Al Fassia, Windsor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FassBastilla

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

FassMerg

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

FassTag

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

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

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

FassDessert

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

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

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

http://www.alfassiarestaurant.com/

Cafe Madras

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

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

CMMains

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

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

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

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

CMVada

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

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

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

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

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

http://cafemadras.co.uk/

Giggling Squid, Henley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WealthySquid

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

2Squids

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

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

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

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

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

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

O Beirão

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

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

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

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

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

OShrooms

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

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

OFrango

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

OBacalhau

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

OPud

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

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

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

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

http://obeirao.co.uk/

6 of the best: Al fresco dining

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

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

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

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

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

1. Dolce Vita

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

Burrata

2. The Plowden Arms

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

Lamb

3. Picnic

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

4. London Street Brasserie

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

LSB7

5. Forbury’s

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

Venison

6. The Allied Arms

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

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

The Reformation, Gallowstree Common

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One of the things that’s always made TripAdvisor a patchy guide to restaurants is that it’s always had a rather loose definition of what a restaurant is. It used to be the case that restaurants and cafés were all lumped together, so the ten best restaurants in Reading included the likes of Tutti Frutti and Tamp Culture. Cafés tend to do better than restaurants on TripAdvisor: the algorithm is a numbers game and cafés, after all, get more customers. On one level, there’s nothing wrong with this – Tutti Frutti and Tamp are both great places – but on another it doesn’t help when deciding where to go for dinner.

TripAdvisor, possibly recognising the problem, made some changes recently to divide establishments into “Restaurants” and “Coffee & Tea”. In principle this should have improved things, but if anything it’s even more confusing because it’s been somewhat randomly applied. So places like Picnic and Workhouse – not restaurants per se, but certainly much more than just hot drinks – are now in the “Coffee & Tea” section, and yet Nibsy’s, Tutti Frutti and My Kitchen are still, apparently, restaurants. Your guess at the rationale behind this is as good as mine; I think they might have used a Magic 8-Ball.

The effect of those changes, random and incomplete though there are, is to clear out some of the noise in the TripAdvisor rankings. It’s also why I went to the Reformation this week, because now that many of the cafés have been taken out it is – with the exception of Quattro – the highest rated restaurant in Reading. Not only that, but people I know whose judgement I trust recommended it. Nothing fancy and nothing pretentious, they said, just pub classics done very well indeed. Sometimes that’s all you want, so I got in the car on a sunny day and went up the A4074 past the sites of triumphs (The Pack Saddle) and disasters (The Pack Horse), taking the next right for the village of Gallowstree Common.

Despite the photo on the website, where the building looks more suited to a horror novel than a restaurant review (the village name would be strangely appropriate, come to think of it), the Reformation is another of those handsome country pubs that I’m always banging on about. There’s a nice garden at the front (on the quiet main road) with pub tables and little shed-ette for smokers (very civilised). Stepping through the door has the opposite effect to the Tardis – I was expecting a massive restaurant but instead got a pretty small pub. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but so many pubs these days have turfed out the drinkers in favour of diners that seeing space for only twenty covers in the dining room struck me as unusual (in fairness, there’s also a conservatory although it was nowhere near as cosy and inviting). The décor was the usual mix of Farrow and Ball paint tones and mismatched furniture, with witty quotes and the signatures of the Kaiser Chiefs, amongst others, on one wall (it seems they’ve played a gig there). It felt like a pub with the right balance between restaurant and local boozer.

Having checked the menu online before coming out I knew that this week was going to be vegetarian week. Arriving at the pub, however, I was disappointed to see that the menu had changed when the website had not. Of course it’s good for menus to be regularly refreshed but on this occasion is meant that my tantalising veggie main, picked off the menu on the website (lightly spiced bubble and squeak cake, creamed spinach and peas, paneer, soft poached egg – doesn’t that sound good?) had been replaced by what was basically mushrooms on toast. I’m nothing if not committed, though, so I soldiered on. I also knew I would not get another chance this month to live up to my veggie promise.

But all that was to come. I was tempted to go full vegetarian and order the baked Camembert to share, but I couldn’t persuade my companion to go for it and eventually I ruled it out as not being a sufficient test of the kitchen’s skills. Instead, the deep fried whitebait with garlic mayo was a near miss of a consolation prize. The whitebait were crispy and the portion was generous but the mayonnaise didn’t have the courage of its convictions (nowhere near enough garlic) and the fish themselves were incredibly salty. All a little bit out of whack, and then to cap it all the Camembert turned up at another table and I realised I’d made a big mistake (huge): it looked bloody lovely and generous (huge).

RefWhitebait

The potted local rabbit was a lot more like it. A beautiful little ramekin of shredded meat but packed with loads of other things too – ever so finely diced carrot and cornichon, rosemary, juniper berries. Just lovely – fresh and clean with just enough of a vinegary edge to stop it being cloying. There wasn’t enough toast (or, as the menu called it, “chargrilled bread”) – there never is with this kind of thing – but the salad was beautifully dressed and went nicely with the remaining rabbit. After all, you can only pile it so high on a piece of toast before it looks a bit silly.

RefRabbit

The next course meant my appointment with the aforementioned mushrooms on toast. They were cooked with wild garlic and Madeira cream, sprinkled with Stilton crumb and then topped with some salad leaves. It was fine but no more than that; if I’d cooked this at home I’d have been happy with it, but as a main course it left something to be desired. The bread was nothing special, the Stilton crumb wasn’t terribly cheesy and as a texture it just got swamped by the sauce. The salad wasn’t dressed so I ended up mopping the plate with it – serving it on the side would have made more sense, instead of putting it on top as a cheffy gesture. The mushrooms and garlic were tasty enough, but I couldn’t shift the feeling that I’d eaten a supersized starter, and twelve pounds for this felt a bit much. If only that paneer had still been on the menu.

RefShrooms

Ironically the other main, which was far more successful, was in essence a supersized breakfast. A glorious spiral of pork belly, like a Swiss roll for carnivores, came on top of a hash of firm potatoes, sweet leeks, rich crumbly black pudding and punchy, piquant chorizo. If that wasn’t enough (and it would have been) the most gorgeous soft-yolked fried duck egg was perched on top of the whole lot, ready to release liquid gold at the touch of a knife. If you’re not hungry reading all that then this really isn’t the dish for you but if you are believe me, it more than lived up to that billing. It was a symphony of pork products, although you probably didn’t want to think about just how bad for you it was. I finished nearly all of it – a little wobbly section of pork belly was never going to get eaten, but I had no complaints.

RefBelly

The wine list at the Reformation is one of those fantastic ones where many are available by the glass, where you can have 125ml, 175ml or 250ml and where you aren’t penalised for smaller measures. Close to my perfect wine list, in fact – all they had to do was offer 250ml and 500ml carafes and they’d get a gold star for wine alone. We tried three in total: the unoaked chardonnay was smooth and creamy, the Gaillac fresh and sophisticated and the Languedoc red (the cheapest red on the list) was the kind of robust unpretentious wine you could glug all evening. Really impressive stuff, and far better and more interesting than countless wine lists I’ve come across recently.

So, two good dishes and two disappointing ones. In those circumstances, having dessert felt as much like a tie-breaker as a chance to indulge further. I was tempted by the cheeses (a great British selection by the superbly named Pong of Bath including Lincolnshire Poacher, one of my favourites) but the call of the school dinner was as so often too difficult to resist. Besides, little cheers me up quite like sticky toffee pudding. Alas, again it was close but no cigar. It was on the generous side but it was far too sweet (even for me) and there wasn’t enough butterscotch sauce or enough ice cream. I chose ice cream over cream but on reflection cream would have been a better option to try and tone down the onslaught of sugar.

It reminded me strongly of those tinned Heinz steamed sponge puddings that were such a treat in my house back in the 80s. That’s not entirely a criticism – I could go one right now, in fact – but I think I expected better. And that was a problem throughout the mail, in hindsight – however good it was I think I frequently expected better. That might have been my fault for reading TripAdvisor or listening to some of my foodie friends, but whoever’s fault it was it still fell flat. I always finish sticky toffee pudding, but I left some of this; the uncleaned plate had a certain sadness to it.

Honours ended up even though, because the lemon posset was beautiful. It had the lightness and sharpness that had been missing from the STP – a perfect way to refresh the palate after the richness of the belly pork. If I was being fussy I would have liked a bit more of the shortbread crumb on top (although that might have run the risk of turning it into an upside down cheesecake), the physalis was a pointless adornment and the icing sugar was too – but I feel I may have been quite fussy enough already, so let’s just say that I liked it a lot.

RefDessert

My mixed feelings about the food were, if anything, made even sharper by just how brilliant the service was. The waitress was lovely throughout – knowledgeable about the menu, full of ideas and recommendations and genuinely enthusiastic about some of the choices we made. Even though it was just a random visit on a weekday evening she lifted it and made it feel a bit like a special occasion. She was so good, in fact, that I started to doubt myself: maybe it was me, rather than the kitchen who was having an off-day? Could all those positive reviews really be mistaken? It felt like a real puzzler. The meal for two – three courses each along with three glasses of wine and a soft drink – came to sixty-four pounds, not including tip.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I wanted to like The Reformation more than I actually did. And there was stuff to like, don’t get me wrong – that rabbit, the service, the smoker’s shed, the witticisms on the walls – but it felt very much like the cliché of a meal of two halves; had I foregone the vegetarian main, perhaps the number down there would be higher. So, this isn’t the rave recommendation you might expect from TripAdvisor, but a cautious suggestion that the Reformation is worth consideration next time you feel like a drive in the country and a meal in a pub. It’s not completely unqualified, though: if you love meat it’s probably worth the trip and the superb welcome, but if you’re a vegetarian who likes a decent portion (you lot snickering at the back can just cut it out) then you might want to give it a miss. The funny thing is that despite the fact that some of the dishes were disappointing I still left wanting to go back. Like a darts player who keeps hitting fives and ones I feel like I just need another shot and I’d get the treble twenty. So yes, I’ll be making a return visit. And I will order that bloody Camembert, just watch me. Even if I have to have it all to myself. Don’t think I won’t.

The Reformation – 7.2
Horsepond Road, Gallowstree Common, RG4 9BP
0118 9723126

http://www.therefpub.com/

Siblings Home

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Some of my readers have told me that they’re members of the “scroll down and scroll back up” club. They look at the rating first, then they go back and read the review. Just to level the playing field for everybody just this once: I absolutely adored Siblings Home. It opened on Valentine’s Day, appropriately enough, and if I’m not careful this review might end up reading a bit like a love letter (don’t say you haven’t been warned).

Siblings Home is tucked away on a sidestreet just off the main drag in Caversham. It’s a two minute walk from Costa Coffee, but in all other respects a universe away: the front is a beautiful double-aspect room with lovely light from those big, big windows. Inside, it’s full of reclaimed wood and old school furniture, exposed lights hanging from the ceiling. I know – what I’ve described sounds like all sorts of restaurant and café clichés, but Siblings Home is a very different beast: it’s clearly been done with love by someone with a very good eye (and, I’d guess, nowhere near as much money as the big chains) so what could seem like a piece of calculated bandwagon jumping is actually a beautifully warm and considered space.

It all feels a bit Labour And Wait, like someone has found a great café in Hoxton or the North Laine and, through some magical realism variant of Control X and Control V, had dropped it incongruously on a street corner in Caversham (I spotted a stool that had “David Bowie” written on it in Tippex, which only reinforced that impression). I couldn’t think of anywhere even remotely like it elsewhere in Reading, just places that had aimed for this kind of look or feel and missed by varying degrees. When I got there on a weekend morning there were already a bunch of hip young (and not so young) things inside, drinking coffee from chunky mugs and luxuriating in the warm word bath of the weekend papers. Aside from the front room there are two others: one full of homewares you can buy to take home and a little back room which has extra space for customers.

Of course, all this only works if the food is good and by this stage I was hoping against hope that I wouldn’t be sitting through another depressing knockout victory for style over substance. The menu, on a blackboard behind the counter, looked promising and made all the right noises: a few breakfast options revolving around toast, granola or muesli and just four sandwiches, all either available in toasted sourdough or piadina, a thin Italian flatbread.

In the interests of research, we tried both types of sandwich and soon realised that substance was going to triumph over style on points. Chorizo, Jarlsberg and mushroom in toasted sourdough was downright marvellous: the sourdough was sliced thinly enough for the insides to melt properly and the outside had been lightly buttered (I think) for better toasting. The flavours were excellent; nice, thin piquant chorizo with a decent amount of creamy Jarlsberg and, last but not least, the rich, earthiness of the mushrooms. A little sprig of thyme had been pressed onto the outside of the toastie, and that attention to detail, that interest in fresh ingredients and that understanding of flavours, in such a little thing, made me love Siblings Home even more. It also came with a salad I actually wanted to eat – a little red chard and rocket, lightly dressed, along with some tartly sweet cherry tomatoes adding zing and colour. Having it done so well and so simply here just made me realise how many other places bugger this kind of thing up. All the salad got eaten, which is the lunchtime equivalent of a standing ovation.

SibSour

The piadina was just as delicious. The flatbread had been folded into a shape something like a tricorne, and inside it was packed with firm salty halloumi, fresh crunchy red pepper and oodles of pesto. I didn’t know what to expect from the piadina itself but the texture was magnificent – not brittle like a tortilla or spongy like a panino, it stood up to the grilling perfectly. The whole thing together was a wonderful sandwich – no wasted space, that perfect blend of salty and sweet filling right up to the edges, every mouthful an utter delight. At the end I took the rest of my salad and used it to mop up the last of the pesto on my plate – which is probably the lunchtime equivalent of an even longer standing ovation. Both sandwiches cost four pounds fifty and were made there and then behind the counter rather than sitting there waiting for someone to order them: again, I was reminded how many places in Reading offer so much less for more money.

SibPiadina

The drinks were excellent, too. Siblings Home serves proper leaf tea in proper pots, with vintage mugs to drink from and milk served in little glass inkwells (you might find that a little twee but by that stage I was completely charmed by the whole thing). My Earl Grey – from Martyn’s of Muswell Hill according to the blackboard – was very nice indeed. The latte, on the other hand, got rave reviews although I’m told it was much more like a big comforting café au lait than a little, intense, densely frothed latte (my companion started to wax lyrical about coffee in Paris at this point, and truth be told I zoned out and paid more attention to my paper). The only misfire was the pain au chocolat which wrapped up proceedings. I really wanted one but it was dense and chewy where it should have been light and flaky. No matter: by then I already loved the place and was in a distinctly forgiving mood. Besides, surely it was my fault for not going for the chocolate brownie or the intriguing-sounding pear and lavender cake?

Service was spot on from start to finish. The young lady serving was bustling about bringing drinks and making up sandwiches but managed to be really friendly and chirpy and when our plates were cleared by one of the titular siblings she seemed genuinely pleased that we’d enjoyed our lunch. The enthusiasm was infectious – I left wanting to come back, soon, and to support them by spending money (and having lovely food and drink. I’m not completely altruistic). The bill, for two sandwiches, two rounds of hot drinks and a pastry was twenty pounds. We could have spent less but were in no hurry to leave: I could quite easily have grabbed some magazines or got out my Kindle and settled in for far longer.

Although I’m no Mary Portas, it’s worth briefly mentioning the other arm of Siblings Home because the shop in the middle room sells lots of lovely things, also clearly put together by someone with a very good eye and an excellent contacts book: from plain, timeless, practical earthenware mugs and dishes to sturdy, beautiful chopping boards, from cacti to cards, from bars of chocolate and jars of local honey to handsome woollen blankets. My one regret is that I didn’t pick anything up – but in my defence I was already a bit giddy from having such an unexpectedly fantastic lunch and things could easily have got out of control.

When you review somewhere every week, this lark can get a bit dispiriting. Mediocre or muddled places, poor food and service, unimaginative concepts, mean-spirited portions, bad execution: they sometimes make me wonder whether my standards are just too high. Maybe my lofty ideals aren’t realistic, and Reading is just like everywhere else and we should buckle down and accept our lot – chains, 2 for 1 vouchers, Groupon deals, making do – and getting on the train to Oxford or London if we don’t like it. But then I go somewhere like Siblings Home that just gets everything right – no fannying around, no cobblers about “artisan products”, no box-ticking attempts to be everything to everyone. Instead, a small, sensible range of simple, excellent food in a beautiful, stylish room along with friendly, enthusiastic service. It makes me realise that it can be done, even if I’m sure the people at Siblings Home make it look a lot easier than it really is. This place reminds me why I started writing this blog in the first place. And finding it is a little bit like falling in love, all over again.

Siblings Home – 8.0
16 Hemdean Road, RG4 7SX
07956 567872

http://www.siblingshome.com/

Artigiano

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Let me paint you a picture: one of the reasons the dining scene in Reading can be a confusing place is because many establishments don’t seem to have decided quite what they want to be. So you get indies like Nibsy’s which look so polished in terms of their presentation and branding that you could easily imagine they’re part of a chain on the one hand, and chains like Bill’s that are trying really hard to look independent on the other. When even the Gregg’s on Queen Victoria Street is sporting fake exposed brickwork to try and look bang up to date, no wonder people can feel baffled.

But it’s not just about appearances, there’s also a degree of multi-tasking involved. So we have pubs that do Thai food, wine shops that do charcuterie, cafes that also sell home accessories. Part of it is also about trying to offer something all day to justify those high rents: the chains are good at this, so the likes of Carluccio’s, Bills and Côte will go effortlessly from breakfast to lunch through to dinner, keeping the tills ringing all the way to closing time (everyone’s at it, in fact: this week Pret A Manger announced that it was going to trial serving evening meals in one of its London branches). Part of it though is about trying to widen appeal, and it’s a hard balance to strike – if it works, a place looks like a brilliant all-rounder. If it doesn’t, it has an identity crisis.

Artigiano is a very good example of this in action. It’s a café by day which morphs into an altogether different venue in the evenings, so you can have coffee and sandwiches at lunchtime, tea and a cake in the afternoon and then, as the sun goes down, the emphasis moves to wine, craft beer and nibbles, with a side order of occasional live music. It helps, too, that it’s been so attractively fitted out – all hard wood, smart mid-century inspired furniture and industrial fittings (yes, and exposed brickwork, naturally).

It stands out a little at the less swish end of Broad Street. Get Reading recently wrote a very interesting piece, prompted by Primark’s impending move into the old BHS site, that said the dividing line was anything west of Waterstones – and much as I love wandering round Clas Ohlson I think they probably have a point. So, Artigiano is an independent with the polish of a chain, in one of Reading’s less attractive locations, trying to cover all bases at all times. That’s quite a challenge: can they pull it off?

It was packed when I turned up over the bank holiday weekend looking for a spot of lunch and I could see why. They’ve done a good job of breaking it up into sections with lots of different furniture styles from functional for eating to comfy for drinking. The ground floor, to me, feels a little more sterile whereas the upstairs is much softer and more welcoming (and if you can grab one of the tables for two on the first floor by the window you get a terrific view of Broad Street). They also have quite a lot of tables outside, and the weather was almost nice enough that they didn’t feel ludicrously optimistic.

The lunch options were limited to ready-made salads (in the fridge next to the counter) and sandwiches, which were laid out across the counter next to the range of cakes. Personally I found that offputting: I’d prefer everything to be wrapped or covered as I’m not a fan of sneezemuffins or coughcake. I soldiered on regardless (maybe it’s just me – let’s just say that you don’t want to know how many times I wash my hands every day). It’s very much a café experience – no table service, so the sandwiches were plated up there at the counter and we took a table number for our hot drinks which followed later.

The sandwiches were generally tried and tested combinations rather than bursting with innovation: cheese ploughmans, “New York deli” i.e. pastrami and cheese, falafel wrap (it seems to be a legal obligation for sandwich chains to dish up cold falafel these days even though cold falafel are a sad parody of how falafel should taste). The most interesting-looking one was roasted vegetables with both houmous and sweet chilli sauce – I didn’t order it, I regretted it and then when the sandwiches I did try were both disappointing I consoled myself with the thought that it wouldn’t have been good anyway. We went for a chicken caesar wrap and a chicken and bacon baguette, and the waitress serving asked if we wanted them toasted. I found that plain odd: I can understand lobbing things in a panini press where there’s cheese involved but otherwise it seemed an eccentric move to try and put what is essentially a chicken baguette in a toaster. We declined.

The bacon and chicken roll was labelled as a “chicken club”. As far as I know a club sandwich is usually a double decker on sliced bread whereas this was a single decker wholegrain baguette. The bread was OK – it looked nutty but tasted surprisingly plain (especially compared with the “artisan bread” at Pret or the fresh sliced bread at Picnic, both of which are top notch). Inside was a meagre smear of mayonnaise, a single layer of lettuce, sliced tomato and some chicken and bacon. Both meats – the chicken in disturbingly uniform slabs, the bacon a pair of floppy strips – had the appearance of being pre-cooked catering food and were glacially cold. Artigiano’s website makes much of the quality of its ingredients but it really didn’t feel that way from where I was sitting: I found myself wondering just how freshly assembled this sandwich had been, and more to the point what exactly it had been assembled from. Worst of all, it was so dry, so tasteless and so disappointing that half of it was left on the plate at the end: carrying on would have just been throwing worse calories after bad.

ArtiBag

The other sandwich, the chicken Caesar wrap, did get polished off – although that was more a sign of its diminutive size than its deliciousness. It was in two short halves, which were even shorter when I realised that a lot of each end was taken up in a big stodgy clove hitch of tortilla with no filling. As for the filling there was, it aspired to inoffensiveness: the shredded chicken was clean-tasting, if bland, but there was no Caesar dressing that I could make out and certainly no Parmesan. The lettuce was nice enough (although really, how exciting can lettuce get?) and there were some small bits of bacon scattered throughout – less than I would have liked, but by now “less than I would have liked” was becoming a theme.

The suggestion was that this also contained sun-dried tomato, and on a very close inspection I could just about find what might have been the tiniest pieces of sun-dried tomato known to man. The implication seemed to be that they had someone in the kitchen whose sole job was to cut sun-dried tomatoes into almost undetectable pieces: if so, they really need to devote their considerable knife skills (or laser skills – they may well have used one instead) to something else. The only thing that wasn’t less than I would have liked was the cost – four pounds fifty felt like an astonishing amount of money for such a small, ordinary sandwich. The price was also the reason why, although this aspired to be inoffensive, it was destined not to get there.

ArtiWrap

So, that’s all the bad news. The good news is that the tea and coffee were brilliant. The tea was proper loose leaf tea in a sensible, generous pot with a removable strainer basket: I managed to get two decently brewed, un-stewed cups out of this and it was gorgeous, fragrant Earl Grey. I’ve not been to Yumchaa yet, but on current form this is my favourite tea in Reading – so much better and more generous than chains like Pret or indies like Picnic and even Lincoln. I’m reliably informed that the coffee was delicious too – with a hint of liquorice but without any burnt note. It was two pounds seventy five, whereas my huge pot of tea was two pounds thirty. I make that tea one, coffee nil – even if that puts me out of step with ninety-five percent of Reading.

Service was friendly, although most of it happened at the till (and this largely consisted of cutting the sandwiches in half and plonking them on a plate). When the drinks were brought over there was no chirpy “enjoy your lunch” and there was also no goodbye holler as we left shortly after. I’m sure that on previous visits there has been more warmth and welcome, but this time it all felt a bit blank and flavourless. Like the sandwiches, in fact. The bill for two sandwiches and two hot drinks was a touch under fifteen pounds, and we both left distinctly peckish.

So, all-rounder or identity crisis? Visiting Artigiano was a frustrating experience, partly because there’s so much to like and it’s good at many things. The tea and coffee are well worth trying. The cakes, which I’ve enjoyed on a previous visit, are also very good. The selection of craft beers, ciders and wines is rather nice and on a weekday night the upstairs still feels like a cool little bolthole that the rest of Reading hasn’t cottoned on to yet. But I’m not a coffee reviewer or a bar reviewer: I’m a food reviewer, and on that basis Artigiano didn’t work for me. If I wanted somewhere small and independent I’d go to Shed. If I wanted somewhere polished and consistent I might well eat at Pret A Manger. Artigiano didn’t feel like it competed – in terms of cost, quality or service – with either of them. And I haven’t tried Gregg’s, despite the lure of the fake brickwork, but I wouldn’t put money on Artigiano being better than that either. So would I go back for food? Put it this way: Artigiano starts with art and ends with a no, and so does this review.

Artigiano – 5.3
81 Broad Street, RG1 2AP
0118 9500703

http://www.artigiano.uk.com/reading.html

L’Ortolan

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Despite Reading being a pretty affluent town it’s always been short on Michelin stars. There’s a gathering around Bray (Orion’s Belt, if you like) and the two star Hand and Flowers out at Marlow but the only truly local “star” is L’Ortolan, in Shinfield (so close, it’s RG2 which I guess makes it our Alpha Centauri). As with most people I expect a Michelin star to make a restaurant fussy and pricey – although if Michelin themselves are to be believed, stars are awarded for food alone and, technically at least, have nothing to do with table linen or waiters in waistcoats. Even so, driving into the countryside to try L’Ortolan gave me a sense of trepidation: not just about whether the food would be any good, but also about whether I’d be up to reviewing it.

Stepping over the threshold of Ortolan is like stepping inside a machine; the smartly dressed, suited staff are everywhere, taking coats, ushering customers to the bar, bringing drinks, wiping up invisible spills from the hardwood floor, plumping cushions. Everything looks impeccable, like a modern day clockwork Downton Abbey. Over a drink in the bar we were served canapés on a slate, just enough to get our tastebuds firing. Michelin starred dining is full of these bits and bobs – pre-pre starters, pre-starters, pre-desserts – and these were a nice enough introduction. There were little airy crackers with potato and onion, a thin wooden cone full of maple and truffle popcorn, the maple hitting you first and the truffle sneaking in at the end. The best of them were goose and foie gras croquettes, smooth and rich, Eton Turkey Twizzlers.

People often say it’s possible to eat affordably at a Michelin starred restaurant (normally, ironically, in a review where they’ve made no attempt to do so) so we were both picking from the lunchtime prix fixe. Three courses, with three or four choices per course, comes to thirty-two pounds: or it will do, at least, if you don’t pick one of the dishes with a five or ten pound supplement. Narrow, yes, but not so narrow as to be constricting, with lots of interesting choices to make. So we sat in the bar, sipping our pre-prandials, feeling pampered and making our decisions. Only when our orders had been taken and our glasses were empty did we go into to the restaurant proper: places like L’Ortolan are very good at letting you take your time.

Being taken through to the dining room revealed two rooms, one on the austere side, and the other, a conservatory room with a tented ceiling, harking back to the Raj. I was glad to be sat in the latter as it felt a little more relaxed. Tables in both rooms were the same, with smart linen, a fancy glass plate at each setting (soon whisked away, which begged the question of what it was there for) and comfy if slightly awkwardly angled velvety seats.

A big bowl of bread soon arrived and we tucked in while waiting for our starters to arrive. The best of them was a small treacle baguette, which was a golden saffron colour inside and slightly sweet with a hint of black treacle, The other breads – sourdough, focaccia and a small seeded roll – were nice, if not quite at the same heights, and there was plenty of room temperature butter (stinginess with butter is one of my bugbears, but then I do like a lot of it).

Before our starters arrived there was a pre dessert – an espresso cup of soup (isn’t it always?). This was a rich but light mushroom velouté which had a hint of truffle, a tiny sourdough crouton and a deliciously sweet and sour pickled mushroom. I enjoyed it so much that fighting the urge to clean the inside of the cup with a piece of bread was quite a titanic struggle; I didn’t want to let the side down with all the other genteel tables around me.

The starters were both beautiful to look at. The duck liver (introduced as foie gras when brought to the table) with blood orange and basil marmalade was heavenly, even for something so sinful. The liver was just cooked with a slightly caramelised outside. Next to it was a small dome of creamy duck liver parfait with pain d’epice crumb, all lovely and gingery. On a slice of flattened puff pastry were neatly laid slices of blood orange, resting on some of the marmalade. The marmalade itself was more like a curd, a thick smear of it (they do love smears in restaurants like this) on one side of the plate. Ordering this involved paying a five pound supplement, but it was a good decision: it was the best thing I ate all afternoon, and writing this makes me want to have it all over again. In particular the sweet richness of the liver with the tart blood orange was fantastic, and not a combination I’d ever have imagined before.

OrtDuck

The other starter also looked gorgeous, but looks were the main thing going for it. On paper, confit salmon, pickled cucumber and ketjap manis gel sounded terrific but what turned up had a strong air of seeming like a good idea at the time. The salmon was lovely – subtle, fresh and breaking into flakes with no effort at all (which took me aback, since it looked so much like sashimi). And I wouldn’t have minded it being so petite, if it had had more interesting things on the plate to pair it with, but I wasn’t that fortunate. The pickled cucumber, big indelicate chunks, had almost no sweetness or sharpness so was watery and bland. The ketjap manis gel was sweet and intense. But the rest? Well, it felt an awful lot like sludge to me: swirls of two different other sauces spiralling round the plate, a little heap of horseradish snow and micro herbs strewn all over the shop. Wetness, wetness everywhere. Towards the end I found some sesame seeds – strong, intense, delicious – submerged where they were almost unnoticeable and beyond rescue. It was the sort of plate you never quite clean: it looked like a Pollock once I was finished. They brought more bread after that, and I started to wonder whether I’d need it.

For main, the rump of beef was as lovely as the duck liver. It was three very pink (as requested) slices of beef with smoked pommes Anna on a red wine jus with bone marrow hollandaise. Underneath the beef was half a roasted banana shallot, a few pieces of tenderstem broccoli, two cubes of dense beef and a creamy mushroom sauce, dotted with mushrooms. The rump itself was a little tough under the knife but tender when chewed. The potatoes were wafer thin and richly flavoured (almost like the potatoes my mum used to cook in with the roast beef when I was a kid, although the Michelin inspectors never troubled my mum’s kitchen – or yours, I’d imagine). The shallot was sweet and the mushroom sauce was intensely flavoured. There was only one blot on the copybook – one of the cubes of beef, a big layer of fat running through it, was far too tough to cut or to eat – but apart from that, it was perfection, a high-end reinvention of a Sunday roast, where each ingredient was so concentrated and intense that size simply did not matter.

OrtBeef

The other main had sat up and begged to be ordered when I saw the menu: loin of lamb, Parmesan gnocchi, sweetbread popcorn, confit tomato. Again, it looked absolutely gorgeous, and the lamb was beautifully cooked, what there was of it anyway. But again the rest of the dish underwhelmed. The confit tomatoes were the best, little bright-coloured flashes of sweetness. The sweetbreads were an Eton reimagining of KFC popcorn chicken – nice enough but maybe not the surprise I’d been hoping for. The gnocchi was one single chewy wodge whose main role in proceedings seemed to be to show off how delicious the Pommes Anna on the other plate were. And, of course, more little spheres and splodges of sauce – along with, randomly, a smear of something that tasted like goats cheese. Oh, and more of those sesame seeds. I’ve never believed that food should ever be too beautiful to eat, but unfortunately this was more fun to look at than to eat. There was a ten pound supplement for this and I’m not really sure why, because it was smaller, lighter and far less special than the beef.

OrtLamb

More freebies followed with an impeccable pre-dessert: a little shot glass with creamy coconut rice pudding at the bottom, little cubes of rum jelly above it and a layer of passion fruit mousse at the top. I could quite easily have eaten a dessert sized portion of this. Not for the first time in a high end restaurant, I wondered why the free stuff always seems to taste the best. Maybe because it’s “free”: I know, ultimately, it isn’t but sometimes the mind is quite happy to let itself be tricked.

For dessert I simply had no choice but to have the cheese: I’d seen the cheese trolley wheeled past on several occasions while I finished the previous two courses and it was impossible to resist. There were a mind-boggling twenty cheeses on offer – going from the hard cheeses, past goats cheeses and on to some softer-rinded cheeses with varying degrees of stinkiness – all of which were explained in detail by the captain of the trolley, a really personable young man with obvious enthusiasm for his charges. I was allowed four, which were served with super thin slices of bread and crackers, and a choice of chutney and truffle honey. There were also grapes and celery just in case I wanted to offset some of the calories, although I’d given up counting by that point. The ones that stood out for me were the Burwash Rose, a rich, tangy, semi soft cheese with a rind washed in rose water and the Blue Murder, a Scottish blue so ripe it was in danger of running off the plate (or, rather, slate) and, for that matter, out of the building. The latter was particularly good with some of that honey, although the truffle couldn’t stand up to the cheese itself and was close to undetectable. This plate also attracted a five pound supplement but the variety was so good (perhaps not in the hard cheeses – I was hoping to see a really good Gruyere or Comte, but it was not to be) and the portion sufficiently generous that I didn’t begrudge them one bit.

OrtCheese

The other dessert was chocolate and cardamom ganache with orange curd and mint ice cream. Unlike many of the things I’d eaten, that was a pretty good description and – for the only time in the meal – what turned up was roughly what I’d expected to see. It was bliss: a long thin rectangle of smooth, glossy ganache, powdered with cardamom, was just gorgeous. The mint ice cream – green, fresh garden mint, a million miles from bright green mint choc chip – was so fantastic I didn’t want to pair it with anything else. The orange curd zinged with sweet sharpness. Best of all, perhaps, was the kitchen’s reinterpretation of Mint Aero – three little chunks of fluffy chocolate which imploded in the mouth, a piece of culinary pyrotechnics. Just beautiful. And, in case you’d forgotten the kitchen has a Michelin star, some pointless micro leaves.

OrtChoc

I knew the wine list would sting, and it did. As I was driving, the initial plan was to order wine by the glass but the prices by the glass were so punitive – seven or eight pounds for 125ml, easily a tenner for 175ml – that we decided it would be better value to get a bottle from the bottom end of the wine list and picked a Cote du Rhone for thirty-seven pounds (to give you an idea, that’s the fifth cheapest red they sell by the bottle). I was feeling really pleased with my bargain hunting until I got home, did some research and found that the same bottle retails for eleven pounds. Still, there was no bitter taste at the time.

Service was excellent, if a little cool. There was a constantly rotating team of waiters which served plates, cleared plates, poured wine and poured water, which gave the feeling of being continuously “served” but without a lot in the way of interaction. It was exceptionally well-run, just a tad emotionless. A few of the waiters – the captain of the cheese trolley, one of the waiters who topped up our glasses – seemed to have a little more charm, it’s just a shame that this was the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps customers at Ortolan (who do tend to be older and middle class, based on the clientèle when we were there) expect service of the “seen and not heard” variety, or perhaps my expectations have been skewed by too much casual dining. I would blame Michelin – lots of people like to – but I’ve eaten at other starred restaurants which felt a lot less, well, starchy.

The total bill, including a 12.5% “optional” service charge, for two drinks from the bar (one of them soft), a bottle of wine and three courses was one hundred and forty five pounds. So, I tried to eat cheaply at L’Ortolan and I have to say it’s just not really possible: we could have saved twenty pounds on supplements but even then it would be pretty difficult to get the bill under a hundred pounds unless neither of you were drinking.

I found L’Ortolan such a mixed bag that it’s difficult to wrap it all up in a neat and easy conclusion. I almost feel like there were two different meals here: the duck liver and beef were fantastically well-judged, well-balanced, generous and delicious dishes where it felt like there was more to them than expected. The salmon and lamb was the opposite – too delicate and light without enough oomph to stop them from being damp squibs. I guess the question is, if you went to L’Ortolan, which of those two meals you’d get. If it was the first, you’d be evangelising to friends, but if it was the second you’d be wondering what the fuss was about.

I think in the back of my mind I was partly comparing the prix fixe at L’Ortolan with the a la carte somewhere like Mya Lacarte and thinking about differences in the food, the execution, the ideas and the experience. In a straight-out comparison, I’m not sure L’Ortolan would win out very often, however stunning the building, beautiful the dishes, plentiful the freebies. Maybe that’s about me and the kind of dining I prefer, so disregard it by all means: it’s worth going to say you’ve gone, and you’re unlikely to have a bad meal if you do. But, to me at least, it still felt ever so slightly like eating in a machine – and good restaurants are a broad church of many things, but I don’t think machine is one of them.

L’Ortolan – 7.8
Church Lane, Shinfield, RG2 9BY
0118 9888500

http://www.lortolan.com/

River Spice

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The single question I get asked most often, apart from where to eat, is “what do the ER ratings mean?” I’ve often wondered whether to devote a separate post to this, or to leave it an enigma. The thing is, lots of people like ratings. They want to know whether a film that’s just come out is a 4 star film or a 5 star film, and I can see why: back when I read reviews but didn’t write them I wanted to know that too. Now that I write one every week, I can see it’s more complicated than that. How can you sum a whole experience up in a mark out of ten? If I could go back and start again, I’d be tempted to miss out ratings altogether. But would I go through with it? After all, they might be difficult to decide on, they might prompt head-scratching and disagreement but, like I said: lots of people like ratings.

I’ve always hoped that the ratings on ER work a bit like those on music website Pitchfork. I can read a Pitchfork review of an album that’s rated, say, 8.0 and absolutely know that it won’t be my cup of tea (because of references to, for example, Krautrock – how exciting!), or I can read a 6.2 and rush out and buy the CD. It’s no different with restaurants: the ratings are an interesting conversation point, but there are so many other factors involved. Is it your kind of food? Is it going to be any good for vegetarians? Is it buzzy/quiet/fancy/unpretentious enough for you? Is getting to the location a faff?

Another thing I often get is people saying that my reviews are too harsh, or too kind (sometimes I get both bits of feedback about the same review) or people saying that the review doesn’t read like the rating, that the words feel like an 8 but the rating says 7. Well, I suppose if I’ve been somewhere I liked and you didn’t you’ll think I’m harsh. If I’ve raved about somewhere that left you unmoved you might think I’m too charitable.

A complicating factor is that, over the time I’ve done this, I’ve felt increasingly like being constructive. These are small independent places, mostly, and they’re trying their best – even if their best isn’t that good. I don’t have the appetite for hatchet jobs, and I know that’s disappointing because, like ratings, people really like them. So, and hopefully this will be my last word on the subject of ratings: if you read a review and it makes you feel like trying the restaurant, do. If it doesn’t, don’t. Does that sound fair enough?

This has all been uppermost in my mind because I had such a disappointing meal at River Spice (you may have scrolled to the end, in which case you’ve probably already figured that out). It might have been especially disappointing because I arrived with high expectations: several people had recommended River Spice to me as equal to House Of Flavours, my current benchmark for Indian restaurants in Reading. Enough people recommended it, in fact, and in glowing enough terms that I spent a lot of the meal wondering if it was my fault rather than the restaurant’s.

Early signs were good – it’s an interesting location for a restaurant, at the end of the Caversham Road, facing onto the river (I can see it would be a lovely spot in summer). The room is clean and modern with nice big tables, good cutlery and crisp white napkins. The welcome was polished and professional and although only a handful of tables were occupied on a Monday night, the other diners did seem to be regulars. The menu made me look forward to what lay ahead, full of dishes I’ve not seen at other restaurants in town: tandoori duck and monkfish, grilled ostrich. There were plenty of seafood and fish curries, too. The conventional options were relegated to a section near the end called “all time favourite dishes”. Order them if you must, but we can do much better seemed to be the implication.

Well, maybe they can but that wasn’t my experience. The poppadoms were perfectly pleasant – light, not oily, easily broken into shards – and gave no hint of the disappointments to follow. I know a lot of people think bad, stale poppadoms suggest a bad restaurant (the culinary equivalent of a canary in a coal mine, perhaps) but sadly the reverse isn’t true. It was downhill from there.

King prawn suka, for instance, sounded so delicious on the menu: king prawns in tamarind, garlic, honey, chilli, salt and turmeric. On the plate it looked and tasted unremarkable – two prawns coated in a red gloop, as sweet and fruity as jam. I love tamarind sauce, but there was nothing to offset it and certainly none of the complexity promised by the rest of the ingredients. The rest of the plate was padded out with lukewarm salad – maybe that distracts some of the diners from the fact that they’ve just paid over six pounds for two prawns and something disconcertingly like cranberry sauce, but for me it had the opposite effect.

RiverPrawns

The other starter was chicken nakazat, tandoori skewers flavoured with chicken and nutmeg. It was two decent sized pieces of chicken with a strong taste of garlic and a faint whiff of disconcerting cheese – they looked cheesy and tasted cheesy even though I couldn’t see, from the menu, how this would have been possible. The menu said this dish was “delicately spiced” but I think they may be understating just how delicately. It wasn’t actively bad but I couldn’t see how anyone could get excited about it, especially if they’d tried something similar at Bhoj, House Of Flavours or indeed Pappadams.

RiverChicken

The food was so dull to eat, so dull to recall and so dull to write about that I can’t help but feel this must also be dull to read. It’s not going to get any better, I’m afraid: the mains were pretty mediocre too. The best of them was the gost kata massala, braised lamb with sliced onions, ginger, garam masala and garlic. When it arrived I had my reservations, mainly because the lamb was in such thick slabs that it called for a trust in the kitchen which, by this stage, I just didn’t have. As it turned out, the lamb pulled apart nicely, not quite as tender as it could have been but nothing for the molars to trampoline on either. The sauce was nicely savoury but again, was bland. Almost like gravy, in fact, and this felt more like a casserole than a curry – that might have been all very well on another night but it really didn’t feel like what I’d signed up for.

RiverLamb

The low point was the Goan fish curry. I was impressed to see monkfish appear prominently on the menu, rather than the softer fish (mahi mahi or the like) you often see on Indian menus, and the prospect of having it cooked skilfully in a tandoor was an exciting one. The reality of having it cooked by River Spice, however, wasn’t: the five (count them – I did) pieces of fish had a texture somewhere between cotton wool and mattress. They sat forlornly in the middle of a big puddle of yellow creamy sauce – again, emphasising just how far this dish was from getting your money’s worth (thirteen pounds, if I’m not mistaken). The sauce was thin and bland without any of the sweetness of coconut milk or the kick of any spice. Again, the menu said it was prepared with “delicate” spices: on that basis perhaps I can legitimately say that I delicately eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, delicately exercise or am delicately learning French.

RiverMonkfish

The ultimate sauce test is whether you want to mop up the rest with a naan or rice. The lamb dish passed – just – and the Goan fish curry failed with flying colours. The pilau rice doesn’t really merit a mention, and nor does the keema naan, except to say that it was disturbingly circular and not the more irregular shape of naan I have eaten elsewhere. Make of that what you will: by this point I was almost past caring. The wine – a glass of malbec and a glass of shiraz – were okay. Maybe if I’d drunk a little more I’d have disliked the food a little less. Desserts were all ice cream based but I really felt like I’d spent quite enough money at River Spice already: the whole lot came to just over fifty pounds, not including tip.

Service started out quite stand-offish: despite only two other tables in the restaurant it felt like it took a very long time to get noticed to order food. Ironically, it was roughly at the point where I realised it had been a bit of a wasted evening that they started being really nice to us. It’s almost like they knew I was going to go home and write this and they wanted to make me feel an utter shit about it. If so, I’d say they can count it as a partial success – I do feel like I’ve just spent fifteen hundred words kicking a puppy but average food is average food, even when it’s dished up by nice people. You could ask why I didn’t send any of it back, but the truth is none of it was inedible. It just never felt especially worth eating.

So, you’ll read all this and look at the rating and think I was being kind. Or you’ll have been to River Spice and you’ll think I’ve been harsh. That’s the nature of these things. But nothing I had was dangerous, or offensive, or badly cooked: it was just dull. Would I go back? No. Reading has too many Indian restaurants for anyone to have to put up with mediocre food. Maybe they were having an off night, perhaps I was, but the main memory that sticks with me is that Goan fish curry – rarely in the field of Reading dining has so much been spent on so little food for so much disappointment. So have I been too harsh? If you really want to find out then go for yourself. But I can’t say I recommend it.

River Spice – 6.1
206 Caversham Road, RG1 8AZ
0118 9503355

http://www.riverspicereading.co.uk/

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