Suwanna Thai

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[Just a quick reminder that ER reader Abby Knowles has set up a JustGiving appeal to mark nearly 2 years of the blog. If it raises a grand for Launchpad I’ve promised to review all-you-can-stand buffet restaurant Cosmo. Fancy donating? It’s an excellent cause…]

One thing I rarely talk about in these reviews is the background music, but with Suwanna Thai I really feel I should make an exception. There are some places where it’s perfectly normal to hear a muzak version of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” – in a lift for example, or in the toilets of a shopping mall (more Broad Street than Oracle). Or, for that matter, in Room 101. But I wasn’t expecting to hear it in Suwanna Thai, a smart Thai restaurant just the other side of Caversham Bridge. I’d like to say that it was an isolated incident, but during my meal the vocals-free mangled hits kept on coming. It was as if Kenny G was in the room with us, and surely nobody wants that. Well, except Mrs G perhaps.

I wasn’t expecting to find myself in Suwanna Thai, truth be told. It’s been on my list for eons but I still find it a little difficult to motivate myself to review Thai food – it’s rarely terrible but rarely stellar, and Reading’s Thai restaurants can feel much of a muchness. But then I happened to walk past it on my way back from Progress Theatre’s excellent production of Merry Wives Of Windsor in Caversham Court Gardens (no, I hadn’t seen that one either) and the view piqued my interest. Gone was the chunky, dark, rustic furniture I remembered and instead the interior looked warm, buzzy and contemporary, all snazzy geometric prints and clean, simple chairs and tables. I made a mental note to move it to the top of my list, although if I’d known about the music things might have been different.

(It turns out that the revamp is part of a wider name change – Suwanna Thai becomes Thai Table early next month, at which point I’ll have to go back and rewrite all of this, but never mind.)

The first thing that struck me about the menu was the front page. It’s not every menu where the proprietor’s little spiel gives you his email address and invites you to contact him, and it’s not every menu that he appears to have signed by hand. Silly, perhaps, but I liked this. It felt touchingly old school. Aside from that the menu looked much like most Thai menus – generally well described with a few interesting chef’s specials but also many of the usual suspects. Some of the items were described as signature dishes, which I also found interestingly old school.

As is traditional, we had some prawn crackers first as we watched dishes turn up at the table next to us and wondered whether ours would look (and smell) as good as that. They were a known quantity as ever, but they came with a little split bowl of sweet chilli sauce and plum sauce. Both were nice but there was so little of either, and the dish was so awkwardly shaped, that it was almost impossible to dip the crackers in; a nice idea slightly gone to waste.

The first starter was the pet pet squid. Sounds strangely Geordie, doesn’t it? Bits of this were very well done. The small curls of squid – fresh, not bouncy – were cooked in one of the best batters I can remember; it was superbly light, crispy and bubbled and it didn’t come away from the flesh the moment you took some cutlery to it. But it wasn’t perfect: it wasn’t seasoned and I didn’t get any of the aromatic Thai herbs it was meant to be cooked with. Instead, there was yet more of the ubiquitous sweet chilli sauce and lots of herbivorous padding – I didn’t eat any of the shredded white cabbage or the curly parsley and I assume nobody eats the carrot “flower” unless ravenous beyond words. Most bafflingly, the menu gave this dish a three chilli rating but there was almost no kick to it at all. But, for all that, you could have far worse starts to a meal than fresh, beautifully battered squid and sweet chilli sauce, so it felt a bit churlish to complain.

ThaiSquid

We also had Changmai sausage, which as you can see from the picture was a sausage. Cut into slices. So far so bad buffet, but it was a really, really interesting dish to taste. The menu says it’s home-made and I’ve certainly not tried one like this – with ginger and spices and (I think) some lemongrass. The texture was coarse, almost crumbly without being dry and the whole thing was like a holiday for the taste buds. I liked it a lot, but again, the rest of the stuff on the plate felt like pointless faff: iceberg lettuce, this time, with thin sticks of fresh ginger. A very promising beginning: I was starting to understand why the owner was prepared to sign the menus.

ThaiSausage

After this we sat with empty starter plates in front of us for some time, and they were only taken away about a minute before the mains arrived, presumably because the serving staff suddenly realised that new plates were on their way.

Beef massaman was described on the menu as a signature dish, so I felt I should give it a try, but in truth I ordered it with some hesitation. One thing I’ve learned from eating out is that some restaurants use the words “slow cooked beef” with almost poetic licence: I still remember beef rendang at the Moderation, with all the texture of a trampoline, or my last meal at Tampopo before it closed where I had to send a beef dish back because it was like trying to eat a branch of Clark’s. But again, Suwanna Thai passed the test: big chunks of perfectly braised beef which broke into delicious shreds.

That alone would have delighted me, but the sauce was just as magnificent: Massaman curry can often be sweet and unsubtle, but this was a world away from that with proper heat and a bit of spice, maybe not as much complexity as I was expecting from the menu but still a big Thai hug of a thing. Even the firm new potatoes and the toasted fragments of cashew worked perfectly. Normally my favourite bit of a Thai meal is pouring the sauce on to the coconut rice and eating it at the end, but this challenged all that because every mouthful was marvellous: I could have eaten it every day for a week.

ThaiMains

Stir fried chicken with black bean sauce sounds a bit prosaic on paper, but in practice it was also superb. Part of that is about the veg rather than the chicken. I loved the barely cooked cauliflower, the florets the perfect shape to capture the sauce. I also liked the sugar snap peas, with similar well-judged crunch. And the black beans themselves, beautifully intense, firm and slightly nutty rather than pulpy mush. And that’s before I get to the sauce – so rich, garlicky and salty (there was some oyster sauce in there too, which probably explains it) that by the end I was tilting the bowl to get the last drops onto my spoon. It wasn’t easy – the bowl was a shallow one in the shape of a banana leaf – but that wasn’t going to stop me trying.

After the main courses our plates were cleared a little quicker, and we waited for someone to bring us the dessert menu. By this point I wasn’t hungry, but I was at least curious about whether the desserts would match that high standard and, crucially, whether they would appear on a menu that wasn’t laminated and didn’t have garish photos on it. No dessert menu was forthcoming. We waited a bit longer. Still no dessert menu. The group at the table next to us, also bored of being neglected, asked for a dessert menu. They got one, but it didn’t jog the memory of the waiting staff about whether anyone else might want to see it. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the onslaught of sax classics playing in the background I’m not sure how I’d have coped. And that was the problem with service for the whole evening: it was never rude, it was never unpleasant but – for most of the time – it was never there. We gave up and settled up instead.

To drink we had a couple of beers (they have Chang and Singha, both of which were good) and a couple of glasses of Thai white wine, Monsoon Valley, which was really lovely – off-dry and almost a little syrupy in the mouth. The wine list actually had a fair few bottles I would have been tempted by on a different night – an Australian shiraz, a German Riesling and a Fleurie among them – most of them under twenty pounds. Our bill came to fifty-six pounds, not including a tip.

A friend recently asked me to recommend a Thai restaurant – she has a friend visiting from France who has specifically asked for Thai food. I told her that if the food’s more important than the room she should go to Art Of Siam, but that if the room is equally important she should head for Thai Corner. I have to say, I’m now tempted to contact her and tell her to pick Suwanna Thai instead. The food was fantastic – the best Thai food I’ve eaten in Reading – and had me revising my list of go-to restaurants in town. The room is cool and contemporary. But here’s the drawback: the service felt like an afterthought, a necessary evil to get the food out and the bill paid but with little thought given to making the customers feel welcome. Is two out of three good enough? Meat Loaf would say so. But he might think differently if Kenny G ever got round to covering any of his songs.

Suwanna Thai – 7.7
8 Church Road, RG4 7AD
0118 9471500

http://www.suwannathai.co.uk/

Nibsy’s

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You can’t talk about Nibsy’s, I don’t think, without using the G word: I considered writing this whole review and only mentioning gluten – or the lack of it, I should say – at the end, but I decided that it just wasn’t possible. Besides, it’s a big part of how Nibsy’s markets itself (their slogan is “for the love of coffee and all things gluten-free”). Personally, I’ve never had a problem with gluten but I know many people do, and I’m sure a lot of them thought it was an absolute godsend when Nibsy’s opened last summer.

You can however, I hope, write about Nibsy’s without being patronising about gluten free food. Whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of an increasing number of people adopting a gluten free diet, I reckon the food at Nibsy’s deserves to be judged on its merits and not patted on the head as “not bad, considering”. Besides, if anything I’ve generally found that menus that specifically exclude something tend to be more imaginative to make up for it – take Bhel Puri House for example, where you could easily eat all manner of delicious food without realising that everything is vegetarian – so I turned up with an empty stomach and an open mind for a long overdue lunchtime visit.

The first thing to mention is that Nibsy’s looks very different from most of the other independents in town. There’s nothing shabby chic about it: in fact, it could teach most chains a thing or two about presentation. Everything is smart and professional looking and the branding is beautiful, from the writing on the windows, to the mugs, to the packaging for the sandwiches and salad. Although I sat outside, soaking up the sun, the interior is lovely and gets everything right: the furniture is mismatched without being scruffy, it’s cosy without being dishevelled and immaculately clean without being clinical. You only realise how difficult this balance is when you see somewhere like Nibsy’s do it so well.

I get the impression from Nibsy’s Facebook feed that the menu changes on a regular basis. It’s pretty wide – a range of sandwiches, toasted and untoasted, and a couple of salads in the fridges and a quiche behind the counter. We ordered a toasted sandwich and a slice of quiche and were told that the sandwich would come out quicker. This struck me as odd – if you know the quiche takes longer to heat up and you’re serving two hot dishes why not synchronise them and start the sandwich later? Inevitably this meant that we got to try our dishes after the other, instead of having the companionable lunch we were expecting. I thought that was a pity: I might have been “on duty” but it’s not all business, you know.

The toasted sandwich contained a generously gooey helping of mozzarella, some lovely salty black olives and good quality sundried tomatoes. Nothing complicated there, you might think, but with toasties it’s all about the balance and the execution and both were impeccable – I’ve had far too many toasted sandwiches in Reading where the inside is lukewarm or the outside is charred and Nibsy’s didn’t make either mistake. Apart from being slightly denser than usual, I didn’t really notice anything different about the bread – it helped that it was perfectly golden and crisp (I think some butter had been spread on the outside before grilling, which – in my book at least – is how you make a perfect toastie). I loved it from start to finish: if anything my only reservation was that, because it wasn’t the biggest sandwich in the world, start and finish were a bit closer together than I might personally have chosen.

NibsyToastie

The feta and spring onion quiche arrived a mere moment after the sandwich was done. C’est la vie. It was well worth waiting for, though. The pastry was crisp and crumbly (you would never have known it was gluten free, in my opinion) and the filling was fabulous – incredibly cheesy, chock full of spring onions and also with some red pepper and (I think) rocket. Honestly, it was terrific and (I’m happy to say, given the size of the toastie) extremely generous. I wasn’t so convinced by the salad that came with it, however – a big pile of iceberg lettuce. Personally I think of iceberg as the triumph of texture over taste, so I was surprised to see it used here, especially with nothing else in the salad to liven it up. It was dressed, at least, but even then it wasn’t terribly exciting, so I left most of it.

NibsyQuiche

Having heard many rave reviews of Nibsy’s cakes I felt I’d be letting the side down if I didn’t order a few to try the full range of options (although, in the interests of full disclosure, I ought also to declare that I am an enormous – in both senses – fan of cake). The range is impressive: a plethora of sponge cakes, shortbreads and brownies to equal anything you’d find over in Picnic or Workhouse. It was extremely difficult to narrow it down, and a bit of me is still wondering now when I can try the coconut praline cake, or the orange and almond cake, topped with shiny, sticky slices of bright fruit.

Instead, I tried the lemon drizzle cake, possibly the biggest misfire of my meal. Unlike most lemon drizzle cakes I’ve had this wasn’t a loaf, rather it was a layered sponge with lemon curd in the middle. I think maybe lemon drizzle was a misnomer as I didn’t detect any drizzling, no glorious layer of crackling sugar on top, and apart from the lemon curd it lacked the tart zinginess I was expecting. If anything, it was more like a slightly dry Madeira cake – not bad in itself, certainly not bad enough to complain about but not what I was expecting. Not good enough to finish eating, either, and that’s a sad thing to say about any cake.

NibsyLemon

Redemption arrived in the form of the chocolate brownie. “Quite a lot of people don’t finish this” I was told as it was brought to the table, a big slab of cocoa-rich badness. Well, all I can say is that those people have a level of restraint I will never master, and they probably find it easier to buy clothes than I do. It was truly superb – rich and dark without being too bitter or too sweet. I was lucky to get a corner piece so I could properly appreciate the contrast between the crumbly, chewy edges and the soft middle, almost like a ganache. No nuts, no chocolate chips in there – nothing that would distract you from something so perfect. I ate it with a lot of joy and a little too much haste, and by the end I had no regrets about possibly missing out on anything else.

NibsyBrownie

On the side we had Earl Grey and a latte. The Earl Grey – unbranded, so I don’t know who it was by – was served in a small teapot, bagged rather than loose, and was good enough for me to have a second pot (and that was even before I knew the lemon cake would be on the dry side). I’m told the latte was very good – not quite as good as Tamp or Workhouse, better than Picnic or My Kitchen, pretty much up there with Tutti Frutti. There’s not a huge amount of interaction in a café but the service was friendly, smiley and efficient, the glitch around timings aside. The total bill for two lunches, two pieces of cake and three hot drinks was twenty-one pounds. I think that’s pretty much fair enough: if anything was slightly on the pricey side the quality easily made up for it.

If it’s hard to review Nibsy’s without mentioning the G word, it’s even harder to sum up a review without using it. But let’s put to one side for one minute the fact that, for some people in Reading, this is the only place they can realistically go and have lunch without worrying, and judge Nibsy’s on its merits. Good coffee. Good tea. Tasty toasties and a quiche I’m already fantasising about eating again. A brownie that can match any other brownie in town. A huge range of other cakes, tantalisingly in view just down the culinary road less travelled. The only G word we should be using here is great. So yes, on its merits Nibsy’s is an excellent addition to Reading’s food scene and, whatever your dietary requirements, you should consider going there next time you either want lunch or afternoon tea. They may have taken one ingredient out, but to me there isn’t anything missing.

Nibsy’s – 7.7
26 Cross Street, RG1 1SN
0118 9597809

http://www.nibsys.com/

Miah’s Garden Of Gulab

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There’s been lots of change in the world of Reading restaurants recently. Wolf, offering “Italian street food” – if such a thing exists, and I have to say I’m skeptical – opened not long ago on Broad Street. Not far away, lunchtime sushi and noodle joint Itsu opens soon in the spot at the John Lewis end of Queen Victoria Street; even if you don’t like sushi it’s got to beat the crimes against the English language perpetrated by previous occupant “Fone Bitz”. A short stroll down Chain Street, Argentine chain CAU is now open for business in its innovative split level pitch next to the Holybrook. And if you stroll past CAU and into the Oracle, Manhattan Coffee Company is now trading on the top floor (an independent in the Oracle! I know! How did they pull that off?).

The thing I notice most often about new places is that they’re packed. Every time I go past CAU it’s rammed, often on both floors (it’s not the biggest of restaurants, and seems even smaller when it’s full of people). We like novelty value – we upgrade our phones every couple of years and, it seems, we enjoy upgrading our restaurants too. I like shiny new things as much as the next person, but something about this troubles me: what about all the tried and tested stalwarts? It’s a fine line between classic and dated – not moving with the times is one thing, but being left behind by the sheer rate of change is another.

For many years the mainstays of Reading’s Indian restaurant scene were Bina and Standard Tandoori in Caversham and the Garden Of Gulab on the Wokingham Road (and the much-missed Sardar Palace on Cemetery Junction – mind-boggling décor and bottles of Chateauneuf du Pape for fifteen quid: I loved it there). Annual reviews in the local paper, references to John Madejski hunkering down for dinner, the occasional award – their primacy was undisputed. But recently something else has changed: when GetReading published the shortlist for its inaugural curry awards earlier this year none of them was anywhere to be seen. In their place were the pretenders to the throne: River Spice, Bhoj, House Of Flavours.

House Of Flavours was the eventual winner and it’s hard to deny that it deserves its success; it’s a brilliantly run restaurant, the food’s immaculate and the location is perfect. But I couldn’t help thinking about the old guard. Surely they hadn’t gone bad overnight? I always complain about how people should use it or lose it (a sentiment as true of South Street Arts Centre, incidentally, as it is of I Love Paella) but what if I didn’t go to a place like Garden Of Gulab only to find one day that it wasn’t there any more? So my choice this week was made.

The interior conforms to the classic formula of many Indian restaurants: the bar at the front, with a small waiting area for people collecting takeaway, and the dining rooms beyond. There are three in total and all of them looked clean, presentable and a little dated, although the one at the front was reassuringly busy for a weekday night. It makes much of its awards and certificates, which are all displayed in the waiting area, and in fairness they win them on an annual basis: shortlisted for the British Curry Awards year after year and with a couple of TripAdvisor certificates too. I was determined to give the menu a chance to impress me by moving away from the standards and seeing what the kitchen had dreamed up to supplement them. There was plenty there: a full range of interesting-sounding combinations (some with pictures of the food, which wasn’t as heinous as it might sound) and a couple of very credible vegetarian options.

First though, the traditional poppadoms: light and warm, served with no less than six different dips. Miah’s seems proud of these, although they do charge you a quid for the privilege which feels slightly cheeky. Of them the mango chutney was quite thin and unremarkable, as was the raita. My favourites were the lime pickle – sharp, sour, almost salty – and a beautiful heap of grated coconut and carrot which was sweet and savoury all at once. Things had started well, although that extra quid lodged in the gullet somewhat.

GulabPop

I decided to try a mixture of the traditional and the unconventional for starters and Indian tandoor pool, broccoli and cauliflower grilled in the tandoor, sounded too good to miss. I love the way Indian cooking can bring vegetables like these to life and I was genuinely fascinated to see what turned up. The dish was meant to come with milk cake, pimentos, olives and ginger. Forgive my ignorance, but I have no idea whether it did or not and I’ve eaten the bloody thing. There were slices of what I assumed was paneer, and certainly tasted like paneer. Was that the milk cake? Based on my Googling, I don’t think so. There were also little wedges of what I was pretty certain were potato. Not mentioned anywhere on the menu, but I got a second opinion and my companion thought they were potato too.

I didn’t see any pimento, olive or ginger anywhere. The broccoli and cauliflower had no char or texture to indicate they’d been cooked in a tandoor, if anything they seemed steamed. The whole thing was in a lake of sweetened sauce and topped with a random slice of lemon. It felt like an ill-advised attempt at the Masterchef invention test, or a Bollywood remake of cauliflower cheese. It felt, to be honest, like a mistake.

GulabPool

My other starter was the mixed starter for one, and this is the point where things went awry. My dining companion won’t eat raw coriander; it’s fine cooked, but raw I’m told it tastes like Fairy Liquid (it’s genetic, apparently). So we clearly pointed that out when placing our orders. Now personally, I don’t think this is asking too much: the recipe didn’t need to be changed, the sauce didn’t need to be modified, just no leaves sprinkled on the top as it left the kitchen, thank you. But it seemed like perhaps it was: the dish came out sizzling away but as the scented steam cleared, before the plate even got to our table, it was obvious that the dish was festooned with coriander.

What to do? Well, we did what any self-respecting Brit would do – we apologised for the fact that they hadn’t done what we asked and sent it back. Two minutes later a new plate came out – except it wasn’t, it was the same plate, just with some of the leaves dusted off (or maybe they removed them with tweezers – however they did it, it was only a partial success). Feeling a mixture of embarrassed about our fussiness and determined not to give in, we sent it back again. When the waiter came back to the table I couldn’t tell whether this was a reunion or a new meeting, but the dish that was put in front of me was lukewarm and weirdly oily. There was almost no coriander, but by this point the lack of coriander wasn’t enough of a selling point on its own: it needed to be perfect and it just wasn’t.

The other starter had long been dispatched by this point so, having had enough, we told them we didn’t want the mixed starter any more and they took it off the bill. By this point my companion was on the borderline between exasperation and apoplexy and I was starting to realise that a mistake like this doesn’t just ruin a course: it can ruin an evening, too. The waiters seemed either uncomprehending or annoyed by our ingratitude – not sure I wanted to know which.

The saga has a bizarre postscript: they then brought the mixed starter again. My companion was geared up to explode when they ever so nicely apologised and told us it would be on the house. It was a small sheekh kebab, some chicken tikka and a whopping onion bhaji, dressed with the usual pointless bit of salad and one of those lemon squeezers like my mum had at the back of the kitchen drawer. Was it worth all that palaver? No, not really. The chicken tasted good but the texture was off-putting – unnaturally soft and smooth to the point of feeling (but not tasting or looking) undercooked. The kebab was pleasant but didn’t stand out in any way from those I’ve had at a dozen other Indian restaurants across town. I liked the onion bhaji – coarse and nicely spiced – but not enough to have waited three iterations for it. And although it was nice to get a freebie (makes a change), I’d rather they’d got it right first time, or at least fixed it properly first time.

GulabMixedNoCoriander

The mains arrived shortly after my second starter was taken away (although in fairness they did ask if we wanted to wait). Lamb shank was probably the most successful dish of the evening but even this wasn’t without its faults. The good bit: it was a huge hefty shank – nobody’s going to go hungry ordering this – and the sauce was beautiful. Smoky, spicy, hot, earthy and dense, thickened with lentils, packed with cardamom pods and pepper it was everything I was looking for in a sauce. Scooped onto the naan or jumbled up with the rice it was truly delicious.

But the lamb needed ever so slightly longer – you could eat it, and there was lots of it, but that extra time would have added the final touch of softness, made it truly collapse to the point where it too could be mingled with that sauce. The nan bread, too, wasn’t faultless – too small, thick and dense where it needed to be thinner and airier. I barely ate half of it, and once I’d finished the whole thing I just wanted to click my fingers and be at home, in some pyjamas with an elasticated waist, lying in the recovery position and digesting the whole lot like a python.

GulabLamb

My other dish was murgh jeera adrath, chicken breast in cumin, ginger and honey sauce. Again the chicken had that jarringly soft texture which made it a little unappetising, and it seemed exactly the same shape as the pieces in the starter. It was unsettlingly homogeneous, in fact, and once I realised this it rather put me off it. The sauce was interesting but, again, a bit sweet and slightly lacking in complexity: honey, cumin and ginger is an intriguing combination but it worked better on the page than on the plate. “It tastes like the kind of curry you’d order if you don’t particularly like curry”, said my companion, not without good reason. The peshwari naan ordered to accompany it, however, was heavenly. Rich and jammed full of sweet sticky coconut, I found it easy to chomp through a lot of this at the expense of the curry. I couldn’t understand the blood-red colour of it; I wondered if the head waiter’s firstborn had been sacrificed in order to appease the coriander gods.

GulabChickenMain

We didn’t have many drinks – a reliable pint of Kingfisher, a mango lassi which felt a little too thin and straightforward to have been truly made fresh and a ginger ale (the last mainly because of its renowned ability to aid digestion) and the whole thing came to just over forty-six pounds, not including service. You’ve probably already got an idea of service from the rest of the review, but the incident over the starters was a turning point: before that they were off-hand and a bit remote, afterwards they were genuinely lovely and couldn’t do enough for us. My companion thought it was a tacit acceptance that they’d taken their eye off the ball. I think it’s because my companion can be pretty terrifying when crossed.

So, what have we learned? Personally, I’ve learned that if they’d brought out some starters without coriander this review would have been half the size and the meal would have been twice as enjoyable. Maybe the review would have been twice as enjoyable, too. I’ve also learned that when a restaurant fixes a problem slowly or badly it can be worse than when they don’t fix a problem at all. But I’m not sure what else I’ve learned about the Garden Of Gulab: I might not have seen them at their best, but the restaurant all those certificates praise in the waiting area didn’t feel like the restaurant I ate at that night. Maybe, after all that, the real difference between the young pretenders and the old-timers is the newcomers have the hunger and the drive to build up a customer base and keep it.

Miah’s Garden Of Gulab – 6.7
130-134 Wokingham Road, RG6 1JL
0118 9667979

http://www.miahs.co.uk/restaurants/garden_of_gulab/

The Bird in Hand, Sonning Common

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I’ve been thinking about going to the Bird In Hand for ages. It’s been sitting there on my list and I was saving it because I always had a sneaking feeling it would either be really special or crashingly disappointing and I half didn’t want to find out which. There seems to be a bit of a recent trend of country pubs round here taking a detour to Italy – like Buratta’s near Twyford (although I’ve always been a bit deterred by the fact that they’ve spelled “burrata” wrong) and the Red Lion at Mortimer Common – but something about the Bird In Hand felt like it might have star quality.

I normally talk far more about food than I do about chefs, but the Bird In Hand’s back story is an interesting one; the landlord, Santino Busciglio, cooked at various Michelin starred restaurants in London and appeared on one of Gordon Ramsay’s TV shows (don’t worry, the one about good restaurants rather than the one about cockroaches in the kitchen and eighteen page menus where all the sauces come out of a packet) before taking over the Bird In Hand, which reopened at the start of the year.

If it wasn’t the back story, maybe it was the website: in the course of my pre-visit research I decided that it was the most appealing menu I’d seen for a long time. The modish typewriter font made my eyes hurt, but looking beyond that it was an embarrassment of riches – a dizzying range of small sharing dishes to start and then a set of mains which divided their time evenly between Sicily and South Oxfordshire. Braised beef brisket pie rubbed shoulders with roasted sea bream, burger buns cohabiting with focaccia. I almost wanted to keep it on my list forever as some halcyon ideal of what a countryside pub could be, but my curiosity got the better of me so, during the hottest week of the year, my car pulled up outside and I prepared myself to deal with triumph or disaster.

The place has been done up recently and it really showed, but it also achieved the rare trick of managing to feel like a pub that serves food rather than a restaurant which pays lip service to local drinkers. The interior was lovely in that kind of studied rustic way that smart pubs are these days, with a decent-sized chic dining room, but it was completely empty because we’re British and know to make the most of whatever summer weather we actually get. So everyone was sitting outside, under the parasols, rejoicing in the beauty of a sultry English evening. We joined them, marvelling at the red kite circling above and I realised as I sipped a crisp cold pint of cider that choosing from the menu was never going to be an easy task.

It’s actually a cleverer menu than you realise at first – although the twenty or so stuzzichini dishes could seem bewilderingly huge, a lot of them contain components which also turn up in the mains, so you have to carefully pick through and decide how best to try as many different things as possible. We limited ourselves to sharing three before moving on the mains; I deeply regretted not ordering the grilled neck of treacle pork, the crab salt cod and ricotta fish cakes or the chick pea fritters, but it’s a good menu that forces you to make hard choices.

My favourite of them was a couscous salad with green garlic, yellowfin tuna and wild mushrooms – a bloody gorgeous bowl of deliciousness. The couscous was Israeli couscous (the bigger stuff that’s easier to eat and doesn’t go absolutely everywhere the moment you try to eat it), there were lots of little wild mushrooms studded through it, along with sweet cherry tomatoes and plenty of pieces of light, fresh-tasting tuna. It was the first thing I ate and it set a trickily high standard for everything that was to follow.

BirdTapas

Caponata was also good: I’ve always been a huge fan and the Bird In Hand’s version was slightly different to ones I’ve had in the past. The aubergine was firm rather than stewed into sticky submission, there was more of a starring role for the celery in the dish and the balance was much more interesting – a more closely-fought battle between the sweet and the sour – than I was used to. Again, it felt like perfect summer food, and I could gladly have eaten a bowl of it on my own.

The least successful of the starters was the trout two ways (line caught Avington rainbow trout, for any provenance buffs out there). Half had been cured in vodka, little beautifully-coloured strips arranged in a whorl. It was pretty but insubstantial. The other half, hot tea smoked, was served on a little smudge of spinach pureé and I liked it but I didn’t love it – it was powerfully smoky but that flavour wasn’t as deep or complex as I’d hoped it would be and, like the cured trout, it was almost over before it began. By serving it two ways, it felt like neither one thing nor the other: I admired the technique a great deal, but it felt a little unrewarding for six pounds (at the risk of sounding like a heathen, I would have liked some bread with it, but there wasn’t enough of it to put on bread anyway).

Plenty of promise in the starters, then, and the mains delivered on it. The menu has so much for vegetarians (plenty of starters and three tempting mains, including a field mushroom and green garlic pie which I would have ordered on a slightly cooler day) that I felt duty bound to try one of them, so I went for the strozzapretti pasta with aubergine caviar, basil, vine tomatoes and salted ricotta cheese. The pasta was al dente and the aubergine caviar (a bit misleading that, as it had collapsed into something approximating to baba ghanoush by the time it was served) was smoky with a touch of citrus and rich enough to make this a very substantial main. There was also some clever chilli in the sauce which built over time and the generous heap of salted ricotta – so nice to see a kitchen advertising a vegetarian dish without blotting their copybook with Parmesan – on top rounded it off nicely. It was still a bowl of pasta, and I think they always run out of steam when eaten as a main course, but it was probably the best vegetarian main course I’ve had this year. I was also impressed to see how much on the menu was gluten free – almost a third of it, and none of it felt like it involved any compromises.

BirdPasta

The other main turned out to be the perfect synthesis of Sicily and South Oxfordshire, the Bird In Hand’s cover version of fish and chips. The hake was in glorious light batter (billed as Parmesan tempura, although I didn’t really detect that). The chips were crunchy thin straws of courgette, beautifully seasoned and fried, all taste and no oil. And the peas – well, it was a fantastic pea puree, as intense and green to taste as it was to look at. I don’t even like mushy peas, but I couldn’t get enough of this. If I did have a criticism, and it’s only one, the presentation of everything on top of the pea puree made it difficult to make the most of the superlative accompaniments – a lovely piquant pimento ketchup and (a lovely touch, this) a ramekin of malt vinegar jelly. Everything I had had been tasty, but this was clever too.

BirdHake

On a lovely, sunny evening it felt like a waste to head home without making some inroads into the dessert menu, and my companion still had quite a lot of a glass of white wine to finish. Impressively, the Bird In Hand has about ten wines by the glass, nearly all Italian, all costing no more than £3.50 for a small glass or £20 for a bottle, another little detail that made me warm to the place. I didn’t try any, being the designated driver, but I’m told that the Cataratto (an organic Sicilian white) was positively medicinal on a hot day.

This is probably the right place to mention the service, which was the closest my evening came to letting the side down. Sitting outside meant that you ordered at the bar – and when I did Santino, who was working behind the bar, was charm personified and clearly a big hit with locals and diners. He could sell any of his dishes to anyone and was brilliant at bringing the details to life: the tuna cooked with orange zest, the burrata which was arriving later in the week, the salami he gets from small producers in Italy (I imagine he has built up quite a good contacts book), the ice cream which was all made there on the premises. He also lamented the end of the English asparagus season, a subject very close to my heart. The table service was a lot more erratic: the young waiter who was doing the fetching and carrying had a lot to do (serving in the garden means a lot of distance back and forth with plates) but wasn’t the canniest of workers, often bringing out food then returning to the kitchen empty handed despite our empty plates having been in front of us for quite some time. It didn’t mar the evening but I did reach the stage where I had half a mind to taken them inside myself, and that isn’t how it should be.

Santino recommended the ice cream, so naturally I had to try it. They’re all priced by the scoop and, interestingly, the prices all differ so, for example, pistachio is more expensive than chocolate which is more expensive than vanilla. I had two scoops of malt barley ice cream, and I think – no offence to the likes of Tutti Frutti – it’s probably the best ice cream I’ve had in this country. The texture almost defied description because somehow “smooth” isn’t enough but, raiding the thesaurus, smooth is all there is. It was so rich and glossy, with almost a burnt toffee note from the malt, that I just didn’t want it to end. Except I also wished I’d only had one scoop so I could try the chocolate as well: what did I say about good menus and hard choices?

BirdIce

Believe it or not, I’ve saved the best for last. Sfinci, Sicilian cinnamon doughnuts, might well be my dessert of the year so far: three rough little clouds of fried batter, crisp on the outside, soft in the middle, dusted with a little icing sugar and cinnamon and served with the richest, creamiest pistachio ice cream. The irony: in Reading we’re used to being bombarded with a message saying “lovely hot doughnuts, nice and fresh” and yet so many people never get to eat anything of the kind. I was told when I ordered them that they would take fifteen minutes and I’m not sure I can think of a better way of spending fifteen minutes than waiting for that dish.

BirdDoughnut

The total bill, for three courses each, two ciders, a wine and an Averna (it looks like Coke, tastes like cough medicine and, with lots of ice and a slice of orange, is one of the best digestifs you could hope for) was seventy six pounds. Considering the number of separate moments in the meal which had a wow factor, I reckon that was money well spent.

Having written this blog for nearly two years, I’ve come to realise is that life is full of mysteries. Why do cafés persist in putting your napkin between the cake and the plate, thereby guaranteeing you can’t use it? Why is Prezzo always full? Why are the plates for Picnic’s salads so small that it’s almost impossible to eat the salad without dumping half of it on the table? Cosmo: why?

But the biggest mystery of all to me is that people just don’t read the reviews of out of town places – I know, thanks to the joys of WordPress, that every time I publish one quite a few readers decide to take a week off. That’s a real shame, because those people won’t get to find out about the Bird In Hand. They won’t get to experience little flashes of wonder of like the ones I had – that first taste of couscous, wild mushroom and tuna, the tang of the salted ricotta, the big silly smile at something with the texture of jelly and the taste of Sarson’s. That ice cream. Those doughnuts. But never mind – because if you’re reading this you’ll know, and maybe you’ll go. That’s good enough for me.

The Bird In Hand – 8.3
Peppard Road, Sonning Common, RG4 9NP
0118 9721857

http://birdinhandsonningcommon.com/

I Love Paella

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There are a number of places in Reading that people have asked me to review that aren’t quite restaurants: a couple of supper clubs, for instance, or the training restaurant at Reading College. I’ve so far not reviewed them because I’m not sure how useful it would be to write about a menu that changes at every single sitting. Who’s to say that one visit would be representative of what’s on offer? With Reading College in particular it also seems a little unfair to review chefs in training – I wouldn’t have wanted to share my GCSE coursework with the outside world, let alone have some snooty blogger bitch about my handwriting, my meandering essays or my poorly drawn graphs.

I Love Paella is that most unusual of things here in Reading: a pop-up restaurant. It operates out of the Oxford Road branch of Workhouse Coffee as part of a laudable project by Workhouse to encourage independent businesses. It’s slightly different from the supper clubs, though, in that it has regular opening hours (from Friday afternoon until Sunday afternoon) and a reasonably stable menu. They’ve not been going long but their enthusiasm on Twitter is infectious, so I thought that if Workhouse can do its bit to support little start-ups, the least I could do is to hop on a trusty number 17 bus one evening and head west to check it out.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must also confess I also had a sneaky side trip to the new improved enormo-Lidl (other supermarkets are available) next to Reading West station, because a friend had recommended their £8 Pouilly Fumé to me. They didn’t have any but I was extremely tempted by some retro biscuits. Have you forgotten how good Gold Bars taste?

The seating inside, as you’d expect, is more suited to coffee drinkers than to people stopping for an evening meal, with mini tables and stools along the windows and a big, high bar area in the middle, but it’s comfortable enough. I Love Paella doesn’t have a license so – having done our homework – we took along our own bottle of wine (not from Lidl, I might add) which the waiter gladly opened for us. I say waiter, but let’s call him the owner – he was the only person we saw working there all evening, and I got the distinct impression that I Love Paella is a one man operation.

The menu is, well, confusing. There’s a blackboard by the counter which lists all the options, except that I suspect they weren’t doing some of them that night, and there were a few specials which weren’t on the blackboard – and we ordered a couple of these because they sounded so good. I got the impression that the owner genuinely decides to cook and try new things on a weekly basis, which is brilliant, but just to be slightly hyper-critical I would have thought the whole point of having a blackboard is that you can easily update it whenever you need to. Being hyper-critical might become a bit of a theme during this review because, as I was to discover, finding anything to criticise at I Love Paella is quite the challenge.

That said, I should also point out that the name, I Love Paella, is a tad misleading. It’s one thing on the menu but the rest of the menu is a mixture of salads, montaditos (small sandwiches) and coques (I felt too awkward asking for one, and good luck Googling one – it turns out they’re a bit like tacos). I pretty much wanted to order everything but showed a little bit of restraint – not much though, as you’ll see when I run through what arrived. The pacing was beautifully done, just as it should be for this kind of dining, so items arrived here and there, just as we’d finished one dish and were ready to move on to the next. I liked being able to watch the rest of the Oxford Road go by, drink my wine and meander through the food on offer – a nice contrast from having tapas in Andalucia where you’re normally rammed at a bar, sherry in one hand, wielding your elbow like a deadly weapon (which, as it happens, mine is).

First up was the goat’s cheese salad, recommended by the owner: a generous plate of frisée, lambs lettuce, radicchio, walnuts and cherry tomatoes with balsamic glaze and a huge slice of pan fried goat’s cheese on top. Not the most complex dish in the world, and very much the sum of its parts but that didn’t make it any less tasty; the combination of the sweet glaze, the walnuts and that creamy, slightly oozy cheese was particularly lovely. A big part of me wanted to see the log of cheese that slice had come from but I was jolted from my reveries about a giant caber made out of cheese by the arrival of the next dish.

ILPSalad

Pulled pork empanada doesn’t do it justice. I’m so bored of pulled pork I can’t even tell you – it’s everywhere. Even at Reading’s street food festival last month everybody was flogging the stuff. I just want to see some unpulled pork (and some unsalted caramel while we’re at it). But the point is that I Love Paella’s pork was a million miles away from the sweet, sticky, saturated America version you can find everywhere. Instead it was fine shredded strands with clever spice and heat, Private Eye to most places’ Take A Break. The pastry was gorgeous too, a corn shell which reminded me of the empanadas I once had at Arepas Caffe – but this was miles better than that, light and golden and slightly sticky underneath. It was absolutely crammed with filling, and even then I bitterly resented having to share it with someone else (when you go – and I hope you do – have one to yourself).

ILPEmpanada

Next up was the legendary paella (which we did order two of – it is the name of the establishment, after all). This may not have matched the heights of the empanada but not much does – it came in a cute miniature paella pan, a decent portion of vividly yellow rice with prawns, lots of pieces of squid and a solitary mussel with a wedge of lemon and the crowning glory, a dollop of extremely good aioli. I’m sure paella experts – and I’m not one – would have an opinion about whether it should have had chicken in it, or chorizo, or peppers. But who really wants to go to dinner with a paella expert? Just imagine. Speaking as a relative novice I loved it. The squid was lovely – firm and yielding, not at all rubbery. The rice still had some nutty bite to it and the flavour was beautiful. But the highlight of the dish had to be spearing one of those prawns, dipping it in the aioli, eating and grinning. I did that quite a lot.

ILPPaella

Next up was the enigmatically named “Cuban sandwich”. This, truth be told, was really just another vehicle for that fabulous pulled pork – a toasted panini with pulled pork and cheese. The panini was nice and crisp, the cheese was melted (something you should be able to take for granted with a panini but isn’t always the case) and the pulled pork was just as spicy, rich and tender as before. If this had been the first dish I ate I’d have fallen a little bit in love, but as it was it just reminded me that I should have ordered another empanada. What’s the Spanish for l’esprit d’escalier?

ILPSandwich

I could have – should have – stopped there, but the problem with ordering all your food right at the start is that restaurants have a nasty habit of bringing it out and expecting you to eat it. So I had to soldier on through the final dish. It didn’t even have a name: I got the impression it was something dreamed up on the day because the owner had some extra chorizo to use and was looking for something tasty to make. Oh my goodness. This was a long piece of puff pastry studded with small pieces of chorizo and cheese and then baked into melty-submission. It was like a particularly suave sausage roll – rich and piquant and very, very decadent. It might have lacked the sophistication of the empanada but, in terms of pure happiness, it was right up there.

ILPRoll

Service throughout was friendly and enthusiastic, with the owner patiently explaining the dishes that weren’t on the menu as well as the ones that were. When the restaurant was busy he was run off of his feet bringing over plates or assembling take away bags but it was still a far warmer welcome than I’ve had from many well-established restaurants and most chains (a lot of them should head over to I Love Paella and pick up some tips – like how to actually look pleased to have customers, for a start). The total bill for one salad, four small dishes and two small paellas was just over twenty-five pounds (it’s worth noting here that they don’t take cards and all the ATMs within 100 yards or so charge for withdrawals, so take cash with you). Admittedly, we brought our own wine and I don’t think we were charged corkage but by any standards you care to name that’s an absolute steal.

So, here’s the hyper-critical bit: I don’t like the name. I just don’t feel like it really sums up what the place is about. I’d like to have seen more variety in the menu. Very little of it felt like true tapas; I’d have loved to see the kitchen serve up some garbanzos con espinacas, or some tortilla, or a selection of really good jamon. And I also wasn’t quite sure if this was a lunch venue or an evening venue – most of the dishes felt more like lunch dishes, so if you want to explore I Love Paella you might be better off doing that on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. It was nowhere near busy the evening I went, with a few tables and a couple of people dropping in to pick up takeaways.

When I talked to the owner he said he had plans to widen the range of food and hopefully expand the opening hours. But to do that he needs customers which, of course, is where we all come in. I really hope he gets them, because – and I’m sure you figured this out some time ago – I absolutely loved I Love Paella. It’s not just that the dishes were so tasty, although they were. It’s not that the service was so good. It’s not even the fact that I felt so at home sitting at my table, drinking my wine and daydreaming of Seville or Barcelona (no mean feat in RG30, let’s be honest). What really struck me about I Love Paella is how consistent it was. Everything was good, it’s a small menu, it changes fairly regularly and I just felt utterly confident that I could have ordered anything on it and had an excellent meal. That’s down to many things, but it doesn’t feel like beginner’s luck to me.

I Love Paella – 8.2
Workhouse Coffee, 335 Oxford Road, RG30 1AY
07707 641694

http://ilovepaella.co.uk/

Feature: pre-theatre dining

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

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

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

Pepe Sale

Fish

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

Bhel Puri House

Samosas

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

Mission Burrito

Mission - tacos

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

London Street Brasserie

LSB1

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

Sapana Home

1409688981.569270.71

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

Bali Lounge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BaliStart

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

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

BaliPad

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

BaliSalmon

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

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

Bali Lounge – 6.4

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

Q&A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loch Fyne

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

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

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

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

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

LochPot

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

LochHag

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

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

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

LockHad

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

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

LochCod

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

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

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

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

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

Shed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ShedTop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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