The Abbot Cook

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The Abbot Cook is another of those pubs that falls into my “lovely old boozer” category. Since the end of its days as a tired student pub it’s been stripped back and refreshed to capture that shabby chic look that so many places have these days. At the Abbot Cook, though, it really works with the parquet wooden floors, fireplaces and sash windows. On a midweek night it’s busy enough to be buzzy but the music is still muted enough that you can have a conversation without yelling (yes, I know I sound old: I’m okay with that). The long bar offers plenty of decent draught beers plus just enough wines by the glass to make the choice a challenge. So the stage is set for a good performance. Right?

The first act didn’t come off too well. We picked a couple of conventional-sounding starters and shared because we couldn’t decide. The “roast chicken Caesar salad with croutons, anchovies and house Caesar dressing” was decent enough, if small, but crucially the anchovies were missing. I know a lot of people don’t love an anchovy but I think they’re an essential part of a Caesar salad, that salty tang that balances out the creamy dressing and makes ordering a salad worthwhile rather than just worthy. The rest of it was going through the motions, really, a handful of croutons, some decent roast chicken (cold, sadly, but you can’t have everything) and generous amounts of parmesan. But, in truth, all I really noticed was the anchovies that weren’t there.

Caesar

The salt and pepper squid with lime mayonnaise also disappointed. It was hard to tell if the squid was fresh because it had been cooked to the point of brittle crunchiness. The lime in the mayonnaise was presumably in the same place as the anchovies, and the mayonnaise itself was suspiciously white and thin and tasted of not much. The little pile of pub salad on the end of the plate wasn’t dressed and seemed a little sad, as if it were just trying to make the plate look fuller. I’m not sure that this was any better than the sad excuse for calamari that was served up by the ill-fated Lobster Room; at least that was identifiably squid.

Squid
We picked mains from the specials board just because they sounded a bit more exciting than the meals on their normal menu (which is the usual array: lots of different kinds of burgers, fish and chips, fishcakes).

The “pan fried Atlantic cod supreme with bacon, spinach and puy lentils” was a good example of how to ruin a lovely piece of fish. The cod itself was fantastic – cooked just right and falling into big, thick flakes (I would have liked a crispier skin, but it was a minor detail). The rest of the dish let it down terribly: there was bacon, but not the small crispy smoky pieces which would have worked well. Instead, you got huge undercooked floppy slabs of the stuff. There were lentils and spinach, yes, but what the specials board neglected to say was that there was cream – a lot of cream. Not a cream sauce, just cream. A lake of unseasoned cream, in fact: my mouth felt coated with the stuff for hours afterwards.

Cod

The “chicken breast and Cornish brie in bacon, baby potatoes and red wine mustard sauce” was at least evidence that someone in the kitchen could cook. The stuffed chicken breast had a layer of sun dried tomatoes tucked into the brie through the middle and the bacon, this time, was cooked just right so that there were no rubbery strings. The potatoes had been pan-fried so that some of them were a little browned then a layer of steamed kale added before the whole lot was doused in a rich, creamy wholegrain mustard sauce. I didn’t get much in the way of red wine in there but it would have been overwhelmed by the mustard anyway. This is the sort of dish I would never cook at home because of the overwhelming calorie count: as a pub dish it was enjoyable, even if I was facing potato-geddon by attempting to finish it (I didn’t, but it was a close call).

Chicken

We took advantage of the wide range of drinks and tried lots of different things, reinforcing my view that the Abbot Cook was a much better pub than it was a restaurant. A pint of Blue Moon was spot on – subtle and refreshing with a suitably metrosexual slice of orange sticking out of the rim. The Sangiovese (is it me, or is this a wine that has fallen out of fashion? I haven’t noticed it on a menu for a while) was nice for starters but was bettered by the much cheaper South African Chenin Blanc I followed it up with; crisp and fresh but not too dry (I prefer my whites on the off-dry side, although I like to think I stop well short of Blue Nun).

I didn’t have high hopes for dessert after all that, so we hedged our bets and shared a salted caramel and chocolate tart. Again, the menu was being a bit economical with the truth: the base was crushed biscuit rather than pastry so I’d say it was a cheesecake rather than a tart. The caramel taste wasn’t particularly strong but the top was scattered with coarse salt crystals which worked really well with the dark chocolate ganache. The website for the Abbot Cook doesn’t say if the desserts are home-made or not. I’d love to be wrong, but I suspect it’s the latter and the plate is just dressed with that irritating zig zag of out-of-a-squeezy-bottle chocolate sauce to make it look otherwise. It’s a shame that one of the nicest things I had that evening probably had the least to do with the kitchen.

The service doesn’t quite compare to other restaurants because there is no table service. Staff at the bar were always really friendly and clearly happy to chat to customers, but service at the table was a bit more lackadaisical with the waiter, if you’d call him that, checking up on us quite late into each dish while calling us “guys” or, even worse, “friend”. I wonder if he thought he was in Hoxton or Brick Lane rather than Cemetery Junction: still, he was very smiley.

In all the bill came to sixty pounds for two starters, two mains, one dessert and four drinks; indifferent food representing indifferent value for money.

The Abbot Cook is another example of that sad genre I see an awful lot of: an attractive pub doing unremarkable food. It’s such a handsome place, in an area which is short of nice places to drink, but I struggle to think of it as a destination for food in its own right. I guess the food is good enough to eat there if pressed by a friend, but no more than that. It’s a real shame: the interior deserves better, and I remember when it first opened that it really seemed to have some culinary aspirations (although, in fairness, they are currently running monthly events matching food with beer which suggest a bit more ambition). These days the menu seems to be more about burgers and fried chicken which is aimed more at the student clientele of their previous incarnation. As one of the few pubs in Reading that has a decent garden (albeit on the sometimes very busy London Road) I know I’ll be back there for a summertime drink, but I’m no hurry to eat there again. Not until they sort their act out.

The Abbot Cook – 6.0
153 London Road, RG1 5DE
0118 9354095

http://www.theabbotcookreading.co.uk/

Dolce Vita

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I don’t know how you approach a restaurant review, as a reader, but before I started this blog the first thing I did was check whether I knew the place being reviewed. If I didn’t, the whole process was a voyage of discovery, reading the review thinking Does it sound like my kind of thing? Could I get there? Would I want to? But when I’d already been to the restaurant in question it was a very different test involving a different set of questions which all boil down to one: Do you agree with me? And, of course, we all judge on that basis. I like people who like the things I like, just like everybody else.

This is especially the case when the reviewer has gone to a place you really like, one of your favourite places. Then you feel protective and read the review thinking I hope the restaurant don’t have an off night, or even The reviewer had better not pick on it. One of the things really successful restaurants do is make customers into loyal customers, and make those loyal customers feel like part of a club. At its best, it’s a tribal thing: look at the incredible loyalty inspired by Mya Lacarte, or Tutti Frutti.

Dolce Vita, I think, is another of those places. I’ve had a lot of people telling me I should go there – enthusing about the food and the service, saying that they return again and again. So, if you’re one of those loyal customers, reading this and preparing to bristle protectively on Dolce Vita’s behalf, you can relax: I really liked it.

Of course, you might approach restaurant reviews by going straight to the end and reading the rating first, in which case you already know that and are waiting for me to get on with it (I understand: I ruin some novels that way too).

Despite knowing Dolce Vita by reputation I’ve rarely gone there. It’s another restaurant that feels like it’s always been there, in Kings Walk, perched on that ledge above the outer reaches of the Oracle looking out over all the changes that have happened over the years (personally, I’ve tried to erase all memory of Brannigan’s, with its chilling boasts of “cavorting”). Yet it’s never really crossed my mind when deciding where to eat, because I just couldn’t remember if it was any good; a strange type of amnesia I don’t get about many places in Reading.

The dining room’s big, a long rectangular airy space with lots of light from the skylight and the patio doors leading out onto the balcony. I can imagine that, if the sun ever comes out for long enough, the balcony would be a lovely place to drink rose and eat summery food but there was no chance of that on this visit: it was wet and windy so we grabbed a table by the window and looked out at the rain-spattered furniture, daydreaming about what might have been. Speaking of furniture, this isn’t something most restaurant reviews talk about (maybe with good reason) but Dolce Vita has some of the most handsome dining furniture in Reading: solid oak chairs and tables that make some of the wobbly painted tables in otherwise good restaurants seem rather cheap.

The menu is huge, and makes no pretence at being anything else. You are handed a sheet of A3 and left to wonder how a kitchen can do all of those dishes well. It also feels like a mismatch – there are pizzas and pasta, unsurprisingly, but also several Thai dishes, a couple of Greek dishes (which may have found a home here after Kyklos, Dolce Vita’s sister restaurant closed down in January) and, randomly, a Scotch egg. This all gave me misgivings but I decided to stick to Italian and hope for the best.

The burrata suggested I’d done the right thing. It always looks like a little bag of treasure to me and so it proved, creamy and fresh, well matched by the grilled peppers and aubergines. The whole thing was brought together with a very nice tomato, chilli and mint sauce and worked very well. I did find myself wishing, though, that the vegetables had been freshly grilled and still warm rather than chilled. It was a nice dish, but didn’t involve much in the way of cooking.

BurrataThe antipasti was a very similar story, a great assortment of salami, pleasingly dry and savoury Parma ham, coppa and mortadella, along with some mozzarella, sundried tomato and two dips, an aioli with a hint of citrus and a very good tzatziki (oh, and some baguette – Did I forget to mention the baguette?) If that makes it sound like a lot of food that’s because it was. In hindsight, for a tenner, it was probably meant to serve two although the menu didn’t make that clear – none the less it was excellent stuff.

AnitpastiThe mains were nicely timed, turning up just at the point when I was ready. The Milan pizza – mozzarella, Italian sausage, wild mushrooms, caramelised onions, fontina and Grana Padano – was recommended by the waitress which made the selection process that bit easier. It makes such a difference going to a restaurant where the staff know what their dishes are and are prepared to state a preference, and that was pretty symptomatic of the excellent service in Dolce Vita in general (I also got great recommendations for wine and, later, for dessert). The pizza base was close to perfect – thin enough to be crisp but with enough thickness to have some flavour of its own and not just feel like transport for cheese and tomato. The Italian sausage was excellent, coarse and herby almost to the point of being fragrant and I loved the caramelised onion with the cheeses. For my taste I thought there were too many mushrooms but that’s probably just me.

PizzaIf the pizza was good, the veal saltimbocca was great. It was a generous portion of veal, three good-sized pieces, wrapped in Parma ham and perfectly done. The sauce promised Marsala but I didn’t get any of that, just lemon, white wine and lashings of sage: perfection. In any case, Marsala would have made the whole thing too sweet. Similarly, the truffled mash turned up without a hint of truffle and again, I didn’t mind. Too many flavours would have made the dish a mess, instead of the simple classic I got. The French beans, however, did turn up buttered as promised: a lovely contrast to many restaurants, even good ones, that dish up bland and naked vegetables. All that was seventeen pounds – not cheap, but I’ve spent that much on many worse dishes in Reading.

Saltimbocca

The wine, also recommended by the waitress, was a bottle of Montepulciano. I’m no oenophile, which is pretty obvious from my reviews, but I like to kid myself that I got plummy red fruit and a touch of black pepper. Even if I’m wrong, it was dangerously drinkable at just under eighteen pounds (and again, hats off to the waitress for recommending one of their cheapest reds: no sneaky upselling here).

Considering I visited on a weeknight, the restaurant was surprisingly full and buzzy with a real mixture of groups – dates and birthday parties and business dinners, all equally at home. I also heard some Italian being spoken at one table which I took to be a good sign. The service was just excellent all evening, which is something I’ve always heard about Dolce Vita; I felt like I got five star treatment but watching other diners and seeing the easy way the serving staff chatted to them all, it was obvious that everyone else was getting it too.

When you’re having an evening that pleasant it’s a shame to leave without having dessert, so we gave the kitchen another chance to impress. The caramel and Baileys bread and butter pudding (again, recommended by the waitress) was divine. Rich and sticky, studded with sultanas and served with a light vanilla custard, it was a trademark example of those upmarket school dinner puddings I’m so partial to. I couldn’t detect the Baileys and the caramel notes, if they were truly there, were subtle to a fault but even so it was a great way to end the meal. Well, that and a small glass of sweet, fresh Sauternes. The other dessert – Dolce Vita’s hazelnut praline tiramisu – might be my favourite tiramisu in Reading, and I’ve tried a lot. A nice firm slab of indulgence, not too big, with a little layer of crunchy praline hidden inside like a bonus feature. Almost unimprovable (although I did have a go by pairing it with a glass of vin santo).

The total bill for two, for three courses, a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses of dessert wine was ninety pounds – not cheap (although we did have a lot of food) but nothing felt like poor value. I think at least some of that is down to the service, which was up there with any town centre restaurant I’ve been to.

Like I said at the start, if you’re a fan of Dolce Vita you can relax – I had a great evening there. I still have misgivings about the frightening size of their menu (there was also a specials menu adding another set of bewildering options – including roast chicken pie – to the mix) and I’d probably stick to what I know they do well, but on the night I went they didn’t put a foot wrong, and they did it without any of the experience ever seeming mechanical. By the end, I found myself thinking that it would be so easy to come here on another evening later in the year, sit on that patio, soak up the last of the sunshine, have a few beers and a pizza and leave having spent less than twenty pounds. And if the summer ever comes, there’s a strong possibility that you’ll find me there one evening, doing exactly that.

Dolce Vita – 7.6
Kings Walk, RG1 2HL
0118 9510530

http://www.dolcevitareading.com/

The Eldon Arms

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This week, not for the first time, I found myself thinking about how different the restaurant scenes are in Reading and London.

For the last few years London has been obsessed with burgers (a fixation it’s only just starting to recover from now) but Reading has never quite been gripped by burger fever in the same way. There was a slight frisson of excitement when Five Guys opened, but now it’s just part of the furniture and not even particularly full when I’ve walked past. The only people who got into the swing were one of our local papers. For a while it was a running joke that whatever restaurant it reviewed, one of the diners would order a burger – whether it was in a pub, an Italian restaurant or a brasserie. If an Indian restaurant had put a burger on the menu I expect they would have ordered it there, too (can you even imagine what that would look and taste like? I shudder to think).

Personally, I’ve never understood the appeal: a burger is all well and good, but ultimately it’s just a burger. A glorified sandwich, and by and large, I get enough of those at lunchtime not to want another one in the evening. Also, I’ve never really understood why people would order a burger in a restaurant which offers so many other things. I’ve never looked at a menu and thought You know what? I think I’ll go for the burger today. When I’m in the mood for a burger, I know that before even leaving the house.

Anyway, all this is just preamble to the surprising fact that I went to the Eldon Arms and, without ever intending to, may have ordered the best burger in Reading.

I’d heard encouraging things about the food at the Eldon Arms and remembered thinking “Really?” It’s not somewhere that’s ever stood out in my mind, a little backstreet pub tucked behind Eldon Square, a slightly scruffy old man pub which never quite had the range of drinks or the eccentricity to compete with the Retreat, or the polish to match the Abbot Cook. But I was told that it was under new management and that the food was worth a visit, so I figured a wander across town was in order.

The pub looks good – recently redecorated, it’s all clean white walls, although the furniture is still the classic pub chairs and tables that were there before. There is a good range of real ales on draught along with a couple of real ciders if you prefer still and rustic to fizzy and cold. The menu is a small affair: burgers on one side, pizzas, wraps and sandwiches on the other. I’d heard stories about the food being made from scratch and about the chef going out to get extra chickpeas from the supermarket because he’d run out of falafel (to be honest, that’s the story that made me decide to try the Eldon Arms).

This won’t be a long review, because we both had burgers and chips. So I can’t tell you whether the wraps are good, or the chicken and chorizo pizza (although I’m tempted to go back and give it a whirl). I can’t even tell you whether the falafel merited that dash to the supermarket. But I can tell you about the burgers.

Although they’re not served pink they’re delicious all the same – a healthy size without being freakishly huge, clearly decent meat, properly seasoned, hand-made in appearance. Everything about them was good quality without being faddish: no over the top brioche, just a good firm bun strong enough to stand up to its contents with what looked like a little dusting of semolina flour on top. The cheese was grated mature cheddar – I expected not to enjoy this, being a devotee of the cheap plastic orange American slice, but actually that strong flavour worked very well with the beef. The iceberg was thinly sliced, crisp rather than limp translucent ribbons of window dressing. The onion rings, tucked under the lid, were outstanding – so huge I had to take them out and eat them separately. The batter was light and crispy without being greasy, and when you bit into the ring the rest of the onion stayed in place (so often not the case, sadly, with inferior onion rings). A cheeseburger cost six pounds, and felt like good value at that price.

The other burger was the same but with pulled pork added, which cost two pounds more. Pulled pork, like beefburgers, has become devalued by its increasing popularity. M&S does pulled pork sandwiches now, a cold claggy parody of really good pulled pork. Everywhere seems to serve it with burgers nowadays and often it’s an underwhelming piece of edible bandwagon jumping. But the pulled pork at the Eldon is the real deal – slow-cooked for twenty-four hours until it’s just a mass of sticky, savoury strands in that barbecue sauce, sweet but not cloying. The menu also has a pulled pork roll which skips the beef and cheese completely and concentrates on the star of the show (and when I go back, I think I might have it).

Eldon - burgerI could be critical and say that some relish or a few gherkins might have been nice, but that’s only a minor quibble with the benefit of hindsight. At the time I was eating, I can honestly say there wasn’t a single thing I’d change. And that doesn’t happen very often.

The chips also merit a mention as they are probably the best pub chips I can remember having in Reading. Chips have also been ruined by food fad after food fad: skin on, fat, skinny, “hand cut”, dusted in parmesan and covered in truffle oil like cheap perfume, chefs have put potatoes through all manner of terrible things in the name of dining trends. The Eldon just does really good chips that don’t need to sing and dance about how impressive they are: crispy where they should be, fluffy where they should be, salty and tasty and unbelievable value at two pounds for a bowl big enough to easily serve two. And I love the fact that the menu doesn’t feel the need to tell me whether they’re double cooked or triple cooked – because they’re well cooked, and that’s all I need to know. They also come with the pub’s home-made mayonnaise, which is to Hellman’s what The West Wing is to The Only Way Is Essex.

There’s no need here for the staff to overdo things but they are lovely all the same – friendly, welcoming and happy to chat. The food is served on chunky white plates with paper napkins and fuss free cutlery because this is, essentially, fuss free food, no messing about. It just happens to be bloody good fuss free food.

Two burgers, chips and a couple of pints came to twenty-four pounds, although the potential ongoing costs of returning to the Eldon Arms can’t be entirely ignored. So yes, it was just a sandwich. And yes, it’s a trend whose moment has passed, a culinary hurricane that almost missed Reading completely. Despite that, I loved this place. I said at the start of the review that I know I’m in the mood for a burger before I even leave the house, and that’s still true. But thanks to the Eldon Arms, that might be happening a lot more often – and, when it does, I know exactly where I’ll be going.

The Eldon Arms – 8.0
19 Eldon Terrace, RG1 4DX
0118 9573857

http://www.eldonarmsreading.co.uk/

Round-up: February and March

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Another bumper couple of months here at Edible Reading, so it seems like a good point to stop, take a breather and review what you may have missed, along with the latest selection of restaurant news. Are you sitting comfortably? Got a nice cup of tea to hand, or coffee if that’s your preference? Maybe a biscuit too, be it a Custard Cream or a Choco Leibniz? Excellent, then I’ll begin (but not without saying that, if it is a Choco Leibniz, you can colour me envious). Let’s start with a summary of the most recent reviews…

Thai Corner, 7.0 – One of Reading’s longest serving restaurants, Thai Corner is still plying a busy trade at the end of town which has never been that fashionable. Is it a timeless staple, or an anachronism running out of steam? I went to find out, and the review is here.

La Courbe, 7.3 – You’re eating from square plates on square glass tables, sitting on square dated furniture in a cold room with no soft furnishings, the door open most of the time and smoke coming from the open kitchen. How on earth did this place get a mark of 7.3? you might wonder. Click here to find out.

Cerise, 7.9 – Everyone knows Cerise is one of Reading’s best, fanciest, most expensive restaurants – and yet nobody seems to know anybody who has ever gone. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to find out if the hype was justified, and my verdict is here.

Côte, 7.8 – Why did I break my general rule and go review a chain restaurant? Are all chains bad, or all independent restaurants good? And where should you be heading for breading in Reading? These, and so many other questions, are inadequately answered here.

The Pack Horse, 5.1 – I suppose my run of good luck had to come to an end eventually and a rare jaunt out of Reading, down the road to Mapledurham, gave me the opportunity to write about bad tables, indifferent service, invisible hearing aids, the fight against wobbliness and meatballs in faggots’ clothing. Can a single review knit all that together? Check the review out here and let me know.

Mission Burrito, 6.7 – Reading’s fast food scene was always a straight out battle between burgers and KFC until Mission came along and offered something slightly different. Independent, small, friendly and offering something you can’t get elsewhere in Reading? Is there anything not to like? The review’s here.

So, on to the restaurant news (and don’t think I haven’t noticed you scoffing another biscuit – nothing escapes me, you know). First of all, Al Tarboush, the Lebanese restaurant opposite TGI Friday, has closed. It’s not clear why, but I heard mixed feedback in the aftermath on whether this was a terrible shame or no bad thing. It was on my list to review, and I’m a bit sad I won’t get the chance now to make up my own mind; another reminder that restaurants close all the time and you shouldn’t put off going to one you’re genuinely curious about. Reading still has a Lebanese restaurant, in the shape of La Courbe, which isn’t perfect but definitely deserves support.

The site is going to become a new Italian restaurant called Casa Roma and refurbs have just completed. Their website is under construction and can be found here. It’s a brave soul that looks at Reading and thinks “what this place really needs is a new Italian place, right at the edge of town, on a site with a history of closed restaurants and no car park” but, you know, best of luck to them.

I had heard rumours that the Lobster Room had also closed, and wandering past they appeared to be true: the menu boards had been taken down and the lights were off. However, a sign has now appeared stating that they reopen on the 4th of April. It’s not clear whether they’ve closed temporarily for repairs, for refurbishments or to improve their recipe for the most expensive ravioli in Reading (regular readers may remember that it held the dubious honour of having the lowest ER rating to date: the review is here).

My Kitchen, mentioned in the last round-up, has now opened. It’s open until 7pm serving coffee, sandwiches, salads and cakes – I’ve not been yet but it would be good to see another independent competing in the market for lunch trade and taking some business away from all of Reading’s Costas, Neros and Starbucks. Their website doesn’t seem to work (always a bit awkward when businesses don’t get that right) but they do Tweet, here.

We have one other restaurant opening in the offing: the old Glo site on St Mary’s Butts is going to reopen as Coconut Bar And Kitchen. They’re currently recruiting for chefs and claim that they will offer an experience based on genuine street food from across the Far East. It sounds an awful lot like Tampopo to me but a lot will depend, as always, on the execution. Again, no website yet and the Twitter feed – here – isn’t really worth looking at yet. The same goes for the Facebook page, so it’s very much a case of watching this space and seeing what happens.

Also worth mentioning: nominations have opened for the Reading Retail Awards. There are categories for best coffee shop, best lunchtime venue and best restaurant and the defending champions are Whittington’s Tea Barge, Tutu’s Ethiopian Table and Côte respectively. If you want to nominate your favourite place, the form is here.

Finally, in the last round-up I mentioned Alt Reading, a new publication covering all aspects of independent life in Reading. They were kind enough to interview me recently for the site and asked me a variety of questions around why I set the blog up, what I look for when I review a restaurant and how I’d like to see Reading’s food scene change. I’m very lucky that they asked me such interesting questions and luckier still that they didn’t ask me anything really difficult, like my favourite cheese (it it Barkham Blue? or a really salty crumbly mature cheddar? a creamy buffalo mozzarella, torn and served with fresh tomatoes? I wish I’d never started this now). Anyway, for those of you who are interested the interview can be found here.

Right, that’s all for another month. See you all again next Friday for another impartial, reliable review of a Reading restaurant – and if you have somewhere you want me to review, you probably know the drill by now.

Mission Burrito

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Sometimes you just don’t want a sit down three course meal (this even happens to me – believe it or not). Sometimes you’re off to the cinema or out down the pub and you just want something quick, easy and tasty. And for years, in central Reading, your only real choice was who made your burger and whether it was chicken or beef – three McDonalds, three Burger Kings and a KFC are testimony to that. That all changed when Mission opened on the Oracle Riverside and gave diners another option which wasn’t griddled or fried and didn’t come with fries: the brave new world of burritos.

Mission is a mini-chain that started in Oxford and has slowly expanded – first to Reading and then further west to Cardiff via Bath and Bristol (someone there must really like the M4). It always makes me proud, as a Reading resident, when places decide to expand to Reading first; back in the days when Bill’s was new it felt exciting and cool that they opened here. But Bill’s is a big chain pretending to be a cuddly independent whereas Mission, for now at least, feels like the real deal, an independent that had a good idea, did well and has grown gradually and organically. But is it any good?

The plot that Mission has in the Oracle isn’t very big – it can be a bit of a squeeze to get a seat and the queue sometimes stretches out the door (a promising sign in itself) but it turns out Sunday afternoons are fairly quiet so I got there and had no trouble getting served or finding a seat. The room is pretty unremarkable – space along one side to queue until you’re up at the counter, and plain dark wood tables with long benches. Get in, get your food, eat your food and go. And that’s fine: I never understood when McDonald’s started introducing what looked like Arne Jacobsen chairs. Who eats a burger in one of those? (Not Arne Jacobsen, that’s for sure.)

Ordering involves all manner of choices. There are three types of dish – burritos, fajitas (which are like burritos but with vegetables instead of rice) or tacos, which are three soft flour tortillas rather than the rigid corn shells so beloved by Old El Paso (and so impossible to eat). There are then three types of filling – beef, chicken or pork. Or if you fancy paying through the nose for a dish with no meat, or are vegetarian and therefore have no choice, there’s vegetables. Then you pick your extras – guacamole or cheese (which cost extra) or pico de gallo and sour cream (which don’t). Finally, just to crank up the number of different types of combinations, you pick from one of three different sauces with varying degrees of heat. The possibilities, as Eddie Izzard used to say on that TV advert about recycling, are endless.

I make it sound really complex but it really isn’t too bad and the staff behind the counter, running a factory line all doing different parts of the process, are very friendly and efficient and in next to no time I was at my table tucking into my choice.

The burritos are big – a twelve inch tortilla liberally stuffed with rice, pinto beans (which had been “cooked in bacon” according to the staff, although I’m not sure what that entails), guacamole and the slow cooked beef. Rolled up and served in foil, it wasn’t possible to eat tidily unless you kept most of the foil in place. It’s not a delicate dainty meal but it wasn’t half bad: I loved the beef, rich and cooked until it had no fight left in it, and the beans, although not really tasting of bacon per se, were smoky and tasty. The guacamole was a little more disappointing – huge chunks of avocado, too coarse if anything, not distributed evenly throughout the burrito. The chipotle sauce didn’t come through at all, leaving me wondering if I’d asked for the wrong one or if the staff just hadn’t glugged on enough. The cheese didn’t register. But I suppose these could be viewed as fussy quibbles about what was basically a big edible pillowcase stuffed with a lot of quite good things (they also do a smaller version, presumably for lunchtime and less ambitious eaters, and a larger version – presumably for Eric Pickles).

The tacos are three thinner six inch discs which are assembled but left open. I had two with chicken and one with pork – just to cover all the bases, you understand – topped with lettuce, sour cream, cheese and a smidge of chipotle salsa. These were also delicious, if almost impossible to eat – you end up trying to roll the edges together but end up with a big sloppy tube, dripping sauce from both ends. (Sounds lovely, doesn’t it: who doesn’t enjoy a big sloppy dripping tube?) The chicken was particularly good, cooked until it was falling apart and perfect with the note of heat from the chipotle sauce it had been roasted in. The cheese, again, was a bit lost in the mix so you could easily leave it out and save yourself the princely sum of thirty pence but the sour cream worked well, offsetting the heat from the salsa. The carnitas was less exciting than the chicken: drier and lacking in flavour with no hint of the thyme or orange zest it had apparently been cooked with.

Mission - tacos

Dotted around the tables were bottles of hot sauce (because some people really like not being able to feel their lips) and big piles of paper napkins (because some people really don’t like to be covered in sauce). I avoided the former, because I’m not that kind of person, and enthusiastically embraced the latter, for similar reasons. That said, I did add a little hot sauce to my last taco and very nice it was too, even if it did require the use of yet another paper napkin. If you are on the fastidious side this might not be for you but if you like getting stuck in and don’t mind reaching the end of a meal looking like you need to be hosed down Mission might be right up your alley.

Drinks options are, unsurprisingly, limited but the Modelo, in a bottle, was exactly as you’d expect. The frozen margarita was I think a better choice – zesty and zingy without the rough edge that tequila can sometimes have, and surprisingly refreshing after the richness of the food.

Dinner for two came to almost exactly twenty pounds and the burritos, fajitas and tacos come in at just under the six pound mark: I was in two minds about whether this was good value (and I still am) although I am pretty sure it represents iffy value for money if you’re a vegetarian. If a vegetarian has to endure a burrito restaurant the very least you can do is give the poor sods free cheese and guacamole, and even that seems a bit stingy.

On reflection, I liked Mission but maybe not as much as I should have done. The food is good, the value isn’t unreasonable, the service is very pleasant and they have a clear proposition. They’re exactly the kind of independent place Reading needs and they do what they do very well. But I was left with the feeling that if a friend said “let’s go to Mission before the cinema” I wouldn’t object, but I’d be unlikely to suggest going there myself. It’s funny how sometimes a place just doesn’t grab you: I guess, like the sauce in my burrito, I felt a little warmth, but not quite enough.

Mission Burrito – 6.7
15A The Riverside Level, The Oracle Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9511999

http://missionburrito.co.uk/

The Pack Horse, Mapledurham

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This week’s review was meant to be of Kei’s, the Chinese restaurant in Lower Earley. I took the bus, past streets called things like Parsley Drive and Clove Close (it must be hard to be inspired when you have to name so many streets; back in the day it was the largest housing development in Europe) and reached the restaurant only to find that we’d been given the only table left. By the door. With the spotlight overhead gone. In pitch blackness.

Were there no other tables, we asked. Apparently not. Could they do anything about it? After some shaking of heads, a waitress returned with an ineffective-looking candle that had seen better days. And I, I’m afraid to say, turned round and left. I’ve been sat at many tables so awful that I’ve asked to move, and some so bad that I’ve accepted them reluctantly and complained all night, but only one so terrible that I refused to sit there at all, and that was the one at Kei’s. It was hardly a table at all, more a badly-lit symbol of their determination to make money out of two extra diners. So never mind, Kei’s. Maybe another time.

Instead, the following night I went to the Pack Horse at Mapledurham and something very similar happened.

This time, it was the opposite problem. The spotlight was working – too well, which meant that the person in one of the seats looked like they were competing on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (picking a main course is difficult, but never that difficult). We asked if we could be moved. It shouldn’t have been a problem; there were loads of vacant tables for two.

“I’m sorry, those tables are reserved.” said the waitress, casually dressed in what have been a dress or just a very long t-shirt.

“This table was reserved too. And they’re not here yet anyway. Can’t you just swap them over?”

This was apparently a very difficult question (I didn’t realise at this stage but that was the shape of things to come from the service at the Pack Horse) but after much deliberation she moved us. Our reservation was at 8, the table they swapped was at 7.30. They never turned up. The table next to us was reserved from 7, and they never turned up either. I can only imagine that some people in Mapledurham have invented a time machine, travelled into the future and read this review.

Before that it all looked promising. The Pack Horse is a gorgeous pub on the A4074, about fifteen minutes out of Reading. The main bar is all beautiful wooden beams and brass over the fireplace, snug and cosy. The wine list has a default glass size of 125ml, and everything is attractively priced, encouraging you to drink as many different things as possible. The dining room is handsome, even if the tables are a little bit too small for two. But from the moment we took our seats, nothing else went right.

We started with some rustic bread, butter and rosemary oil, although we needed to order this twice before it actually turned up. It was unremarkable – the butter was unsalted and only just soft enough to spread, the bread heavy and hard work (maybe this is what “rustic” means). Only the oil was worth the trouble – sharp, fresh and green with a good whack of flavour from the rosemary. The bread came on a board big enough that they had to remove our pointless place mats; that’s how small the table was.

Our starters arrived about two minutes after the bread, another warning sign. What was called spiced lamb faggots with chick peas and tomato stew on the menu was a job for Trading Standards. Faggots should be big, coarse, earthy things; these were three tiny meatballs, with no spice in them. The chickpea and tomato stew was all chopped tomato and very little chick pea. I wanted a hearty bowl of food but instead I got a needlessly cheffy oblong plate with three puddles of underwhelming tomato on it, each topped with a minuscule sphere of meat-flavoured indifference. On top of each of those was a piece of deep fried pitta bread, for reasons which escape me. Worst of all, though, the whole thing was lukewarm. By the time I’d finished it, so was I.

Pack Horse - Lamb

Fig and thyme tarte tatin with goats cheese, pickled walnut, radish and pea shoot salad was equally misleading, so much so that I thought I had misread the menu. What I actually got was a goats cheese tart with a couple of big slices of pickled walnut on top. There was no thyme that I could detect, and no fig either. It was all salt and vinegar and no sweetness to offset it all (unless you count the drizzle of generic red jam around the edge of the plate: I don’t). The radish and pea shoot salad was just a nest of pea shoots, no sign of the radish. When I read the menu at the Pack Horse it was so huge that I had reservations about whether they could cook it all. It turns out they couldn’t: perhaps they had run out of some of the ingredients, or maybe the way they cook those dishes has evolved over time. The wording on the menu certainly hasn’t, though, and either way I felt short changed.

In a good restaurant, the starter makes you feel excited: I can’t wait to see what my main is like. At the Pack Horse, it was quite the opposite. I found myself wishing we’d ordered more straightforward mains, dishes a kitchen couldn’t mess up. As they took the starters away I ordered another glass of wine and we took bets on how quickly the mains would turn up; after all, everything so far had been so disappointing that surely this was the logical next step (one of us guessed five minutes, the other ten).

Our mains arrived roughly ten minutes later, both of them slouching towards mediocrity and barely getting there. The braised shoulder of lamb was like a bad cover version of kleftiko where you could make out the words but the melody was all wrong. It wasn’t quite cooked well enough or long enough, so bits of it fell apart but most of it was a struggle against wobbliness, and I do enough of that already. The rosemary jus was thin, watery and flavourless. The dauphinoise potato managed to be sinful without being any fun – all cream and no seasoning, the worst kind of empty calories. The spring vegetables had an air of supermarket stir fry about them. All in all, it was a depressing way to spend sixteen pounds – not inedible by any means, but stirring up bittersweet memories of this kind of thing done far better pretty much anywhere else.

The roasted cod with chorizo, tomato and white bean stew and basil lemon pesto dressing was equally uninspiring. The cod itself was a decent sized chunk, well cooked but also underseasoned. I was expecting the stew to be a hearty bean-filled affair but it seemed to be the twin of the tomato stew from the faggot starter, with a few small chunks of chorizo and beans added in. It had a little hint of chilli but not enough to make it interesting. On top of the cod was yet another nest of pea shoots and a single slice of chorizo, cooked until it resembled a tax disc holder. I tried to eat some, for the record, but gave it up as a bad job. There was a drizzle of pesto round the edge of the plate, cheffy style again, but it didn’t stand a chance against the chilli tomato stew so I can’t tell you if it was lemony or basilly, or if those are even real words. There was also some random fennel, so little that you couldn’t tell if it was deliberate.

Pack Horse - Cod

The final insult was twofold. First of all, they left our plates in front of us for well over ten minutes after we’d finished eating. Having to look at couple of plates with the leftovers of a disappointing meal, for that long, is almost as bad as having to eat it in the first place. We figured out that it took roughly as long to get rid of those plates as it had to bring them to our table. The irony: so quick to take our order, so quick to bring our starters, so quick to bring our mains. And yet the one time you actually want the serving staff to get their skates on they couldn’t be found for love nor money. It was the only slow element of the entire evening: from taking our seats to finishing our main courses took under an hour.

Better still, a waiter then came over with the glass of wine I’d ordered when they took our starters away. (Had you forgotten about that? You’re not alone: so had they.)

“I’m sorry, I ordered this some time ago. I don’t want it now.” I said.

The waiter put the glass of wine on the table. There was no obvious sign of a hearing aid.

“No, I’m sorry, I need to send this back.”

He shambled off with the wine glass, without saying a word. They still billed us for it, mind you, and we had to ask to get it taken off the bill. The bill, for two people, for bread, two starters, two mains and a total of five drinks, came to £63. We didn’t stay for dessert, because I had some chocolate in the fridge at home and a pretty good idea that they weren’t going to manage anything half as tasty as that. Service wasn’t included, and I didn’t tip; I think failing to tip, by and large, is deplorable but on this occasion there was literally nothing to reward. The waiting staff were there when you didn’t want them, nowhere to be seen when you did, knew little about the food and, with the exception of the literal, brought nothing to the table.

You’ll notice that I haven’t talked in detail about the wine, and there’s a reason for that: it wasn’t good enough to justify going to the Pack Horse. It wouldn’t have been even if they were selling magnums of Margaux for a tenner.

What I’ve realised, over the past six months, is that Saturday nights seem to be cursed for me. I went to Picasso on a Saturday night, and the Lobster Room, and in the Pack Horse the curse of Saturday night seems to have struck again. It’s an absolutely beautiful pub, but the menu is all wrong. They should either live up to the promise of those surroundings and cook skilful, imaginative food, or stick to a small menu of tried and tested pub classics. What they’ve done is neither: the food here isn’t actively bad, but it’s possibly even worse than that – a mediocre photocopy of good food, a menu which makes all the right noises ruined by execution which is totally out of tune.

The perfect punchline only came later when I was writing this review: I found out on the Internet that the pub used to be part of the Blubeckers chain, before they were subsumed into something called “Home Counties Pub Restaurants”. I went to a Blubeckers a few times – it was cheap, cheerful and nothing to write home about, a Harvester with ideas above its station. And yet, thinking about the meal I’d had at the Pack Horse it managed something I wouldn’t have thought possible: it made me nostalgic for Blubeckers. Any restaurant that can do that really isn’t much of a restaurant.

The Pack Horse – 5.1
Woodcote Road, Chazey Heath, Mapledurham, RG4 7UG
01189 722140

http://www.homecountiespubs.co.uk/packhorse/

Côte

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Let’s get this out of the way at the start: yes, I know, Côte is a chain restaurant. You might have gathered (from my “Where next?” page) that I’m generally averse to reviewing these. Yet here I am, tucking into a meal at a great big Oracle chain restaurant. What gives?

What you might have missed is that I’ve always said that I’d consider reviewing a chain if I thought it offered something different or special. And, based on my past experience, Côte has always done exactly that. It opened back in 2011 and since then, for me, has become something of a staple. Last year I probably ate there as much as I did at any other Reading restaurant and it was reliable – never bad, always good, often excellent and sometimes great. We all need a restaurant like that sometimes, because eating out isn’t always about taking risks: every now and then you just want certainty.

Anyway, as ever it’s all about what a restaurant does on the night I turn up to review, so I did step across the threshold with a slight sense of trepidation. Were they going to have a bad night for once?

The downstairs space is a very nice room, broken up into sections with banquettes, booths and lighting orbs, making it simultaneously bright enough to eat in and cosy enough to feel intimate: no mean feat in a room which surely sits 100 diners. It does however mean, as we shall see, that photos are very poorly lit (you’ll thank me for not putting up one of the chocolate mousse, believe me). It also manages that rare trick of having large and small tables – including some specifically for couples – without leaving anyone feeling short-changed. It’s probably the prettiest dining room of all the Oracle’s riverside restaurants, although that may not be saying a lot.

I started with a basket of bread and butter while making my choices. Côte charges for its bread (a couple of quid) but it’s so good I can hardly blame then. You get a basket with half a dozen diagonal slices of delicious baguette – crisp and chewy on the outside, fluffy and crumpet-like inside, with a dish of salted butter. I think it might be my favourite restaurant bread in town: you could even say, with apologies to a certain business on Cressingham Road, Earley, that it’s the place to be heading for breading in Reading (actually, I should probably apologise to you for that pun as well). I’d love to know if they get it shipped in part-baked or if it’s made on site, but either way it’s worthy of a paragraph on its own. Thank goodness there’s no word limit.

The starters were equally tasty. Mushroom feuilleté was two slices of diamond shaped puff pastry filled with mushrooms in a creamy sauce. The bottom layer of pastry had soaked up the sauce and was rich and soft like a good English pie: a gorgeous combination. The top layer was less interesting, being all flakiness and air with no substance (I’ve got friends like that, but the less said about them the better). The menu mentioned “espelette pepper”: I couldn’t detect any on the plate and had to look it up. It turns out that it’s a type of chilli pepper – I’m not sure this would have worked, so I’m glad they left it out.

Mushrooms

The charcuterie board also didn’t disappoint, though it’s definitely a choice for the peckish. Most of the elements were terrific – the duck breast gamey without being too smoky, the duck rillette coarse and rich (I’ve got friends like that too, as it happens) and the saucisson just right. The accompaniments were also gorgeous – a couple of pieces of charred pain de campagne toast with a little olive oil soaking into them, a small pile of well dressed salad and – crucially – four crunchy, tart cornichons, perfect to wrap a slice of saucisson round and pop in your mouth. Who needs canapés? The only disappointment was the jambon – too smooth, too shiny, too supermarket. But it was a minor quibble with a starter which cost £6.50 and had so much to enjoy.

Char

I’ve always found choosing mains at Côte quite difficult, and on this occasion we ended up ordering two fish dishes, although they couldn’t have been more different. Côte’s tuna niçoise salad is one of my favourite lighter dishes in Reading, and is in danger of giving salad a good name. It’s full of interesting flavours and textures – new potato, peppers, green beans, red onion, cos lettuce and black olives – all mixed with a fresh and not at all overpowering mustard vinaigrette then topped with a just-hard-boiled egg, the yolk yellow and only just firm, and a perfectly cooked piece of tuna. The tuna deserves extra comment because other restaurants will fob you off with tinned or pre-cooked tuna but at Côte you get the real deal – a tuna steak which has been on a griddle hot enough to leave chargrill lines but where the inside is still pink. A rare treat, in both senses of the word.

Tuna

Sea bass with braised fennel and champagne beurre blanc was also faultless. It was a very generous portion of sea bass – two fillets of crispy salty skin and firm flesh – paired with surprisingly subtle fennel. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but this was understated, more sweetness than aniseed. With so much culinary quietness going on (sea bass isn’t the punchiest of fishes) the beurre blanc had to be good and it was: creamy with bags of flavour and just a little sharpness. For less than fourteen quid I thought this was a knockout dish – no carbs, though, although having to order some frites was no real hardship.

At this point I ought to tell you how nice my white wine was, but sadly I can’t: instead we washed this down with a bottle of syrah. Not a conventional pairing, I know, but we both fancied red so we went with it anyway (and it almost went with the tuna – or that’s what I told myself anyway). It was a gorgeous bottle, very fruity and straightforward without being bland. It was also good value at less than twenty quid: in fact the wine list offers plenty of choice around that price point which is always good to see.

For dessert we both wanted a chocolate dish but I figured that wouldn’t make for the most interesting review (hard to believe, I know, but not everybody likes chocolate). In the end we split our ticket and went for one of each. The chocolate mousse was exactly that – and lots of it, too, packed into a big hefty ramekin. I liked it, although I think describing it as “dark chocolate mousse” is misleading, and likely to put people off who don’t like their cocoa solids in the region of 70% and above. In fact the top was dark, and dusted with cocoa, but underneath that it was all milk chocolate: on the dense, rich side, but delicious none the less.

The apple tart, for the non-chocolate fans among you, was an excellent example of the French classic. The base pastry was thin, crisp and sufficiently gooey with toffee to be a nice balance to the apples which were super thin and only just cooked so that they retained some of their tartness. The scoop of vanilla ice cream it came with was speckled with just enough vanilla dots to convince me it was the real deal, and was just about tasty enough to make me think it was worth having on the plate. A better accompaniment was the glass of Montbazillac I had – sweet but not treacly or cloying, and decent value at four pounds.

Côte is very good at service. On a Thursday night, the restaurant was full and turning people away, and yet they never seemed rushed or harassed and I never felt ignored or overlooked. Instead, it was attentive and smiley without being over-keen. Our wine glasses were topped up regularly (but not too regularly – a pet hate of mine) and the free filtered water is a nice touch. I think it’s a shame that the restaurant adds an automatic (but not compulsory) 12.5% service charge to the bill, given that this is one of the few places in Reading that really shouldn’t need to. I suppose it makes paying the bill less awkward, but even so it seems a pity.

The total for three courses each, a bottle of wine and a glass of dessert wine was seventy-five pounds, excluding tip. No clangers, no mistakes, no errors on the plate, just reliable very good food. They didn’t have an off-night, just as they never seem to, and I reckon this is as good a place in Reading to spend that kind of money as any – particularly if you’re risk averse. It’s worth mentioning, as I so often do, that you could easily spend less here – especially if you’re there before 7 o’clock, when their two course set menu is a tenner and constitutes mind-boggling value.

In the run-up to this review, I asked people on Twitter about members of the “Never Again Club”, restaurants in Reading that you’d been to once and would never visit again. The responses came thick and fast, and unsurprisingly many of them were chain restaurants: Giraffe (“blatantly microwaved”); Café Rouge (“makes French food bland and boring, quite a feat”); Frankie And Benny’s (“I would have been better off in McDonalds”); Five Guys (“insanely priced mediocrity”). The list went on and on.

And yet there were also a significant number of independent places in there – and heaven knows, I’ve reviewed enough terrible independent restaurants (I still have flashbacks about the tapas at Picasso or that ravioli at The Lobster Room) to know that neither side has the monopoly on quality. I sometimes think we’re making the wrong distinction: there are good restaurants and bad restaurants, some good chains and some bad independent restaurants. Côte is a very good, reliable, consistent restaurant. You can go there with a big group of friends for a blow-out, you can grab a quick dinner with a friend there before going to the cinema, you can have a nice tête-à-tête there on a Friday night with your other half. It just happens to be a chain.

The promise chains implicitly make is that you know exactly what you’re getting, and for better or worse my experience is that that’s nearly always true. The difference with Côte is that you’re getting something good. So it doesn’t belong in my Never Again Club, and I might have to think up another name for this kind of restaurant. The Again And Again Club, perhaps.

Cote – 7.8
9 The Riverside, The Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9591180

http://www.cote-restaurants.co.uk/Cote_Restaurant_Reading.html

Cerise

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Cerise has been on my list to review for quite some time – mainly by reputation. And yet, in the run-up to visiting the strangest thing happened: I couldn’t find anyone who had eaten there. Everyone knew about it, of course, and some people had even had cocktails in the opulent basement bar, or a sneaky summertime glass of white in their secret garden. But the restaurant? A total blank. So I did some Googling, only to find the same thing: no reviews, not in blogs, not in guides, not in the papers. Apart from TripAdvisor, there was no evidence that anybody had been at all. I guess it’s always been awkward for them: the restaurant of the Forbury Hotel, right opposite a restaurant called Forbury’s, with the unfortunate consequence that people always think you’re talking about somewhere else. So, a restaurant everyone thinks is good but nobody has been to, the lesser-known member of Reading’s high end club. How could I resist a visit?

Actually, on arrival we spent more time in the opulent basement bar than I was expecting. Despite only two tables being seated in the whole restaurant we were asked to wait in the bar “for around ten minutes”, for reasons which weren’t made clear. We sat on the banquette, flicked through the wine list and ended up going for a Crozes Hermitages for £38. It was good, peppery and not too tannic – although given the dishes we eventually ordered, I rather wish we’d picked something more capable of standing up to them. We ended up staying there while we got the menus, read the menus, plea-bargained and made our choices, only taking our seats when they were close to serving our starters. I enjoyed that – I’m usually so wedded to the idea that you sit at the table, you give the waiter your order and you sit at the high-backed chair sipping your wine until the food arrives. It was nice to loaf, although I was still a bit incredulous that the waiting staff didn’t seat us right away.

The dining room in Cerise is in two halves – a small room along from the bar and a bigger room further through (opening out onto that secret garden I mentioned). On a quiet Monday night, they’d only opened the smaller room which can’t seat more than twenty people. I liked it – tasteful, well-lit, good chairs and nice big tables – although if I’d been at that table on a busy Saturday night I might have felt like I was sitting in a corridor. As it was, it worked well, giving the feeling of being in a smaller, more intimate place. There was bread at the table when we sat down and it was nice if not wildly exciting – two slices of granary, one of something poppy-seeded and (the most interesting) a sweeter onion bread. The butter was at the right temperature to spread, a small thing but something a depressingly large number of restaurants get wrong.

It’s a pet hate of mine when people say something is too beautiful to eat: nothing is too beautiful to eat, and if you really feel that way you should be in the Tate, not a restaurant. Having said that, the braised lamb shank terrine really was pretty – pieces of lamb, cubes of carrot, peas and big pieces of sweet leek, with another strip of leek around the outside. I did feel apprehensive about eating it, though, because I was expecting something coarser and all those chunks (such an unattractive word), bound together with jelly felt like a Damian Hirst starter at best and Pedigree Chum for poshos at worst.

All those fears dissipated with the first mouthful. Really there was very little jelly in it, just tender tasty meat and firm, fresh vegetables. The mint dressing drizzled around the perimeter was sweet and perfect and what I’d mistaken for cucumber were in fact little cubes of green waxy potato. Potato, lamb, vegetables, mint sauce… it was only by the end that I realised that what I was eating was a high end distillation of the kind of Sunday lunch enjoyed across the country every weekend. I won’t say it was deconstructed – because that’s a word nobody should see in a restaurant review – but I will say that it was delicious, which is far more important anyway.

Cerise - terrineThe crab and salmon sausage was equally delicious (although, somehow, I found myself wishing they’d called it a “boudin”, because ‘salmon sausage’ just sounds plain wrong). Whatever you called it, it was delightful once you got your head round something with the texture of a sausage and the taste of fish. It came halved and resting on a little pile of cabbage which in turn was in a pool of dill sauce, peppered with tiny cubes of carrot. The sauce had a deep, salty flavour – so different from the sometimes insipid taste of dill paired with fish. On top was a little nest of salad shoots which didn’t really add anything to the dish (they never do, in my opinion) but looked pretty just the same.

The mains were an altogether more robust affair. What was described as “roasted crown of partridge, Brussels sprout’s and saffron risotto” had a lot more going on than that – so much so, in fact, that it was almost possible to forgive the wayward apostrophe. So there was partridge – gamey, nicely cooked on the outside, if ever so slightly tough – and there was a gorgeous risotto, strands of saffron visible in it, with just enough bite in the rice. But there was also what looked like a potato croquette, and there were smoky lardons, and smudges of pea pureé and a generous and intense jus. I was really impressed by just how many things were on the plate, all done well, without it becoming incoherent or too busy. It was, however, a very rich dish, and I can easily imagine that it would defeat someone less gluttonous than me.

Cerise - partridgeThe duck confit “with mixed bean and wild mushroom cassoulet, orange essence” was also not for the faint-hearted, another big bold dish. The duck itself was exactly as you’d expect duck confit to be (though personally I prefer the skin to be crispier). The cassoulet base was a beautiful jumble of beans, lardons and wild mushrooms in another gloriously savoury, expertly reduced jus, a wonderful wintry stew. As with the duck skin I would have preferred the lardons to be crispy and, as with the partridge, I did find the dish a little overwhelming towards the end. Amongst all those deep flavours the orange essence was lost to me; maybe it was overpowered, although it didn’t feel as if the dish missed it.

The side dishes, with hindsight, were a mistake. Not because they were bad – the chips were good, with the right balance of crispiness and fluffiness and the honey roasted root vegetables were even better; sweet, slightly spiced with that slightly fuzzy stickiness that comes from cooking them properly. But they weren’t needed, and maybe the waitress should have pointed that out (in fairness, we were hungry and insistent and I’m not sure we would have taken no for an answer). Even so, service just wasn’t like that. I was surprised that it didn’t quite match up to the food – the waitress was polite and pleasant but her English didn’t seem brilliant and it didn’t feel like she knew her way round the menu. That side of the experience wasn’t as polished as you might expect, given everything the restaurant had got right.

I was nearly too full for dessert, but in the end the prospect of brown bread parfait, with caramelised pears and peanut brittle was too tempting to resist. Again, that spare description didn’t quite do it justice: the parfait was in a cylinder, the outside studded with tiny nuggets of peanut brittle. The caramelised pear was terrific, served in an espresso cup with a buttery crumble topping. But the thick toffee sauce alongside the parfait was what made it special – rich, decadent, thoroughly wicked (much, I like to think, like most of the people checking into the hotel upstairs).

Pricing at Cerise is remarkably consistent – most of the starters hover around the ten pound mark, most of the mains are twenty pounds and all the desserts are just under a tenner. The bill was £110 for two and a half courses each, two side dishes we really should have gone without and a bottle of very nice wine. I know that’s a lot, but I didn’t leave feeling cheated.

Special occasion prices, then. But was the food special occasion quality? I think, on balance, the answer to that is yes. The room could be a little nicer, the service needs to be a little more impressive but the food makes up for much of that. The word that keeps jumping out of the review is “rich” and I think that does it justice. It’s properly indulgent, over the top, powerful food – not too clever, but just clever enough to feel slightly different – and for that kind of meal, I can’t think of anywhere in Reading that offers anything similar. I can see myself going again – more readily than I can see myself going back to London Street Brasserie or Forbury’s – but I can also see myself not eating much the lunchtime before and rushing home afterwards to undo the top button on my jeans. But everyone needs a meal like that from time to time. Don’t they?

Cerise – 7.9
The Forbury Hotel, 26 The Forbury, RG1 3EJ
0118 9527770

http://www.theforburyhotel.co.uk/dine/cerise

La Courbe

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First things first, La Courbe is not a great restaurant: there are just too many things wrong, even now almost two months after they finally opened. The room is a simple square with one wall of glass which makes dining there akin to being in one of David Blaine’s failed stunts, a spectacle for everyone who passes through King’s Walk to see (about four tables were occupied the night I was there, but if it had just been me I would have felt terribly self-conscious). And the view through that wall of glass if you’re a diner, apart from any gawping passers-by, is the side of a Burger King, hardly the most beautiful vista Reading has to offer.

Then there’s the decor, a peculiarly retro design of chrome, purple and pistachio that made me half expect Don Johnson to walk in with his linen suit sleeves rolled up. There are no soft furnishings, no art, nothing on the walls to distract the eye from the pistachio panelling. Everything is square – the tables (with, bizarrely, the exception of a single round table which is otherwise no different to the others), the chairs and every single plate or dish brought to our table throughout the meal.

The menu is confusing, with nothing to indicate whether the mezze is a really bad deal (£42 per person for some mezze and a main? Really?) or a really good deal (£42 for some mezze and a main for four people! Bargain!). Add to that the fact that the room is chilly – the door left permanently open – and occasionally murky with smoke from the open kitchen (which is presumably why said door is never shut) and you’d be right in thinking that this isn’t the kind of restaurant in which you want to relax and take in the ambience.

Oh, and did I mention how quick it all was? We were seated at around half eight, and with starters, mains and desserts we were out of the door at about quarter to ten. There seemed to be no understanding at all that an evening meal ought to take a reasonable part of the evening, and normally when I eat somewhere that serves you that fast it’s because they’re worried you might change your mind. It’s never a sign of confidence in the food.

So far, so bad, but then something happened that switched this review around altogether: I ate the food.

We started with two dishes from their hot mezze menu. Maqaneq is a little dish of mini sausages “flambéed in butter and lemon”. What the menu doesn’t tell you is that this is a sophisticated version of the English cocktail sausage. These little sausages are juicy and meaty and lightly spiced so that the sweetness of the meat comes out. We ate them in tiny chunks (smiling smugly all the while) to eke them out and wrapped in slivers of pitta to make tiny sandwiches just so we didn’t finish them too quickly. The falafel were less of a surprise but still delicious – each hot little disc was crispy on the outside and fluffy inside and just herby enough to elevate them out of the ordinary.

Courbe4

We waited for our plates to be cleared but then suddenly the waitress was back with our main course, to be eaten off the same plates with the same chunky cutlery as before – another mark against them. We had gone for the mixed grill (just like the typical Brit on foreign shores). This was described quite plainly as “charcoal grilled selection of lamb, Kafta and chicken with Hommos and Tabouleh” (I swear I find another way to spell houmous every month, maybe it’s like the Eskimos having all those words for snow). It looked terrific, and it tasted even better. The chicken, marinated with ginger and garlic, was just perfect – tender on the inside yet caramelised on the outside, sticky and delicious. The lamb was also spot on, just the tiniest bit of pink in the middle of each piece, and had a hint of cinnamon. The lamb kofte (my spelling) was the least interesting of the meats but third place was no disgrace in this selection. Rather than being the very spicy kofte that I’m more familiar with, this had a subtle, almost buttery flavour and was soft and delicate.

Courbe2

The mixed grill came with two accompaniments. In one corner of the dish was some good (if unexciting) houmous with a pool of olive oil and some finely chopped tomatoes in the middle. In the other corner, just to offset all that meat, was an extremely good tabbouleh, singing with the fresh green flavours of parsley and mint, with plenty of lemon juice. It might even have been my favourite thing I ate that evening, and I don’t say that lightly. All in all, the mixed grill was a thing of wonder, square plates or no.

We didn’t feel quite up to a full bottle of red (which is a pity, because there’s a good selection of Lebanese reds including Chateau Musar, which I’ve loved in the past) so we plumped for a glass each of the Domaine des Tourelles, a Lebanese red which was full and fruity and a good foil to the spicy meats.

I didn’t really fancy dessert after that mammoth undertaking but there’s a sense of duty about doing ER reviews so we gamely went for it. The baklava, rather than being one big baklava oozing with honey, was a selection of the familiar pastries in different shapes with either pistachio or pine nut fillings. I really liked them – they were much less cloying than they can often be, subtler and more interesting. The mouhallabieh was not as successful. The waitress described it as a chilled rice pudding with rosewater and pistachio – which captures it quite well, but neglects to mention that it had either been chilled for some time or it had been set with gelatine which meant that the nice gritty rice texture was replaced by something far less enjoyable. Between us we managed about half of it but after a while a dish that gloopy and big became a bit of a burden so we left it unfinished.

Courbe3

Service throughout was warm and friendly, enthusiastic about the food and more than willing to make recommendations. Even so, the whole set-up seemed a little, well, amateurish. The speed with which the food came was the most obvious problem, but there were others too: we weren’t offered water at any stage (despite there being water glasses on seemingly every table but ours) and the till is down the corridor in the adjoining wine bar, so you have a bit of a wait once you’ve asked for the bill.

Ours, when it eventually arrived, was £57 for two people eating three courses and having a glass of wine each. I felt like this was a pretty good deal given how good the food was (the mixed grill for two is about twenty-four pounds, for instance). Even while I was eating there I was already planning a return visit with friends, albeit probably at lunchtime when a quick meal feels like less of a problem.

Rating this restaurant has been nigh-on impossible, to the extent where I’ve wondered why I give ratings at all. How can I possibly give a single mark out of ten which reflects somewhere that serves such great food in such a problematic venue? I’m not sure my eventual score truly sums up the mixed message that is La Courbe; I wanted to give them higher but I just can’t until they get their crinkles ironed out. But I want them to do well enough to get the time to do that, because I can forgive a lot of things when the food is this good. Maybe this isn’t the venue for a romantic, lingering meal for two or a big night out, but I can see how one day it could be. And if that means I have to eat a few platefuls of their spiced chicken – in the cold, on those square plates, with that appalling view – to give them the chance to work on getting it right, then it’s a cross I’ll just have to bear.

La Courbe – 7.3
9-11 Kings Walk, RG1 2HG
0118 9581585

www.lacourbe.co.uk

Thai Corner

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I ate out a lot in Reading long before I started Edible Reading. I remember when this town was a wasteland for diners, and all the places that have come and gone since those days. All the nacky chains when the Oracle first opened: Yellow River Café, Old Orleans, Ma Potter (did anyone ever actually go to Ma Potter?) I remember Bistro Je T’Aime, on Friar Street where Nando’s is now, a joint whose sole purpose seemed to be to put people off French food forever. Lots of restaurants have closed as Reading has slowly, gradually improved on the culinary front – the most recent, Kyklos, only last month. And yet throughout all that time Thai Corner has been quietly, unobtrusively plying its trade on the corner of Friar Street and West Street, at an end of town which was unfashionable ten years ago and is even more unfashionable now.

It feels like Thai Corner has always been there, and back in the day I used to go there an awful lot. It was my go-to place when I wanted something tasty and affordable, because even at the turn of the century I liked to avoid chain restaurants where possible. But I haven’t been there in ages, to the extent where I wouldn’t have been surprised to walk past to find that it was the latest casualty in the constant battle restaurants face to stay afloat. I’ve always taken for granted that it would be around when I next wanted to visit, and if I’m honest I was slightly reluctant to review it in case it had a bad night (because I can’t remember ever having had a bad meal at Thai Corner). Nonetheless I put my nagging worries to one side and headed over on a rainy evening (has there been any other sort, this year?) to visit it “on duty”.

The interior of the restaurant is a great illustration of how to use a compact space really well. They manage to pack a lot of tables in without you ever feeling like you’re on someone else’s lap or subjected to their small talk – mainly by breaking up the room with pillars and partitions. It’s also a very attractive room: all red silk and black framed lights, golden bells, wooden shutters and lighting which manages to be tasteful and flattering while still giving you a fighting chance of seeing what you’re eating. Handsome, comfy furniture, too. I’m sorry to come over all Living Etc., but I was really surprised by what a nice room it was to eat in; they’ve clearly invested in doing it up, and it shows.

First things first: the Thai red wine (Monsoon Valley, a snip at about sixteen quid a bottle) is really tasty, light and fruity. I could see some other quite tempting things on the list (I think I saw Chateau Cissac on there for less than £30, for instance), but a good bottle of easy drinking red at that price was just too good to pass up. We ordered some prawn crackers to keep us going during the decision-making process and those were good too – the proper, thin, fishy Thai sort rather than the fluffy white Chinese ones that are always slightly reminiscent of polystyrene packing chips.

I’ve clearly learned nothing from my last trip to a Thai restaurant, The Warwick, because again we started with the mixed starters, which were served on a handsome traditional-looking golden platter (I’m not sure if the accompanying paper doily was quite so traditional, but never mind). I know it’s a bit of a cliché but it’s a useful way to assess lots of dishes at once. As assessments go, Thai Corner’s selection weren’t particularly inspiring. The spring roll was bland and the pastry was too thick and heavy; it was improved by dipping it in sweet chilli sauce, but then again what isn’t? The chicken satay was only just hot and only just cooked, with no real texture on the outside and no real flavour. Again, the satay sauce wasn’t bad but there wasn’t a lot of it and it didn’t redeem matters. The fish cakes were better – they’re not usually my cup of tea because I’ve always found the spongey-bouncy texture a little off-putting but these tasted good, with hints of lemongrass and spring onion.

The pick of the bunch was the sesame prawn toast: what’s not to like, really, about a triangle of fried bread (a mainstay of the English breakfast) topped with minced prawns and a crispy layer of sesame seeds? It’s one of those dishes people eat all the time at Chinese and Thai restaurants without really thinking about it but when done well it’s a genuine delight. Thai Corner’s prawn toasts were exactly that – the layer of prawn not too thick, tender and meaty rather than pink and springy. With hindsight I should have just ordered lots of those and forgotten all the other starters but that’s hindsight for you, always taunting you with the perfect meals you didn’t have.

TC - Starters
The mains, fortunately, were better – although still a long way from perfect. The prawn Gang Ped (red curry with bamboo shoots and aubergine) was pleasant enough but not very interesting. The prawns were firm and well cooked, the vegetables were all tasty and not soggy, but the sauce let it down. There was no heat there, no real sign of fish sauce and no complexity in the flavour, so all you really got was the sweetness. Poured onto the coconut rice towards the end it was delicious, but almost more like a dessert than a main. The chilli lamb, on the other hand, was fantastic: a generous helping of thin slices of tender lamb in a delicious sauce which had everything the red curry sauce had been missing – heat from the chilli, zing from the lemongrass and a little bit of oomph from the garlic. The green beans in it had just enough crunch, too, to add the contrast the dish needed. It was by far the best thing I ate all night.

TC - Lamb
On the side we had a couple of bowls of that coconut rice plus a serving of pad broccoli. I’m afraid I insisted on this as I remember the dish being simple steamed broccoli served in a thin, almost fragrant oyster sauce which lifted the broccoli just brilliantly. However, my memory must be a bit out of date as the sauce with this broccoli was pale, watery and insipid and didn’t have anything going for it. This dish – less than half a floret and some underwhelming sauce – felt like a bit of an insult at £5.50 (I suppose when you have fish sauce in a lot of the dishes maybe you’ve given vegetarians up as a lost cause).

Service at Thai Corner merits a mention because it gets the balance just right – friendly, helpful, there when you need them and (I’m not sure how they manage this) almost invisible when you don’t. It’s always been that way in my experience but it’s also particularly noteworthy because, on a Wednesday night, the place was almost completely full: it seems my worries that Thai Corner might be closed next time I wandered past were completely unfounded. This is a restaurant that has a lot of experience at managing a full house, and it shows. Looking at the staff serving the other tables they were efficient without being bustling, and busy without ever seeming out of control.

The total bill for two people – starters, mains, rice, a bottle of wine and that slightly tragic broccoli – came to just under sixty pounds, not including a tip. On this occasion we decided to forego dessert as we were just too full – although the Thai Corner desserts have never appealed to me, being a bunch of frozen offerings that are unlikely to have been made on the premises. It’s almost worth ordering the “Funky Pie”, though, just so you can sing your order to the tune of the 1980 Lipps Inc classic “Funky Town” in a busy restaurant (you can have that tip for free, and apologies in advance if those efficient, quiet, polite serving staff throw you out).

I know comparisons are odious, but it’s impossible to review Thai Corner without comparing it to The Warwick, its closest competitor in Reading. Thai Corner wins on many levels – it’s a lovely room, it’s a great use of space, the buzziness makes it a fun place to eat, the service is impossible to fault and the wine list is attractive. And if that’s all restaurants were about, Thai Corner would get as good a mark as there is. But, as so often, it comes down to the food and Thai Corner’s just isn’t quite as good as its rival all the way at the other end of town. The satay is a little too limp, the spring roll a little too heavy, the curry a little too bland. I liked Thai Corner – just like I always have – and it didn’t let me down, even if it didn’t quite blow me away either. Still, I know they won’t mind: more than ten years on, without any fuss or fanfare, they are still one of the best places to go in Reading for an unspecial occasion. They don’t need my custom, which is wonderful to see, and I admire them for doing what they do so well. And, if I’m being honest, a big part of me would be disappointed if they weren’t still around in another ten years.

Thai Corner – 7.0
47 West Street, RG1 1TZ
0118 9595050

http://www.thaicornerreading.co.uk/

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