Kobeda Palace

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Should you decide to go to Kobeda Palace my first piece of advice would be this: don’t use Google Maps to get there. Rather than suggesting the right route, down the Oxford Road and just past Workhouse Coffee, it inexplicably directs you to Wilmslow in Manchester, a drive of over three hours (and very few restaurants justify that kind of round trip). I later discovered why: looking at the front of the laminated menu while waiting to pay the bill, I discovered that Reading’s is the second branch in a tiny chain of two – although, just to make it more difficult, the Wilmslow one is actually called Kobeda Place. Confused? Me too.

Anyway I’ve been going to this Afghan grill house for ages and I’ve always wanted to review it, but one thing stopped me – for a long time, it had a one star health and safety rating. And then, just before Christmas, I went to Kobeda Palace to grab a quick pre-Nag’s Head bite to eat with some friends and there it was on the door, glowing with an unearthly light: a new Scores On The Doors sticker with a four-star rating awarded a few weeks previously. Could I hear angels singing, or did I just imagine that part? Either way it felt like my first present of the festive season, and I made a mental note to go back early in 2016.

I also made a mental note to make sure I took one of my friends who is quite possibly the biggest carnivore I know – put it this way, it’s no coincidence that Kobeda Palace has opened where Gilberts Meat Market, with its mildly terrifying statue, used to be. You smell the charcoal even as you approach the building, and it doesn’t take long to realise that this is not somewhere to go with the vegetarian in your life; the menu does say “VEGETABLE DISHES AVAILABLE – Please ask for details”, but it’s hard to imagine what they would be. So a date went in the diary, and three of us turned up there on a Friday night (before going on to the Nag’s Head funnily enough. Predictable I know).

It’s quite an odd room to eat in. It’s very plain and functional, with the grill and the counter facing you as you go in. The rest of the room is made up of tables and high-backed brown banquettes which seem to have been placed almost at random. The overall effect is a little incongruous – it should divide the room into little booths but instead it just looks strange (I remember when it was just tables and stark, rigid chairs, and this manages to be an upgrade without necessarily being an improvement). That said, it was packed: all around me were families with nicely-behaved kids and little clusters of gesticulating friends. The waitress kept wandering past bearing plates and making me crane and scan the menu, wondering what they had ordered. The table next to us had a couple of gentlemen at it, each eating a whole chargrilled chicken, tearing the skin and flesh off the bone with their hands and dipping it in a bowl of houmous; just watching them made me hungry and envious.

Kobeda Palace really isn’t a starters, mains and desserts place: it’s all about grilled meat in a range of combinations and permutations, served with naan or rice (which makes me wonder, again, what those vegetable dishes could possibly be). We tried as many of them between us as we could, which turned out to be quite a lot of the menu. Lamb chops, which turned up that hyper-real shade of brick red which almost looks Photoshopped, were judged the pick of the bunch, tender if not pink, with a level of heat closer to lip-tingling than tongue-scorching. The lamb tikka, a similarly freakish colour, were almost as good, each cube scored almost in half so they could check it was done.

KobedaMeat1

Chicken tikka I struggled to like quite so much – you got more of the smoke and char than of any flavour beneath, and the texture of a couple of pieces was not quite right. And then there was the eponymous kobeda itself, a long cylinder of lamb kofte. It was splendid; I’ve had it before and found it a bit offputtingly soft, perhaps too reliant on rusk, but this was truly magnificent, if impossible to describe well without flirting with innuendo. Also wonderful were the huge, chargrilled halves of onion – soft, sweet and blackened. All of this came on the naan, the other big draw here. Stretched and made on the premises, these were almost edible plates, long and rectangular, just asking to be torn up, wrapped around hunks of meat and crammed into greedy mouths.

KobedaMeat2

I know, rationally, that there were also a couple of plates of some sort of salad: lettuce, some cucumber, a couple of pitted olives, various other vegetation. I also know that there were some sauces – something like a raita, a punchy hot red sauce and a herby green sauce. But truth be told they didn’t really feel like the kind of thing to hold my attention for very long, under the circumstances.

The best dish of the evening, though, was something we picked out of curiosity. Kobeda Palace also does a karahi chicken and a karahi lamb, so we ordered the former and it was a revelation. The sauce was thick and complex with no slick of oil, full of chilli and nigella, curry leaves and coriander, fine batons of ginger strewn on top (“it tastes like a really good Vesta curry” said one of my companions – if that had really been true the Eighties could have been so much more enjoyable), and scooping it up with that perfect naan was an unmitigated delight. But the chicken was gorgeous – on the bone but well-jointed and easily separated from it, tender from slow-cooking in a way that grilled meat could never be.

KobedaKarahi

There was no alcohol licence, so we drank mango lassi by the jug, which is especially easy to do when a jug is only five pounds (in fact, even if they had been licenced I might have stuck to the lassi). The second jug never quite arrived, so instead once we’d finished our meals the waitress came over apologetically with three glasses, and I’m not sure she charged us for all of them. That was the service in general – friendly but a bit harried. In other restaurants I might have taken against this but somewhere like Kobeda Palace which is deliberately quite no frills I found it impossible to resent. Oh, and the mango lassi was good – especially the second batch which was ice cold, refreshing and cleansing without being cloying. Dinner for three (and we ate far more food than is strictly sensible) came to pretty much forty pounds on the nail.

How to sum up a place like Kobeda Palace? Well, let’s do the downside first. It’s a little bit scruffy, just the right side of chaotic and in an area where many people would have to go out of their way to visit. Some people will be put off by the lack of an alcohol licence, others will find it far too meat-centric. It’s also a bit nippy if you get a table by the window, as I did, the back room on the way to the loos is strangely threadbare and the toilets are best described as a work in progress. So yes, I can honestly say that if you’re the kind of person who’s bothered by that kind of thing, Kobeda Palace is not for you. But all the people I ate amongst that Friday night had other priorities – food and company, the things restaurants should really be about. I’m with them, and I found it all rather marvellous; I fully expect to pay it another visit soon (for a big bowl of karahi chicken – to myself, this time). But I used to eat there when it had a one star hygiene rating, so what do I know?

Kobeda Palace – 7.4
409-411 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA
0118 3271400

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Kobeda-Palace/588327924595489?fref=ts

Royal Tandoori

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I sometimes envy other restaurant reviewers. Michelin has its stars, the AA has its rosettes, even the much-maligned TripAdvisor has its Certificates Of Excellence. And what do I have? Just a bunch of ratings nobody really understands which I’ve consistently refused to explain (“What do they mean?” said a friend of mine down the pub recently. “I mean, seven point five, what’s all that about?”). Well let’s not go through all that again but there’s one exception, and that’s what I call the 8+ Club: without giving too many trade secrets away, a rating in that range means a place is really, really good. Go again good, plan your next visit good, evangelise to friends good.

Sometimes, when I eat out on duty I find myself mulling over what elevates a restaurant or a café into that select few, and as you can see if you’ve scrolled down to the bottom already (and own up, lots of you do) that was very much on my mind when I visited Royal Tandoori. Almost, but not quite. Right on the edge. I changed my mind several times during the meal, although that in itself never bodes quite well enough. So what went wrong? Why is Royal Tandoori just very good, rather than great?

For the uninitiated, it sits downstairs in the slightly ironically named “Quality Hotel” (I suppose it doesn’t specify whether it’s good quality or bad quality) and – as proudly proclaimed on the the menu – has done since 2008. It’s in town but not quite in town and yet it always looks full on the occasions when I pass by – in fact I was lucky to get a table, judging by the number of big groups that were in (on a school night, too) and the amount of hushed staff discussion that went on before they decided they could seat me. It’s a large, long room and I think they’ve spruced it up since I was there last: I may be imagining new windows, but I’m pretty sure the large black and white Bollywood stills papered onto the walls – which I rather liked – weren’t there before. The menu, though, was every bit as huge and bewildering as I remembered.

The starters were pretty darned good. Gobi Manchurian, a dish I’ve had elsewhere in Reading, was miles better here, little nuggets of battered cauliflower in something almost like an Indian barbecue sauce – sweet, sticky and spiced. It tasted so terrific that I found myself not caring that the cauliflower was ever so slightly soft and that the batter had no crunch. The best dishes can make you suspend your disbelief like that, and the only real drawback was how much I resented having to share. Jeera chicken was also top notch. It was very tender pieces of chicken breast in a spiced sauce – so far so blah – but covered in cumin seeds, somewhere halfway between a speckle and a crust. How I loved this: I adore cumin, and eating a mouthful with the sauce piled high and the pungent crunch of those seeds made me go quiet and nod an awful lot.

RoyalStarters

I was quite enjoying drifting in a cumin-infused daydream, but sadly my reverie was interrupted far too soon by the arrival of the main courses. I’d had reports of the chicken chettinadu (like nothing else in Reading, according to one reader – hi Chris!), so I felt it would have been remiss not to order it. Well, it goes to show how little help photographs are when you’re reviewing this kind of food. Like one of the other starters and the other main, it was just meat in an orangey-red sauce (and yes, I know I always say this) but the flavour was indeed complex and unusual, all black pepper and curry leaves, nigella seeds and a sharp hint of citrus which came from I know not where. It also had that clever heat which sneaks up on you rather than beating you about the tastebuds – 3 out of 4 on the International Scale Of Chillies (or ISOC for short) used by many Indian and Thai restaurants, although the only thing with an ISOC rating of four was “devil lamb”, which sounds like something you might see on a terrifying cross between Springwatch and Most Haunted.

I do like a dish that’s interesting, and this fitted the bill perfectly. The first mouthful established that it tasted different. The second mouthful established that I wasn’t entirely sure how. For all the other mouthfuls I was fed up of analysing and too busy enjoying. But it wasn’t perfect, for all that – mainly because there wasn’t an awful lot of meat. The big bowl of sauce I was left with was good for dipping and pouring, but it still felt a tad unbalanced.

The other main, lamb Hydrabadi (ISOC2 – handy!) was just as good. Despite looking very similar, it couldn’t have been more different. The lamb – and there was loads of it – was rich, intense and cooked beyond the point of having any give at all: if it had had any less integrity it could have been the subject of an OK! magazine photoshoot. But the sauce was what made this dish – smooth and spicy but shot through with the sharp green surprise of mint leaves. I know lamb and mint is a classic combination, but seeing it in this context was incongruous and comforting at the same time, and I loved that slightly altered perspective. Neither main had much – or, to be more accurate, anything – in the way of vegetables, but it was hard to care (sorry vegetarians, I’ll be back doing meat-free mains again very soon).

RoyalMains

The plain rice on the side was exactly that – although it was a bit clumpy, which made me wonder quite how it had been cooked and when. The butter naan though was interesting in that it wasn’t the big pillowy bicycle saddle of a naan that I’m used to. Instead it was light, thin, almost pizza-like. I really liked it, although I did find that with that and the rice there was sauce left at the end which I couldn’t scoop or mop. Who ever finishes a meal in an Indian restaurant and says “that was nice but I could have done with some more carbs?”. Me at the Royal Tandoori, it turns out.

We did manage to find space (and eventually manage to find some staff to order with) for dessert – and dessert, for me anyway, meant gulab jamun. The texture and the flavour were perfect, the sugar syrup had a clear note of rose water and there were a few chips of pistachio in the bowl too which I appreciated (I am starting to become a connoisseur, I reckon). But there was one drawback: the kitchen didn’t seem to be able to decide whether to serve them hot or cold and so they were neither, coming instead at a slightly jarring off-room temperature. Mango lassi (ordered as an alternative to dessert by my companion) was very good – normally the smoothness would be off-putting but apparently it was silky, sweet and delicious. Almost like caramel, I was enthusiastically told.

It wasn’t a Cobra kind of evening so we tried a couple of the red wines by the glass – a merlot and a shiraz. They were pleasant enough to drink but not nice enough to remember, which is as much as I was hoping for. The total bill, for three courses and a glass of wine each, came to fifty pounds not including tip. Service was friendly when they were there, but only when they were there. When they weren’t it seemed impossible to attract anybody’s attention and the overall atmosphere was oddly downbeat (maybe they were huge Wogan fans).

By any standards, Royal Tandoori is a good restaurant. Everything I had tasted good, everything I had tasted distinctive and some of what I had tasted quite unlike anything else I’ve had. Not only that, but I can see where it would win out over other Indian restaurants in town – more consistent than Pappadams, more central than Bhoj, maybe slightly less chaotic (and better with big groups) than House Of Flavours. More than any of those places I could see myself going there with a gang of work colleagues, all ordering different things and having a lovely time. But it doesn’t quite cross the line into great – the service was just a little too patchy, the food a little too rushed, the dishes just a little lacking in balance. But really, this score malarkey: who cares? Very good is plenty good enough most of the time. You’ll read this review, irrespective of the number at the bottom, and you’ll either want to go there or you won’t. Which is exactly how it should be.

Royal Tandoori – 7.9
4-8 Duke Street RG1 4RY
0118 9572717

http://www.royaltandoorireading.com/

Happy Diner

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I’ve always felt that when I go to a Chinese restaurant I am missing something important about how to order. I don’t speak Mandarin so the special menu (or the beautiful back pages of a menu) for real Chinese people to order from are lost on me. Instead it seems like every Chinese restaurant is selling the same dishes and with a few notable exceptions – cue my inevitable mention of sadly-departed Reading institution Chi – the experience is always the same; great starters, more crispy duck than is strictly wise and then adequate mains, all served by incredibly polite staff who somehow make the experience feel a little like I’m eating in a library.

Since I started this blog I don’t think I’ve made any progress with Chinese food at all. And it’s not like I don’t know that Chinese food can be wonderful – I still have vivid food daydreams about a sizzling chicken dish I had in Chinatown, rich with a slick savoury sauce, bubbling in a stone pot also containing seemingly a hundred pungent garlic cloves – but here in the provinces we don’t seem to get anything like that. I know it might be my fault, watching food arrive at other tables and wondering “what have they ordered? Have they picked better than me?” before returning to my prawn toasts, satay, disappointment.

Stepping into Happy Diner on a school night didn’t give me the sense that this review was going to be the one to change all that. If anything, the large, chevron-shaped room felt more like a conference centre than a restaurant. There were the obligatory sofas at the front for folk collecting takeaways, there was a fish tank filled with beautiful shimmering koi and then there was a large, long room with Chinese murals (of varying quality) on the walls. The tables were heavily draped and the chairs were the padded metal-framed ones which always – along with excitable uncles and Come On bloody Eileen – remind me of wedding receptions. And yes, it was like eating in a library: only two or three other tables were occupied, all spread out in that big space. Presumably this was done to give people privacy, but it felt a little isolating to me.

After polishing off the mandatory polystyrene prawn crackers with sweet chilli sauce I was even less convinced this was going to be The One. We started with a couple of dishes that, in retrospect, weren’t the most well-balanced. The “smoke dry spicy chicken happy diner style” resembled Chinese chicken nuggets; slivers of chicken, about the size of whitebait, that had been lightly dusted then fried. It was hard to detect any smokiness and they certainly weren’t dry – the paper doily (yes, a doily! How long is it since you’ve seen one of those?) they were served on was sheer with the amount of oil it had soaked up. So if they weren’t smoky and they weren’t dry, what were they? Mainly sugary: even the finely chopped green chilli on top tasted candied and sweet rather than adding the jolt it so badly needed. Oh, and huge – a pile so gigantic that we left close to half. Even then that meant we ate quite a lot. They were curiously addictive, but in the same way that Percy Pigs are.

HappyStarters

The other starter, salt and chilli squid, was similarly problematic. Done well this is one of the best things in the world, but Happy Diner’s version didn’t quite get there. The squid was nicely soft, the batter was light and again, the pile of squid was massive but, again, blandness was the order of the day. What didn’t help was that the pieces of squid themselves were equally gigantic – so big that I either had to pick up a bit and try to bite it (not the most delicate of operations) or pop a whole piece in and try not to choke or burn my tongue. Smaller, crispier bits of squid would have been lovely, but this was just a big fluffy cloud of frustration. The best bit was the mixture of the little crunchy salty bits of batter and the (hotter this time) chillies. It made me glad my companion had opted for cutlery, because I was never going to scoop up that delicious goodness with my amateurish chopstick skills.

The next course – no surprises here – was the crispy duck. I knew this would be too much food, but I’m biologically programmed not to turn crispy duck down. I had a sinking feeling from the moment it turned up. You know that wonderful moment when the waiter crushes the duck under a spoon and starts to shred it? That beautiful cracking noise as the skin gives way and breaks? This was more of a dull squelch, and at that point I knew that this would be duck but it wouldn’t be crispy. Normally when the crispy duck arrives, I’m like a kid in a sweet shop (I want that bit! No, that bit! Oh, and that bit!) but here it was more of an effort to find pieces that would perfect my pancake. First world problems I know, but the whole thing about crispy duck is that it’s never, ever like this. There was definite eking required, in fact, to stretch this out to six pancakes, and the last one I had was just spring onions, cucumber and hoi sin (in the immortal words of Roy Walker, good but not right). The rest of the trimmings were much the same as in any Chinese restaurant but at the end of the course, instead of scooping up the delicious fragments with our fingers we were left with a sad and flabby pile of skin.

HappyDuck

The main courses arrived similarly swiftly and didn’t lift things; again, it felt like perhaps we’d ordered the wrong things rather than the dishes we picked being actively bad. King prawns in black bean sauce was probably the best (least worst?) of the evening, with plenty of fat prawns in a watery sauce which tasted better than it looked with discernible black bean, a decent hit of garlic and lots of crisp squares of red and green pepper and big pieces of onion. If I’d had it on a Saturday night in front of Take Me Out I’d probably have been satisfied, but somehow here it still felt like it wasn’t quite good enough.

HappyMains

I was hoping the other main would either take me back to my teenage years or show me exactly how a good Chinese restaurant really does sweet and sour chicken. It wasn’t quite the battered balls of my youth (and yes, I know how wrong that sounds) but it wasn’t much of an improvement on that either. The batter the chicken came in was soggy rather than crispy, the sauce was again thin and watery rather than coating the chicken (it wasn’t that indistinct, to be honest, from the stuff we were dipping our prawn crackers in not that long before). The vegetables in the sauce gave me a strong sense of déjà vu, too; crisp squares of red and green pepper and big pieces of onion (did a black cat just walk by?). Oh, and some pineapple, obviously. It made me miss Orient Express, which used to be next to Keegan’s bookshop, which used to be opposite what Shed used to be, and even writing that sentence makes me feel very old indeed and makes me realise how long it is since I’ve had lovely Chinese food in Reading.

On the side we had plain noodles which, not beating about the bush here, tasted a bit odd. Sort of salty but not NaCl salty. I can’t even explain how they were wrong, but they just weren’t good. My fault, perhaps, for not going with the more traditional rice, but I’m just not a fan of plain white rice and it felt like overkill to order egg fried rice as well. We left a lot of the main courses – this is of course traditional in Chinese restaurants, but it would have been nice to feel even a little regret at doing so.

Drinks were a glass of house red wine (described simply as “Italian”) which was decent enough and a couple of bottles of Tsingtao. Service throughout was very polite, friendly, efficient and ever so slightly distant, much as I expected it to be. We were far too full for the dentist-bothering delights of dessert (toffee apple, anybody?) so we munched on the mint imperials that came with the bill – crumbly rather than hard, which made me irrationally happy – instead. The total was fifty-four pounds excluding service. We wished them a Happy New Year as we left and, not for the first time, I felt like a fraud being polite to someone when I hadn’t much enjoyed eating in their restaurant.

So am I any the wiser? Probably not. I still feel like I don’t know what to order, I still don’t have the courage to venture into the more esoteric reaches of the menu (perhaps I’d take more risks if I hadn’t read David Sedaris’ entertaining essay on the perils of eating in China: I’d quote some, but a single sentence of his would show all of this up). Is it my fault that I didn’t like Happy Diner? Quite possibly; you can probably make your own mind up about that. But be that as it may, there’s one question it all comes down to, the main question really when you review a restaurant: would I go back? I stepped out of the door with Mya Lacarte on my right, I strolled down Prospect Street past Kyrenia with its lights glowing, a laughing table of eight in the window and Ihor leaning on the bar and I thought no, I can’t see when I ever would.

Happy Diner – 6.2
3 Prospect Street, RG4 8JB
0118 9483488

http://happydiner-reading.webs.com/

Bluegrass BBQ

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As regular readers may remember I have a long-standing policy of not reviewing restaurants in their first month, of giving them time to bed in and settle down. Bluegrass tested my resolve more than most, being that rare thing, a new independent restaurant in the town centre. Unable to stay away, I did try to visit before Christmas only to be told – on a weekday lunchtime, no less – that the waiting time was forty-five minutes. To be honest, I just laughed and left: no-reservations restaurants are a bad enough habit to import from London, but once people are queuing round the block for American barbecue we’ve surely got everything bad about dining in the capital without any of the redeeming features.

So I’ve been sitting on my hands for a month, dying to visit on duty and having to wait while the other reviews came in. They were a mixed bag; people seemed to like the food, but a lot of people really didn’t like the experience of eating at Bluegrass. In particular, their policy of making you order at the bar came in for a lot of criticism. I was a bit surprised by this – I’d have thought eating in pubs and, for that matter, Nando’s would have got people used to this, but it seemed not. Despite that, it was voted Reading’s new restaurant of the year despite having only been open for three weeks of 2015 (on a shortlist, to be fair, which didn’t include Bakery House). So I wasn’t at all sure what to expect when I went there one evening hoping it would be quiet and looking forward to making up my own mind.

They’ve done a good job of renovating the old Gurkha Square site (which I never really liked – there was always a smell wafting from it when I went past which was somehow more Pedigree Chum than haute cuisine) and inside it’s made up of lots of different little rooms across about three floors, as well as the terrace out back overlooking the Holybrook which I can imagine will be lovely come summer.

Despite this, I’m afraid I struggled to warm to the interior. The wood panelling and bar made from reclaimed planks and the old school chairs all feel a bit done before – perhaps if I’d been sat at one of the banquettes I’d have felt more kindly disposed, but the whole thing felt a bit clinical. Instead I was at a table with four chairs and four placemats but which felt like realistically it could only have seated two people with elbows. I wondered how much the floor plan had been influenced by margins.

The menu is all very familiar to anyone who’s been to Blue’s Smokehouse, or RYND for that matter – ribs, brisket, pulled pork and smoked chicken, along with a range of burgers and sandwiches (in fairness they also have what looks like a very interesting breakfast menu – itself probably worth a separate visit). Prices are very reasonable: the mains all hover around the ten pound mark and, the menu being what it is, it’s all about mains and sides rather than starters and mains.

I’d heard apocalyptic stories about waiting at the bar, and perhaps on a busier night it would have been horrendous, but when I went it wasn’t too bad. It’s not really set up for queuing though, as you basically have to form a line heading down into one of the dining areas, impeding passing waiting staff and customers. They also only have one till, which feels like a rather devil-may-care decision (perhaps their brisk trade will persuade them to reconsider). Service was pleasant enough but a bit on the gormless side – I had to explain to them what one of the drinks on their cocktail menu was, and they then told me the lager I’d ordered had to be changed and they’d bring my drink over. Five minutes later I went up, jogged their memory and went back to the table with a pint. Everyone was friendly but a bit aimless, as if they’d never expected the restaurant to be this popular and weren’t sure how to cope with it (which may not be a million miles from the truth).

Food came out very quickly – within ten minutes or so. Again, some people have complained about this but I think they just misunderstand what kind of restaurant Bluegrass is. Most things are already smoked and slow-cooked and are just waiting to be dished up (if anything, if it took any longer to arrive you’d be justifiably concerned). And although the meals came on the standard-issue trays I didn’t find this as annoying as usual, possibly because the trays seemed slightly bigger or probably because the paper they were lined with put up more resistance to cutlery than they sometimes can.

So, on to the food: pulled pork was really good. Very soft, cooked to the point of complete surrender, juicy and with a lightly smoked taste that was enhanced by adding a sauce. There are four different sauces on the table but we did need to ask one of the members of staff what they were because there was no description on the label or on the wipe clean placemat-menus. The Tennessee was my favourite – a sweet barbecue sauce with a Dr Pepper base that was nice to dunk a forkful of pork in.

BluegrassPork

Brisket I wasn’t so sure about – four thinnish slices which tasted better than they looked, but the bottom slice had taken marbling to the stage where the bits of recognisable meat stood out like an archipelago of flesh in a sea of fat. It might have tasted lovely all the same, but squeamishly I left some of it. The burnt ends were the pick of the bunch for me, cubes of beef cooked longer still, sticky with sauce and much more tender and appetising: I had one towards the end with some little crunchy fragments of chip and it was the best mouthful of the entire meal.

Most of the dishes come with fries and coleslaw. The fries were lovely: skin-on with some real crispiness and texture, not wan and flaccid like they can be at many places doing this kind of food. The coleslaw, though, was disappointing; I actually quite like mayo-free coleslaw but this added nothing but contrast. I wonder how many people actually finish theirs.

BluegrassBrisket

We shared two other sides. Barbecue pit beans – a portion I’d say was on the small side – had shreds of meat in there but overall had picked sweetness over heat, the wrong choice in my opinion. Corn on the cob, one of my favourite things in the world, was a little underwhelming – a touch overcooked, so that the individual niblets didn’t pop the way I anticipated and the advertised cinnamon in the butter was undetectable. Nice enough but (dare I say it?) Nando’s does better.

I’m sorry to say that the drinks weren’t really worth the trouble they took to order. The lager was quite nice, clean and crisp, but by the time it arrived the food was nearly upon us. The “cherry cola cooler” was a small Amaretto and coke in a jam jar. For four pounds fifty. I watched them pour some of a 330ml bottle of Coca-Cola into the jam jar and then, presumably, throw the rest away.

The general haplessness of the service continued when someone came to ask how the food was. I said it was quite good, which it was, and she put a magnetic bottle cap on the end of the table to show that we had been processed. And you do feel, in an establishment like this, like you’ve been processed rather than served. She also asked whether we wanted any water and I said we’d love a jug of tap water. She returned with a solitary glass of tap water (still, it’s the thought that counts). Actually, if it hadn’t been for the model of ordering at the bar I’d have had a glass of Malbec by then, but I guess Bluegrass has decided it’s happy to run the risk that people will order less drinks: an odd decision for somewhere which prides itself on its range of craft beers. As it was, we left – the advantage of paying up front is that you can do this quickly – and dinner for two came to thirty-five pounds, not including tip.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I wasn’t absolutely bowled over by Bluegrass. But in its defence, many of the criticisms of it are fundamentally missing the point: it’s a restaurant, Jim, but not as we know it. It is not intended to be a place where you settle in for an evening. Bluegrass is set up to have all its food ready to serve almost immediately and everything it does to channel customers is intended to guarantee a speedy turnaround. It’s a different kind of casual dining, and perhaps the shape of things to come – get people in, feed them, send them away and turn the table as many times as you can. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, not an awful lot wrong with the food and nothing wrong with going there, if that’s the kind of meal you want. But, for that reason if no other, it felt like a restaurant many may like but few will love. I still think that restaurants are all about the experience: the service, the comfort, that feeling of taking time away from your troubles (and the washing up!) while someone else looks after you and feeds you. For me, anything else is just one step up from Deliveroo.

Bluegrass BBQ – 7.1
15 Gun Street, RG1 2JR
0118 9599112

http://bluegrass-bbq.com/

Pachangas, Henley

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There are times when I think I’ve almost got the hang of this reviewing thing. In particular I think I’ve got to the stage where I have a reasonably good idea, from looking at a menu, of whether a restaurant is going to be good. Pachangas, a Mexican restaurant in Henley, scored so well on that front that I’d been looking forward to visiting it for some time. The menu made all the right noises: Oaxaca cheese, grilled cactus, slow-cooked pork marinated with chili, orange and tequila, sweet spicy mole (the chocolate and chilli sauce, not the short-sighted animal from Wind In The Willows). So different from Maracas in Reading, where the menu doesn’t really convince me that the owners have had a Damascene conversion from cooking Italian to Mexican food.

I was so excited about going that not even a miserable day in January put me off my trip to Henley. Besides, I reasoned, even if it turned out to be a disappointment there were always consolations – the gorgeous chocolate in Gorvett and Stone for one, the delights of Machin’s (ostensibly a butcher but also selling fantastic cheese, smoked fish, terrific jamon iberico and countless other wonders – if only Reading had somewhere like this) for another. But mainly I was going for Pachangas: I re-read the menu on the bus, feeling like I was about to take a little gastronomic holiday.

Stepping out of the rain, half-mist, half-drizzle (is “mizzle” a word?) and into the restaurant I immediately felt like I’d made an excellent choice. This restaurant used to be the site of a pub called the Beer Tree which had Kozel on draft and a bewildering array of Belgian beers in the fridge; I used to love it back then but it was a bit crude and functional inside. Pachangas was a lot more inviting, all bright-coloured walls and cheery music. I got a warm welcome and was shown to a nice table: on my left I had a view of the rest of the dining room and on my right I could see the grey street outside, the rain intensifying. It felt like I might have been in the only sunshiny part of Henley that day.

The menu presented a couple of challenges. One was not hitting the cocktails in a big way – a wide range were available, not to mention numerous tequilas and several Mexican beers, along with something rather frightening called a michelada which seems to be a mixture of beer, lime juice and hot sauce (another time, perhaps). The other one, as I said, was narrowing it down when nearly everything looked worth a punt. Even the burger – in a tortilla wrap rather than a bun – appealed, bringing back happy memories of sadly departed Oracle restaurant Santa Fe (the unforgettable, dimly-remembered evenings I’ve had there!). The other thing that struck me about the menu was just how much of it was available gluten free – well worth knowing if you’re eating out with someone who doesn’t eat gluten.

After all the horse trading was complete, the orders had been placed and the wine was ordered we sat back in anticipation. I had high hopes, which if anything were justified by a little freebie to start with – two little gluten free rolls, still warm and filled with rich, elastic cheese. Just beautiful. But then, I smugly told myself, I knew it would be good because I knew a good menu when I saw it.

The first of the starters was further corroborative evidence. Calamares picantes were dusted with flour rather than battered and apparently shallow rather than deep fried and came sprinkled with chilli, coriander and beautifully whiffy slivers of fried garlic. The squid was among the best I can remember – so tender, free from any bounce or twang and clearly very fresh indeed. It was so good that I didn’t really mind that the coating didn’t entirely stick to it. All it meant was that at the end I had loads of little pieces of it to eat, fun-sized explosions of chilli, garlic and (I think) lime. Funny how sometimes, like the powder at the bottom of a packet of dry roasted peanuts, or the vinegary shards left when you’ve nearly finished your Chipsticks, the best bit comes at the last. There was also some kind of spiced dip like a mayonnaise, not mentioned on the menu, which didn’t add much and probably wasn’t really needed. I left most of it, but I didn’t feel like I’d missed out.

PachangaCalamares

The other starter was where the problems began; the tamal pachangas were described as “handmade corn masa parcels filled with spiced pork and steamed in plantain leaf served with mole negro and fried plantain” which sounded delicious. Sadly the corn parcel (singular) was quite cakelike – thick, sweet and rather claggy. The pork inside wasn’t particularly spicy but then there was so little of it that it struggled to overcome the exterior. The mole sauce was also sweet but it did have a kick of chilli so that it wasn’t completely dull. The best bit, by far, was the fried plantain which came on the side, a bit like eating banana fritter without the batter – sweet and a little bit naughty – and it was really lovely with the mole sauce. But even so, the whole plate felt like I had ordered dessert by mistake, and not a terribly good dessert at that.

PachangaTamal

The starters had been so Jekyll and Hyde that I wondered quite what the mains would be like. I’d had my eye on the fish tacos since I first looked at the menu and when they turned up they seriously looked the part – three tacos, piled high, served in some kind of zigzag contraption intended to make them easier to eat. And you couldn’t argue with the volume – two big strips of fish in each one, a heap of spiced mayonnaise on top and some salad and guacamole underneath. The problem was that they were so very bland: the fish was described on the menu as halibut tempura and I can’t give the menu the benefit of the doubt without criticising the kitchen because they felt like standard goujons of an unremarkable white fish to me. The spiced mayonnaise, which might have been the same one that came with the squid, was not particularly spiced. If anything it felt like Thousand Island Dressing’s zany friend, the one who’s never invited to parties. It came with a relatively pleasant bowl of rice – I’m not sure why as there was nothing to eat the rice with – and didn’t come with black beans, despite the promise of the menu. The whole thing was piping hot and difficult to eat: nothing wrong with that when a dish is delicious and you want to devour every last mouthful, but when it’s all a bit blah it soon becomes a chore. The thing that disappointed me most, though, was how thoroughly this dish punctured my expectations.

PachangaTaco

Then came the enchilada mole poblano. I was expecting to see two fat corn tortillas, filled with chicken and sauce and, most importantly, flavour. After all, that’s what the menu led me to expect. What arrived instead was the Mexican version of a chicken and cheese toasted sandwich; rather than two big fat cylinders I got three sad, flat little tortillas with shredded chicken and melted cheese inside and a swoosh of mole across the top. That was it. No flavour or spice in the chicken at all. This time round even the mole – a complex, intense mix of seventeen ingredients according to the menu – didn’t seem to have any chilli in it, let alone anything else other than chocolate. The tortillas, sadly, were just boring – sub-Old El Paso, in fact. It came with more of the rice (which tasted mostly of garlic) and refried beans (which tasted mostly of mashed bean). My guest was a member of the Anti-Coriander Brigade – I hear there are more of them than you might think – so had asked them to leave it out, but I couldn’t help wondering if they’d left everything out just to be safe. Including the flavour.

PachangaEnchilada

I did like the sweet potato fries (“Pachanga fries”) we ordered as a side: sweet potato can be a tricky vegetable, but they’d managed to get the fries perfectly crispy. But let’s face it, if the fries are the high point you’ve either had amazing fries or a pretty iffy meal, and these fries weren’t amazing.

We had a glass of red wine each. The Chilean merlot was nicely smooth and smoky and the Mexican syrah – Mexican wine does exist, believe it or not – was drinkable but unremarkable. Both were about a fiver a glass (in hindsight, maybe I should have had a “Bloody Pirate”, a Bloody Mary made with rum rather than vodka, instead). The best bit of the experience was undoubtedly the service which was lovely throughout: both the waiters that looked after us were friendly, knowledgeable and checked up on us just often enough without it feeling over the top. I’m no expert but their accents sounded South American at least and very possibly Mexican which gave me confidence (the second best bit of the experience, incidentally, was that you have to go through a saloon door to get to the loo – what’s not to like about that?)

I nearly gave Pachangas a chance to redeem itself through dessert (I had my eye on the churros) but a combination of fullness and disappointment made me rule it out. The total bill for two courses and a glass of wine each was fifty-nine pounds, excluding service.

Something magical has happened several times while writing Edible Reading where I’ve gone to an unprepossessing restaurant with no real expectations and gone away thoroughly delighted and surprised. Pachangas is a rare example of the opposite phenomenon – and I suppose it had to happen eventually – where everything looks good on paper but it just didn’t come together. The food didn’t quite live up to the menu: sometimes literally, in that what you ordered and what you got weren’t quite the same thing. But more generally the menu made wonderful promises about flavour which the kitchen just didn’t keep. Whether they’re playing it safe because they’re in Henley, or whether they just have a gift for writing which isn’t matched by their cooking I don’t know. Either way, it’s a salutary lesson for me at the start of the year that I’m not quite as good a judge of menus as I thought I was. But after all, if you could tell how good a restaurant was just by looking at the menu, who’d need restaurant reviews?

Pachangas – 6.6
30 Duke Street, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 1UP
01491 413000

http://www.pachangas.co.uk/

Feature: The 2015 Edible Reading Awards

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It seems like a lifetime ago now, but at the start of the year I contributed to a piece for Alt Reading, giving my wish list of what I hoped 2015 would hold for Reading’s food scene: a town centre pub doing top notch food; a decent little pizzeria; a tapas bar; a good Chinese restaurant; a cool tea room; a bakery in the town centre.

If that sounds ambitious it’s probably because it is, but looking back I’m surprised by how much of it has come to pass. I Love Paella has set up down the Oxford Road offering a variety of small dishes and its eponymous seafood dish. Papa Gee turns out to have been there all along (for a decade!) doing a variety of pretty marvellous Neapolitan pizzas, among other things. C.U.P. has opened right next to Reading Minster and offers, hands down, the best tea selection you can find in town. We still don’t have a bakery in the centre, but Pop-Up Reading recently starting selling their own bread to those in the know at a variety of independent establishments across town. Call me Nostradamus!

That said, there haven’t been a huge amount of openings this year, and those we have had have been small chains expanding to Reading: CAU in the Oracle, Itsu at the bottom of Queen Victoria Street. That trend looks set to continue next year when The Stable opens on Bridge Street and, if rumours are to be believed, Grillstock comes to Friar Street. We’ve seen a few independents open in the town centre – most notably Manhattan Coffee Club bucking the trend as the Oracle’s only independent café and the owner of the original Chronicles trying to turn around that site under the Valpy Street moniker. It’s felt like a transitional year all round, and that probably reflects in the very low number of closures in 2015: so although it was the year we said goodbye to Tampopo, O Beirao and (without much fanfare) Master Naan, most of our independent restaurants are still hanging in there.

Of course, you can’t look back on the year without doing a bit of navel-gazing, and it’s been a brilliant year here at ER HQ. I’ve travelled much further in search of good meals and been rewarded with some of the very best food I’ve eaten on duty (and some of the worst, but let’s not talk about that now). More people have read the blog than ever before, and I’ve appreciated every bit of brilliant feedback I’ve had, every comment, every Retweet, every suggestion and – particularly – every time someone has told me they enjoyed a restaurant they went to because of one of my reviews.

On a personal level, I was particularly chuffed to be shortlisted for the Alt Reading award for Individual Cultural Contribution, mainly because it felt like recognition that Reading has a food scene to be cherished, celebrated and cultivated. I didn’t win (which is fair enough – Suzanne Stallard IS culture in Reading, after all), but making the final five still was a victory for all our independent restaurants and cafes. I’ve also really enjoyed seeing Roast Dinners Around Reading flourish this year and get more and more readers for his – syndicated, don’t you know – restaurant reviews. Reading finishes 2015 with more choice than ever before of where to eat and drink, and more help with making those choices too.

Anyway, as is now traditional I’m taking my festive break. The weeks ahead will involve mountains of roast potatoes, huge stinky cheeseboards, crisps, peanuts, those big tubs of Twiglets, Mini Cheddars, red wine, mulled wine, dessert wine, port, sherry, bubbly, Snowballs (no, really), and – if I have anything to do with it – diving into a box of Matchmakers without having to share them with anyone else. I love restaurants, as you’ve probably gathered, but the festive season doesn’t show them at their best with all that picking from a special menu, having to preorder and winding up next to a big boisterous work do. I’ll be back on January 15th, by which time the vouchers will all be spent, the bad gifts will have been surreptitiously exchanged, half of the people who have tried to spend the month on the wagon will have leapt off it and, hopefully, you might want to read some restaurant reviews. Until then, settle back and enjoy this year’s award winners. Merry Christmas!

SANDWICH OF THE YEAR: Top Toastie, Shed

ShedTop

Yes, I know they won it last year. And you can’t say there hasn’t been competition this year: I was very taken, for instance, with the halloumi, pesto and red pepper piadina at Siblings Home, a little tricorne taste sensation. And although it might stretch the definition of “sandwich” just a little bit, Bakery House could easily have won either with their kallaj bil jibn or their arayes, being halloumi cheese and finely chopped veal respectively stuffed into their excellent Lebanese bread. But Shed’s Top Toastie has been my sandwich of the year – little intense batons of chorizo, all salt and spice, the vinegary heat of jalapenos and the comforting smother of lots and lots of mozzarella desperately trying to escape from their peerless ciabatta. Really, if you haven’t had one yet it might be the best New Year’s Resolution you could make.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Chicken pastilla, Al Fassia

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All my favourite starters of the year, with the exception of CAU’s superbly indulgent salt cod and manchego croquettes, came from out of town. West of Reading, I was an enormous fan of Brebis’ duck liver and foie gras parfait, perfectly glossy, smooth and rich. In the other direction, The Bell Inn’s pigeon and pork terrine couldn’t have been more different: coarse and rough and earthy, but equally delicious (and with the best pickled beetroot I’ve ever tried). But actually, you have to travel a little further still for my winner this time: Al Fassia is a lovely little place on a nice little street in Windsor and their chicken pastilla is a painstakingly assembled gem, an utterly delicious mixture of shredded chicken, almond and cinnamon, all wrapped in hand-made filo and baked in the oven. I didn’t taste anything like it all year, and thinking about it now it slightly makes me want to go back to Marrakesh. But it really makes me want to go back to Al Fassia.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Bakery House

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Bakery House’s achievement this year has been phenomenal – from a standing start partway through the year it now feels like it’s always been here. I’ve had countless Tweets from readers telling me that they’re checking it out and they always say two things: that the food is delicious and that the restaurant is packed. I’m yet to have a bad meal here, and I’ve been plenty of times. In a year when Reading got places like CAU (itself very accomplished, in fairness, and easily another candidate for this award) and Itsu and felt more like Zone 7 of London, it’s nice to see a place like Bakery House which is a match for anything you could find down the Edgware Road. Another honourable mention in this category should go to I Love Paella, but more on them later.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Shed

This has been a huge growth sector in Reading this year. Some of the newcomers have been good, some indifferent, but the level of choice just seems to get greater and greater – to the extent where many people feel we’ve reached critical mass where coffee shops are concerned. Siblings Home, tucked away in Caversham, was one of my favourites in this category although their recent change of layout makes it less of a pleasant place to sit and while away the hours (it hasn’t stopped me buying all sorts of stuff from their shop though – lovely soap, I can tell you). I was also a big fan of Nibsy’s – it may be gluten free but when I was in there doing a serious assault on their quiche and cake it certainly wasn’t glutton free. None the less, Shed is still the one to beat for me: beautiful sandwiches, delicious milkshakes, excellent service from Pete and Lydia and a great spot upstairs to look out from those lovely big windows. And if you can get there on “Saucy Friday” (particularly for the Scotch bonnet chicken with rice and peas, coleslaw and macaroni cheese), even better.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Parma ham wrapped monkfish, squid ink pasta, mussels and clams, Dolce Vita

I had a lot of fantastic mains this year, and this category was one of the most difficult to judge. All so different, too, from the rich spiced comfort of the Crown at Playhatch’s bobotie to the stunning delicacy of Brebis’ butter poached hake, served on a perfect circle of crushed potatoes with a sweet sharp smear of lemon purée. Also seriously in the running was Beijing Noodle House’s duck fried noodles, an iconic Reading dish which I rediscovered this year, the culinary equivalent of bumping into an old friend and finding them on outstanding form. But my winner is the main course I’ve had more times than I care to name this year – perfectly cooked meaty monkfish, wrapped in parma ham and served with rich, salty squid ink pasta and plenty of shellfish. A proper, grown-up, indulgent dish.

VEGETARIAN MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Gnocchi with goat’s cheese, kale and almond pesto, The Bell Inn

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I’ve finished the year with a new-found admiration for vegetarians, and a better understanding of the sacrifices they make in pursuit of their principles. Heavens, I’ve had some dreary vegetarian main courses while reviewing food for Edible Reading. The awards are all about celebrating the good so we’d better not dwell on the blue cheese pasta with almost no blue cheese in it, big bland bowls of mushroom risotto or Jamie Oliver’s superfood salad which wasn’t. The redeeming feature was the gnocchi dish at the Bell Inn: absolutely stunning stuff, with little dumplings which were subtle not stodgy, a rich, fragrant kale pesto which blew me away and a nice big slab of caramelised goat’s cheese on top. It makes me cross that in a whole year of looking, I only found one main that could beat any other plate of food on meat-free merit. But what a main it was.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Mya Lacarte

Many of you may have noticed that I’ve never reviewed Mya Lacarte. For me, it would be like writing an essay on a novel I’ve adored for years – it wouldn’t be enjoyable for me to boil that down or do it to death, to analyse something it’s much more fun to love uncritically. But what I will say is that I think Matt and Alex at Mya are the perfect double act and either of them runs the front of house better than pretty much anyone else in Reading. That a restaurant has both Matt and Alex looking after customers is the hospitality equivalent of having Messi and Ronaldo playing on the same team; I’ve not had a visit to Mya this year that was anything less than brilliant, or a welcome that made me feel anything less than exactly where I belonged. Honourable mentions should also go to Brebis, where the service was utterly charming when I visited, and also to Dolce Vita (which still does a fantastic job despite losing a couple of its star players to C.U.P.).

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Sfinci, Bird In Hand

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The moment I had the sfinci I knew it would be my dessert of the year: it was love at first mouthful. The lightest, fluffiest doughnuts with the crispiest exterior, little sugared joy-inducing clouds. The pistachio ice cream they came with was rich and nutty, but even without them the sfinci would have won this prize. I’ve had them every time I’ve gone back, and every time they’ve delighted me like it was the first time. So easy to make a good dessert from scratch like this, and yet so many places just can’t do it. But that’s the Bird In Hand all over – it’s run by someone who makes pretty much everything on site. And if it hadn’t won for the sfinci it would probably have won for the malt barley ice cream, which is the best ice cream I’ve had in this country. Also worth a passing mention is the Baskerville’s deep, rich, indulgent chocolate tart. My review of the Baskerville was a bit on the lukewarm side at the time, which is a shame, but they really did pull all the stops out when it came to dessert.

TWEETER OF THE YEAR: Picnic

I’m always surprised that many establishments don’t have Twitter, and those that do have it don’t seem to get it. It shouldn’t be hard: Tweet every day, tell people what you sell, put some nice pictures up and – crucially – give people an idea of the personality behind your brand. But somehow it never seems to work like that, so either you get something prosaic, regular but unengaging or there are flashes of likeable brilliance but it’s all very ramshackle, with updates a bit few and far between. Having blazed the trail in many ways over the years it’s no surprise that Picnic get this spot on – regular bulletins saying what the salad boxes are, showing pictures of the cakes, talking about the specials on Fridays and Sundays, but also showing an interest in Reading and its customers, even telling people to come in out of the cold or putting up pictures of its Christmas decorations. See? It’s easy. Or maybe it’s just that Picnic are very good at making it seem so. Either way, nobody does it better.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: I Love Paella

ILPEmpanada

I could have given this award to Bakery House. I think people would have applauded that: they do great food, they run a tight ship and they add an something extra to Reading’s restaurant scene in terms of top-quality, affordable, informal dining. Equally I toyed with giving it to Papa Gee, in many ways this year’s surprise package; who knew that we had a cracking pizzeria tucked behind the station doing quite nicely for over a decade completely under the radar? Again, I think a lot of people would have agreed – I’ve had lots of feedback from readers saying how delighted they were to discover the place. And, of course, my single best meal of the year on duty was at Brebis, so why isn’t Brebis the winner?

The thing is – and I’ve learned this from reviewing them every week this year and for that matter last year – that restaurants are about more than food, or the service or even the room. They’re about experiences, about the magical alchemy that happens when all those elements come together. Last year, Dolce Vita won because although I’d had better food on occasion in other places, it remained the place where I’d spent my happiest evenings in 2014. This year, that place is I Love Paella.

Watching it evolve over the year has been a real joy – from only opening at the weekend to opening weekday nights, moving from a narrower menu and starting to offer more tapas, more sharing options, more little dishes. The first time I went it was all about the paella and the empanadas. Those are still amazing, but now you get a selection of manchego, or some serrano ham on bread with a little smudge of tomato chutney (still haven’t had the chorizo stew, but there’s always next time). Service is always brilliant, to the extent that you could easily forget that it’s basically a one man band cooking in somebody else’s coffee shop. It’s a proper success story, and I sense that there’s still more to come. I live for the day when I go in to find they’ve found the space for a nice big leg of jamon, but in the meantime I hope they get even more of a feeling of permanence and keep evolving, keep trying things out and keep spoiling those lucky people down the Oxford Road.

Picnic

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One of my biggest gripes about Reading is that there are limited options if you want a really good breakfast. I’m talking about crispy, smoked streaky, really good quality sausages, excellent toast, perfectly poached eggs and mushrooms by someone who knows how to cook them into sticky, salty perfection. Oh, and HP Sauce (I know some people like ketchup with breakfast, but then some people like Nigel Farage. It takes all sorts, I guess).

Ironically, your best bets tend to be the chains. And they’re not too bad, I suppose – Cote does a pretty good breakfast, especially their French version with a generous helping of crumbly boudin noir. Carluccio’s used to be top of the heap for me with their resolutely Italian take – thin translucent strips of pancetta, gorgeous wild mushrooms and herby, soft scrambled eggs with ciabatta toast – although recently they’ve tried to Anglicise it by slipping in an incongruous banger. And if you like that sort of thing, Bill’s has a lot of fans, although I’ve always found their breakfast a bit underwhelming.

Most of the independent places in the town centre fall down on the quality of their ingredients – bouncy sausages and pink rubbery bacon are the main culprits here – so I decided to act on a tip-off and drive out to a farm shop a short distance outside town. And it was going well until I bounded up to the counter only to be told that they’d stopped serving at 11.30 (brunch clearly wasn’t a word in their dictionary). Then I remembered that Picnic had recently started doing a Sunday brunch menu, so I did an about turn and headed back into town to give it a whirl.

Picnic is the grand dame of Reading’s lunch scene. It was truly trailblazing when it opened way way back in 2007, and since then it’s been pretty much packed every lunchtime, serving sandwiches, their legendary salad boxes (which change every week, so you need to check their excellent Twitter feed for details), pasties and sausage rolls from Green’s of Pangbourne and all manner of cakes to the discerning populace. They had a refurbishment earlier this year which changed the layout and gave them more working space, and I got the sense that this was to enable them to try some new things – including their brunch menu, veggie burgers and a wider range of salads (they’ve even bought a slicer and are serving charcuterie in some of them). So has that gap in the indie breakfast market finally been filled on Market Place?

Let’s start with the curmudgeonly, change-resistant bit: if I’m honest, I preferred the old layout. I miss the benches all along one side and all that space at the windows, looking across to Munchee’s and watching all the passers-by. Then it was cosy in an all-in-it-together way, now it feels a bit cramped and noisy and cluttered. Still, if it gives them a space to offer a top-notch brunch selection (among other things) it has to be a positive development, right?

They don’t offer a full-on English breakfast, so instead I went for a bacon sandwich. Picnic’s menu boasts that this is locally smoked and you can’t complain about the quantities in the sandwich – the sort of thickly-packed stack of dead pig that would give the World Health Organisation conniptions. The bread was toasted granary and there was a decent smudge of brown sauce in it. It should have been perfect, but what let it down was that only the bread was hot; the bacon was warmish, and I got the distinct feeling that it hadn’t been cooked to order. Perhaps this is unreasonable of me, but for me half the fun of a bacon sandwich is that the bacon is sizzling fresh off the grill and stuffed into the bread, juices melting into it, all crispy and piping hot. This sandwich was quite nice, but it wasn’t that – and if I’d known that I might have gone for something else. Oh, and the napkin had been unhelpfully stuck right under the sandwich (always a bugbear of mine).

PicnicBacon

The other dish was avocado, tomato and harissa on toast. The London style of smashed avocado (with all the requisite extras like lime juice, fresh mint or chilli, all on a nice slice of sourdough) totally hits the spot for me so I fancied seeing what the closest alternative is out here in the provinces. The offering at Picnic was much simpler – a single piece of toast (granary, but thinly sliced enough to appear to be from a “normal” loaf, sadly) spread with harissa, with tomato and half an avocado fanned out on top. There was a bit of dressed salad on the side, which felt a bit like it was hiding the fact that there wasn’t much on the plate (and who has salad with brunch, really?).

The avocado was a little on the firm side – I like it closer in texture to butter than potato, personally – and the tomato was just a bog standard round tomato but the harissa added an extra dimension. The chilli heat and the sweetness of the spices brought everything together and made it a bit more interesting (and it’s an idea I will definitely use in anything I ever get round to cooking at home) but still, it was half an avocado to which nothing had been done, some tomato and a one slice of bread, rather than the mashed avocado and sourdough I had ordered in my head. For a fiver it felt like it was bordering on cheeky. Still, at least they didn’t put the napkin under the bread.

PicnicAvocado

Brunch would be nothing without a nice hot beverage. Mocha was pleasant, though more chocolate than coffee, and Earl Grey was decent (but it’s hard to mess up a bag in a cup of water – though lots of baristas will have a bloody good go). Service is minimal because there is no table service, but the young ladies (and it is exclusively young ladies working here, except for the owner. He’s like Reading’s answer to Bosley) are really friendly, extremely helpful and very nice indeed and the tables here are cleared regularly, as you’d expect – but not always get – with a high customer turnover. The total bill came to just under fifteen pounds for brunch and a hot drink each. Not a huge amount of money, but perhaps expensive for what it was.

Realistically, whatever I say about Picnic in this review it won’t make anyone go there who hasn’t, or stop any regulars from going back. Which is as it should be, because it’s a local institution which has done as much as anywhere else in town to shape the way people in Reading eat. And it’s still a favourite of mine for sandwiches, (goat’s cheese, honey and walnuts is one I keep going back to), salads (ditto for the peach, mozzarella and parma ham), soup (pea and blue cheese!) and the occasional shameful Cornish pasty. It’s tough being a trailblazer, because people expect you to keep doing it – and I know how they feel because, like Picnic, I was the future once. Perhaps, instead of being slightly critical about the food I should applaud the ambition, because despite finding the brunch a tad disappointing I can’t help but be impressed that, after nearly a decade, they’re still trying something new.

Picnic – 6.8
5 Market Place, RG1 2DP
0118 9589292

http://www.picnicfoods.co.uk/

Miller & Carter

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I must confess, I’d been in no hurry to visit Miller & Carter. Why? It’s a chain for starters (with nearly 40 branches, though I had never heard of it before it opened in Reading). A Mitchell and Butler chain at that, so part of the big faceless group that owns All Bar Ones and Harvesters across the land, not to mention the likes of the Oakford and the Abbot Cook. Then there’s the basic idea of it: a steakhouse is all very well, but perhaps a bit limited if your idea of dinner extends beyond meat and chips. Last but not least, I was put off by the pricing – I struggled to get my head round the idea of paying over twenty quid for a steak when I could go to London Street Brasserie for their excellent venison with haggis less than a hundred metres away for roughly the same price.

And yet, after all that, this week you’re reading a review of Miller & Carter. Why? Well, I’ve had it recommended to me more than once. Some people on Twitter told me they preferred it to CAU. Some restaurant staff told me it was where they liked to go on their rare nights off. And a friend of mine (who used to work in hospitality and is very particular) told me that on her rare date nights with her husband she often goes there to have the chateaubriand because they do it well and the service meets her exacting standards. Besides, sometimes it’s nice to do a review that doesn’t involve getting in the car or eating curry.

From the outside it looked quite swanky but I couldn’t make up my mind once I got through the door. It was all stripes and velvet and oddly it was carpeted, which struck me as either a very ostentatious or foolish decision (there were a few chips smooshed into the floor which suggested it was the former). The overall look was somewhere between a business hotel and an airport Wetherspoon’s, but either way it didn’t scream upmarket in the way I was expecting. It was huge, too: the sheer number of tables screamed “I’m a chain” in a way which wasn’t hugely appealing. Some tables – with booths and banquettes – were quite nice, others were right next to pillars and slap bang in the flow of traffic. You can probably guess which I ended up at. I might be the only one who was unmoved by the interior, though, because I overheard a member of staff saying that they are fully booked every Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the run up to Christmas.

The starters were slightly souped-up versions of dishes that you’d expect in a pub – chicken skewers glazed with bourbon, dusted calamari and cheesy mushrooms, for example – but a few sounded more interesting. I went for lemongrass and chilli tempura prawns because I hoped they’d be light but tasty and, truth be told, they were pretty good. The prawns did actually taste of lemongrass and the batter was nice and light. I didn’t get much in the way of chilli but there was sweet chilli jam (which tasted like every sweet chilli jam ever) which helped.

MillerPrawns

The prawns came with their tails on, which felt like an odd decision. I removed them with only minor tussles but felt like I lost a prawn’s worth of meat by not doing a decent job. It didn’t feel like it was asking too much to expect the kitchen to do that for me. Last but not least, there were some rocket leaves, wilting wanly, on top. That must have been a marketing decision (“you can’t send that out without some green on it!”) because it really didn’t add anything to the dish. So, nice enough overall but I did think I could just as easily have been in a Beefeater.

The other starter sounded marvellous: ginger glazed pork belly bites with an heirloom tomato salad. Bites suggests tender little cubes of meat, whereas what turned up were three pale strips of pork – a halloumi tribute band, almost – with black char lines on them and a salad at the other end of the long rectangular plate. In fairness, it tasted a lot better than it looked. The pork was tender, the ginger glaze pepped it up and the salad wasn’t bad. So why, when I got to the end, did I have an overwhelming sense of is that it?

MillerPork

It will come as no surprise to you that the main courses do rather dwell on steak, but there are lots of other options if you’re the kind of person who has to accompany a meat fiend to Miller & Carter because it’s their birthday, or because you’re making amends for forgetting your anniversary or suchlike. So they also do chicken, ribs, several fish dishes and – for the especially masochistic – three couscous and quinoa salads, one of which is the only vegetarian main on the menu. I feel duty bound to point all that out, but even so I ordered the steak because, well, it’s a steakhouse. Besides, as I’d had the chateaubriand recommended to me it would have been remiss not to give it a whirl (the fact that it leaves me with only one main course to review rather than two is, I promise, a happy coincidence).

It came on a wooden board with two sauces, two metal beakers full of chips, some tomato which was allegedly “balsamic glazed” but which I’d probably describe as “tepid and raw” and some “onion loaf” which was basically a bhaji which had got into an argument with Chuck Norris. The meat was meant to be the star of the show and it lived up to its billing, cooked medium rare as requested, charred and caramelised at the edges and giving way to tender and bloody as you got closer to the middle (the very core – vegetarians look away now – was almost Turkish Delight in texture). It came unsliced which I appreciated, because in my experience when they slice it it just goes cold quicker (and anyway, I prefer dainty slivers of chateaubriand given half a chance – dozens of them, in fact). It came with two round pats of parsley butter which were quite nice but, oddly, didn’t show any signs of melting on top of the steak. I guess that’s because they’d rested it.

MillerMeat

The chips were adequate skin on fries, nothing amazing, but the onion loaf was beautiful stuff and infinitely preferable to onion rings which always strike me as greasy and faffy. The sauces were at opposite ends of the spectrum. My companion had gone for béarnaise, which was spot on, creamy, full of tarragon, not split at all. Sadly I plumped for the porcini mushroom and black garlic sauce which was sludgy and didn’t really taste of either mushroom or garlic. Never mind – I did distract my guest (“is that John Madejski over there?”) to dunk an occasional forkful in the béarnaise. The best of the sides, though, was the “lettuce wedge”. This was literally a big segment of iceberg lettuce, sat in a bowl with some dressing and a sprinkling of cheese (garlic and parmesan on one, blue cheese dressing and crumbled Stilton on the other). It sounds a bit seventies I know, but in amongst the meat and fat it was very welcome to have something fresh and clean which added a bit of balance to the rest of the plate.

The wine list is quite a user-friendly one – most of the bottles under thirty quid are also available by the glass, although it ramps up after that. That said, I couldn’t help but compare it to the list at CAU, with its splendid range, and feel it was a little flat by comparison. We went for a one of the cheapest reds on the list, a bottle of malbec which was a touch over twenty quid and, in Miller & Carter’s defense, really very nice for an entry level red fruit, juicy and perilously easy to drink. I’m afraid we skipped dessert. I could say it was because we were stuffed from the steak (and it was a reasonably generous portion for two to share) but in truth it’s because the dessert menu, disappointingly, was exactly like a hundred other places. Chocolate brownie, sticky toffee pudding, crème bruleé and cheesecake were all present and correct, even with the smoke and mirrors of references to candyfloss and dark chocolate shards.

Service was really patchy. Some of the staff were likeable and warm, but after sitting down we had to wait a very long time before anyone came to take our order. The irony: we were sat at an unlovely table in an unlovely spot, with a constant flow of black-shirted waiting staff going hither and thither, and yet getting any attention felt increasingly, frustratingly difficult. They were reasonably busy for a weekday night, but they weren’t that busy. The massive pillar right next to our table (the restaurant equivalent of living next to a mobile phone mast) didn’t help. The waiting staff didn’t seem to look after particular areas, so we were served by three different people, all with differing skill levels. That said, our “main” waiter, a charming Italian chap with a goatee was spot on, checking up on us and twinkling at our choices (and looking ever so slightly like Tony Stark, which entertained me no end). Also frustrating was the pacing – we spent ages waiting for our order to be taken, but once it was everything came out just that little bit quicker than I wanted it to. For a relatively pricey meal it really didn’t take that long before it was all done and dusted.

How pricey? The total bill for two courses and a bottle of wine, excluding service, was just shy of eighty quid and this, for me, is where Miller & Carter really falls down. If you’re looking for steak, CAU is significantly cheaper. Not only that, but also the range of starters and non-steak dishes there is far more imaginative. On the other hand, if you’re just looking for an upmarket meal the money you would spend at Miller & Carter could go a lot further in so many other places – London Street Brasserie, Mya Lacarte, Cerise, even somewhere like Malmaison. So for Miller & Carter to compete it would really have to get everything right – textbook starters and beautiful steaks in a fantastic, exclusive dining room with top notch service. And, despite enjoying my chateaubriand a great deal, my evening didn’t come anywhere close to that. I can only think of one explanation for its popularity – it’s a menu firmly pitched slap bang at the middle of the comfort zone in a restaurant slap bang in the middle of the Oracle, never the dining choice of the risk taker. And that’s Miller & Carter in a nutshell: yes, you could do worse, but you could easily do so, so much better.

Miller & Carter – 7.2
Unit 5, The Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9509961
http://www.millerandcarter.co.uk/restaurants/south-east/millerandcarteroracle

Piwnica Pub

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

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

“What did it taste like?”

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

“How would I know?”

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

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

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

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

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

PiwnicaPierogi

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

PiwnicaSausage

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

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

PiwnicaGnocchi

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

PiwnicaKiev

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

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

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

http://www.piwnicapub.co.uk/

The Crown, Playhatch

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

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

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

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

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

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

CrownRibs

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

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

CrownSalmon

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

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

CrownBobotie

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

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

CrownRisotto

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

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

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

The Crown, Playhatch – 7.7

The Crown, Playhatch, RG4 9QN
0118 9472872

http://www.thecrown.co.uk/

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