark wood, panelling, horse brasses and open fires. There are a couple of rooms, all very basic and unshowy, although I now see having looked at the website that they also have a snug and what looks like a slightly smarter dining room; I’m glad I didn’t end up sitting in that.

I was a little bit in love before I even sat down, but it developed into a full-on crush when I read the menu. I looked at one pub during the week, deciding whether to add it to my list of places to review, before realising with horror that it offered twenty-three different main courses; The Bell is nothing like that, with a small but perfectly-formed menu of five bar snacks, four starters, five mains and five desserts. I couldn’t see a single thing I didn’t fancy eating – pork pie, rarebit, Brixham mussels, venison, trout with lentils. It was a different menu to the one on their website, and I had no doubt that if I went back in a couple of months it would be a different menu again. But for now, it felt like a menu designed to make you happy to see the back of summer.

Pigeon and pork terrine was, if not perfection, close enough that I couldn’t see anything to fault. The terrine itself was a dense slab of rich, gamey meat, beautifully earthy and coarse, no jelly or bounce to it. But that wasn’t all, because there was also soft pickled beetroot, all sweetness and no sharpness, perfect with the terrine. And the bread was magnificent – thick sliced, toasted and buttered (or quite possibly buttered and then toasted, it had a golden glow and the texture of butter that had melted under a grill), it almost had a spongey, crumpetty texture. Three simple things, superb on their own, equally terrific combined. All that for six pounds fifty, and worth the trip on its own.


The thick, rich cep and blue oyster mushroom soup was an exercise in simplicity: the mushrooms, a hint of cream and a touch of seasoning was all I could detect in the bowl. There was more of that bread on the side, untoasted this time but also generously buttered. I found it strange that the butter wasn’t on the side, and if I’m being really critical I’d perhaps have liked a few herbs to bring out the flavour of the soup more, but those are both minor details. The portion was generous (how I struggled!) and made me want to go out and forage straight after. Well, straight after a nap, perhaps.


Mains were sensibly paced after that – ironic, as the starters had been so good that, for once, I found myself ever so slightly impatient. It’s almost worth putting the clocks back just so you can eat venison again so I was delighted to see loin of fallow deer on the menu. The meat itself, again, was well-nigh perfect – beautifully seared, still pink inside, five thick discs of autumnal wonder. If the rest of the dish didn’t quite match that, it was perhaps because the bar had been set so high – the kale was well-cooked, steering the right course between the twin perils of mushy and crunchy, but it wasn’t the most exciting thing to serve with the venison.

The real disappointment was the macaroni cheese, an oddly solid cuboid of the stuff which reminded me of the top of a pastitsio. It wasn’t quite cheesy enough, or salty enough, and under a fork it just crumbled into individual macaroni. It was a noble effort, but I think I’d sooner have had something a bit gloopier and more sinful, or even just a potato dauphinoise. Last of all, the thing the dish missed most – the roasting juices had been reduced to almost nothing, like a culinary Black Friday, and the whole thing needed some kind of sauce. If I sound critical it’s just because the dish was very good, when I knew how close it came to being unforgettable.


It’s rare that there’s a scrap to order the vegetarian main course (normally it’s quite the opposite, in fact) but that’s exactly what happened at The Bell. Big pillowy potato gnocchi came with a stunning kale and almond pesto, strewn with extra leaves of kale like the best cabbage in the world (I know kale is bloody everywhere right now, but not kale like this). On top was a decent sized circle of caramelised goats cheese, grilled to just bubbling and perfect for setting off the richness of the potato. You could say this is starch and goats cheese, like unimaginative risottos in pubs across Berkshire, but this was so much more than that: clever, creative and damned delicious, and it really didn’t need any meat. It illustrated deftly that with a bit of effort and an imaginative chef it’s possible to eat delicious vegetarian food; it’s just a shame that this is such a rare accolade. I scraped every last morsel out of the bowl.


Sometimes, when a meal is iffy, I order dessert to give the restaurant a chance to rescue matters. On this occasion I ordered dessert because I wanted to see if they were as good as the rest. And again, the menu was note-perfect – crumbles and puddings, hot desserts with ice cream quickly melting on them. But unfortunately, on this occasion, the desserts slightly took the shine off things. I picked the sticky toffee pudding because it came with creme fraiche ice cream, an unusual touch. Sadly it was more like a toffee cake than a steamed sponge pudding – dry and a bit chewy – and there was nowhere near enough toffee sauce to rescue it. The ice cream, to be fair, was truly delicious; thick and creamy with an intriguing slightly sour note – but that, too, wasn’t enough to save it. I left some, and I felt sad that I didn’t feel sad about that.

BellPud (2)

I was in two minds about whether to have the cheeseboard, and when I went up to the bar I asked which cheeses were on offer. “Barkham Blue is one”, said the man behind the bar, “I’ll just check with the kitchen what the other one is.” Off he scuttled, and the man next to me said “Barkham Blue’s all you need anyway.” He was right, of course, and you got a good wedge of it, soft and salty, blue without being overpowering. The other cheese – and I quite admire them for only offering two – was Wigmore, also local, gorgeously mushroomy but still nice and firm.

So far so good, and you could say it’s impossible to muck this kind of thing up, but the kitchen did have a go. The chutney was lovely, and went well with both, but the “house crackers” were a bit surreal. There was a long thin flatbread, a bit like ciappe de liguria, but the texture wasn’t right – it wasn’t crispy or crunchy, and felt stale. Odder still were the other crackers, which were more like biscuits – thin, treacly biscuits, like Hobnobs without the oats. They were sweet: sweet with burnt sugar, and although that sort of went with the Barkham Blue it didn’t go with the Barkham Blue as well as my favourite accompaniment, more Barkham Blue. I finished them in the same way I might finish a duff magazine article.


If I haven’t mentioned service that’s because there wasn’t that much of it. You order at the bar and there’s minimal interaction when they bring the food to your table. That’s honestly no criticism, and everybody was lovely and welcoming and genuinely interested in whether we liked the food, but it does mean there isn’t much to say. There’s more to say about the wine. The Corbieres (less than a fiver a glass) was robust, punchy and went brilliantly with the terrine, the dessert wine was nice if not particularly memorable and not quite cold enough for me. The port I had with the cheese – a rich, complex Krohn LBV – was over far, far too quickly. All in all, dinner came to seventy pounds, not including tip. When I think of the price of some of the things I ate – that stunning terrine for six pounds fifty, the gnocchi for a tenner – it’s hard not to conclude that the people of Waltham St Lawrence are very lucky indeed.

Would I go back? In a heartbeat. And if this review sounds critical, it’s only because the best of this meal was right up there with the best food I’ve eaten this year, and that means you judge everything else a little more harshly. But let’s put this in perspective – if you picked this pub up and dropped it in the centre of Reading (perhaps on top of TGI Friday, or Cosmo: somewhere nobody would miss) it would be difficult to keep me away. So go, even if it means the secret gets out: as it is, perhaps I’ll hibernate there in a seat by the fire, growing fat and sleepy on rarebit and red wine, finding it increasingly hard to remember that I ever used to get excited about sunshine and salad.

The Bell – 8.2
The Street, Waltham St Lawrence, RG10 0JJ
0118 9341788




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Whatever you think of the food, Itsu’s biggest success – for me, anyway – may be how it’s transformed the bottom of Queen Victoria Street, banishing the grisly memory of temporary shop after temporary shop selling nylon shoes or mobile phone accessories. It gives that corner a certain glow, all shiny, fresh and welcoming; it’s strange how even though it’s only been open for a couple of months, it somehow feels like it’s been there forever.

It forms part of a long-established trend, which on balance is probably a good thing, of smaller, more exclusive chains picking Reading to be in the vanguard for any expansion plans. Bill’s started this, of course, and then there was Five Guys, but although Itsu is the latest it’s unlikely to be the last: West Country pizza and cider chain The Stable is rumoured to be opening on Bridge Street, and Bristol-based barbecue specialists Grillstock were linked to a site on Friar Street recently.

Itsu wasn’t top of my wish list of chains (I’d love a branch of Leon or Busaba, personally) but it’s an intriguing prospect – a place offering healthy lunches and dinners low in calories and saturated fats. Salads, smoothies, sushi, sashimi: splendid, surely? I’m one of those people who goes to Yo! Sushi with the best of intentions and then ends up ordering anything and everything the kitchen has to fry, but I decided to put my reservations (and my love of alliteration) to one side and give it a try one weekend lunchtime.

Inside, the chillers are packed full of options – sushi and sashimi on the left and salads on the right (although many of the salads are in fact on a bed of sushi rice, which in some cases can make your dish look more like maki that couldn’t be bothered to get dressed). There’s also a range of hot noodle and rice dishes which you pick up at the counter. I decided to order a little of everything – in the interests of balance, naturally – so I headed up the stairs with a heavy tray and a growing sense of excitement.

Now, before I get on to the food I’m afraid I need to wax lyrical about the view from upstairs, so feel free to skip this paragraph. It really is a gorgeous spot up there, full of tastefully done long tables with stools, USB charging points – which could come in handy if you plan to be on your iPhone for longer than, I don’t know, fifteen minutes – and most importantly a gorgeous first floor view out across town through the lovely floor to ceiling windows. In one direction you get to look up Queen Victoria Street, a symphony in Victorian red brick only equalled by the Town Hall, in the other you get to gaze out on John Lewis, one of Reading’s most handsome and iconic buildings. You can even make out, behind some of the façade, the word “HEELAS” in block capitals on the front of the building, a little detail for those of us who still think of it that way. It made me realise how few restaurants in Reading give you a view to go with your food, unless you happen to be a fan of Ed’s Diner (is anyone, I wonder?).

That architectural diversion aside, let’s start with the good news: the chicken teriyaki potsu (Itsu’s slightly twee way of saying it comes in a cardboard pot) was truly splendid. Lots of slices of tender thigh meat, so much more interesting than breast, sat on top of a big pile of brown rice, itself so much more interesting than white rice. Interesting is the right word in general, because it managed that rare trick of making sure there simply wasn’t a dull forkful – so much going on in the rice, with beans and petit pois adding a bit of crunch, leek for sweetness and little ribbons of piquant ginger running through the whole lot.

At first I thought the dish looked a little dry and that I might need to top up with the sauce bottles at the table, but digging deeper I got to the liquor, a wonderful sweet-salty mixture of teriyaki and broth that made every mouthful magnificent. If I was being critical it was warm rather than hot, but even having said that I could happily eat this every week for a year and never get bored. At little over a fiver it felt fairly priced for lunch and keenly priced for a light dinner, too.


The sushi was less successful. An assorted pack of small maki – seven each of salmon and avocado – felt a bit clammy, claggy and unremarkable. I didn’t mind them, and at about four pounds fifty they clocked in very reasonably compared to Yo!, but they were difficult to get excited about (a shame, because I adore avocado maki). I nearly didn’t order them because I wasn’t sure how much they would tell me about the kitchen’s skills but as it turned out they were badly rolled, with most of the maki having gaps where the seaweed didn’t form a complete circle.


Prices in general are quite variable at Itsu, so although these were fairly competitive the sashimi and some of the bigger maki are priced outside the territory of a light lunch on the run. One of the salads I considered buying – a piece of rare salmon, some leaves and some dressing – was just shy of eight pounds, and I’m really not sure who out there is going to buy an eight pound salad from Itsu.

The other dish I ordered, to cover all bases, was vegetable dumplings on a bed of sushi rice. I quite liked the dumplings but quite liked is probably as far as it goes. They’d been steamed and then chilled, giving the outside a texture just the right side of cardboard, but the filling was decent enough. They were sprinkled with something that looked and tasted like togarashi which gave them a bit of oomph and the wee pot of teriyaki sauce on the side added savoury depth to the proceedings. It didn’t quite disguise that texture, but it did make them feel a bit less like a health food.

They came on a bed of rice, a thick layer of carbohydrates which didn’t remotely go and felt like hard work towards the end. You pay a quid extra to have this edible plate, and with hindsight I don’t think it was worth it. I did find myself thinking about Sapana Home, a hundred yards yet a whole world away, where you get a huge plate of freshly-assembled, freshly-cooked momo for only six pounds. I also worried about how many people would never discover Sapana Home because they never looked past Itsu’s snazzy exterior.


I couldn’t quite bring myself to order a “raw smoothie” for just under a fiver (perhaps I’m not cut out for this whole healthy eating caper, because I just found myself thinking I could get a pint of cider and a packet of Scampi Fries in the Allied for that), so instead we went for a couple of drinks from the fridge. Coconut and lime pressé, which isn’t made by Itsu, was light and refreshing, although I got more lime than coconut. The carrot and ginger juice drink (also known as “Detox iii”: what a horror movie that would be), which is made by Itsu, was pretty grim. I was expecting something like the terrific carrot and ginger juice you can get at Bill’s but this was a nasty, thin, watery pastiche of proper juice. Looking at the label I got a vague idea why: water was the single biggest ingredient in it. It also contained a mysterious substance described only as “Thorncroft detox cordial”, which sounds about as enjoyable as an hour stuck in a lift with Gwyneth Paltrow.

That sums up my problem with Itsu, because it doesn’t make healthy eating as fun as the happy-clappy blurb on the website and the pictures of people enjoying volleyball outside the shop suggest it will be. The staff are lovely, and my hot chicken teriyaki dish was beautiful – if I went back, it would be for more of that – but still something about the place jarred with me. Even the cans of Coke in the fridge are a mingey 250ml rather than the standard issue 330ml (drink them if you absolutely must seems to be the message). The meal for two, three dishes and two drinks, came to just over eighteen pounds, which feels like a lot for what we had, especially when you think how much of it was just rice. Also, I’m just not sure when I would eat here rather than spend less and go to a café or spend more and go to a restaurant. I have no doubt that Itsu will do extremely well – the crowds already suggest I’ve got this one completely wrong – but it left me really fancying a KitKat Chunky. Or some Frazzles. Or a chip butty. Something tells me that wasn’t their intention.

Itsu – 6.6
31 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY
0118 4020979


The Square, Henley


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I like to think, by now, that I’ve got a pretty good idea what people are interested in reading about on ER. You love a hatchet job, you want to hear about restaurants and cafés in the centre of Reading and, perhaps more than anything, you like the discoveries: places you’ve never heard of or would never have considered going to which get good reviews. You’re not so fussed about places that are too far away and you don’t much like wishy-washy reviews where I like somewhere but don’t love it. Am I close?

So, with all that in mind I headed off to Henley (bad) to review somewhere that I was hoping would be a bit of a find (good). Well, to spoil the ending for those of you who don’t scroll down and back up again, it wasn’t a find. But don’t worry, because it was so bafflingly bad that you might stick around anyway to read the rest of the review (good for you, regrettably bad for me).

I almost went to The Square a few months back on my last visit to Henley, but the blinds were ominously drawn. At the time, I worried that it had closed down and I’d missed my chance to try out this attractive looking Portuguese place in a prime location on the market square. It later transpired that I’d worried unduly (they’re just closed on Tuesdays). I took that to be a good sign, signifying that they were doing well enough to give the staff a day off. More fool me: sadly when I went back this time, it was open.

Inside it wasn’t exactly busy – four other tables were occupied when we turned up on Saturday night, peak time for any restaurant. That probably should have rung some alarm bells, as should the fact that when I phoned to book a table at very short notice the chap on the other end of the phone didn’t even need to take a name. I must have been having an off night, because I sat down, Spidey senses resolutely tingle-free. Perhaps I was deceived by the surroundings: it’s actually quite a nice dining room, with dark wood tables and floor, the walls hung with fishing nets filled with shells, sea-themed pictures around the room. That makes it sound like Old Gregg’s boudoir, but in reality it was more rustic fisherman chic.

The menu was bewilderingly big, with large sections for fish, seafood and meat dishes. Again, I took encouragement from one of the waiters coming out with a good-looking platter of fresh fish and shellfish to show what was on offer. There was also a section of speciality dishes for a minimum of two people to share, all described as “rice pots”. I asked one of the waiters to tell me a bit more about those and even now I’m struggling to remember what he told me (a combination of his mumbling and the vagueness of his response). They sounded a bit like paella, and he particularly recommended the lobster version (“we put a lot in”, he said), so in the end we went for that. We were told this would take thirty-five minutes to cook, so he practically sprinted to the kitchen to tell them before coming back to take the rest of our order. Maybe, with hindsight, he was worried that we might change our mind.

We ordered some bread with sardine and tuna paté to tide us over and this is where it all started to go wrong. I don’t normally photograph the bread, but here I just had to. I was expecting a basket of crusty bread with a couple of small ramekins of paté. What arrived was seven anaemic slices of what looked like part-baked supermarket baguette with some catering packs of butter and paté. The “paté” was Portugal’s answer to Shippam’s (something I’ve not eaten since about 1985), smooth to the point of being unidentifiable. In fairness, even if it wasn’t pleasant I suppose it was authentic: it’s almost exactly what I was served at O Beirão, Reading’s Portuguese restaurant. But there it was free, and here I was paying three pounds for the dubious privilege.

What The Square also seemed to miss was that the bread was completely insufficient for the spreads it came with. I would have minded the three quid less if I could actually have eaten it all but there was so little bread that doing so was impossible without piling the paté ludicrously high. I just hope the restaurant has a cat who could make use of the leftovers. Not terribly appealing: I prayed that the starters were going to be an improvement.


They weren’t. First up was the chouriço assado, described as “flame grilled Portuguese sausage, served in traditional cookware”. I was hoping for something a bit like Spanish chorizo cooked in wine, all salty and coarse with those delicious brick-red juices at the bottom. I was very far from correct. What I got instead was simply awful: a gigantic horseshoe of chorizo, served on a pot in the shape of a rowboat which is quite hard to describe. It sort of rested on the “seat” with some liquid underneath – I dread to think what – which had been set alight to flambée the sausage (flambée the sausage, come to think of it, sounds like a euphemism for something unspeakable) just before it reached the table.

The outside was slightly charred in places but the real problems came when I cut into it. Not that that was easy, because it was served on a flipping boat shaped pot with no suitable surfaces on which to do the deed. I sawed away (trying to rest the sausage on the seat) and chewed a couple of slices for a few minutes, although it felt like longer. It was both grisly and gristly. I inflicted a slice on my companion, who unsurprisingly didn’t thank me for it. The next slice was almost entirely a big white globule of fat and that, I’m sorry to say, is where I gave up. All the metaphors I could use to describe this dish would remind you – very quickly – of whatever you ate last, so let’s leave it at that. I put down my knife and fork and waited to see if anyone came to check on us. They didn’t.


The other dish was king prawns wrapped in Portuguese bacon and pan fried. It was four decent sized prawns cooked nicely and indeed wrapped in bacon. The heads and tails came off cleanly and the prawns tasted of their component parts, no more, no less. There were also a couple of needless sections of red, green and yellow pepper. This wasn’t bad by comparison with the chouriço, but you could say the same about a Fray Bentos. I was hoping for some juices, but there weren’t any. I didn’t mop-up the non-existent juices with the remaining bread they hadn’t given me.


The waiter returned to clear the plates and looked baffled by the almost entirely uneaten sausage. I tried to explain what I hadn’t liked about it. Doing so briefly was something of a challenge. He shrugged. I was worried that I hadn’t explained properly, so I had another go. More shrugging. The plate was taken away, with no apology or offer to take it off the bill or anything else. Then he asked whether I wanted to order something else, but with no indication as to whether I’d be paying for that or not. We then reached a consensus that, as the main course was quite big, I probably wouldn’t need a starter. The whole thing was a truly bizarre interchange. It was rendered even more bizarre by him asking if we wanted to keep our half-finished tubs of tuna and sardine paté: as there was no bread left I’m not sure what he thought we were going to do with them.

On to the main event then – the lobster rice pot, at forty-five pounds for two one of the priciest things on the menu. We were brought lobster crackers and those little picky-outy-lobster-bit tools (apologies for blinding you with technical terms) and I realised that I had naively expected the kitchen to do some of the hard work for us. My mistake, I suppose. Anyway, the large pot was brought to the table and the waiter ladled out a portion for each of us.

The lobster, admittedly, was good. Very fresh and, when it was eventually possible to pick up the shell (which was as hot as Hades, of course), generally the flesh came away very easily. The meat was tender and delicate and it did look to me like we had a whole lobster between us. That’s where the good news ends. The rice, fluffy long grain, had been cooked for too long so there was no bite there. The sauce was a generic stock with some coriander to try and give it a bit of freshness.


I’m beginning to sympathise with the trouble the waiter had describing it, but I suppose he could hardly have said “it’s a very bland rice dish with some lobster in it”. I can though, because that’s what it was. Was it a forty-five pound dish? Put it this way – at the peerless Bird In Hand in Sonning Common I could have a whole lobster to myself for twenty-seven pounds, so to pay roughly the same for half a (not very big) lobster and some flavourless rice seems cynical. If this is a signature dish, you have to worry about the restaurant’s handwriting.

To drink we had an Appletiser (for the driver) and a very nice smoky glass of Portuguese red. If the restaurant had been good I would have regretted not being able to mount a concerted assault on the wine list. If it had been good we would have had a dessert and I would have wanted a port – a lovely rich vintage, or a sweet, subtle tawny. As it was, much as the meal could only have been improved with alcohol, I was glad we could cut our losses and leave.

As so often, the moment I started to actively dislike the food the waiter tried a little harder to be nice. In the early stages he seemed to struggle to communicate, whether that was describing the menu or explaining what we could do about The Dismal Sausage. After that he was a lot more attentive, asking whether everything was okay with the main course, whether we needed any more drinks, whether we wanted dessert and so on. But of course the damage was done by then – and most of the damage was done in the kitchen rather than front of house. Proof that their intentions were better than their delivery came when the bill arrived; dinner for two came to sixty three pounds (the chouriço had been taken off).

So there you have it: this week I went out of town to a restaurant which I hoped would be a find and turned out to be a disaster. And this is definitely not about Portuguese food, which is probably what frustrates me the most. Portuguese cuisine deserves a better ambassador than The Square: Lisbon is an absolutely incredible city full of great cured meat, fantastic fish and seafood, and magnificent cheeses, not to mention the stunning wine. Having been there I don’t understand why it doesn’t have as good a culinary reputation as any European capital. I can only imagine it’s because of places like The Square. I want to be kind, but everything I ate was either iffy or average. Every average thing I ate was expensive. And worst of all? I’ve just spent two thousand words telling you not to go somewhere you’ve never heard of and wouldn’t visit anyway. That sticks in my throat even more than the chouriço did.

The Square – 4.9
10 Market Place, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 2AH
01491 578681




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Although a lot of people complain about the proliferation of coffee shops in the centre of town, for me the biggest growth has been in places to lunch. In the old days your choice was between Picnic, Pret and Workhouse but now there are a plethora of options, from Shed to My Kitchen, from Artigiano to Manhattan Coffee Club, with new ones seemingly opening every month.

So far so coffee, but two of the most recent arrivals, Itsu and Wolf, are more centred around food and have sprung up near John Lewis (the closest thing Reading has to a cathedral), changing the balance of town slightly and drawing footfall slightly away from the Oracle. Both have been on my list for a while, but Wolf gets the nod this week because it’s slightly better established, and I wanted to give Itsu a little longer to settle in. Besides, Itsu is a well-known chain (admittedly in London), whereas Wolf is a much smaller affair, with two branches in Reading and – rather randomly – another couple in Chiswick and Leeds.

I was a bit sniffy about the prospect of “Italian Street Food”, which is apparently what Wolf offers, mainly because I wasn’t convinced it existed. But in fairness, I’ve never been to Italy so I did a bit of research and it seems that there is indeed such a thing – paper cones full of fried seafood, meat on skewers, stuffed fried olives, arancini, delicious fatty porchetta packed into bread. A quick Google and I’d gone from zero to ravenous in about two minutes.

So far so good, but there’s a catch: standing outside Wolf, I had a quick look at their menu and it bore no relation to anything I’d seen, to the extent that I’m not sure whoever designed the menu had ever been to Italy either. Going inside, the concept was explained to me by one of the people behind the counter: first you decide whether you want bread, piada (a wrap not unlike a tortilla), pasta or salad. Then you pick some protein or vegetables to put in it. Then you pick a sauce, and finally you select a few toppings, from salad, olives, cheese and various other antipastoid options.

I’m going to run out of positive things to say very quickly in this review, I’m afraid (right after I point out that the staff were very friendly, I suspect) and this concept felt very much like it had been appropriated from elsewhere. You pick your options as you move down the counter, being served by a different person at each stage, in an assembly line which feels very familiar to anyone who’s ever been to Mission Burrito. You choose what to go in what is fundamentally a sandwich, just as you would at Pierre’s or Shed. Then they wrap it up in foil and put it in a bag for you, which is reminiscent of Five Guys. The feeling of disappointment and being underwhelmed, though, might be unique to Wolf.

So my sandwich was lemon and garlic chicken, in a big cheese-topped bap which was described on the menu as focaccia but was nothing of the kind. Also inside were an inoffensive tomato sauce, some sundried tomatoes, some artichoke hearts and some rocket. The bap was too big and floppy to eat tidily, but there wasn’t quite enough chicken to fill it. Everything tasted pleasant enough but impossible to get excited about. I half expected the chicken to be hot, but it wasn’t – the only warmth came from the split second the bap had spent on a hot plate, not enough time to give it any toasted texture or any real interest. All that for a fiver, and the only concession to street food was that they didn’t bother to give you a plate.


In the interests of trying all aspects of the menu I also ordered one of the eleven inch stone-baked pizzas. I was expecting (perhaps a little too optimistically) a thin, hand stretched pizza dough with a sprinkling of fresh-looking toppings – in this case sun dried tomato, red onion, olives and feta. What I got was a thick based pizza (perhaps not quite as pillowy as the sort that gets delivered by moped) with mostly mozzarella on it. Lots and lots of mozzarella. There was enough tomato sauce to identify it, a few flecks of feta cheese and rather more black olives (that looked like rubber washers from a tin) than I was expecting. If I’d been ravenously hungry or, perhaps, drunk, this might have been right up my alley. Instead it felt like way too many calories for not enough flavour. Except salt. All that cheese made it extremely salty. I left half of it and I wish I had left more. Again, no plate.


I haven’t talked about the room, something I normally do earlier on in the review. That might be because it’s not very nice. It’s another long, thin space – barely wider than a corridor – with tables along one side, big mirrors on the opposite wall and no natural light. The tables outside (yes, with yet more Tolix chairs) are nicer, but even in an Eames lounger this food would taste pretty ordinary. One sandwich, one pizza and two cans of San Pellegrino fizzy drinks – with plastic cups, no glasses either – came to just under fourteen pounds.

I’m sorry that I can’t be more positive about Wolf, but the best I can say is that the food isn’t unpleasant. Normally the lack of authenticity wouldn’t bother me, but it does here because it feels like Wolf is a Frankenstein’s monster, an attempt to patch together a bunch of food trends to try and make money out of diners. There are better pizzas all across Reading (although they do cost more than six pounds fifty) and better – and cheaper – sandwiches anywhere you care to name.

Maybe you’re paying for the choice, but I found standing at the counter that I didn’t want all that choice. I wanted a small range of good, classic flavour combinations rather than the gastronomic equivalent of the numbers round in Countdown. I used to love eating at Fasta Pasta in Oxford’s Covered Market, where you could get big, fluffy ciabatta studded with olives or sundried tomatoes, filled with fresh discs of mozzarella, salty, intense pesto and top notch Parma ham which had been sliced there and then in front of your very eyes. Authentic, classic, delicious: compared to that, Wolf is about as Italian as Captain Bertorelli eating a Cornetto on Clacton Pier. It’s not street food, just pedestrian.

Wolf – 5.6
94 Broad Street, RG1 2AP
0118 9598179


The Fisherman’s Cottage


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The Fisherman’s Cottage really is a lovely pub – so much so, in fact, that one of the biggest dangers of reviewing it as a place to eat was the risk that I’d let its obvious charms as a pub cloud my judgment. The family who own it did a splendid job of doing it up prior to opening last December and the building (Grade 2 listed, apparently) really stands out on the canalside. With the beautiful white front, big conservatory and chi-chi beach huts out the back, it feels like it belongs somewhere swanky by the Thames, not a stone’s throw from Orts Road.

I went, believe it or not, because the blurb on their website really struck a chord with me. They have a little kitchen, it said, and they aim to keep things simple and do things well. They don’t want to be a restaurant or a gastropub, they’re happy being a pub that does some popular classics. I think that’s an admirable goal, and I wanted to see whether they achieved it; so many restaurants feel like they’re trying to do everything at once, or they simply don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. And that’s crucial, especially for new restaurants, because if they don’t get that right, some of them don’t get to grow up at all.

Inside, it’s equally tastefully done and nicely broken up into sections. There’s a lovely snug off to the left and the conservatory (tastefully lit with a very “now” array of suspended bulbs) off to the right, a clever mix of high tables with stools and low tables with chairs, some for drinking and some for eating. Nothing quite matches but everything looks very well put together and nicely judged. The area out the back really is attractive – I feel sad for them that they haven’t had a good enough summer to make the most of it – although the recurring whiff of fag smoke from outside every time the conservatory door was open did put a slight crimp in proceedings.

It’s not as small a menu as you might think, but it does stay very much on safe and familiar ground. There are about ten starters, a few sharing platters and a set of mains which revolve around burgers, fish and chips, gammon and scampi. The previous landlord of the Fisherman’s Cottage flirted with doing Thai food and the new owners have continued that tradition, so there’s also a small selection of Thai mains – red curry, green curry and massaman lamb. The menu isn’t available online and, in truth, there’s nothing about it that would make you desperate to try it. But I still had that blurb in the back of my mind: there’s nothing wrong with doing the classics well.

I nearly didn’t have a starter, because the options – breaded garlic mushrooms, breaded mozzarella sticks, plaice goujons and the like – all felt a tad Iceland. But I relented and ordered the garlic bread and, when it came, I was pleasantly surprised. It was nothing fancy or posh, but was clearly home-made – cheese on toasted baguette with the agricultural honk of shedloads of garlic. There was plenty of it for three pounds, too (just as well, because if you didn’t share it with friends they wouldn’t fancy sitting downwind of you for long).


I decided to try both halves of the menu for the main courses. Red Thai chicken curry was enormous – a gigantic bowl of the stuff served with prawn crackers and plain boiled rice. You couldn’t quibble the portion size and there was plenty to enjoy: tender, well-cooked chicken, a sauce with the right mix of heat and sweetness, lovely soft shallots, crunchy strips of carrot and big, crude chunks of courgette. Again it felt like home-made food worth paying money for, but what stopped it going from good to great was the aubergine – so much of it, possibly a whole aubergine in fact, big cubes of watery aubergine with a faint taste of cold tea. By the end, looking ruefully at the makeshift cairn of aubergine left in the bowl, I wished they’d given me a slightly smaller, better balanced dish.


The fish and chips was surprisingly good. The fish was a good size, big but not daunting. Not only that, but the batter was truly excellent; nicely crisp, lots of crunch and super light, among the best pub fish I can recall eating in Reading. The chips were decent if not stellar (crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside but very regularly shaped – everyone knows the best bit of a bag of chips is the crunchy shrapnel at the end) but when dipped in the peas or a squirt of mayonnaise they were exactly what I wanted. The peas were rather runny – not your gastropub “crushed” pea affair – but nicely minty and fresh tasting. More than anything else I had, this fitted with what I’d read on the website – no showing off, just a straightforward dish done properly.


Service was friendly and enthusiastic – the bar staff were full of recommendations about what was good from the menu and clearly proud of the pub and their food. Drinks very much lived up to the ethos that this is a pub, not a restaurant or a gastropub: lots of ale on tap and a very palatable Orchard Pig cider on draft which I liked a lot. The wine wasn’t so successful – the reds were mid-level supermarket stuff (Wolf Blass, Casillero del Diablo and the like). It was nice enough, and so was the New Zealand sauvignon blanc, but none of it had any element of surprise. I know, I know, it’s a pub: and yet the beautiful, high-quality wineglasses felt like they should be filled with something slightly more special. Dinner for two – one starter, two mains (which were each a tenner) and a couple of drinks each came to just under forty pounds.

As I said at the start, the Fisherman’s Cottage is a cracking pub. I can imagine you’d have a very good time if you wandered down the canal from town one sunny evening and stopped there for a few pints and a chat with friends, especially if they have jazz in the conservatory, or if the weather’s nice and you manage to grab one of those beach huts. And if you happened to be there and you happened to order some food I’m pretty sure you’d have a pleasant meal.

I wouldn’t make a pilgrimage to eat there, but perhaps that misses the point. Because it turns out you can’t divorce the place to eat from the pub: it’s all part of what the owners are trying to do. They said it themselves – the Fisherman’s Cottage isn’t a gastropub, it isn’t a restaurant, it’s just a really good pub that does good honest food. I think New Town’s very fortunate to have it (especially when you consider the main alternative, the disappointing Abbot Cook). So no, the Fisherman’s Cottage isn’t trying to be something it’s not, and it knows exactly what it wants to be when it grows up. In its quiet, only-slightly-ambitious way, I think it succeeds.

The Fisherman’s Cottage – 7.0
Canal Way, Newtown, RG1 3HJ
0118 9560432



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