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/

Chennai Dosa

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Chennai Dosa has been on my list of places to review since the very beginning and it’s probably remiss that it’s taken me so long to get there. It seems to fall between countless stools in the Reading food scene; too big for lunch and too small for dinner, not expensive but not mega cheap, right in the centre but away from the main streets. Even so, it has carved out quite a niche by offering fast-ish food from south India, setting it apart from holy trinity of curry, rice and naan offered at Reading’s other – more Anglicised – Indian restaurants.

It would appear to be good at it, because visiting early on a week night I was pleased to see that it was busy; excellent news, because there are few things more uncomfortable than reviewing an empty restaurant (in fact, if anything, it was even busier when I left). The menu here is overwhelming for newcomers: nearly 150 dishes, a quite head-scratching amount. I was certain that I would have the dosa, as it would be churlish not to, but what else could I try to get a decent sample?

Starting with the “Gobi 65” turned out to be one of my better ideas. Small florets of broccoli (not the cauliflower advertised on the menu but I’ll overlook that on this occasion) marinated in spices and then fried were just gorgeous – light and spicy without being overly hot. They were the kind of fun vegetables that could almost persuade kids to eat their greens (and a lot more tasteful than their close relative, Eiffel 65 – an earworm I had for the rest of the evening thanks to Chennai Dosa).

The other starter of chicken varuval was equally successful, if quite substantial. Large pieces of chicken cooked with south Indian spices in a delicious, dry, deep red sauce, with peppers, onions and curry leaves. It had a depth of flavour – and a slow, building heat – that I would struggle to adequately describe but which would definitely made me order it again. The chicken, sometimes a bit dry in Indian restaurants, was beautifully soft and the sauce was richer than Donald Trump (and infinitely more palatable). Hearty food, this – so hearty than it could easily have passed itself off as a main course.

Chennai3

Speaking of the mains, they started to turn up before we’d finished off our starters, which I found irksome. I guess as a relatively informal dining experience Chennai Dosa takes the same approach as Wagamama in that your dishes arrive when they feel like it, but I wasn’t expecting that and it’s always been a bugbear of mine. Besides, why divide your menu into starters and mains if you’re going to bring them all at roughly the same time? That, coupled with the erratic service, meant that the mains arrived before one of the drinks – a pint of Kingfisher we had to ask for a total of four times. The irony: this must be the only Indian meal I’ve ever had in Reading where getting the waiter to bring beer to the table has proved difficult.

Of the mains, dal with paratha was pleasant verging on dull. The dal had curry leaves, small chunks of tomato and was speckled with nigella seeds and was tasty enough when scooped with a torn piece of buttery paratha but it lacked the richness and complexity of the chicken or the spice of the gobi. I guess I’m used to the intense, rich dal of places like House Of Flavours which is strong enough to stand as the main attraction, but this felt like a side dish pure and simple; my mistake, perhaps, rather than the kitchen’s.

Chennai4

The dosa, on the other hand, was delicious. What arrived at the table was a shiny stainless steel prison tray with a number of sauces, chutneys, sambar etc. on one side and a huge – and I mean huge – folded over crepe filled with curry on the other. The texture of the dosa was a thing of wonder – slightly crisp on the outside while being soft and pliable in the middle (a bit like the first pancake on Shrove Tuesday that the chef sneakily eats in the name of quality control). The filling was a huge helping of potato masala with an equally generous portion of spiced chicken on top. This is definitely the thing to order, I reckon, and everything about it was marvellous. The masala was a mixture of firm chunks of potato and gooey, comforting mash. The chicken was full of spices – cardamom, star anise and cinnamon all ended up on the side at the end – and again, the texture was exactly right. Add to that the part-crispy, part-spongy dosa to grab, scoop and dip and the range of sauces to mix things up with and you have something that’s part meal, part edible adventure playground. I loved it.

Chennai2

Despite feeling quite full I just cannot resist gulab jamun so dessert was inevitably on the cards. They’re a known quantity for me by now and Chennai Dosa’s were nice but unexceptional, delicious and unsurprising: warm, squidgy and with more syrup than, erm, Donald Trump (I really don’t know why he keeps cropping up. Sorry about that.) They were bettered though, by the honey and rose kulfi which was like a Mini Milk from heaven. If you can imagine a super creamy ice cream lollipop with subtle, grown-up honey and rose flavours then you’ll have a pretty good idea what this tasted like. At £2.25 I had half a mind to order another and eat it on the way home.

Chennai1

To drink we had a couple of disappointing mango lassis, a pint of Kingfisher – eventually – and a huge glass of red wine (unintentionally huge but I did drink it all) that came in a glass so chalky from the dishwasher that you could have written on a blackboard with it. Service was adequate but forgetful, though to be fair Chennai Dosa is as close to a canteen as it is a restaurant, with a snappy turnaround of diners and tables rarely occupied for more than 45 minutes at a time. The bill for three courses with drinks for two was thirty six pounds. I would say it was without tip but it seems there is no concept of tip here – the bill has to be paid in cash at the till and there’s no tip jar, let alone the idea of the “optional” service charge.

As so often, I was so keen to try everything Chennai Dosa had to offer that I’m pretty sure my experience wasn’t typical. I don’t think this is a three course starter, main, dessert kind of a place: it’s somewhere you can grab a quick tasty lunch or a quick tasty dinner and then be on your way. But for that it’s pretty close to unimprovable. The dosa in particular, at less than a fiver, is just perfect and made me think twice about spending close to that at countless other lunch places in town. The worst thing about eating here – apart for the interminable wait for drinks – was also the best incentive to come back: seeing all manner of different dishes arriving at other tables and wondering what they were. Next time I might pluck up the courage to go over and ask – right after I’ve finished some more of that Gobi 65. And got rid of that earworm, with mind bleach if necessary.

Chennai Dosa – 7.0
11-13 Kings Road, RG1 3AR
0118 9575858

http://www.chennaidosa.com/

Faith Kitchen

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I went along to Faith Kitchen really not knowing what to expect. My knowledge of African food before the visit – I’m not ashamed to say this – was primarily based on Googling words from the menu on the number 17 bus on my way there. I also had no idea what it looked like: in the big hurrah of the restaurant opening a couple of months ago, all the photos were of the ribbon cutting outside so it was impossible to see the interior without turning up to have a look.

The restaurant, on a school night, was eerily empty. We shuffled in and picked a well lit table in anticipation of taking photos, although if anything it was impossible to sit somewhere that wasn’t brightly lit. I’ve been in restaurants before where I’m at the only occupied table, but even those haven’t felt quite as empty as Faith Kitchen did (maybe it was the lack of any background music). The tables are nicely spaced and the chairs had bright golden seat covers. The overall effect was of being the only guests at a wedding reception, an odd feeling if ever there was one. Also, the room has a gold dado rail – you don’t see one of those every day, or indeed ever.

The menu is intimidatingly big and unwieldy. It wasn’t clear what exactly were starters, what were mains, what were side dishes and so forth, something not helped by the confusing pricing (more on that later). Some of it is split by region, some isn’t, for reasons which aren’t made clear. I’m sure if you know Nigerian cuisine very well (and think “swallow food” is a particular dish rather than a very basic instruction) this is all absolutely fine, but as a newcomer to it I felt pretty bewildered.

The other hazard with a huge menu is the risk that the kitchen either can’t do it all or can’t do it all well. In this case, it was the former, so some of that bus research rather went to waste. So for instance, I fancied puff puffs (a sort of Nigerian doughnut) but they didn’t have them so we settled for chin chins instead. For the uninitiated – which included me until this meal – they’re small sweet cubes of dense hard biscuit flavoured with nutmeg and, I’d guess, a little cinnamon. They looked disconcertingly like dog biscuits but tasted quite pleasant, although they felt like something you’d have with a cup of tea rather than to get you in the mood for your main course. We munched our way through half a ramekin of these but in the end there was just too many of them to eat and they didn’t go with anything else. Meat samosas, on the other hand, were top notch: triangles of very thin filo pastry filled with minced lamb and onion. Everything worked perfectly – the meat was coarse, tasty and deeply peppery and the filo added just the right amount of crispy contrast.

Chin chin samosa

The other starter we ordered was chicken suya, which – according to Wikipedia – are skewers of chicken with a fiery, nutty sauce. Another menu problem: the waitress wasn’t sure if they could cook this but after a quick conflab with another member of staff we were assured it would be fine. What turned up was neither nutty nor skewered. Instead, it was a wooden board with about six small pieces of chicken on the bone, superbly spiced and fried with crispy skin that made roast chicken skin look pretty limp in comparison. It came served with fresh tomato and red onion which we mostly ignored in favour of giving the chicken our undivided attention (plus raw onion has never been high on my list of favourite things). Besides, getting it off the bone was more difficult than I’d expected. Again, the flavour was gorgeous – a great combination of salt and spice and texture – so much so that dividing it all up almost caused a diplomatic incident.

Suya

The mains were equally confusing, to say the least. Jollof rice with chicken seemed to be another signature dish from my limited research and I’d say it summed up my experience of the restaurant as a whole: some great flavours coupled with very erratic execution. I got a mound of brick red rice on a plate and, on a separate dish, a chicken leg, skin on, strewn with peppers and onion. The rice itself was very good; I don’t know how they managed to infuse it with so much savoury tomato but it was tasty and interesting almost in equal measure. The chicken, what there was of it, was also good, if rather close to the starter I’d already eaten. It was, however, one of the scrawnier chicken legs I’ve seen and considerably less meat than I was expecting. Once stripped from the bone it formed a much smaller heap next to the rice. The peppers were sweet and crispy but the onion, in wan chunks, was best left. Did the whole thing add up to a dish? Well, it didn’t quite feel like it, and the lack of any sauce or moisture either in the rice or the chicken made it a pretty dry experience.

Jollof

The other main was grilled chicken with homemade Faith Kitchen sauce. The chicken here was pretty much the same as with the jollof rice – spindly, dry and tasty but thin on the ground. I’m not sure what the home made Faith Kitchen sauce was meant to be, there was a little of something that looked like sauce in the dish but it was watery and flavourless (the waitress also brought a bottle of soy and a bottle of chilli sauce to the table which didn’t feel like a vote of confidence). The menu doesn’t explain whether the chicken came with anything, so after asking several questions I also ordered some pilau rice. This was really tasty – spicy but not overly hot with flavours of, I think, cinnamon, cumin, fresh ginger and chilli plus a few chunks of potato and even a couple of pieces of chicken. This made me feel like I’d ordered two things which weren’t necessarily meant to go together. Again, the whole thing was tasty enough, but very dry. Where was the moisture in this dish meant to come from? And why so little chicken?

FK chicken

Now, I deliberately haven’t talked about this until now and I don’t normally discuss pricing in detail but in this instance I really have to. The pricing at Faith Kitchen is crazy. It appears to bear no relation to the size or cost of any of the ingredients. So for example, the four delicious samosas came to £2.50. Four samosas. Two pounds fifty. It could easily have been half the size or twice the price. The chicken suya, on the other hand, was £9 for six thumb-sized pieces of chicken on the bone and some raw vegetables.

Things get even more random when we talk about the mains. Jollof rice with chicken is £8 – that’s eight pounds for a chicken leg and some rice. You could argue about whether that represents good value, but then you get on to the grilled chicken with sauce: that was £9, and I was charged £5 on the side for the pilau rice. That means two equally baffling things: either I paid £9 for a chicken leg, or I paid £14 for a chicken leg with rice. Either way, if you think about how much chicken you’d get for £9 elsewhere in Reading, or the kind of main course you can buy for £14, it doesn’t bode well for Faith Kitchen.

Even the drinks were bizarrely priced. I had a Ghanaian spiced gin – because I like to experiment – and a 200ml bottle of that cost £3.50. Yes, 200ml for £3.50. That means I got a whole miniature bottle of gin – four times the size of the bottle you might get on an aeroplane – for less than the price of a G&T in a pub. It just makes no sense. Going through my bill at the end – it came to thirty-five pounds, not including tip – I couldn’t help wondering if the cost of the dishes had been chosen at random. We didn’t have dessert – the rice left us too full and, thinking back to the chin chins, I did rather feel like I’d already eaten it anyway.

Service was a similarly mixed bag. Our waitress was absolutely lovely throughout but I got the impression that she didn’t have any prior experience in the service industry; despite the restaurant being almost empty it could be hard to get her attention and dishes were brought over piecemeal leaving us to wait for her to come back with the cutlery. The tables aren’t laid and the cutlery was delivered wrapped in a paper napkin which reminded me of eating in a cafe, not a restaurant.

Faith Kitchen illustrates – better than anywhere else I can think of – the gulf between being a cook and a restaurateur. Most of what I ate tasted really good, and when it didn’t quite hit those high notes it at least tasted unusual enough that I enjoyed it anyway. But there’s so much more to running a restaurant than that. You have to create a space with ambience where people want to spend an evening. You have to put together a menu that invites diners in rather than scares them off. You have to understand portion size, cost and quality and juggle all of those factors so that everybody wins, you included. It may be that Faith Kitchen will do quite nicely catering for people who already know and love Nigerian food and are devastated that they can’t find it in Reading, and if so all well and good. I really hope they do well. But if they want to have a wider appeal than that and popularise this under-represented cuisine, I think they need to look at their menu, their pricing, their portions and the whole experience they’re offering. The food is lovely, really it is, but you need more than food – and faith – to run a restaurant.

Faith Kitchen – 6.4
288-290 Oxford Road, RG30 1AD
0118 9574046

http://www.faithkitchen.co.uk/

Mr Chips

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Here’s an interesting fact for you: according to their website, Mr Chips is the first traditional fish and chip shop in the centre of Reading for 20 years. I think they’re right, too – before that there was Harry Ramsden’s, now a sad derelict space under the Travelodge at the top of the Oxford Road – but I can’t think of anywhere else.

Come to think of it, you don’t see many fish and chip restaurants in general. Every pub will do fish and chips, many restaurants will too but a place devoted to fish and chips? No, when people want fish and chips they generally head to their favourite chippy (and we could have a heated debate about the merits of the Jolly Fryer, Seaspray and the 555 Fish Bar but, on second thoughts, let’s not) and then carry it home and have it on their laps in front of the telly. Just me? Even in London, eat in fish and chip restaurants are one of those trends that didn’t quite catch on: so is Mr Chips a trailblazer, or is it trying to service a market that doesn’t really exist?

It’s definitely a chippy that has a few seats rather than a fish and chip restaurant. There is a bar in the window with a few uncomfortable seats that are part stool, part pogo stick, and a couple of tables along the side of the long thin room (at the back were some big sacks of potatoes – an encouraging sign, I thought). Apart from that? Well, you’re in a chippy. The usual glass fronted cabinet is there, full of battered sausages and Pukka Pies and the menu behind the counter offers the usual suspects – cod, haddock, mushy pea fritters, curry sauce – along with the occasional curveball. So you can also order “crab claws”, which from the picture on the wall appear to be nothing of the kind, and – if you’ve always wanted to try one without venturing north of the border – a deep fried Mars Bar.

I tried haddock (because that’s what I generally have from the chippy) and skate wing (for what can only be described as the “Edmund Hillary reason”). Sitting at one of the little tables, drinking my can of cream soda and waiting for my fish to be cooked I did feel a little silly, as clearly most of Mr Chips’ customers treat it as a conventional chippy – drop in, pick up their food and then go. I felt equally silly trying to hack through freshly fried batter with an inadequate plastic knife and fork – although it’s a compliment to the batter to say that when I tried to get a plastic knife through it I rather suspected that the knife would break first.

Anyway, enough of these quibbles: what was it like? The skate was odd – I’ve never ordered it in a chip shop before and I can safely say I probably won’t again. A lot of that is about the fish, not the fryer: the challenge of getting the batter and the flesh away from the cartilage was a little too much like hard work, and not quite worth the effort. But it didn’t feel like brilliant quality skate, either – perhaps I’ve been spoiled by all those pristine white fillets in restaurants but this was a little brown and forlorn, with some of the skin left on. Having said all that, the batter was just gorgeous – light, crispy and salty it broke away in fragments like shards of edible glass. The skate was freshly cooked, possibly because it’s not something most people order, but I do wonder if the batter would have been as good if I’d chosen something that had been sitting in the cabinet.

Fish

The haddock didn’t seem quite as crisp – I’m not sure whether it was cooked with the skate or taken out of the cabinet – but it was still respectable. The fish was flaky and perfectly cooked and the best bits of the batter had that bubbly crispness that reminds me of really good school dinners. On balance I liked it better than the skate, because when you’re eating comfort food there’s no point in leaving your comfort zone.

The chips were pretty decent chip shop chips. A little wan for my liking, although that might be a matter of personal taste, and with no crispy little fragments at the bottom to resist the softening effect of vinegar and make for the perfect final sour-salty-crunchy mouthful, but clearly from good quality potatoes and rather tasty. I didn’t try the curry sauce or the sweet and sour sauce (I rather regret that now, but teaming them with the skate wing in particular felt plain wrong) but the tomato sauce on the table was too sharp and vinegary to be Heinz. I didn’t mind, but ketchup purists might.

I also didn’t try the bubble tea – and I barely even know what it is, despite having Googled – but it would be remiss not to mention it as it’s a big part of what Mr Chips does (it even forms part of their website address, for goodness’ sake). So at the front are a wide range of, well, fruit flavoured balls you can lob into one of about twenty types of fruity or milky tea. Just writing all that makes me feel about three hundred: what’s wrong with just offering a red and a blue Slush Puppie, eh?

Service was neither rude nor effusive, but that’s fine. It’s a chippy, not the latest entry in the Michelin Guide. It was better than the service in the Reading branch of Harry Ramsden over twenty years ago, if that counts for anything, but from memory I’m not sure it does.

Dinner for two – two fish, two small chips and a couple of soft drinks – came to just over fifteen pounds. Exactly what you’d pay in a chippy, in fact, and if that looks on the expensive side it’s because the skate was about six quid. (I wanted to do a “sick squid” pun there but thought better of it: besides, squid is on the menu and you can get eight squid for three quid, at which point it stops being a joke and starts being a tongue twister.)

I don’t think that Mr Chips does enough to break that pattern that fish and chips is something you pick up and take home. In fairness to them, I’m not sure they’re trying to: it felt like a chippy that lets you eat in rather than an upmarket London joint like Kerbisher and Malt. It does decent, reasonably priced fish and chips, and if you were in town of an evening, in a hurry to eat something quick and you fancied fish and chips it would be the place to go. If I was, I would. But here’s the problem: how often is that really going to happen, do you think?

Mr Chips – 6.5
33 Oxford Road, RG1 7QG
0118 9582 666

http://www.mrchipsandbubbleteareading.co.uk/

Sapana Home

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Go to Sapana Home, someone recommended on Twitter recently. Great dumplings, good curry and brilliant value. Well, I thought, how can you argue with that? In a single Tweet they’d conveyed easily as much information as you find in one of my reviews, so the least I could do was act on the tip-off.

It’s a low-key place at the end of Queen Victoria Street closest to the station, and the inside is unprepossessing and unpretentious. A long thin room, it has some little tables for two at the front and a couple which can seat four at the back near the counter (downstairs is bigger, but a bit like a cellar and not a room you’d want to eat in unless it was full and had some atmosphere). And Sapana wasn’t full when I got there around half-eight on a weekday night – although, unusually, it was almost full when I left.

There’s no website so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m so used to checking out menus before I go to a restaurant to review it that it was a strange experience seeing it for the first time in the restaurant and being expected to know what I wanted to eat pretty much there and then. The pressure! (Yes, yes, I know: this is how it is for most people in most restaurants pretty much all of the time).

That said, the menu at Sapana couldn’t be more helpful, as it not only describes the dishes but has lots of photos of the food. Yes, photographs. Normally, these conjure up the whiff of package holidays (and garishly saturated pictures of English breakasts. And flashbacks about holidays – and English breakfasts – I’d sooner forget) but in Sapana they were very useful because my experience of Nepalese food is limited and it was nice to know what you’re letting yourself in for.

So what was I letting myself in for? Well, momos for a start: all the reviews I’ve read mention them so it felt rude not to sample them. You get a choice of fillings and can either have them steamed (if you’re feeling virtuous), deep fried (if you’re not) or pan-fried (if you’re not but you want to kid yourself that you are). Mine were the latter, packed with chicken and every bit as good as everybody says – with hints of lemongrass and coconut, delicious with the spicy accompanying sauce. Generous, too: I think this helping was something like six pounds and easily divided between three without leaving anybody feeling short changed (their close relative, the gyoza, costs about the same over at Wagamama for half as many).

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Of course, that didn’t stop the three of us sampling two other starters. Of those, the best was definitely sukuti bhatamas – dried buffalo meat in herbs and spices with soy beans, onions, garlic and chilli. The meat was in little intense crispy nuggets, somewhere between the texture of biltong and really good pork scratchings, in a very, very hot sauce, topped with crisp raw red onion. The beans with it were a little disconcerting: I was expecting them to be soft but quite a few were crunchy, hard even, but once I got my head round that I enjoyed the whole lot. It was topped with fresh coriander and served with a helping of sauce which was either the same as the one which came with the momos or too close for me to be able to tell the difference. Halfway through this dish the waitress thoughtfully brought over three glasses of water, not a moment too soon (that kind of thoughtful, polite service was repeated all evening).

Buffalo

The siu mai – pork dumplings – were less impressive. I was expecting a fluffy steamed pork bun type affair but these were gelatinous pork cylinders wrapped in a thin layer of wrinkled pastry. There wasn’t any flavour to them, either, unless you dipped them in the fiery chilli sauce that they came with. Partly my mistake, I suspect: if I’d done my homework better I’d have understood that Nepalese food had elements of dim sum in it, but never mind.

Siu mai

If the starters were a mixed bag, they were at least an interesting bunch – lots of fire and flavour, texture and contrasts. That’s what made the main courses baffling, because they were so bland by comparison. Two of us had thali, those metal compartmentalised plates that offer (in theory) the chance to try lots of different things. The reality was more the opportunity to experience a wide range of disappointments.

Dhal was stodgy and bland with an odd undertone of something like evaporated milk. Spinach was floppy and strangely flavourless. The vegetable curry, served crunchy and cold in a nutty sauce, was the pick of the bunch but there was nowhere near enough of it to save the day. The meat curry – not an awful lot of it – was watery and not very interesting, with enough shards of bone in the chicken and enough gristle in the lamb that you didn’t feel you could risk eating a piece without a thorough inspection (a process which, I’ve always thought, rather gets in the way of a relaxing meal).

You also got a lot of rice, more rice than you could humanly eat, with a limp shard of poppadom on top – although the variant with chapati roti, which also included rice, was a much better bet. This all cost eight pounds – not a huge amount in the scheme of things for a main course, but it still didn’t feel like good value.

Thali

The other dish was chicken chow mein. A perfectly decent chow mein, freshly made with a decent amount of chicken, a few bits of shredded cabbage and carrot and noodles. Lots and lots of noodles. It didn’t seem to me to be any different to one I would get from a Chinese takeaway – no extra spice, no added flavour or exotic ingredients; just a plain chow mein. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this: like the siu mai, I felt this was probably my mistake. I’m never sure it should be possibly to order badly in a good restaurant, but I did have an increasing feeling that maybe I hadn’t given the place the opportunity to do itself justice.

Chow mein

That’s the main reason we ordered dessert, even though we weren’t hungry any more, but it didn’t really improve matters. The gulab jamun were a shadow of other versions I’ve had elsewhere in town. Instead of being squidgy, doughy balls, soaked in glorious sweetness, these were hard and very cold with minimal syrup. It was like they’d taken the dish I love and extracted all the fun. The other dessert was jeri, deep fried batter in sugar syrup. I was hoping for something reminiscent of doughnuts or churros (or even fritters), but instead it was just a maze of crispy tubes, the texture almost stale. Again, at two pounds it wasn’t by any means an expensive mistake, but it still felt like a mistake.

Jeri

Dinner for three came to fifty-seven pounds, not including service, for three courses, a couple of soft drinks, a couple of glasses of wine, a mango lassi and a couple of cups of chai. So inexpensive, and yet I still can’t bring myself to wholeheartedly recommend Sapana Home. It’s a pity, because the service is really good, and they deserve loads of credit for making a go of it in such a central location, but too much of it just wasn’t to my taste. So yes, maybe I did order badly – it’s quite possible, because the menu is full of less conventional options I didn’t quite have the courage to try (chicken gizzard and lamb’s intestines, for instance). Or perhaps Nepalese food is generally bland; I’ve not had it enough to be able to say. Either way, I’m sorry that I can only partly endorse the tip I received on Twitter. I’d definitely go for the momos again at lunchtime, when I fancied something different (they really are very good, and worth a visit in their own right) but then I’d probably settle up and quit while I was ahead.

Sapana Home – 6.3
8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG
0118 9509898

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