The 2014 Edible Reading Awards

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Hasn’t 2014 been a weird year for Reading? When it started we were all getting over the shock of Jackson’s closing down, and it’s been another year of greetings and partings. Some of the partings have been surprising to say the least: who’d have thought this time last year that we’d say goodbye to Vicar’s, the iconic butcher on West Street? Who could imagine that the last edition of the Reading Post would appear on newsstands? Who could guess that Reading F.C. would sack another manager? (All right, maybe some of the changes were less surprising than others…).

It makes you wonder what 2015 has in store, and what other time-honoured local institutions may be in jeopardy. Will the After Dark still be open this time next year? Will the doughnut kiosk recorded announcement be heard no more? Will Reading Elvis move to Swindon? I can’t imagine anything worse for the town’s morale (or for Reading Elvis – come on, Swindon’s a bit of a hole, right?).

There’s also been a steady succession of restaurant closures: this is the year we said goodbye to Kyklos, Al Tarboush, The Lobster Room, The Eldon Arms, Cappuccina Café, Arepas Caffe and one of Reading’s two branches of Bella Italia. A real mixed bag, that, including a few places that I still really miss (no, not Bella Italia) – and an apt illustration that doing good food isn’t enough to guarantee a restaurant’s survival. It needs to have a USP, to get the rest of the basics right and to find a way of making sure that people know it’s there. A really tricky business, in more ways than one, and I can understand why it must seem like a thankless one too.

Of course that doesn’t stop new establishments taking their place – sometimes literally – and this year we’ve seen plenty of those: My Kitchen, Casa Roma, Chronicles, Coconut, Rynd, Faith Kitchen and Nibsy’s all opened this year. Just this week Artigiano, an on-trend mixture of coffee shop, lunch spot and wine bar, has opened on Broad Street. We’re due to get CAU early next year and there are perennial rumours that Tamp Culture will eventually give up shivering at their coffee cart and take up a more permanent space in town. The sometimes daunting-looking odds, for now at least, don’t discourage people from having a go.

And it’s not all doom and gloom, because there are other signs of a bit of a renaissance in town. The independent retailers – The Tasting House and The Grumpy Goat – that opened late in 2013 seem to be doing rather nicely. Reading now has three supper clubs and the most entrepreneurial, Pop-Up Reading, has done a variety of collaborations, serving its food in cafés and churches. The hyperlocal scene is better than ever, giving Reading folk a much wider range of sources for news, views, reviews and comment – both Alt Reading and rdgnow started this year and do an excellent job – and it will be interesting to see how things change next year with getreading going digital only. There’s even some bloke reviewing roast dinners.

Anyway, like last year ER is taking Christmas off. For me, Christmas is a time to eat lots of food, completely uncritically, without being plagued by those on duty thoughts that always seem to happen when I eat in restaurants. Besides, you really wouldn’t want to read an ER review of my Christmas dinner (and by about halfway through I wouldn’t be in a fit state to write it anyway). But I couldn’t leave you empty handed – and what better way to round off 2014 than with this, the inaugural Edible Reading Awards! So sit back, grab a canapé (not a euphemism – at least I hope not) and read on while I open a bunch of tatty-looking gold envelopes and announce my big winners of the year. Is this microphone on?

SANDWICH OF THE YEAR: Tuna melt, Shed

A lot of the places that could have won this award have put themselves out of the running by closing: I think at one point Reading had enough top quality sandwiches on offer that you could probably have started a blog just reviewing them. So sadly the magnificent banh mi at Cappuccina Café and the superb pulled pork burger (it’s just a sandwich, really) at the Eldon Arms miss out here. But even if they were still going, I would still have opted for the delights of Shed’s tuna melt. I know I’ve not reviewed them yet, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t visited on a number of occasions and of all their sandwiches the tuna melt is my runaway favourite. Partly it’s because of the bread – big pillowy ciabatta which you really don’t get anywhere in town. Partly it’s because of all the little extras in there that elevate it above the same thing elsewhere – generous oozy cheese, slivers of red onion, the crunchy sharp surprise of scattered capers. And partly it’s just because it’s a lovely spot to eat, run by lovely people.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Yum gai yang, Art Of Siam

This was such a difficult category. When looking through the contenders I started to wish that all my favourite restaurants could just join forces and set up the ultimate small plates venue: the wavy lines appeared, like they do in TV dream sequences, and I found myself imagining a single place where you could order the momos from Sapana Home (the only thing there I truly enjoyed), the gorgeous crunchy, hot, spicy Gobi 65 from Chennai Dosa and that earthy, decadent truffle ravioli that nearly – but not quite – made Ruchetta worth the money. In the end, though, the winner was the starter that most took me by surprise: I wasn’t expecting to love a salad of warm grilled chicken and vegetables, served in a hot, sweet, sour, sharp dressing that knocked my socks off. I wasn’t expecting to love a salad full stop, in all honesty, but this tasted like nothing else I’ve eaten this year. People have told me since that they went to Art Of Siam specifically to try it. I can’t say I blame them.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Bhel Puri House

I’m not always right about things first time. When I went to Bhel Puri the first time I quite liked it, quite liked some of the things I’d eaten, quite fancied going back some time. I was quite wrong. Over the months since then I find I keep going back there: it’s a wonderful Technicolor alternative to what, even when it’s done well, can feel like quite a monochrome selection of coffee shops in Reading doing some sandwiches or bagels, some salads and the odd quiche. I always have the chilli paneer – because if I don’t my lunches would all be tinged with regret – and from there I’ve gone on to explore the outer reaches of the menu. I think the service there has got better and friendlier over the year, and every time I walk past I’m delighted to see that it looks pretty busy. Also: vegetarian! Just saying.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Karahi lamb, Bhoj

Honourable mentions have to go to another beautiful way to cook lamb, Kyrenia’s incredible kleftiko – but I feel I’ve enthused about that quite enough quite recently. I also adored Dolce Vita’s saltimbocca – made with veal back then and with chicken more recently – tender meat pounded thin, wrapped in salty prosciutto and bathed in a light, delicious sauce rich with wine and sage (and truffled mash, which could turn even a Fray Bentos into a world-beater). And, although they continue to serve it in a soulless glass box with all the atmosphere of the deserted space station in Gravity, La Courbe’s mixed grill – with that unbelievable tabouleh – is still one of the finest main courses in Reading. But the dish I kept dreaming of was Bhoj’s karahi lamb: chunks of lamb, soft to the point of surrender, in the most intense, sticky, savoury sauce. I was back there only a couple of weeks ago, trying it again. I’d like to pretend I was giving it one last check to make sure it was worthy of the accolade, but in truth that decision was made some time ago.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Dolce Vita

I’m almost sad to have to pick a winner here because every restaurant in Reading that does good service ought to be applauded. But my experience of most places in Reading that get service right is that they’re still very much about star players: Matt and Alex at Mya Lacarte are absolutely flawless, but everyone else doesn’t quite reach that standard. Marco at Pepe Sale could teach everyone how to do this, but again the rest of the staff can feel a little more hit and miss. Ihor at Kyrenia is as kind and welcoming a front of house as you could hope for, but he’s just one man. Dolce Vita win this award because they are a proper team – whichever of them is looking after me I know I’ll feel exactly that: looked after. They also judge how to serve tables so well – there’s no one size fits all here, so they are more friendly, more formal, more raucous depending on whether they know you, what your group is like and what kind of night you want to have. That Dolce Vita is such a friendly, fun, buzzy place to eat is very much down to that.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Peach and amaretto ice cream, Tutti Frutti

I don’t think I’ve had much luck with desserts this year. The hot school dinner style desserts I adore have been thin on the ground and instead I feel I’ve gamely struggled through underwhelming cakes and prissy little parfaits, delicate but underwhelming stuff. Part of the problem is that if I’m full, or I really didn’t rate the first two courses I’m more likely to pass on dessert (and fewer desserts means fewer runners and riders). It wasn’t all disastrous, though. I was very impressed by the pot au chocolat at the Three Tuns – that chilli and cardamom in there elevated it to something quite magnificent – but it still felt like it wasn’t special enough to win. I also loved the honey and rose kulfi at Chennai Dosa (a place which nearly won a few of these awards) for its fragrant yet refreshing cleverness.

Instead, I’m giving this award to Tutti Frutti for very good reason: when I’m eating on duty in town, and I don’t much fancy a dessert, I’ve come to realise that the test I use in my head when I read that little menu in front of me is this one: is anything I order going to be half as good as Tutti Frutti’s peach and amaretto ice cream? Will it be able to match that smooth creaminess, that hint of fruit, those soft soaked amaretti biscuits with that slightly boozy sweetness? If I know for a fact that the answer will be no, I just get the bill instead. And half the time, if I’m reviewing somewhere in town, because that idea’s in my head I wander across to the station and visit Tutti Frutti instead. It’s a wonderful, quiet, Edward Hopper-esque place late at night – just me, my thoughts, a few workers from the station in their reflective jackets, and that glorious ice cream. Try it sometime, if you get the chance.

TWEETER OF THE YEAR: Tamp Culture

I am not a massive coffee fan. If you talk about washed Ethiopian whatnots or the size of your roaster I glaze over very quickly. I think it’s great that Reading has so many coffee places, but I still long for some fantastic tea rooms, and places that know the value of a gorgeous smoky lapsang souchong or a floral, elegant Earl Grey.

That said, I love reading Tamp’s updates in my feed – even if I don’t understand all of them. You get a real picture of life outside the Oracle at their little cart – what they sell, what they do, how they work – and it comes across that they really love what they sell, what they do and how they work. The boys at Tamp both remind me a little of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. They’re what Shaggy would be like if he was less interested in constructing sandwiches the size of Thames Tower and more interested in crema (whatever that is). A lot of restaurants just do not get Twitter at all – to see it used regularly with such infectious enthusiasm is an absolute joy.

I should also mention that I particularly enjoyed Tamp’s massive spat with Workhouse Coffee earlier this year – it was Aeropresses at dawn as they bitched about one another the way only coffee geeks can (“your roaster is too small” “well you bought cakes from Costco and frosted them yourself” etc.). It made me chuckle in the middle of a particularly hectic shopping trip to Regents Street.

An honourable mention has to go to the lovely people at Pop-Up Reading. Stop making me hungry, you two.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Dolce Vita

When I went to Dolce Vita the first time, I thought the service was great, I really enjoyed the food and I thought their menu was too big. They got a good mark from me, but I suspected in the back of my mind that they’d been fortunate and that if I’d picked different dishes they might have been found out.

Well, that shows what I know. Dolce Vita wins this award because I keep going back and they keep not being found out: I really don’t know how they do it. They also win this award because the range of cooking I’ve had there over this year has been quite something. They do pizza, they do pasta, they do very creditable meat and fish dishes. But they also have a regularly changing set menu which – without any fanfare or showing off – is a darned sight more reliable than London Street Brasserie’s just down the way. So I’ve had big rib-sticking comfort dishes – open ravioli packed with rich game, proper lasagne with beef and pork and chicken livers. But I’ve also had much restrained, equally accomplished stuff – cod cheeks with lentils and a beautiful, fresh salsa verde was a stylish, subtle delight. (They also cook squid beautifully, without a hint of batter or breadcrumbs or mayonnaise in sight).

In many ways I think Dolce Vita is the town centre restaurant I’ve spent a long time looking for, and if I want to eat in town but can’t decide where it often gets the nod. I’ve had quick suppers here and long, drawn out dinners, conspiratorial lunches with friends and big loud celebrations with lots of people. The service is brilliant and they even have a bottle of Averna behind the bar for when you want the evening to last just that little bit longer. Of course, it’s not perfect – no restaurant is – but that’s probably for the best, because if I found the perfect restaurant I wouldn’t write a blog anymore and if you did you’d stop reading mine. But for 2014, it’s as close as I’ve got.

Here’s to continuing that search in 2015 – and until then, have a lovely Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Kyrenia

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I’m sorry, but I’ve got a confession to make. I’m burned out. Running on empty. This whole business of going to a restaurant every week takes its toll, you know (I’m not expecting sympathy, don’t worry). And it’s the end of the year – Christmas party season is fast approaching and I’ve got very little left in the tank. So this week, rather than go somewhere that would be a voyage of discovery for all of us, I went somewhere I know well: I’ve been going to Kyrenia, Caversham’s Greek Cypriot restaurant, for as long as I can remember. I love it – and I’m going to spend this review telling you why, because when I visited it on duty it was as terrific as always.

Besides, it’s been a bit of a bad run recently, hasn’t it? So think of this week’s review as a present to me (because I bet you haven’t got me anything, not even a box of Toffifee).

Kyrenia’s dining room hasn’t really changed in all the time I’ve been going, because it doesn’t need to. It’s perfect, simple but smart – no exposed brickwork and bare bulbs here – with clean white tablecloths, crisp cloth napkins and comfortable unfussy chairs. There are black and white photos on the walls and not much else. The greeting is warm and friendly and Ihor, who runs the front of house, is charm personified (in an endearingly apologetic way, truth be told). Kyrenia has a number of different menu options – they do a la carte, it’s two for one on Tuesdays, there’s a smaller set menu some of the week, but the thing to do here is order the meze, especially if it’s your first visit. I can’t stress this strongly enough: for twenty four pounds a head you get an incredible array of courses and variety (that’s your first tip, right there).

The first thing to arrive were the cold meze, a range of familiar friends and a very easy way to be led astray. Houmous was rich and smoky with a touch of garlic, a world away from the contents of a plastic supermarket tub. Taramasalata – something I avoid anywhere else because it’s often too oily and fishy – was light and delicate. Tzatziki was zingy and fresh, just the right side of tart, the flavour softened with cucumber. All of these came with a basket of warm, griddled, slightly charred pitta bread. That alone would be a feast, that alone would be enough but the other cold dishes were equally delicious. Beetroot, apple and walnut salad was fragrant and sweet rather than sharp and astringent, and potato salad was light and simple, just potato, good oil and parsley.

If I’m being critical (and it’s hard, where Kyrenia’s concerned) the tabouleh wasn’t as vibrant – in colour or flavour – as I’ve had elsewhere, and the olives felt like a space filler, but they were minor issues. This was a wonderful range of dishes, and the nature of it means it works equally well if you’re dining a deux or part of a much bigger group (here’s your second tip: I’ve been in those groups and watched people make the classic mistake – overdoing it on pitta bread and filling up ahead of the other courses. Don’t do this, because the best is yet to come).

Meze1

The hot meze only came out when the staff had checked that we were ready – a lovely touch, I thought – and when they did, as always, it became time to reassess how hungry I really was. Meze is about playing the long game, but the problem was that again, everything was too delicious to leave. Some of the classics – halloumi and calamari – were present and correct. The halloumi was unsurprising (halloumi in restaurants is pretty much always the same, everywhere) but still gorgeous, but the calamari was spot on – no hint of rubber, just light batter and fresh squid. They’re classics for a reason, after all.

Most of the other dishes were every bit as good. Lamb meatballs were possibly the pick of the bunch – juicy, coarse and savoury, studded with herbs and onions and a touch of garlic. Loukanika (Greek sausage) was Peperami’s glamorous continental cousin, warm with cinnamon, almost perfumed rather than one-dimensionally spicy. Dolmades had more of that delicious minced lamb folded into them, though there was probably too much leaf and not enough stuffing. The beans in tomato sauce were the only real disappointment – big, bland and filling, they were soon abandoned. Those six dishes may only merit a sentence or so each, but add that to the seven that came before and it starts to become clear: this is a marathon, not a sprint.

Meze2

Of course, I knew from personal experience to keep something in reserve for what came next: although again, only when the staff knew I was ready. The souvlaki – grilled skewers of pork and beef – were pleasant enough (possibly a tad on the dry side), but they weren’t the main attraction here because that was indisputably the kleftiko. I’ve had this dish countless times in Greece on holiday trying to find anyone who can match Kyrenia’s version, and I’ve given up now because what Kyrenia does to lamb is a work of utter genius: the almost godlike kitchen knows how to slow cook it until mere mortals like me struggle to describe how good it is.

It came on a large piece of bone but the merest whisper of effort soon sorted that out, leaving me with an awful lot of the most tender lamb I’ll probably ever eat. It broke into moist, sticky shreds, almost like confit, perfect for smooshing into the juices on the bottom of the plate before eating in nodding, smiling, euphoric silence. Again, because I feel I ought to be critical, the Greek salad it came with was a little underwhelming – but it’s only salad, isn’t it, and a cubes of feta is the perfect partner for a piece of lamb (that’s your third tip, if you’re counting).

Meze3

I also know from personal experience that if you’ve made the rookie mistake of filling up on pitta and tzatziki, Ihor will bag up all your leftover meat in a little foil parcel for you to take home and enjoy the next day. I also know from personal experience that it’s almost as good cold the next day, but take it from me if you go: pace yourself and eat it on the night.

One of the only other disappointing things about Kyrenia is the wine list. Greek wine can be absolutely fantastic, and is much underrated, but Kyrenia only sells a handful of bottles. None the less, the ones they do are lovely – we had a bottle of Naoussa Grande Reserve which was nicely balanced against both the meat and fish in the meal, far too easy to drink on a school night and not at all unreasonable at £23.50.

The last course at Kyrenia, the fruit salad, is really just a palate cleanser. I would be astonished if anyone could eat a “proper” dessert after all those meze so it seems apt that the meal ends with a plate of orange, melon, grapes and strawberry. It worked, though: fresh, bright, sweet and healthy (like Miley Cyrus before it all went so horribly wrong). It didn’t redeem the sins of all that lamb but it helped me fool myself, and very few desserts achieve that.

I’ve mentioned Ihor a few times, but service in general was perfect. All of the staff are so good at what they do, getting all the little touches right. Asking if you’re ready for the next set of courses, finding time to chat, knowing when to offer you extra pitta (although if you’ve read this far, you’ll know to turn that offer down – trust me on this). Again, to be critical I’d say that you should ask to be seated downstairs: sitting upstairs, in a smaller less buzzy room, far from the bar and the kitchen you can sometimes feel a little overlooked. That’s your fourth and final tip – ask for a table downstairs when you book, because they get busy at weekends. Dinner for two – all those dishes and a bottle of wine – came to £71 excluding service. It’s probably the best £71 meal I’ve had all year.

I recommend Kyrenia all the time – to friends and on Twitter – and it was getting to the point where not having reviewed it was looking like a glaring oversight. I went on duty hoping that they had a good night, but I really needn’t have worried because I’m not sure they know how to be anything but brilliant. There’s loads of stuff on the a la carte that I haven’t tried (I’d love to have a go at their stifado, or their monkfish souvlaki) and I know for a fact that their octopus is out of this world, but all of the best evenings I’ve had here have all involved the meze. Unlike most restaurants in Reading, Kyrenia feels like it’s perfect for everything – small intimate evenings, big raucous evenings and everything in between. It’s only a matter of time before I go back – in fact, on the way out I looked in the front door, still shining with that cosy welcoming light, and saw that they’re offering their standard menu on New Year’s Eve. See you there? I’ll be wearing the white carnation and the gold party hat and drinking the Greek red. Yamas (and Merry Christmas!).

Kyrenia – 8.6
6 Prospect Street, Caversham, RG4 8JG
0118 9476444

http://www.kyreniarestaurant.com/

Kei’s

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Apologies to any vegetarians reading this, but there are few things in life more joyous than crispy duck pancakes. There’s something about that combination of flavours and textures – crunchy cucumber, soft duck, the particularly prized crispy bits, all salt and skin and the intense, sweet yet savoury hoi sin – all almost visible through the paper thin translucent pancake, rolled up as tightly as your greed will allow and crammed into a hungry mouth. And yet Chinese has to be one of the most under-represented cuisines in Reading. We have Indian restaurants all over the place, we have Italians coming out of our ears, as it were, but where can you go in this little town to overfill on prawn crackers, starters and crispy duck only to be defeated by the main courses?

Nowhere, as far as I can tell. China Palace doesn’t fit the bill, for me at least: possibly because it’s too authentically Chinese and possibly because it’s just not that good. Furama (I have friends who still call it Futurama, which gets annoying after a while) has never impressed me. Reading’s best Chinese restaurant, Chi, closed ages ago after trying three different venues in town. I still miss Wayne Wong’s charming if haphazard service and his delicious food – prawns coated in light, brittle batter with a sticky, sweet chilli sauce, pristine cod smothered in garlic-laden black bean sauce… (I could go on, but I might cry).

So out into Lower Earley, then, where the mini-precinct at Maiden Place has had something of a makeover. Instead of an off licence called simply “Bargain Booze” there is a spanking new WHSmith and some other shops have morphed into a shiny Sainsbury’s Local. On the edge of the precinct sits Kei’s, a restaurant I tried to review once before but left after I was offered a woefully dark and forgotten corner table, despite booking. I’ve got over this now: six months seems long enough to hold that particular grudge. Besides, people do say it’s the best Chinese restaurant in Reading.

Entering a buzzy restaurant on a cold and drizzly midweek night always lifts the spirits, and stepping into Kei’s was no different. The dining room is quite cleverly laid out with the smaller tables grouped together and the bigger, potentially louder, tables at a slight distance. It was so busy that I didn’t even mind waiting for a suitable table to become free (sitting on the squishy three piece suite in reception felt a bit like being back in 1979: I rather liked it). The waiter offered the a la carte or the “eat as much as you like” (which they do Monday to Thursday). At first I picked the former, feeling a little snooty about the latter, but a quick inspection of the all you can eat menu revealed that it had pretty much all of the dishes I’d been salivating over on the website. Plus – and this was the crucial factor – the food is cooked to order rather than sitting on a buffet; Cosmo this ain’t.

The first dilemma was how many starters to order: I didn’t want to take “eat as much as you like” as a personal challenge, but on the other hand I wanted to try as much as possible. How many would you have picked, between two? Well, if you answered “four” you win a gold star. Of them, the dry spare ribs were the first to go; imagine your favourite spare ribs with nicely spiced meat falling easily off the bone but none of that sticky sauce that winds up all over your fingers and face and you’ll have a pretty good idea what these were like. The salt and pepper five spiced squid was less successful. The squid was nice enough – thin strips, tender rather than bouncy – but they were underseasoned and bland, with nowhere near enough salt and more sugary sweetness than five spice.

The Thai style smoked chicken (the menu at Kei’s seems quite happy to wander from China to Thailand and even onwards to Vietnam – it’s almost as if it’s on a gap year) was rather similar to the squid, just a little darker and much sweeter. There was no discernible smoky taste but there was some nicely mashed garlic and spring onion at the bottom of the heap that balanced the sweetness a little. And finally, one of my favourites, the crispy fried seaweed. I know it’s not seaweed and I bet it has more fat than I’d want to know about but I love the crispy, salty, sweet taste of it and I wasn’t disappointed. I know it’s a staple but I loved it.

keistarter

Only after the plate was taken away did I realise how little variety there was in the starters – largely sweet, crunchy, fried things. Probably not the cleverest idea, but I was starving and I’m afraid I must have been subliminally influenced by the smells wafting from the kitchen; sometimes you order with your belly rather than your head.

Can you guess what came next? Oh yes, the crispy duck. I was surprised this was on the “eat as much as you like menu” but when it turned up I saw how they managed this: perhaps it’s churlish to complain but the duck was a little on the skimpy side, especially compared to the big bamboo steamer of pancakes (I think we counted 12). Have you ever ordered crispy duck and run out of duck before you ran out of pancakes? No, me neither, so Kei’s was very much a first in that respect. What there was, though, was as good as ever – it’s a measure of how good this dish is that it’s impossible to eat it in silence (maybe it was just as well that it didn’t last that long).

keiduck

Having eaten all that, how many main courses would you have ordered between two? This time, gold stars for those of you who guessed “three”. I was concerned that this would be a greedy mistake but actually, all of them felt like scaled down versions of what you’d have got if you ordered from the a la carte.

Sizzling king prawns in black bean sauce, for instance, were tasty – but you got four prawns. Serving this on a sizzling cast iron platter seemed strange when in reality the dish could probably have fitted in a ramekin. I enjoyed it, but the sauce was a bit thin on the ground (as were the black beans: I didn’t count many). Lamb in satay sauce, another sizzling platter, was a bit more generous. The sauce itself was smooth and shiny, with a texture a bit like egg yolk and not particularly peanutty. Ironically, given how shiny it was, it was distinctly lacklustre – and when it started to cool the gelatinous nature made it slightly gloopy, stringy and reminiscent of things I’d rather not describe. That said, the lamb was lovely and tender – I just wished I’d had it in “Vietnamese plum sauce” (whatever that is) instead. Oh, and if you’re looking at the picture below: yes, it’s a solitary giant piece of tenderstem broccoli, yes it’s as random as it looks and no, I have no idea what it’s doing there either.

keimain

The third main, chicken and cashew nuts in yellow bean sauce, had the best flavour and texture but went cold incredibly quickly. I didn’t check the dish when it arrived but I wonder if it was served in a chilled bowl. Maybe I should have tried it before the two sizzling dishes, but either way it shouldn’t have got this cold this quickly. Again, the sauce was tasty but – as with the other two dishes – you didn’t get enough of it to make the rice interesting (the plain steamed rice, also a bit claggy and lukewarm in next to no time, needed all the help it could get).

We had a couple of diet cokes and a colossal 250ml glass of sauvignon blanc, the only white they offer by the glass and the only size glass they serve it in. Often, house wine tastes like it’s punching slightly above its weight – this one tasted very much like a house wine, and 175ml would have been plenty (hark at me, it’s not as if I let any go to waste). Service throughout was pleasant and attentive: staff were friendly, efficient and patient when it took us some time to pick our food.

Having said that all the dishes were on the small side, it’s only fair to say that the quantities I’d ordered worked out well – we were both nicely full without being stuffed which often isn’t the case in a Chinese restaurant. Just as well, though, as I wouldn’t have felt like I’d have been able to go back and ask for more dishes if I’d under-ordered. The all you can eat option is just under twenty pounds per head and our total bill, including a semi-optional service charge of 10%, came to fifty three pounds.

Is Kei’s Reading’s best Chinese restaurant? Yes, it probably is (unless Happy Diner in Caversham turns out to be stellar) but that didn’t make me feel like hopping on a bus to Lower Earley any time soon to pay it a return visit. Instead, it made me wish that Reading had something better that could compete with the delights of Chinatown, or even some of the offerings just down the train tracks in Oxford. If Kei’s was on my doorstep, or if I had a friend visiting who really, really fancied Chinese food then I’d go – it’s a solid, reliable restaurant and those are qualities a lot of people value. But most of all, it made me miss the charismatic chaos of Chi: if you never sat at a table in Chi while someone in a rhinestone jumpsuit who doesn’t look or sound remotely like Elvis serenades you with “Devil In Disguise” you haven’t lived, take it from me. Maybe we’ll see its like again at some point: until then, Kei’s might have to do.

Kei’s – 6.7
Maiden Place Centre, Lower Earley, RG6 3HD
0118 9263133

http://www.keis.co.uk/reading/

Tutu’s Ethiopian Table

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Usually, when I eat at a restaurant I have a pretty good idea whether I’ll enjoy it fairly early on. First impressions are important – the welcome, the service, the room, the menu – but even if they aren’t good, you normally know by the time you taste those first few forkfuls of your starter. Not to say there aren’t still chances to save the day: a knockout main course can redeem all sorts of prior disappointments, although by that stage it’s increasingly unlikely. And if everything else has underwhelmed you up to that point, a dessert (if you order one) is only going to be damage limitation, however magnificent it might be.

Tutu’s Ethiopian Table was a huge puzzler for me, because it didn’t fit that pattern at all. I was undecided from the moment I sat down to the moment I finished, and even afterwards I found myself mulling it over and weighing it up for quite some time. This in itself puts me out of step with most of Reading: Twitter is regularly awash with people raving about Reading’s well-established Ethiopian restaurant, not to mention the string of awards and mentions in the national media (one of my friends, ever the curmudgeon, was the solitary voice of dissent – “good luck with that, it’s just slop” he said when I mentioned that I was planning to pay it a visit).

Perhaps it would be easier to talk about what I liked and didn’t like. So for instance, I liked the room. I wasn’t expecting to, but the section of the Global Café at the front of the building is a lovely, bright, buzzy place, full of people and with lovely old jazz playing in the background. It may be a bit scruffy, but it’s so likeable that it didn’t matter. (I wouldn’t have felt the same, however, if I’d been stuck in the back room – long, windowless and distinctly cold and uninviting.)

I liked the service at the counter, too – no table service which makes sense as Tutu’s is only part of the Global Café which also does coffee, tea and all sorts of interesting alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, some of them Fairtrade. Everyone was friendly, engaging and genuinely funny (“I’m going to blow your mind now,” said one of the bar staff to another customer, “I’ve accidentally dished up your cappuccino in a latte cup and your latte in a cappuccino cup”). I wasn’t so convinced about the unsmiling, functional service from the staff at Tutu’s, who just plonked the plates on the table and left.

The menu gave a choice of seven vegetarian dishes and four meat dishes, with a choice of rice or injera (a thick, flat pancake), or you could opt for a platter – one meat dish and two vegetable dishes – for the same price. We went for platters, partly out of indecision and partly to try as much of the menu as possible. The indecision was strangely appropriate, because if I couldn’t make up my mind about the experience of eating at Tutu’s, it turned out that I couldn’t make up my mind about the food either.

So I liked the doro wot, chicken on the bone in a rich spiced sauce. I liked that an awful lot, in fact. The chicken was so soft, so tender and so well cooked that taking it off the bone was no challenge at all, and once I’d done that I was struck by how much of it there was. The sauce was magnificent too, sticky and delicious with a heat which gradually, subtly developed without ever being too much. By the end of the dish my mouth had a wonderful, warm glow; if I went back to Tutu’s, I think I’d just order this dish, as nothing else I tasted came anywhere close to it.

I didn’t like the keya sega wot – beef in a remarkably similar sauce – anywhere near so much. The beef was everything the chicken wasn’t. It needed a lot more cooking; none of it passed the two forks test and one piece was downright wobbly in a way best not remembered, let alone written about. There also wasn’t much of it – I counted less than half a dozen pieces, none of them huge.

I liked the injera, like a thick flat sourdough crumpet you could tear off and use to eat your food, almost an edible plate (and who among us has never fancied one of those?). It was a bit of a soggy experience, perhaps, but still a fun one – and the slight vinegary note in it worked better with the sauce than I expected. I was less keen on the rice – a little dome of yellow rice with what looked suspiciously like frozen vegetables in it, it didn’t feel like it added an awful lot to proceedings.

Tutu

This, I’m afraid, is where I largely ran out of likes. The vegetable dishes were bland variations on a theme, and it’s hard to be positive about any of them. Fosolia, described as “a dish of subtly flavoured fried green beans and carrots” was a mulch of green beans and what looked like tinned or frozen carrots which tasted of beans, carrots and nothing else (so very subtly flavoured, then). I couldn’t see how this could possibly have been fried, either, because fried food doesn’t normally wind up this damp.

White cabbage and potatoes and collard greens and potatoes were very close relations and again, were basically soggy brassica with cubes of potato. One was apparently cooked with exotic herbs and spices, but it reminded me of my school dinners and trust me, there was nothing exotic about those. The other featured garlic, in theory at least (I could barely tell the two dishes apart). Last of all, the difen misr wot, green lentils in sauce, was impossible to either like or dislike. The lentils had a nice bite but it was just a puddle of brown blandness. Maybe nothing could live up to the sauce which came with that chicken and beef, or perhaps my palate just isn’t developed enough to pick up both ends of the spectrum in Tutu’s food. I’m not sure I could tell which it was by that stage, and worse still I’m not sure I cared.

I’d rather end on a positive, so I will say that my Ubuntu Cola – a fairtrade African version that is never going to appear on a tacky red festive truck outside the Oracle – was very tasty indeed. But then, like much of what I enjoyed in my visit, this had more to do with the Global Café than it did with the restaurant. The whole bill came to around twenty-three pounds, and to my shame I left really, really wanting a big slice of cake somewhere else.

So, did I like Tutu’s Ethiopian Table? I should have, I wanted to, but did I? I don’t know, what do you think?

Tutu’s Ethiopian Table – 5.7
35-39 London Street, RG1 4PS
0118 9583555

http://www.tutus-ethiopian-table.com/

Quattro

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One of the drawbacks of this gig is taking the photographs, especially when I visit a restaurant and find myself sitting in a very empty room trying to take sneaky pictures without the staff noticing (this is more of a problem in some places than others: where the service is poor you could probably get on a table and belt out I Will Survive without anybody batting an eyelid). Empty Room Syndrome happens much more often if I’m dining at quiet times, so Quattro immediately had me feeling hopeful when I rocked up on a Monday night to a bustling dining room.

Why so packed, on a night when a fair few places don’t open at all? Well, Quattro is a popular place. At the time of writing it’s rated fourth on TripAdvisor among Reading restaurants, the highest rated place in Reading that isn’t a café. Customers rave about the food and the service, and many have posted multiple reviews. It’s celebrating its thirtieth birthday this year so I’m pretty sure that, along with Sweeney & Todd, it’s one of Reading’s oldest surviving restaurants. I’m never a big fan of the “so they must be doing something right” cliché, but it’s hard to argue with a restaurant full of customers on one of the deadest nights of the week.

Inside Quattro’s the layout is a little unusual; there are three funny little dining areas (one in each window either side of the entry hall and one in the back), each with room for fifteen or twenty covers, at little square tables a tiny bit elbow to elbow to make the most of the space. The tables are neatly laid out with proper cloth napkins and, even if my neighbours could hear every word I said, it was probably a fair price to price to pay for that buzzy experience. (It also meant I could hear the couple next to me: they weren’t having fun at all.)

So all that set my expectations high, but my first interaction with the waitress dampened them somewhat. I could make out a blackboard with specials, but I couldn’t read it so I asked the waitress what they were. Her reaction was an interesting one. She didn’t know them by heart. She didn’t say she’d forgotten her notes. She didn’t wander over, read them and come back or offer to ask a colleague to explain them. Instead, she took the road less travelled: she just scarpered. There might have been a little bit of traumatised mumbling involved, too. Shortly afterwards a waiter, a slightly older chap, came over and listed them for us, unsmilingly (after all that effort I felt like I should order one of them but they didn’t appeal so I didn’t. Sorry).

The menu was very much on the conventional side – antipasti, pasta, pizza and meat dishes – so conventional as to be barely worth explaining and with nothing on it I hadn’t seen elsewhere. That’s no crime, especially in a good, traditional, well-established restaurant but it does make for a pretty boring paragraph in the review, so apologies for that. The wine list was pretty traditional too, sticking to traditional Italian wines (chianti, pinot grigio, gavi, Barolo, all the greats), although I was pleased to see a decent selection of five half bottles. We had a half bottle of valpolicella for under a tenner and found it very easy to drink: fruity, juicy and not too heavy for a school night.

The starters were decent but unexciting. I liked the polpette rustiche: three beef meatballs with a decent dollop of tomato sauce. If there had been two, I would be packing this review full of all sorts of double entendres (it’s hard to resist as it is) but having three rather than two makes that tricky to put it lightly. They really were tasty – the massive balls (steady on) were coarse, well seasoned and avoided the twin horrors you often risk with a dish like this, of either being disturbingly smooth or chewily bouncy. The handful of salad on the side was, as so often, a not very decorative waste of time and really didn’t go.

Quattro Balls

The fettuccine ai funghi was also competent but not exactly thrilling. Cream, garlic, pasta and mushrooms is a combination it’s hard not to like and so it was here, but it still felt like Italian food on autopilot. I was hoping for wild mushrooms (as you’d get at, for instance, Pepe Sale) but instead got little slices of what might have been button mushrooms. The pasta was very regular, which made me dubious about whether it was made on the premises. It wasn’t a huge portion – which, as a starter it shouldn’t be – but for eight pounds it felt distinctly unspecial.

Quattro Pasta

I had high hopes for the pizza, because one thing Reading lacks is a truly amazing pizzeria along the lines of London’s Franco Manca or Pizza Pilgrims. Having eaten the pizza Parma at Quattros, I can safely say that it’s still lacking one: the base was too thick and doughy, especially considering the menu describes it as “thin crust”. The tomato and mozzarella base was good but the parma ham was underwhelming. For a pizza like this, where the meat goes on after the pizza is cooked, I like the ham to be so thin that it’s delicate and translucent. This was on the bacon end of the meat thickness scale and was on the bright pink end of the ham colour spectrum (if there isn’t a ham colour spectrum I might just invent one. Or just start a band and call it that. I could release picture discs that looked like disappointing pizzas! But I digress) rather than the beautiful dark marbled hue of a truly great roll-it-up-and-eat-it-with-your-bare-hands prosciutto. When a pizza only has a few ingredients I want those ingredients to really sing, but these mumbled like the waitress. Oh, there was rocket too but the dish hasn’t yet been invented that can be redeemed by rocket alone. I managed about half before giving up.

Quattro pizza

The other main was delizia di pollo – chicken supreme with asparagus and taleggio. This was better: the plate was no looker but the flavours made up for that. The big spears of asparagus were perfect, with just enough bite and the chicken was tasty and tender. I expected it to be stuffed with taleggio but instead the plate was covered in molten cheese: I’m not really sure how it got there but I wasn’t complaining. Good accompaniments, too: some properly sautéed potatoes, carrot, broccoli and some roasted peppers. All in all it felt – and looked – like something a friend might serve up at home, and I enjoyed it. Did I sixteen pounds ninety-five enjoy it? Hmm.

Quattro Chicken

After the mains it took a little while for the dessert menu to arrive which meant we just about managed to find room. All of the desserts are cold (which rather reminded me of an old fashioned dessert trolley – you can have anything you fancy, as long as it doesn’t require cooking) but the selection is a little better than the average tiramisu, ice cream, chocolate brownie selection at so many other traditional restaurants. We went for the torta al cioccolato con amaretto: a generous slab of thick, rich, chocolate ganache flavoured with Amaretto on a thin, crisp biscuit base (so big I was glad we shared it, and I’m not normally one to baulk at a challenge in restaurants). It came with a scoop of smooth vanilla ice cream, which I quite liked, and a gigantic puddle of single cream, which I thought was baffling and unnecessary. Still, it’s a minor complaint about a really good, very tasty block of chocolatiness.

Quattro chocolateService was probably the most surprising element of the whole evening: it seemed like I was visiting a completely different venue to the one I’d read so many glowing reports of on TripAdvisor. The (senior?) waiter seemed a little distracted, although he did offer a liqueur on the house at the end of the night. The waitress was doing the majority of the legwork – taking orders, carrying plates etc. with the bare minimum of human interaction but without ever really seeming like she knew what she was doing. At one point, after we’d finished a course, she asked “Was your food fine?” rather than “Did you enjoy your food?” and it felt like a Freudian slip, suggesting that they were aspiring to adequate.

The total bill, for two starters and mains, one dessert and half a bottle of wine was fifty-six pounds, excluding service. I know that’s not a big number but for the quality of the food, the atmosphere of the room and the experience I could have been in any one of Reading’s countless Italian chains. If you put Quattro next to a Jamie’s Italian – which, whether it’s authentic or not, has dishes that are full of interesting flavours and packed with fresh herbs – I would pick Jamie’s ninety-nine times out of a hundred, even though the service and the tone of the menu brings me out in hives (“lovely lamb lollipops”, anyone?).

I’m sure at least a few loyal customers will be reading this up in arms, and all I can say is that I’m sorry. The best restaurants feel like a club that you’re part of, but I didn’t feel like I was that night: perhaps if you’re a regular you have a very different experience. But it’s clear that Quattro’s doesn’t need a glowing review from me to fill its seats; it’s doing that anyway, with food that’s just good enough and service that has enough people going back time and time again. But I just didn’t get it at all I’m afraid. For me, the food was a bit like the wine list; traditional, unsurprising, ever so slightly uninspiring. For everyday dining that’s right on your doorstep maybe that’s all you really want, but to get me across town to Caversham I’d need more. When even the waitress can’t remember the specials, it’s just not special enough.

Quattro – 6.5
14-16 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG
0118 9483070

http://www.quattro-restaurant.co.uk/

Bill’s

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If you’re surprised that I’ve written a review of Bill’s the main thing I can say is this – me too. I had written it off: it’s always struck me as a chain trying its damnedest to convince people that it isn’t one, the rustic reclaimed school chairs and blackboards full of homespun quotes a sleight of hand concealing a respectable-sized chain (over fifty restaurants and growing), backed by Richard Caring, who also owns or has owned parts of Strada, Carluccio’s and Cote. So I was surprised when someone suggested I review the place, but he made some interesting points; it wasn’t a chain when it came to Reading, he said, and it offers something different to other Reading restaurants.

My first instinct was to say thanks but no thanks, but then I thought about it a bit more. I’ve always said that not all independents are good and not all chains are bad, and one of the plusses of writing Edible Reading has been eating at restaurants I’d otherwise never have considered. Why shouldn’t that apply to Bill’s, too? So I found myself sitting in Bill’s on a weekday night, at one of those reclaimed chairs (are they reclaimed, I wonder, or do they have a supplier who makes all these distressed-looking chairs, tables and defeated-looking leather armchairs for them?) reading the menu, not entirely sure what I was doing there.

It is, it has to be said, an attractive space. Bill’s has taken over one of Reading’s loveliest buildings, at the bottom of Chain Street, looking out over the churchyard of Reading Minster. It’s grand and imposing from the outside, but warm and cosy inside (and the outside space, usually packed with people enjoying breakfast and lunch in the summertime, is one of town’s better al fresco spots). It seems a bit churlish to point out that it looks and feels identical to the site in Brighton that I went to long before the expansion, when there were only two branches and they were owned by the titular Bill – after all, most people wouldn’t realise they were eating in a clone. But I did, and it was a little unnerving.

The menu was uninspiring. It felt like a beige selection of dishes with little or no signs of seasonality (starters were mainly salads, which I don’t mind per se but didn’t feel especially autumnal). The mains – drawn up by a focus group, perhaps – were almost calculated to be inoffensive, so there were some burgers for people who like burgers, steak for people who like steak, a couple more salads, a curry for people who like curry, a risotto for people who are plain out of ideas and a duck pie and fish pie for people who like to help restaurants make healthy profits on mashed potato.

Starters were not promising at all. The nicest thing I can say about the calamari is that they were reasonably fresh and you got quite a lot of them (comments that could equally apply to, for example, a bag of apples from M&S). But they didn’t taste of much. It was just a pile of panko coated nothingness, served in the kind of irritating bowl that made it impossible to take them out or cut them with a knife and fork. There was also a big bland lake of something which professed to be garlic and lemon mayonnaise and tasted of neither (in fact, until I read the menu I assumed it was an underachieving tartare sauce, I still think it might be).

Squid

The halloumi, chickpea and couscous salad was, well, OK. It was three slices of nicely grilled halloumi on top of a saucer of couscous which had a few but not quite enough interesting things mixed in; pomegranate seeds, tiny bits of fresh mint and some yoghurt. I wish I’d counted the chickpeas as I am pretty sure they didn’t scrape into double figures and the tomato was easy to count because, despite being mentioned on the menu, that was a big fat (or rather a tiny skinny) zero. It was fine purely because of the salty, squeaky grilled halloumi on top: the rest was just background noise. But how much skill does it really take to grill some halloumi?

By this stage I fully expected the mains to be terrible, but bafflingly they weren’t. Hake with rosti and salsa looked the most potentially interesting thing on the menu and was a genuine delight – a firm square of well-seasoned, well cooked fish with a salty, crispy skin and lovely big flakes, on top of something that wasn’t really crispy enough to be a rosti but was pleasant all the same, a potato cake shot through with parsley and spring onions. The coarse salsa it was served with – sweet halved cherry tomatoes, cubes of avocado, a smattering of capers – added the freshness the dish needed, although it was fridge-cold which jarred with the other components. Really though, it was lovely, and at just under twelve pounds it felt like a decent, sensibly-priced dish (although maybe not a popular one: looking at most of the tables around me all I could make out was brioche bun after brioche bun).

Fish

The menu was so lacking in other choices I fancied that I went for fillet steak, from the specials menu (although I’m not sure what’s so special about a fillet steak when the rest of the year Bill’s does rump, sirloin etc.). That quibble aside, it was spot on: a nice hefty steak, cooked exactly as requested (rare, in this case) – something you should be able to take for granted but so often can’t. And some attention to detail had gone into the accompaniments. The watercress was properly dressed and delicious rather than just token greenery, and the potato gratin – a generous portion in a little cast iron pan – made a pleasant change from frites. Still, a twenty quid dish (or twenty-one if you add garlic butter as I did; I figured in for a penny in for another pound), and as much as I enjoyed it I did find myself thinking about all the other dishes you could buy with that money in Reading.

Steak

The dessert menu also left me cold. It felt like there was very little there I hadn’t seen dozens of times before: crumble, cheesecake, eton mess and brownies (brownies never really feel like dessert in a restaurant to me, just a lazy way to flog you cake instead). Again, I could almost visualise the focus group, round a boardroom table, deciding whether pecan pie was a good choice or just a little too “out there”. So we shared the only dessert on the menu that remotely made me want to order it, mini cinnamon doughnuts with fresh strawberries and chocolate dipping sauce. (Strawberries was only just plural – two, cut into halves.) The chocolate sauce was pleasant enough, smooth and dark, more of it than you could possibly need. But the doughnuts were disappointing. Good fresh doughnuts should be big, warm, fluffy, irregular cloudlike things with a gorgeous sugary shell, but these were heavy and stodgy with an afterthought of icing sugar; they didn’t deliver an ounce of that promise.

Doughnuts

Many of my friends have criticised the service in Bill’s in the past, which meant that I maybe wasn’t quite as disappointed by it as I could have been. My waitress was friendly and pleasant, but the constant calculated upselling (almost as if from a script) got wearing very quickly. No, I didn’t want “nibbles” (and, in fact, I have a real problem with food for adults being called “nibbles” at all). No, I didn’t want any extra sides with my main courses. No, I didn’t want an extra glass of wine. No, I didn’t want coffee and/or tea. At the start it just about felt like she was drawing my attention to things on the menu that I might have missed, by the end I felt like politely explaining that, however it might appear, I did actually know my own mind.

Actually, the wine was quite good: the white was an unusual Brazilian pinot grigio/riesling blend which was off-dry, round and fruity and went well with the fish dishes (even if the first glass was nowhere near cold enough) and the red was rich and juicy although, ironically, a little on the chilled side. Reasonably priced, too – I’ve had the same white at Malmaison where it costs a pound a glass more. The bill for two starters, two mains, a dessert and four glasses of wine came to £75 (which includes a 10% “optional” service charge, about the only thing the waitress didn’t ask me if I wanted). That probably makes the place look more expensive than it was – the starters were around the five pound mark, so it’s the fillet steak’s fault.

It would be easy to turn round and hammer Bill’s for being a faceless, cynical chain. But, as always, the truth is a bit more nuanced and complex. So no, it doesn’t offer something you can’t get anywhere else in Reading. Quite the contrary, in fact: I can think of other places I would sooner go if I wanted green Thai curry, or calamari (although nowhere in Reading does really good calamari, more’s the pity) or burgers, or steak – many of them independent places.

But perhaps that’s missing the point about Bill’s. Its popularity, like it or not (and it is popular – it was packed on a Monday night) is down to the fact that it offers something for everybody, an upmarket version of all you can eat überbuffet Cosmo, if you like. So I can see you might go there with a group of people who don’t have strong opinions about food, or who have very different opinions about food, or people who plain can’t decide what to eat. The food is decent enough, some of it is pretty good value and eating there is never going to class as a gamble. So did my visit change my mind about Bill’s? Kind of, I suppose: before I would have actively refused to go there whereas now, if I was going out with friends and they insisted on eating at Bill’s, I’d tag along. But in the back of my mind, I’d be thinking that it’s on Chain Street for a reason.

Bill’s – 6.4
St Mary’s Church House, Chain Street, RG1 2HX
0118 9391365

http://bills-website.co.uk/restaurants/reading/

The Bull Inn, Sonning

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As regular readers will know, the overwhelming majority of restaurants I review are requested by people who read the blog week in, week out. If there’s one thing that comes out of those requests, it’s that you really want to see reviews of pubs that do food. And that, generally speaking, means leaving Reading and heading out into the countryside. There’s only one problem with that, which is that a lot of pub menus look really uninspired. In fact, once you read enough of them they all start to blur into one. They all do a burger, they all do fish and chips, they all do sausages and mash, they nearly all do confit duck these days. They’re all so similar, in fact, that you start to wonder if they’re all being supplied by the same person, perhaps in a big lorry of some description (surely not).

So I’m afraid I’ve cut a lot of the pubs from my to do list. They might be well worth a visit if they’re your local and you can stagger home afterwards, but I think they have a limited appeal for people those of us who would need to drive out into the sticks to go there. If I’m going to forego the delights of more than a solitary glass of wine I do want to feel like the food is worth it. So what stayed on the list? Pubs that had menus with a little bit more about them. Menus with interesting combinations of ingredients. Menus that weren’t going through the motions and dead behind the eyes. The Bull at Sonning was one of those pubs, so I turned up there on a midweek night to see if my menu spotting skills had let me down.

It really is a beautiful pub, inside and out. It’s your typical ancient timbered pub with enough low beams to require a special stooped walk, lest visitors wake up to find themselves on a trolley at the Royal Berks. It has a warm, inviting fireplace in the front bar, mismatched furniture all over the shop (I don’t think I saw two tables the same) and loads of nooks and crannies, just as an authentic pub should. Eating there a deux, in a little table tucked away, felt beautifully conspiratorial. What is also has, on a cold it-feels-like-winter-even-though-it-was-sunny-only-last-week school night is an absolutely packed bar and dining area (it was impossible to tell how many people were locals and how many had been drawn there by the recent not very extensively reported news about properties in the area – really, the Sonning residents should have worn badges, or red trousers, or both).

I got a sinking feeling when I looked at the Bull’s menu again and started to think I might have made a mistake. It’s a big old menu, broken into two parts: a section of pub classics on the one hand and what they term “chef’s creations” on the other. This felt like an awfully brave, rather clumsy (and slightly silly) way to describe half of your menu. I was also, and this is probably a bit unworthy, put off by the typos: the menu extolls the virtues of eating “seasonably” and includes “noddles”, which made me chuckle (I thought you were meant to use these but not necessarily cook with them). As if those fourteen main course options weren’t quite enough, there was also a handwritten sheet with half a dozen more specials on it. Things were starting to look distinctly iffy.

Well, to deflate the mounting sense of dread nice and quickly, I was worrying unduly: everything I had was fantastic. They may not be able to do a decent job of every single thing on that menu, but they barely made a mistake with anything I ordered (this is why I write restaurant reviews and not mystery novels).

I never order soup, because it inevitably leaves me too full for my main course. But when I saw that The Bull had honey roasted parsnip (probably my second favourite vegetable) soup with chestnut dumplings I was powerless to resist it. I was so glad I had it, too. It came in a miniature casserole filled to the brim with smooth puréed parsnip and nestled on top were two walnut-sized dumplings. On the side was a warm, crusty miniature loaf, in a miniature bread tin, and a small pot of room temperature butter (a detail many places get wrong, and such a bugbear of mine).

This dish was a good example, I think, of why I’d picked The Bull to review. The soup was very good – maybe a little underseasoned (a touch of spice would have gone well here) but beautifully sweet and smooth. But what elevated it were the extra touches – the bread and in particular the dumplings: rich and soft with their own hint of sweetness from the chestnuts. The loaf was slightly chewy (I wondered if it was quite as freshly baked as it appeared) but was more than up to its two main jobs: having butter melted onto it and being dunked into the soup to make sure no mouthful of parsnip got away.

Soup

The other starter was equally appropriate on a cold, miserable day and was every bit as delicious: mulled pear and Barkham Blue tart. Some people will read that and turn their noses up, which is fair enough, so perhaps I’m just speaking to the rest of you now, but by goodness it was gorgeous. Soft, spiced, slightly gritty pear covered in molten creamy blue cheese, the rind the only solidity left, all served on a disc of crispy pastry. Again, there were more cheffy flourishes than the dish needed – pickled walnuts around the outside, sweet caramelised red onions (maybe a few too many) on top and a mulled wine syrup traced around the edge. I could have happily eaten a tart like this the size of a paddling pool. It just had everything: sweetness, saltiness, crispiness, gooeyness.

Tart

Did the mains live up to that standard? Well, to my increasing surprise and delight, yes. Chicken pie, again, is exactly the sort of thing I’d seen and discounted on many pub menus. But here the filling was a slow cooked stew of tender thigh, soft leek and a rich, glossy gravy which was made to be soaked into pastry and devoured with gusto (the pastry, a flaky buttery lid, was perfect for the job). I know some people feel that a dish like this, with a top crust, isn’t technically a pie and I have some sympathy with that view. But it was too delicious for me to care. On the side, a decent but not overwhelming pile of dark, crinkly savoy cabbage simply steamed, buttered and salted: a great ingredient left to speak for itself. The only disappointment was the goose fat roasted potatoes. I’m sure there’s a rule somewhere which says that there’s no such thing as too many roast potatoes but I don’t think it applies when the potatoes are like this: they looked the part but lacked that almost glass-like exterior of a truly great roastie. Instead, they felt chewy and unremarkable, almost as if they’d been reheated. Still, by then I was full and at least, if nothing else, I wasn’t devastated not to be able to finish them.

ChickenPie

The other main was, despite being on their autumn menu, a wintry and comforting delight. There was so much going on on the plate (or slate in this case, as it happens) that it’s difficult to know where to begin describing it. So there was a confit leg of pheasant – delicious and gamey, if a bit difficult to detach from the spiky, spindly bones. There was a breast, filled with stuffing and rolled almost into a ballotine, rich, salty and herby. There was a big pile of red cabbage, full of the flavours of winter, a giant heap of spiced comfort. There was a root vegetable dauphinoise, so imaginative compared to a bog standard potato gratin, with a whack of garlic offsetting the sweetness of carrot and parsnip. And there was celeriac puree. It was described on the menu as “flavour bursting celeriac puree”, which again I found more than a little silly, but the last laugh was on me because it was exactly that – sweet but punchy, a little went a very long way. Bringing it all together was a little jug of something which was described as “mulled wine sauce” on the menu but just tasted like amazing gravy to me. I smiled from beginning to end while eating this dish: if plates of food were people, I’d have married it.

Pheasant

That main, as it happens, was recommended by our waiter – although, having read the description on the menu, I probably still would have ordered it if he’d said “my one tip is to avoid the pheasant, I’m pretty sure it has bits of asbestos in it”. But the service overall was pretty decent considering how full the place was. There were no empty tables when I got there, no empty tables when I left and the bar got buzzier as the evening went on. What were all these people doing in Sonning, a village which never troubles the national press? Your guess is as good as mine.

I’m sorry to confess that I’ve let you down, because I didn’t order dessert; I just didn’t have space (I blame all that soup) and there was nothing light enough that I could have managed it even after a breather. In any case, the dessert menu is probably the most conventional thing about the pub – brownies, sticky toffee puddings and the like – so I’m not sure I missed much, though I imagine they’d have done it well. Maybe with winter coming I’ll have to get into training to make sure I can manage all three courses. So instead, we settled up and left. The bill, excluding tip, came to sixty-two pounds. Apart from the two courses each we had a couple of pleasant, if unremarkable, glasses of red and a couple of drinks in the bar beforehand (the wine is much better value than the cider: a pint of cider is eye-wateringly close to a fiver). The main courses were definitely more at the restaurant than pub end of the price scale – the pie was fifteen pounds and the pheasant was seventeen pounds – but more than worth it, I think.

I can’t help but feel that the Bull has justified my new approach to picking pubs to eat in. It was a bit of a rollercoaster – I was excited before I turned up, distinctly unconvinced when I got there and then thoroughly wowed once the food arrived. The food was far better than I expected and got the balance just right – close enough to standard pub food not to alienate people who want that sort of thing but with just enough personality to interest people who are looking for a little bit more. What can I say? It won me over. If I lived in Sonning I would come here all the time, and as it is I’m wondering how quickly I can get away with going back. Maybe the village’s newest and most famous resident will drop by at some point; if she manages to get the Elgin Marbles returned to Greece I can’t think of anywhere more appropriate to celebrate.

The Bull Inn – 8.1
High Street, Sonning, RG4 6UP
0118 9693901

http://bullinnsonning.co.uk/

Arepas Caffe

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N.B. Arepas Caffe closed in November 2014. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

There are some restaurants where, as a customer, I get the distinct feeling that the staff simply don’t care. They don’t want to be there and they would rather you weren’t too and a smile when showing you to your table or taking your order is just too much bother. In others, they at least make an effort at the façade: they’re all smiles and charm to get you to a table and then they ignore you once you’re settled in, however many times you sit up like a meerkat and pull the “I’m ready to be served” face (surely it’s not just me? Actually, don’t answer that).

Why do I mention this? Well, Arepas Caffe might have the warmest and most genuine welcome of any Reading restaurant I’ve visited. The staff behind the counter went out of their way to talk me through the menu in detail, with a level of knowledge and enthusiasm that put most places to shame. There were party balloons up on the day I visited and the effusive woman at the till (who turned out to be the owner) told me it was her birthday recently. They’d had a party in the restaurant, she said, with customers and friends. “Many of our customers become friends” she said, and I can well believe her. Throughout my short lunchtime visit there were customers coming and going, collecting food and chatting, and all the time I struggled to tell the difference between customer and friends – not just because many of them were speaking Spanish.

Arepas Caffe is a Venezuelan café and has been open in Reading for a pretty astonishing eighteen months, tucked away opposite Greyfriars church, invisible to most of the population. I would never have found it myself if it hadn’t been for Jo Romero’s blog and it’s taken me almost six months get round to going – a huge oversight, I now realise, especially since they do churros (more of that later, though). The cafe itself is a small, skinny room with a counter at one end and seating along one side, with homely prints and pictures along the other (I noticed one saying mi casa, su casa which was particularly appropriate).

The menu is pretty simple, although more customisable than it looks at first glance. The main thing here, in accordance with the Ronseal Principle, is the arepas – small, round, pitta-like pockets made from corn instead of wheat – that can be filled with an array of, erm, fillings. The main ones are carne mechado and pollo mechado (shredded beef and chicken respectively) but you can also team these with black beans and cheese. Or you can have La Reina, a particularly decadent sounding combination of chicken, avocado and garlic sauce. But if you don’t fancy arepas there are other options, all revolving around those fillings: burritos, empanadas or pabellón, which is basically the same thing served with rice and beans. The owner told me, with obvious pride, that everything is made by hand on the premises and, if you needed any further incentive, it’s also gluten free (and I thought Nibsy’s was the first to do this: you live and learn).

So far, all terrific, but was the food any good? Well, generally, yes it was. The arepa itself was crispy on the outside and slightly sticky and doughy in the middle, which made it feel a little heavy. But what was in it was tasty: chicken cooked until it was falling apart in a tomato and chilli sauce, topped with grated cheese. And the cheese! The owner said that the cheese was really good and she was right – it had the flavour of a decent tangy cheddar but the slightly plasticky (in a good way) texture of processed cheese, perfect for melting. So it was almost a big hit: I’m not sure if I would have the arepa again – that gluey texture left me a little underwhelmed – but the contents were really good, especially considering they were only a fiver. I think I missed the chance to pick a few more fillings, being a bit overloaded with choice, but that’s something definitely worth rectifying with a return visit.

Arepa

The beef empanada was a very similar story. There isn’t a sign on the wall at Arepas saying You don’t have to like corn to eat here, but it helps but there really should be: I’m used to Argentinian empanadas made with thin pastry, but the Venezuelan version is also made with corn and as a result was also a little bit thick and stodgy for my tastes. But the filling was magnificent – sticky shreds of slow-cooked, savoury beef. Beautiful on the inside, iffy on the outside, like seeing a hot person wearing an unflattering outfit. But it didn’t make me think Never again, it just made me think next time I’m cutting the crap and having the pabellón.

Empanada

Now, back to those churros I mentioned earlier: I know this was only lunch but I couldn’t resist trying them. I’ve had them in Spain and not heard of them elsewhere, but the owner told me that they’re absolutely churro crazy in South America so here they are. There is even a chain of cafes over there called Churromania, apparently: now that’s one chain I wouldn’t mind seeing expand to Reading. For two pounds forty-nine they serve up four stubby churros (about the size of a fat marker pen) with a small dish of chocolate sauce. If the arepa made me want to come back and order something different then the churros made me want to come back and order the churros. They were heaven: piping hot, crispy on the outside, fluffy in the middle, and lightly dusted with sugar and cinnamon. The chocolate sauce was like a thin Nutella: not to my personal taste, but it didn’t go to waste at my table and was perfect for dipping and taking out a little of that heat. All told, I can think few ways to spend under three quid in a Reading restaurant that would bring anywhere near as much joy as these did.

Churros

On the side we had an iced tea and a mango juice. The owner told me, again with pride, that the juice had been freshly made that day – I got that in that clean, green taste but I found it a little on the watery side (I think maybe that’s my fault, though – spoiled by all those mango lassis I’ve enjoyed this year). The total bill came to fifteen pounds: not half bad for a hot two course lunch in an enthusiastic independent café.

I can’t help wondering what might have been. Maybe if I had gone for a burrito or the pabellón instead of the more sticky arepas and empanadas I’d be giving this a higher rating (I also fancied trying the cachapa, a corn – what else? – pancake filled with something a bit like mozzarella). But, on the other hand, the sign of a good restaurant is that you’re planning what you’ll eat on your second visit before you’ve finished the first, and on that basis it’s impossible not to recommend Arepas Caffe. They’re open until eight in the evening, and I can well imagine I’ll drop by after work one day to have another crack at finding the best things on the menu. Besides, when the staff are this friendly it would be rude not to go back for another helping of the churros. Just for quality control purposes, si?

When I got home, I looked at Arepas’ Facebook page. The owner wasn’t kidding about the birthday party – they even have photos up, and everyone looks like they’re having a fantastic time. Go have a look and let me know if you can tell the difference between the customers and friends: I know I couldn’t.

Arepas Caffe – 6.8
89 Friar Street, RG1 1EL
0118 957 1551

Arepas Caffe

RYND

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My normal rule is not to review restaurants that have just opened. It’s not fair to judge a place in the first month when it’s finding its feet, and most restaurants in Reading don’t have a soft launch to phase themselves in. One minute they’re all boarded up with people beavering away inside, the next they’re open and the front of house and the kitchen are learning to work together to offer something seamless. It must be a steep curve, doing that with all those hungry, demanding customers at tables expecting everything to be perfect from day one.

My other rule is that I base my review on a single visit. In an ideal world it would be lovely to make multiple visits to a restaurant before writing a review, but life’s too short – especially if you want to read a new review every week. So instead they get one chance to impress and that’s it. Sometimes that can be a little unfair on restaurants: I’ve revisited some and found them to be better than I thought. Dolce Vita, for example, has constantly impressed me when I’ve gone back there and Bhel Puri House has become a reliable staple for a quick, interesting lunch. Sometimes it flatters places: Sushimania has never been anywhere near as good since as it was the time I went on duty.

All of this makes RYND a difficult review to write. In the interests of full disclosure, I went there “off duty” shortly after it opened and really liked it. I thought the food was interesting and well done and the service was excellent. But going back, just over a month after it opened, was like going to a different restaurant. What changed?

Well, the menu for a start. Sitting down I was presented with a different menu to the one I chose from on my previous visit – and, indeed, a different menu from the one on the website at the time of writing. The alterations were subtle but telling: no courgette fries any more, two of the burgers had come off the menu, one of the starters had been removed, you no longer have the option to order pulled pork as a main except as part of the upsold combo with chicken wings (odd, really: the menu boasts about how proud RYND is of its pulled pork but it’s not possible to order it on its own). The burgers that had been taken off were the basic options: a plain hamburger or a cheeseburger. The cheapest things on the old menu, as it happens.

That leads to the second change on the menu: the prices. Everything has been hiked in the month since the restaurant opened, the starters by around a pound and the main courses by between two and three pounds. All the burgers are now over a tenner, although in fairness to RYND you pay about the same for a burger at their closest competitors, the Oakford or Handmade Burger. Even so, it just felt a little cynical. Perhaps the initial prices were soft launch prices and RYND just decided not to tell anybody.

It wasn’t a brilliant first impression, but I put it to one side. After all, the prices weren’t necessarily unreasonable and RYND deserved to be judged on the food, the room and the service, just like any other restaurant. And the room, it has to be said, looks gorgeous. All that exposed brickwork and exposed light bulb filaments might be a trope that’s been done to death in London, Liverpool and Glasgow but in Reading it still makes a refreshing change to see somewhere so beautifully fitted out. It’s broken up nicely into lots of little sections with a long, atmospheric bar (when I went there were a row of very bearded chaps sitting at it, all check shirts and beanies, presumably having a craft beer and pretending to be in Williamsburg). The only drawback was the black banquette running round the room – it looked plush and comfy but was disturbingly like a church pew, with less give than Jimmy Carr and Gary Barlow put together.

And the food? Well, the food is where RYND really fails to impress. Of the starters, hush puppies were pleasant enough – deep fried corn fritters with enough texture to just about compensate for the lack of taste, still a little too crumbly for my liking but quite nice paired with sweet, spicy, slightly smoky chilli jam (“quite nice”, with hindsight, may well have been the high point of the meal).

Puppies

The other starter, the chilli bowl, was poor: a very small skillet of slightly anonymous chilli with a little heat but not enough, too much bounce and nothing interesting going on. I was hoping for something slow-cooked and complex, but this was miles from that (I’m no cook but I can make better chilli than this at home, and when I’m saying that there’s definitely a problem). Worse still was the little metal bucket of tortilla chips which came with it. Tortilla chips must be one of the cheapest things RYND serves up, and yet the bucket was barely two-thirds full. Again, it felt cynical.

Chilli

Pulled pork was possibly the crowning disappointment. Pulled pork should be dry and sticky with some smoke and spice, but this was just wet. Not moist, not even damp, but plain wet. It came in a sesame seed bun (with a needless wooden skewer: it was nowhere near tall enough to need one of those) drowned in mayonnaise. There was, I’m told, cheese and barbecue sauce and coleslaw in it but it didn’t feel like that at all. It didn’t even really feel like pork – with all that finely shredded mulch in mayonnaise I felt more like I was eating Reading’s most expensive tuna melt. It was so sloppy that eating it tidily was almost impossible – every bite forced more of it out of the other end on to the tray (of course it’s a tray, just like they’d have in Williamsburg). It wasn’t a sandwich, it wasn’t a burger, I’m not really sure what it was. A mess, I guess.

PPBurger

I did like the fries, though – flattened crinkle-cut slices like mutant McCoys, they were one of the better things I ate, especially dipped in the barbecue sauce. I think I’d probably describe the fries as quite nice.

The “smokehouse burger” was a run of the mill beef patty, a little bouncy in places as the chilli was. It was meant to come with barbecue sauce, mature Cheddar and crispy fried onions, but the onions were missing, substituted with a thick dollop of red onion marmalade so sweet and sticky that you could easily confuse it with dessert. The mini-pail of sweet potato fries on the side (I asked for these instead because I wanted to try them out) did little to lift the overpowering sugariness. In their defence, they were really good – crisp and light where sweet potato can often be a tad soggy and limp. With a different burger they would be worth the swap but with this one it all felt a little cloying. It just didn’t feel like an eleven pound main course, and until recently it wouldn’t have been one.

Service was pleasant and friendly: our waitress did have a crack at flogging us olives and recommending the most expensive main course, but that probably wouldn’t even have registered if I hadn’t already been irked by the menu so I won’t hold it against them. I should also mention the drinks – it was happy hour so I tried the spiced apple daiquiri which was pleasant but no more than that, and a 125ml glass of Portuguese red which was straightforward, uncomplicated and really easy to drink (hats off to RYND for offering small glasses of wine and pricing them fairly: many places don’t). The meal for two, two starters, two mains, those cocktails and a small glass of wine came to forty-six pounds, not including tip. Looking at the bill I saw the final piece of stealth margin maximisation – charged an extra pound for substituting sweet potato fries for standard fries, another thing the menu neglects to mention.

As you can probably tell, RYND got my back up from the start. But being dispassionate about it and trying to forget my earlier, better visit (and wider menu. And better pricing. Hmm. Suddenly there seems to be quite a lot to try to forget) I still can’t recommend it. Judging it on its merits, if I wanted this kind of food Blue’s Smokehouse does it many times better (and a little bit cheaper). And if I wanted this kind of food and didn’t want to leave Reading, I think I’d go to the Oakford which offers more, better burgers, again slightly more attractively priced. But I suspect RYND will do perfectly well all the same – it’s a kind of food people want to eat at the moment, the kind of place people want to eat it in and I imagine hipsters will enjoy telling each other that the Oakford is so last year.

Oh, one last thing: RYND is pronounced rynd as in quite nice rather than rynd as in cynical. But in reality it’s probably a bit of both.

RYND – 6.2
11 Castle Street, RG1 7SB
0118 9505555

http://ryndreading.com/

Shaun Dickens At The Boathouse, Henley

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Probably the strangest moment in my meal at (to give it its full name) Shaun Dickens At The Boathouse happened quite early on. We were sitting in the bar with an aperitif having just finished what the waiting staff had described as “snacks”. Things were shaping up nicely. My fino sherry had that dry, almost salty tang that I love. The parmesan and paprika doughnut was unusual and delicious, as was the long thin rice cracker dotted with (surprisingly mild) wasabi and smoked mackerel. Then a waiter came over.

“Shaun is ready for you now, would you like to take your table?”

I wonder if this was meant to be charming, but to me it was just odd. I’m used to being asked whether I’m ready to take my table, not whether the chef is; it made me feel more like I was seeing my dentist than eating out. Still, I suppose when you put your name front and centre you are kind of saying you’re a big deal (how many restaurants can you think of with the chef’s name in the title? How many where the chef hasn’t been awarded a Michelin star? Exactly.)

And the Boathouse, although it may have been overlooked by Michelin recently, did win “Best Of Britain” at the Tatler Restaurant Awards earlier this year, so it’s obviously been noticed by someone. Anyway, this didn’t really bother me: after all, if the cooking’s good enough who cares if the chef’s name is emblazoned on the drinks coasters? He can have a passport photo on every page of the menu for all I care, so long as he sends me away evangelising about his food.

The serving staff – uniformly bright, personable, knowledgeable about the menu and genuinely charming – stood out right from the off, possibly because of the surroundings: the Boathouse is a very beige room indeed. It’s a single big beige room packed with tables with beige nondescript chairs, beige walls lined with nondescript art (all riffs on Jackson Pollock) and with beige music playing in the background. Passenger, Coldplay, the list goes on… it was what Glastonbury would sound like if the lineup was picked by Simon Mayo. A short loop, too, because within two hours we were right back to the start of their playlist (the fact that I noticed this isn’t a good advertisement for the food). The bar, also part of that dining room, is cordoned off by a white, diaphanous curtain. It feels a bit like being in Princess Diana’s boudoir – which might be good news, I suppose, if that’s always been an ambition of yours.

The menu at the Boathouse is very compact – there’s the tasting menu (£65 for seven courses, which struck me as on the steep side) or the a la carte – which I went for – which has four options for starters and mains. These are priced a stone’s throw apart which struck me as odd – either you should charge a lot less for the vegetarian starters and mains or just go the whole hog and have a single price for three courses irrespective of what you order. (Of course, I’m partly saying that because I made the mistake of ordering the vegetarian main, but we’ll get to that.)

Normally at this point I would go into exhaustive detail about everything I ate. And there was a lot – what with “snacks”, the bread, the amuse bouche, the pre-dessert and everything else. But the problem is that it was all so competent and unexciting that it’s almost like trying to remember the details of a not very interesting dream on your way to work the next day. Everything was well executed, pretty and precise, but the wow factor I associate with cooking at this price point simply wasn’t there. Perhaps “fine dining” (does anyone really use that phrase without the protection of ironic inverted commas any more?) has had its day – certainly the fact that only a handful of other tables were occupied on a Friday night suggests there might be something in that.

There were high points, but ironically many of them were the freebies: beer and onion seed bread, baked on the premises I’d guess, was stunning with a crunchy, almost flaky crust and a soft middle. The whipped caraway seed butter was good, but the simple salted butter was even better. I’m not sure I ate anything that quite lived up to that standard.

The amuse bouche, actually, was a good indicator of the kind of meal we were going to have. A little sphere of what I think was chicken rillette with Jerusalem artichoke and sorrel oil was pleasant enough, if a bit bland and clammy, but the best thing about it was an intensely savoury crumb made from potato and chicken skin, like the powder at the bottom of a packet of pork scratchings. It was lovely, but it seemed like a lot of effort to go to for a tiny component of a tiny dish – misplaced effort, perhaps, when so much of the menu was crying out for a bit more flavour.

Of the starters, pork with smoked haddock and chick peas was a misfire. The chick peas, chick pea puree, little cubes of smoked haddock and a sweet, sour curried aigre doux was absolutely gorgeous, but the cold cylinder of pressed pork in the middle was really unappealing, a star of the show far too easily upstaged. I guess I was hoping for a compact cube of perfectly cooked pork belly, but it wasn’t to be.

The other starter, foie gras served two different ways, was really tasty – although the composite parts didn’t quite gel. The foie itself, served mi cuit, was nicely done with what I think were crumbled pistachios on top. There was also a separate foie gras terrine, looking like a little savoury cheesecake, which I thought was rather witty. As for the other things on the plate, the quince puree was nice and the cranberry chutney was a little too tart. This all came with a slice of toasted brioche, served separately so it didn’t interfere with all the prettiness on the plate, like an ugly relative kept out of wedding photos. Overall it was a bit quixotic, if beautiful to look at, but if you like foie gras (as I do) then it wasn’t going to disappoint. Probably the best value dish on the menu, too.

Foie

Mains continued the trend of style over substance. Monkfish with farro, preserved lemon and charred aubergine was similarly frustrating. The farro was like a pearl barley risotto and very nice it was too. The charred aubergine was, well, a single piece of charred aubergine. And the monkfish? Cooked absolutely spot on, so firm, almost like sashimi in texture, a big generous piece (resting on a totally pointless bed of spinach – why do restaurants do this?) but unseasoned and not really going at all with the farro. Eating that dish was a bit like listening to an epic fiddly guitar solo: there’s clearly lots of skill involved, but the only person really enjoying themselves is the person playing the guitar.

Monkfish

Roasted garlic gnocchi, girolle, confit turnip and tops with pecorino crisps promised to be a really interesting dish but turned out to be a huge disappointment. The gnocchi were about an inch high and slightly less across and there were, count them, three. They came with a small pile of slightly gritty mushrooms, another pile of pointless steamed spinach and some pretty little discs of turnip. Overall it was fine. Not exciting, not bursting with flavour, not substantial enough to remain in the memory. Worst of all, this dish cost twenty two pounds which struck me as rich. Richer than the food itself, in fact. Many restaurants do a three course set menu for less than this dish and I can’t think of an occasion when I would pick this over them. (The Boathouse does a separate vegetarian tasting menu, which I think is laudable, but it costs the same as the other tasting menu, which strikes me as cheeky.)

Gnocchi

By this stage, in the meal as in this review, I was pretty much going on because I felt I should rather than because I much wanted to. Also, I was still hungry, because three gnocchi isn’t going to bring on a Mister Creosote moment for anyone. Things didn’t improve. The cheeseboard should have been a high point – eight carefully selected British cheeses, including many I’ve not heard of before. And yet even these were pastel shades of cheese rather than bright primary colours; only the Admiral Collingwood (a punchy number washed in Newcastle Brown) and the Dunsyre Blue stood out. Eight rather stingy pieces to share cost eighteen pounds, and I couldn’t help but compare it with the cheeseboard just down the road at the Three Tuns, where for half the price you get three far more sensibly sized pieces of well selected cheese: a soft, a hard and a blue, all you really need.

Cheese

Things rallied slightly for the desserts. A pre-dessert of maple espuma with poached pear, thyme, thyme oil and candied nuts was probably the tastiest, cleverest thing I ate all evening. But by then knowing the kitchen could produce something like that just made me even more frustrated about what had gone before. Finally, the white chocolate parfait, topped with torched orange, studded with sweet crumbly pieces of tablet and served with a very fine salt caramel ice cream did its best to redeem matters, but by then it was too late.

I should also mention drinks, because they were all good, from that initial sherry to the Sauternes with the foie gras and the Tokaji with the dessert. The red, a Uruguayan Petit Verdot, was especially good – dark and inky with a rich whiff of pencil shavings about it. If they ran a wine bar, I’d definitely go (as long as they sorted out that infernal soundtrack), but as a restaurant my feelings are far more mixed. A lot of that comes down to the bill: one hundred and eighty-three pounds, not including tip. Obviously you could pay a lot less if you missed out the cheese, the aperitifs and the dessert wines but this is never going to be a cheap meal. That’s not the problem. The problem is that this is cerebral, clinical cooking, and for that money I wanted a lot more.

The best meal I’ve ever had was in a little restaurant in Barcelona which didn’t have a Michelin star but has picked one up since. I can still remember several of the things I ate that night, even though it was seven years ago. And for me, at the very top end of the spectrum that’s what I’m looking for when I go to a restaurant: flavours and combinations I’ll never forget, dishes I would rave about to friends, contenders for that hypothetical death row feast. Did the Boathouse come close to that? Not remotely. I might be able to forgive their food for being small, I could even overlook it being expensive, but on the train home I thought about whether I would sing the praises of anything I’d eaten and realised that none of it inspired any passion. The next day I had hot buttered toast with a nice thick layer of Marmite. Unpretentious, powerful, delicious: it was the best thing I ate all weekend.

Shaun Dickens At The Boathouse – 6.9
The Boathouse, Station Road, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 1AZ
01491 577937

http://www.shaundickens.co.uk/

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