If you’ve been reading for a while you might have gathered that I’m a big fan of Reading. I think it has a lot to offer – although sometimes it only rewards those who make an effort – and I get quite annoyed at people who slate it. As a town is it what you make it. What it is missing, though, is a town centre pub that does really good food.
We have great pubs. What’s not to like about finding an empty booth in the back of the Hobgoblin (yes, I know it’s not called that any more but does anyone call it by its new name?) on Friday for a quick after work pint or getting a table outside at the Allied when the sun is shining and someone has apparently picked out all the prog rock tracks over 6 minutes long on the juke box (and there are a lot – the jukebox at the Allied seems to think music stopped somewhere in the mid 80s, with a few eccentric exceptions). We have some great restaurants. But what we don’t have is that combination of the two – somewhere to get a decent pint and a decent meal, preferably at a reasonable price. Possibly the closest, although it was still far from perfect, was the Lyndhurst Arms, but then that went and closed, which means I’ll never get to review their amazing stuffed pork belly (if you’ve ever tried it you’ll know I speak the truth) let alone go there after work again for a quick drink and end up staying for dinner.
This leads me, eventually, onto this week’s review. Yes, it’s a pub with a reputation for good food but no, it’s not in Reading. Previous trips out to Henley have proven that this kind of pub is a beast usually only spotted in the countryside, preferring the fresh air and customers who are prepared to drive (or are lucky enough to live nearby) instead of folk who would rather take public transport and have a drink. The Three Tuns is a different animal altogether, though: it’s in Henley centre, right on the market square (a big tick for that) and you can get there from Reading on the train in about half an hour (a second, smaller, tick). Of course, from past experience that’s no guarantee that it’s any good, but I turned up full of optimism.
As a venue you could easily miss it. It’s a sliver of a building tucked between Machin’s the butcher and an anonymous clothes shop. Inside it’s broken up into a number of rooms, all wooden floored and low beamed. Our table was in the middle room where most of the diners end up, in a space seating about sixteen people.
The menu here is healthily short. Five or six starters, mains and desserts with most mains under fifteen pounds and if you fancy it there’s a “pub favourites” menu which offers two courses for sixteen quid. We started with a basket of bread. This came with a generous ramekin of gloriously rich sticky caponata (like Italian Branston and one of the nicest ways to eat aubergine, though that might not be saying much) and two discs of – admittedly rock hard – dill and lemon butter. Both were delicious, though it wasn’t long before our starters arrived so we didn’t quite get the chance to savour the bread. I’d specifically told the waitress we were in no hurry for anything, so this should have rung warning bells.
The buffalo mozzarella wrapped in pancetta was perfect. It was deceptively large – a whole ball of mozzarella – served with a proper dressed salad with sun dried tomatoes, pine nuts and shavings of parmesan – just in case a whole mozzarella wasn’t cheese enough (like Tony Blackburn I can’t turn down extra cheese). The pancetta was generous enough to really taste but had been stripped of most of those fatty bits on the edge that can double as unwelcome dental floss. Served on a little wooden board, as is the fashion these days, it was a bit tricky to eat but I managed, even rescuing a few scraps which fell quite literally overboard. Ten second rule and all that.
The salt cod croquettes, from the pub side of the menu, were just as good. Three plump croquettes, crispy yet soft inside, came with a little dish of beautifully yellow aioli. If anything I’d say the aioli looked more striking than it tasted, but it was still just what you wanted to dip a nice big forkful of croquette into. I know that croquettes, like fishcakes, can be a way for some kitchens to make lots of money flogging you what’s essentially mashed potato, but when it’s this good you just don’t mind – and, of course, salt cod is one of those ingredients where a little goes a long way. Clever stuff, and a bit of a culinary win-win.
The mains kept that standard up. Poached brill on a chorizo and butterbean cassoulet, from the specials menu, was a hit. My favourite part was the cassoulet itself, rich and tomatoey with a bountiful amount of chorizo giving the dish the salty, smoky taste that it needed. I could happily have eaten this without the fish – plain, poached fish is a bit like Orlando Bloom, lovely to look at but ultimately not very interesting (I guess I just like crispy skin and when it’s not there I feel a little short-changed). That said, it was generous to a fault – which definitely sets the Three Tuns apart from many restaurants who confuse “healthy” with “diet option”. It was perfectly cooked, but the seasoning was a tad strange – it was topped with dill, which might have gone with the fish but was jarring with the cassoulet.
The other dish was guinea fowl breast (“pan roasted”, apparently, which is a new one on me – I thought you pan fried and oven roasted things, but there you go) with potato hash, madeira jus and some of the nicest peas in the world. They came in a little casserole dish of their own, still with some bite, with big hunks of bacon, meat from the guinea fowl’s leg – a bit like confit duck – and braised lettuce which also still had some crispness. I could just eat a bowl of those peas now, I can tell you. Again, the supporting act was more interesting than the main event, but I didn’t mind: the guinea fowl was tasty enough (I have a soft spot for a chicken supreme, as it happens) but everything it came with turned it into a really satisfying dish. It even had me hankering for autumn, despite being on their summer a la carte.
The wine list at the Three Tuns is compact, too – a dozen or so whites and the same number of reds with half of those available by the glass. We picked a bottle of durif (an Australian number – also known as petit syrah, if the menu is to be believed) which was phenomenal. Rich, fruity and a bit smoky, it was dangerously easy to polish off a bottle between two. It went brilliantly with the guinea fowl and just about didn’t clash with the cassoulet, thanks to that chorizo. Pretty impressive for just under thirty pounds, too.
Service throughout was excellent. The staff manage that clever service trick of being really good at what they do and on top of everything while also making it look easy and casual. When asked about the dishes our waitress knew the menu inside out, and we also got the “oh yes, good choice” that everyone wants to hear when picking what to eat. I like to feel that the staff have a vested interest in what their customers order and it definitely felt the case here.
The kitchen, sadly, was not quite so perfect. Whilst the food was excellent it came out too quickly: not quite so fast that you wanted to make a scene, but quick enough to disappoint slightly because I’d turned up wanting to make a leisurely evening of it. I’m always surprised by how many good restaurants get this wrong, and it’s not as if they seemed to want to turn our table. You’d think waiting staff would realise something has gone wrong with the timing when they’re asking what dessert you want and you still have half a bottle of red wine left to drink. So we did what anyone in that position should do, and kept them waiting: red wine with fish might be a little dubious but red wine with dessert definitely isn’t on my to do list.
But, of course, we did have desserts because everything up to that point had tasted so good and they were worth the wait. The pot au chocolat was knockout – again, a generous portion of quite a dark, firm mousse, rich with orange zest, cardamom and just a little hint of chilli lurking under all that. Deceptively complicated and yet so simple-looking, it was one of the nicest desserts I’ve had all year. The (I think) rosemary shortbread on the side added nothing, but only because the flavours in the pot au chocolate were pretty much unimprovable. Even a glass of dessert wine couldn’t do it.
I also wanted to try the cheeseboard because it’s not something I order often enough in restaurants (partly because there’s so much to remember! Five different cheeses? Pasteurised and unpasteurised? Cow and goat? Will they notice if I make some notes on my phone?) The Three Tuns cleverly takes the less is more approach: just three top notch British cheeses, which makes it awfully hard to resist. Barkham Blue is a local classic (possibly the best blue cheese in the world), Lincolnshire Poacher (not so local) is a really cracking hard cheese and Stinking Bishop is famous for its whiff. On this occasion the Bishop was more like “been working on London and the Tube was a bit sweaty” than properly stinking and, if I’m honest, all the better for it. A bit younger and richer – and firmer – rather than beating you over the head with all that gooey stench. If I had criticisms (and sadly, I did) they were too cold to properly release all that flavour and the biscuits were a bit uninspired, but even so it was a generous helping and washed down with a glass of ten year old tawny it made for a great way to round things (and me) off.
Bread and butter, three courses, the cracking bottle of red and a couple of snifters with dessert came to a hundred and ten pounds, not including tip, so it may be a pub, but the prices aren’t quite pub prices. But is it worth it? Absolutely. Almost flawless food, a great wine list, brilliant service and one of the cosiest, nicest rooms I’ve eaten in in a very long time. Obviously there are a few things I’d change – I’d have liked my food to come out a little slower, I’d like there to be a direct train from Reading to Henley or, better still, I’d like to pick it up and drop it somewhere in the middle of Reading. But maybe part of the magic is that I can’t. So until Reading gets a pub that can do food of this standard, somewhere that is in the middle of town but feels like it’s out in the country, I’ll be back. Tons.
The Three Tuns, Henley – 8.4
5 Market Place, Henley on Thames, RG9 2AA